the preliminaries step 2: call your teacher

Step 0: Make yourself available for a life changing experience

Step 1: Learn how to say "yes" to what comes and "no" to what goes

Step 2: Call your teacher


Think of a being whom you deeply respect and ask her to come and sit across from you. Bow to her, thank her for coming and offer her a gift. The teacher will remain a presence through the remaining steps of the Preliminaries, a witness to all of the work that you do.


If you want to learn something new, seek out a teacher. Whether you want to learn how to speak a foreign language or play an instrument or compete at a sport, it's smart to find a person who is (a) decent at doing that thing and (b) decent at teaching that thing. In meditation, as in all disciplines which I have tried to learn, progress is only accomplished by the student's dedicated practice. But an experienced guide, one who has already walked the terrain before and comes back to tell you what obstacles and pitfalls that lie ahead can save that student much time and energy. If the student runs out of resources before reaching her goal (or, what is more common, simply fears that she might run out) she is likely to turn back. So success often depends on finding the right guides and spending time with them.


I first learned the Preliminaries from a teacher named Kelly Morris. I listened to a recording of her leading the Preliminaries every morning until I had it memorized and could lead myself. Later I studied the exercise more deeply with a monk named Venerable Thupten Phunsok whose variation was slightly different. What I share with my students today is my own adaptation that owes great debt to both of these teachers, as well as a handful of others whose workshops and seminars I dropped in on, or whose books I read along the way. My guides did not only teach me about steps to this practice, but also gave me other exceedingly helpful bits of advice such as how to set up a meditation posture that is kind to knees and hips, what times of day were most conducive for meditating, how diet might effect the practice, what to do when the mind felt dull and sleepy, what to do when the mind felt totally agitated. 


Ok, you may say, that's all well an good, needing a teacher to reveal practical things about the subject matter. But what is all this bowing and gift-giving? Why is that necessary?


I'm glad you ask. It happens to be a question that I've thought about a great deal.


At the beginning of my foray into Buddhism, I was struck by how all the Buddhist seemed obsessed with the guru. We were taught very specific guidelines for interacting with them in a respectful way. Never turn your back to a teacher, never put your feet out toward them, learn what your teacher likes to eat and drink and always give your teacher an offering when he or she comes to transmit knowledge to you. Almost everyone in this lineage would do 3 full prostrations to the teacher when he or she entered, or to pictures of the teacher if they were absent. We were taught about that a spiritual teacher had an extremely vital function and that if you were serious about reaching enlightenment, that you must find your own special teacher, what they called a "heart teacher." There were classes just on that--finding your "heart teacher." 


It was difficult not to feel a little suspicious. When the person saying that you MUST bow deep and low to the teacher to attain your enlightenment is the one on the receiving end of the gifts and prostrations, it can resurrect those anti-imperialist instincts that come with being American. Did our Founding Fathers and Mothers do all that work just so we can go find someone else to whom to bow? Why do so many seemingly-awakened, wise and loving beings belong to these religious traditions where another person is treated as a living God? I find these questions, and the host of others that stem from it, fascinating.  And here, in a nutshell, is the response that I've come up with. 

  A mass ordination of 34,000 monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a Buddhist temple in Thailand. When I first learned to prostrate, I was surprised that it felt so GOOD.

A mass ordination of 34,000 monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, a Buddhist temple in Thailand. When I first learned to prostrate, I was surprised that it felt so GOOD.

A teacher is essential because she serves as your model for what you would like to become and your guide for how to get there. But, the reason why there is such an emphasis on how we treat the teacher has less to do with the teacher herself and more to do with the student. Any action that develops the devotional mood starts to shift the inner landscape of the student in a serious way, changing the nature of all her relationships.


The teacher may be brilliant, but if the student is disinterested then she will never excel. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that an exceptionally devoted student becomes a master without profound or renowned teachers around or with very little formal training. The difference must be within the student. If one is engaged, curious, eager, earnest, excited and respectful of one's studies then she is bound for success. And, though it is not the only way, going through the motions of being devoted to a particular teacher can begin to instill in a person just these qualities. 


So all the rigamarole with the teacher is an outer gesture that is only important insofar as it begins to shift something within. I have heard it said that bowing is so prevalent in Eastern tradition because lowering the head represents the pouring out of the ego. If I can pour out my own ideas about who you are and how you should be when we meet, then I have a better chance of being available for whatever or whomever you actually are. That increases my chances of learning and growing from my exchange with you. If my metaphoric cup is so full of my own knowing then there is no room for the wisdom of an experience--with a teacher or anyone else for that matter--to enter. Going at the world with arms crossed and eyes rolled to the side cuts me off from the nourishment and evolutionary mobility that I crave so deeply. A good student is one who is not full but hungry, and humbling acts such as bowing help to make us feel that sense of spaciousness, readiness, willingness to learn. 


