Not too long ago, I was asked that question by a wise friend of mine, Cylla, whom I admire greatly, and I was stumped. I had never really contemplated that before. My teachers were everywhere; my children, my pets, my partner, my friends, my family, the guy who cut me off in his car, the store clerk, the plants, the seasons, the sun, the moon, they were all my teachers, all the time.
But that wasn't what my friend was asking, she wanted to know names of specific people I had chosen as mentors, people that I had learned from in person. I couldn't name anyone. She looked at me with a penetrating gaze and said, "you need to work on that".
Again, I was stumped! Why did I need to work on that?
After a deep inquiry into my relationship with the concept of 'teacher', I came to the realization that I did have some work to do in that realm.
I vividly recall meeting my very first teacher. I was 3 years old, it was the first day of junior kindergarten. My teacher bent down to greet me face to face, she put on her best plastic smile and with way too much sugary sweetness and a high pitch voice reserved for babies, she said all the usual pleasantries you say when you first meet someone.
Now, it's safe to say that she had the best intentions and this tone probably worked great with the other kids but it turned me right off. I had spent the last three years surrounded by adults who treated me like an equal. I had never been spoken to in that baby voice. I felt completely insulted, how dare she talk to me like I was less than her. Her attempt at sweetness, which I interpreted as condescending, set the tone for my lack of respect towards teachers, and authority in general, throughout my entire grade school education.
It wasn't until I went to boarding school and had the opportunity to live with my teachers, see them outside of their classrooms, that I started to ease up on that harsh, misguided judgement - that all teachers were fake, and belittling. Talk about stubbornly holding onto something. I held onto that belief for far too long, really hindering my development in school, and getting me into quite a bit of trouble with authority figures.
On the flip side, that belief made me a really great autodidact. I've always loved learning but without any trust in teachers, I ended up teaching myself most things. I became a voracious student of life! Studying anything and everything that interested me, books became some of my very best teachers (and friends) and the world around me became my school of choice, I was constantly studying my environment, soaking it ALL up.
It wasn't until Cylla asked me who my teachers were that I realized I had a tendency to hold 'teachers' at bay. There were a few people I had let in over the years; my pottery teacher, Gary Cherneff, who became a father figure to me for a time in my early twenties, and then fifteen years later my yoga teacher that I did my teacher training with, Diane Bruni. It took me a long time to find her, I studied yoga for almost twenty years before I found a teacher I wanted to commit to.
There were, of course, plenty of teachers who I admired, I read their books and learned lots from them but I never had the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with any of them.
Which, I've now learned, is where the real magic happens. The deep learning that transpires when you allow yourself to trust in someone else's wisdom, and to experience their humanity at the same time. That's the good stuff.
I've always been an idealist, and unfortunately, it seems to have rarely served me well. It held me apart from the real grit of being a human. Instead, I was suspended, separate, and out of touch with reality.
It wasn't just my 3 year old notion of what a teacher was that kept them at arms length, it was also my idealism. No teacher seemed able to live up to my unrealistically high standard of what a teacher should be. I wanted them to be superhuman – perfect.
No wonder I hadn't found a real live mentor, my expectations were totally unrealistic.
The crux of this particular issue is that I myself, am a teacher, and I was not exempt from my unrealistic expectations. Which created a lot of suffering for me. Not only on my journey towards becoming a teacher, which took forever because it was laced with so much negative self-judgement but also when I started actively teaching because it could throw me into a horrible anxiety spiral.
I had set myself up with a powerful and effective self–sabotaging system. The same distrust I felt towards most 'teachers', and anyone in a position of authority, I also directed towards myself. Which made it really hard (almost impossible) to step into my own power, my own authority, especially from a place of clarity and compassion.
Every time I had to get up in front of a class to teach, whether it was yoga or nutrition, I would suffer from horrible anxiety, feel nervous throughout, and then be flooded with shame or negative self–talk afterwards. All–in–all it felt pretty shitty to teach but something deep inside kept pushing me forward. And the more I stepped into that shitty feeling the easier it would get. Familiarity can really round out the sharp edges. So I kept teaching through the discomfort, holding onto the belief that it would get better as I built up my confidence.
And then I took Elena Brower's Art of Attention, Advanced Teachers Training workshop, and had my heart peeled open one layer at a time. My negative, limiting beliefs around being a teacher were laid out in front of me, and I realized that the discomfort I felt when teaching wasn't going to go away until I cut those negative beliefs at the root and burned them up for good.
Which I couldn't have done on my own. It took the courage and honesty of the other teachers at the course, sharing their feelings of self–doubt, fear, and insecurities around their abilities, for me to find compassion for my own imperfections and accept my humanity.
This is the sweet gift of compassion. When you extend it towards others, it is your own heart that expands, you create room for more self-love, as you pave the way towards forgiveness.
Compassion – to love without judgement, is truly the best medicine. When you hold compassion for another, you can't help but hold it for yourself, it just consumes you.
Every retreat I have ever been to has impacted me in a similar way. Seeing people express their vulnerability and at the same time shining in their authenticity allows for such deep transformations to happen.
This is why having real live teachers, not just books, is essential for deep personal growth. It gives us the opportunity to see ourselves, in others. It is this mirroring of our humanity that gives us permission to be loved while imperfect.
My friend, Cylla, was right. I needed to work on my old outdated story of what it meant to be a teacher so that I could step away from my negative beliefs and into my role as a teacher with clarity and compassion.
Over the past year, I have acquired many real live teachers. I've started collecting them. And rather than looking for perfection I look for honesty, integrity, and humility. These are the characteristic that I value and work on cultivating within myself every day.
Elena Brower, who has been my teacher for a little over a year, embodies these essential characteristics. I have deep admiration for the work that she does, her authenticity really lights me up. She walks her talk. She's open about her own journey, she shares the whole story with humility. Laying it all out, all her secrets, her little demons, the shadows she wrestles with. Which allows her to teach with such clarity, integrity, and compassion. It radiates out of her, like a big beaming sun shining out of her heart.
Even though I've started cultivating relationships with teachers, I continue to look to the world and all it's creatures for teachings, as well as looking inward, as I have always done, for my own inner wisdoms that seem to illuminate themselves more and more these days. As I become more honest, with myself and the world around me, my intuition and inspirations have an easier time showing up.
My ongoing practice is to humbly honour the teachers that show up in my life and to continue to seek out the ones that light me up. Whether they are the cat that crosses my path or the man on the park bench feeding the birds or the Yogi that is walking their talk, I practice listening. I practice presence.
Elena Brower and myself at her Art of Attention Advanced Teacher Training hosted by 889 Yoga.