There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of all self-improvement work: You’re perfect just the way you are, but you could use a little improvement.
Whether you categorize your self-improvement process as spiritual, religious, secular, psychological, or some combination thereof, the fact remains – something about the way you’re living your life isn’t quite right. You’re stuck in self-defeating cycles. Bad habits keep tripping you up. You’re tired of being angry or afraid or sad all the time. There’s a pervasive sense that the sweet stuff of life is just out of reach and you don’t know how to bridge the chasm. In a word, you’re unhappy.
And yet you know intuitively that the worst thing you could do is indulge in the downward spiral of self-loathing, the false idea that you’re not good enough, and that you’re broken beyond repair. This kind of negative thinking only throws gasoline on the embers of your despair and helplessness. And upon deeper analysis, self-loathing may be yet another symptom of debilitating self-obsession. Life thrives only where there is love. A healthy, humble dose of self-love heals us from within.
Teachers and models help. They embody and demonstrate for us the self-discipline, wise choices, and best practices that lead to increasing wellness. If we are willing to be led, teachers lead us toward our best life. In the same way we seek out expertise when we need our hair cut, our car repaired, or our taxes done, so too with maladies of the spirit we seek out discipline-experts who’ve devoted their lives to the soul-healing arts. They know more than we do not because they’re better than us, but because while we were doing other things, they were doing that. Practice may not make perfect, but it does make experts.
But what should our relationship with our teachers be? This is where it gets tricky.
Confucius said, “I give a student one corner. If they can’t bring back the other three, I stop teaching,” a profound statement about the teacher-student dynamic if there ever was one. Wisdom can never be packaged and delivered from one person to another. The best a teacher can do is provoke. The student has to do almost all of the work.
And then there’s this – the dangers of devotion loom large. In the practice of psychotherapy it’s called transference. As the patient feels the fog of neurosis lift they erroneously transfer their elation from the process to the person. But it’s not about the practitioner – it’s about the practice. This is a dire occupational hazard for every healer, minister, guru, therapist, and teacher. Many a teacher and student have fallen prey to the seduction of this delusion. Did even Jesus struggle with transference?
In chapter 13 of the Gospel of Thomas Jesus asked his disciples to define him.
“You are like a just messenger,” said Simon Peter.
“You are like a wise philosopher,” Matthew said.
Then it was Thomas’s turn. “Teacher,” Thomas said, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
“I am not your teacher,” Jesus said. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”
Is Jesus the tender of the bubbling spring, or the spring itself? In this metaphor Jesus is not the water, he is the groundskeeper, maintaining a clear channel through which the life-giving water of wisdom can move. His role is to clear blockages and provoke us into openness. This interpretation is clearly out of step with mainstream Christian orthodoxy where we are called into a devotional relationship with Jesus. In traditional Christianity Jesus is the spring, not its tender. Still the deeper question remains: what’s more important, the message or the messenger?
For both Confucius and Jesus, the onus is on the student to get it right. And for both of them, teachers are initially essential, but ultimately expendable. For Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven” is within us. It is not to be received second-hand from another, but discovered within and realized. No teacher could give it or take it away.
As a well-educated Jew, Jesus had his mentors too. But if Jesus had conformed perfectly to his teachers and their traditional practices, there would be no Jesus, and no Christianity to boot. Wisdom requires breaking rank with authorities.
The same holds true for Buddha, the 5th century B.C.E Indian teacher. Born into the ancient tradition of Hinduism, he studied under many gurus and was well-schooled in the wisdom of the Vedas and the science of yoga. But if Buddha had conformed to the demands of his teachers he would never have become the Buddha, and there would be no Buddhism. Great minds don’t follow, they lead.
Both Jesus and Buddha were shaped by their respective religious traditions. Then they abandoned them. Instead of obedience to others, they obeyed the unimpeachable authority of their own experience. They had the guts to go it alone and trust that Brahman, God, or the universe spoke most clearly through the sound of their own voice.
It is in this spirit that the 17th century Japanese Zen poet Basho wrote, “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise men of old, rather, seek what they sought.”
So too the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, challenged the elders. They were not content to follow Muhammad – they wanted to be Muhammad; to experience directly the divine as he had.
Mainstream religions are sometimes described as elaborate institutions constructed around someone else’s religious experience, someone who lived long, long ago. What if we respected, or even revered the teachers of the past, but then went out and had our own spiritual experiences? Buddha didn’t follow anybody. Jesus didn’t follow anybody. Muhammad didn’t follow anybody. Maybe we shouldn’t either.
In spiritual circles there’s even a thing called the no-guru movement where one abandons all paths, teachers, and teachings. But the “pathless path” has its dangers. If you rely solely on your own experience, with no checks and balances from teachers or a trusted community, you’re vulnerable to confirmation bias and other cognitive errors. Once again, Buddha’s middle path comes to mind. Wary of his student’s propensity for devotional adoration, Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.” But he also offered a method, a path.
But don’t try to be Buddha. Be yourself. “Imitation is suicide,” Emerson wrote. “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages.”
In an old Hassidic tale, Rabbi Zusya was worried that when he got to heaven God would be disappointed in him because he hadn’t been as great as Moses, or David, or Solomon. When Rabbi Zusya finally stood before the Almighty, God's only question was, “Why were you not Zusya?”