I am going to dare to oversimplify the psychology proposed by Vedic-based philosophies (which includes Yoga and Buddhism) and say that, at its most basic level, a person consists of the small self and the Big Self. In contemporary Buddhist circles it's popular to call them the relative self and Ultimate Self. The relative self is always and ever in relationship to its world. Its existence is married to space and time, so it is always changing and shifting. The Ultimate is the source and the result of the universe itself, not bound by space or time, always expanding out to the edges of existence and always moving into the center. Unborn, undying, unchanging, any words that we can put to it cannot do it justice as language is limited and relative. And this, of course, is Ultimate.


Now the relative self is not in and of itself bad. It's pretty fantastic actually! The trouble comes when we forget who's who in our inner household. If the relative self puts on the wrong hat, accepts the wrong status and starts out trying to complete the wrong tasks, will become frustrated by constantly bumping into its own built-in limitations. If this continues long enough it will start to fear transformation, run away from hard work and cower into comfortable crevices.


But we set out on a journey precisely so that we could transform. And, when it tries to be Big, the small self will keep driving us straight into our obstacles, right down into spaces where we get stuck. Until we can return the Big part of us to its proper place in command, it's going to be a long, frustrating and bumpy ride. So when we take a devotional attitude toward a teacher, when we say, "Lead me. Please. Get in the driver's seat and I will be the passenger." It's a way of acting out the returning of the Ultimate self to leader and the relative as led. In its rightful role, that relative self can learn its true character again, it can learn to listen and relax and trust. It can, again, become what it craves to be, what it must be if its goals in this little lifetime will be achieved: a good student


Working with these invisible inner characters is difficult to do. So we practice with outer relationships, we go through the motions of deep respect with someone "out there." Now we come to the inevitable question we raised earlier. With whom should we do this guru practice? We've all heard of gurus clearly working from their injured relative selves. Do we want to bend low for just anyone? Absolutely not. Until we have re-calibrated the dynamics of the inner relationships to such a deep extent that we can look around and see our wise, loving Ultimate self in everything and everyone wonderful, and in turn simply see our own uneducated, struggling ego in everything that is not so great, then we must be careful about what and whom we surrender.

 Psyched to be singing for my teacher in January 2012.

Psyched to be singing for my teacher in January 2012.

In the last post, Preliminaries Part 1, we talked about the most basic aspect of meditation: Pay attention to the breath and ignore other distractions. This develops the ability to say "yes!" to the object of your intentional focus and say "nope" to everything else. From that first step we gain back our own energy, ease and clarity. This allows us to pull in our resources from whatever is not of great value, giving us freedom and power to begin investing in what is truly important. But how do we know what is important? Well that search is upon us now in Step 2 of the Preliminaries and how the search goes will decide what is so great that it's worth the humble devotion of our small self.

Most people would like to direct their resources toward something meaningful, helpful true or good. But these qualities can feel overly vague when they're swishing around in the mind and people all around us seem to disagree on what really is meaningful, helpful, true or good. So considering our values strictly on a conceptual level confuses the average person, and can lead him into ego-set traps. But if I start to ask instead, "What kind of person do I respect and admire most?" I tend to have an intuitive and emotional response that leads me straight to some real connection. 

Who is it that engenders in you a deep sense of respect? Contemplating those who you have met physically and those whom you have only met by their words or works, ask who is that has changed your life for the better by their guidance and example? When I first learned the Preliminaries I cycled through a rotating roster of teachers. Buddhism teachers, yoga teachers, college professors, my parents, my self as a child, my self as an old lady, my friends, my boyfriend, my siblings, my dog, musicians whom I admire, wise writers, talented actresses with whom I felt competitive, the person who just body checked me in the subway and didn't turn back to acknowledge it, my own negative emotions, my own hope, my own fear. Everyone I called taught me something. And eventually, after some years, I did find my heart teacher. But it helped that for a long time I was willing to look for him in everyone and everything.

As you begin to identify some of your many profound teachers, a sense of gratitude should naturally arise, as well as a deep appreciation for your interconnectedness with others. So that when you land on some person to whom you would like to do the exercise, it should feel nice to call them to you and maybe quite natural to bow and offer them a gift, as your heart will have already opened simply by contemplating the contributions that this person has already made to your wellbeing. Because it's a visualization practice we continue working with our teacher on a playful yet deep, pre-rational level as we think about what the teacher would like and whip it up with our own imaginative capacity. This aspect of the Preliminaries might be why I noticed that my creativity skyrocketed when I started meditating every day. 

The point of this is to get us in touch with our deepest values, to humble the ego before a wiser and more powerful aspect of self. Bearing witness to the extent of what an incredible person can do is inspiring and expanding, and if we can begin to bow ourselves to those many miraculous beings then are well on our way to becoming like them. Acting as the devoted student gets our inner household in order and our outer deeds will reflect that. You will inevitably become the role model, the guide, the teacher, for others. But don't take my word for it. Be a good student. Be a true student with this. Be open, curious, brave and experimental. Give it a try.