With my GlideWing online workshop on meditation and mindfulness coming up in a few weeks (www.glidewing.com), I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make it a good experience for my students, as well as reflecting on my own life and career and what I’ve been able to contribute.
Reflecting on my career as a scientist, working on understanding the nature of mind, I’m quite pleased. I made a slide recently for a group of students to illustrate how well that’s gone, showing me in my scientist role and the books that I have written on that material.
While I’m known primarily as a scientist investigating the mind, I’ve also worked almost as hard trying to understand and develop my own and others’ spiritual sides, and have written three books focused on the development of mindfulness, on “waking up,” to share what I’ve learned. I’m rather proud of those books, as one of the world’s leading transpersonal psychologists, Professor Roger Walsh of the University of California at Irvine, in evaluating the books, has described me as a “gnostic intermediary,” someone who has been able to take important knowledge from one spiritual tradition (Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way) and translate and reformulate it in a way that makes it more accessible to contemporary, modern people.
There have been some relevant inputs lately that have particularly stimulated my thinking on what I can do.
In one of the discussion groups I belong to, we’ve been talking about the place and value of “teachers” and “gurus” in the role of teaching spiritual realities/skills to other people. A colleague noted that Sri Aurobindo, the noted Indian mystic, stated that there were three levels of teaching. The lowest level is what he called instruction. More effective is the level of teaching that he called example. And however helpful this can be, the most effective method of teaching is what Aurobindo called presence or influence, a kind of direct “energetic” impact of the teacher’s soul on the student’s soul.
I think we have all experienced at least the first two levels of teaching from instructors we have had. We’ve had instruction, the straightforward passing of information from teacher to student, probably resulting in a lot of notes that we then think about and memorize the key parts of. If we were lucky, we have also experienced teachers who taught by example, who seemed to live the material they passed on to us, with care and passion.
As to the teacher who shows presence or influence, we may not have been lucky enough to ever encounter this kind of person. My first experience of such an encounter was some years ago when I heard a lecture on meditation by Shinzen Young. This was at a technical and scientific conference, where intellect was all you needed to understand the papers and present your own paper. I had tried various kinds of meditation by then, and decided that whatever special kind of talent was needed to be a meditator, I didn’t have it. So I was seldom trying to do any meditation myself, but I went to the lecture, as I was still intellectually curious about meditation.
A few minutes into Shinzen’s lecture, I found myself very alert and thrilled. The closest I can come to describing it is that old phrase, “the hair on the back of my neck stood up.” I don’t think it literally did that, but some part of me recognized that Shinzen was speaking from direct personal experience of deep levels of meditation, not just from intellect, not just from book learning. By contrast, I realized that I had heard a number of famous Eastern teachers of meditation, and while their lectures were wonderful and inspiring , I’d had no idea whether they were actually speaking from direct experience or had simply inherited a way of talking about meditation that was polished and perfected by various teachers over hundreds or thousands of years.
Since then I’ve been fortunate to take part in a number of Shinzen’s retreats, and and while I’m “used to him,” I still get a little thrill sometimes when I feel he’s speaking from direct meditative experience. I have also had many teachings on Buddhism and meditation from Sogyal Rinpoche, as well as other Buddhist teachers, and, insofar as I can tell, there are times when he is clearly speaking from a higher-level presence in the moment, which is very inspiring to me. There have also been times at various Gurdjieff groups I have worked with that I felt other people were being present in the sense that Gurdjieff uses of being ”awake.”
So I’ve been thinking about how these ideas of level of teaching apply to my forthcoming online workshop. There is no doubt, for example, that I’m going to be giving plenty of instruction. Students will certainly come away with good intellectual knowledge of basic meditation procedures and Gurdjieff’s procedure for being more mindful in the midst of ordinary life. (If you want more detail on what students will get at the instruction level, check out this description on the GlideWing site.)
When we get to teaching by example, and teaching by presence, I have a useful degree of acquired ability to be “present,” in the sense of maintaining a general spacious and non-attached awareness of my immediate environment and to my bodily and psychological reactions. And, importantly, I’m still able to think or speak and teach while doing this without getting carried away by the ideas I’m thinking or speaking about
A person being more present, as I’ve just roughly described it, being more here-and-now, can inspire such a state in someone who is with them, who is being aware of them through their senses, mainly (but not necessarily limited to) vision and hearing.
This is not something that can be expressed very well in words, as it goes beyond intellect. Let me try to express it in a slightly different way.
When I teach mindfulness practices I try not to get lost in giving instructions, although I am careful in how I use words to get the most possible effectiveness from them. At the same time, I also set an example of being more present myself. That is, my goal is to remember myself in Gurdjieff’s terms, to effectively use words when possible to communicate at least some of what this is all about, while using the self-remembering to maintain a kind of presence, to keep me tuned in enough to my immediate environment and the reactions of my students so that I don’t get carried away by my words.
This may not sound very special if you haven’t experienced anything like this before, but you may find that it is very rewarding, even if it’s very difficult to put into words. So I’ll stop trying!
When I’ve taught this kind of procedure for developing concentration and insight skills, and then learning to apply them in everyday life in classes and workshops in the past, I’ve been very gratified that just about everyone gets at least a taste of what it’s like to be more mindful, especially when they find how helpful it can be in situations which are psychologically difficult. The three-week workshop I’ll be doing for GlideWing can, of course, only be an introduction to mindfulness, but I have tried to be present as often as possible in making the video lectures, and I think this will indeed give students at least a taste, and some practical skills in using mindfulness in meditation and in life.
So, in two weeks from today, my online workshop starts, and I’m getting excited! Getting better at basic meditation procedures, but especially being able to be more mindful in everyday life has really increased the quality of my life, and made me more emotionally intelligent and thus better able to empathize with and be helpful to other people. I’m looking forward to sharing these tools with new groups of students!