Our word “vocation” is from the
Latin, vocare, to call.
Check all that apply:
I love teaching
It’s just that I’ve been at it a long time
These days there are a lot of competing demands for my attention
I’m sort of judging myself
I’m just so tired
I want to be a better teacher
I have at one time or another checked off every box above, sometimes several at a time, as well as this one:
OMG Why am I doing this?
Also this one:
I am SO sick of yoga.
The doldrums we experience in teaching are not so different than in other areas of our lives, and often we have a pretty good idea of what to do about it, we just need to find the time or the money, or maybe somebody to tell us it’s ok to do it. Take a refresher course, take a break from teaching, or try a new style of movement. After all, essentially, this is what we as teachers are doing for our students. Encouraging them to listen to their bodies, be kinder to themselves, to not be afraid.
In every teacher’s life there are times the problem is more intractable or more existential, sometimes both at the same time.
My personal prejudice about this is that if you are serious at all about teaching, it’s going to happen to you. I have never had a bad teacher ask me what do about boredom, exhaustion, or doubt.
All sorts of spiritual adventure tales involve the desert and people wandering in it. When you are reading about it, it’s always obvious that the person suffering is being developed to a higher potential. When it’s actually happening to you it usually involves having to take care of your aging parents, too many dishes in the sink, students who look at their watches the whole way through class, and a job where the hours just keep getting worse. In other words, it doesn’t feel like the exotic desert we read about, it feels sad and overwhelming. Or mocking. Or pointless.
In yoga we call this direct experience, and it’s one of the foundations for awakening to our true nature.
If we are ever going to develop the emotional maturity to rise to our full potential as human beings we’re going to have to go through feeling abandoned, mistaken, dubious, and afraid.
If we’re ever going to rise to our full potential as teachers, we’re going to have to practice all the way through it.
Our word “vocation” is from the Latin, vocare, to call. When we feel vocation, as opposed to perhaps the enticement of a career, we say we have a calling. Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, has another definition. She says it’s “being kidnapped.”
There have been moments when I have been on my hands and knees, cursing or crying on my mat when I have turned my head toward Durga (usually somewhere above me) and bitterly said, “Did I ask for this?” I swear I hear Her reply, “What did you think You asked for?” (You know, not in a catty way, but the way I usually hear Her. Warm. Friendly. Interested. All those weapons in Her hands are to divide me from my illusions.) Those are the easy days.
The tougher ones are when I hear Her ask, “What would you rather have?” There are times that it feels like a rotten trick to realize that even when I’m totally in my endless stuff, resisting, reacting, I’m exactly where I need to be, and even I know it.
As teachers it’s essential for us to have the desert experience, not simply read about it.
Because when someone is dying of an untreatable disease, when someone’s kid has killed themselves, when someone has lost everything in a fire or lost their job or their marriage, or for one only-too-mundane reason or another they can’t quite take it anymore, they don’t want to go to some yoga teacher who has never been destroyed by god and be told to do forward bends to nurture themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with the forward bend.
In translation studies there’s this concept of the source language, that’s the language you’re translating from, and the target language, the language you’re translating to. Theory holds that there are no exact correlations between two languages, and that if you’re going to do a meaningful job of translation, you have to take what’s going on in the source language and feel it into the target language. Douglas Robinson describes this dilemma:
If you do not feel the body of the SL [source language] text, you will have little chance of generating a physically tangible or emotionally alive TL [target language] text. The TL text you create will read like computer generated prose: no life, no feeling.
In fact it might even be argued that self-projection into the body of a native speaker is a more crucial requirement for the good translator than a comprehensive cognitive understanding of the SL.
In other words, if you’re going to bring it, you’re going to bring with your body. Whether teaching at a senior center, in a school program, as a national presenter, or in a studio, every good teacher I know wants to “generate a physically tangible, emotionally alive” practice for their students.
What Robinson calls “cognitive understanding,” by which he means, knowing all the rules, will never be the equal for our students of our feeling what is needed.
In her book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose says writers learn to write in two ways, by writing and by reading. For me the biggest trap is when I practice like a teacher instead of teaching like someone who practices. It’s true that both teaching and practicing will make me a better teacher, but it’s where I position myself in the process that enriches my connection to source energy, creativity, and compassion. The only way to teach like someone who practices is to physically get on the mat everyday. Even the days I don’t believe a damn thing.
Only with an active practice of my own will I generate genuine discernment. The easiest way for me to tire myself out as a teacher is to think I have to know the answers to everything my students ask. Sometimes I criticize myself for this impulse as though it were about self-aggrandizement (or whatever – I’m not usually at a loss for something to criticize myself for). Yet when I ease up on myself the way I would ease up on anyone else I realize that I’m a compassionate being. It’s hard for me to see someone struggle.
This may be the hugest calling of all. If I’m going to be a better teacher, it’s going to involve gravity, not summations or minimizing platitudes.
I must learn to long for the emotional maturity of bearing witness to suffering and easing it with caring and confident presence to it, not with answers of my own.
So much of what our impulse to teach is powered by must ultimately find its peace in ourselves in other ways.
When my son was growing up he used to ask me, “Mom why do girls do this? (Fill in the blank). I loved that he was so open with me and I wanted to be able to answer him. There were definitely times we teased apart some bewildering conversation he’d had, and he found that helpful.
Sometimes though, I would answer, “Nobody knows why girls do what they do, honey. It’s called the Mystery of Women and it’s part of why we love them.” Over time I realized that he found this answer even more reassuring than the kitchen table psychoanalysis stuff. He didn’t actually need me to be smart, just honest. He just needed me to be with him.
There are lots of reasonable answers that are helpful when it comes to figuring out how to guide our students, and how to renew ourselves in our work. Still, instead of sucking ourselves dry with reason, acknowledging that we’re involved in the mystery could return us to the juice, the rasa of our calling.
And hey, Shaktipat happens.
When I heard Eve Ensler speak at the Harvard School of Education, she finished her talk in the small lecture hall by exhorting us to stop asking “Does this make me look fat?”
“Get up and go out in the world,” she said, “and do what you came here to do.”
Because there’s more to the practice than asana, there’s life.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.