The seasons upheave here between the Great Lakes. In LA, fall was a shift in the light and longer lines at the undergrad library. But in Michigan it’s a beautiful, overwhelming reconstitution; and it is a thrill.
Last week I went to the forest in the north, first to a yoga camp full of Yogananda devotees and geodesic domes, then to a retreat on the Boardman River, near the northern shores of the state. The plan was to write and hike in the mornings (catching up on backlog of journal themes and on fun letters I don’t write at other times – sorry to people who I didn’t end up writing…), and meditate in the afternoons.
But the forest had this (slightly creepy) way of pulling back the veil to my subconscious: on the other side of the curtain, my implicit mental-emotional programming churns away, manufacturing this reality. Pattern recognition is jarring. So instead of writing in the mornings, I gave myself a relentless, merciless, off-the-cuff workshop on cutting through illusion (the newly obvious ones, that is). And on radical forgiveness. Churning, hiking, churning some more, writing, ritualizing, river walking, star gazing, and finally lucid dreaming about letting go. Very effective.
All kinds beliefs and expectations about what practice is, and should be, and shouldn’t be, seem to have accumulated. It feels so cleansing to skim off a layer of psychic pond scum. This is a very different activity from sitting in stillness and transcending the relative mind. It doesn’t feel like transcendence skills help much for pattern recognition, unless it is in supplying concentration for staying with activity that is painful to my ego, and in poking a bunch of light-n-brite holes in the fabric of consciousness – holes that can be exploited later to get a peek at manomaya and vijanamaya koshas.
Thursday I drove back down-state, as they say, together with hundreds of small town families taking a kid to college. As the line of us dropped into the Huron River valley and caught the first long view of the University spires framed in lush greens, a low rumble was coming on. The upheaval of the town’s population doubling, of its collective mental activity quadrupling. Oh but this is a vata town if ever there was one.
But it has its fire. Saturday Ann Arbor’s solar plexus (a massive stadium called The Big House – we can hear the roar of a touchdown from our hill a mile to the north) sparked back on. I took a while choosing cucumbers at the crowded farmer’s market, but then when I looked up, the whole place had cleared out. Kickoff.
We had a party for the Editor’s professor friends, especially the new cohort of junior faculty. I noticed I still love academia, but ended up in the corner with the Executive Director of a badass grassroots activist organization you’ve heard of. Said when she accepted the directorship, she “baked in” to her contract the authority to hire a co-director. Someone to share the power. They told her: “Men don’t DO that” when they get directorships.
“So what are we supposed to learn from each other tonight about women in leadership?” she asked. I said I don’t know, but in my mind there are some new ideas about leading from a place of receptivity. The social scientists have begun shouting what we already know: that it is very, very difficult for a human to maintain the skills of empathy as his power increases.
But the archetype of femininity (whatever that may be) is empathetic to the core.
It took an alpha male to wake me up to an archetypically feminine mode of transmitting sacred knowledge. He is a certified silverback, father of four, and Shiva devotee who towers over me. He is deep into his fourth decade of daily Ashtanga practice. His resonant bass voice rattles the rafters and my knee joints when he invokes the saints. And: he does not want my projections, or my power.
This is already saying too much, in his view. He goes with the flow in most everything, but there is one occasion on which he will cut in and disagree with a person: when he detects the ever-present meta-narrative (demonstrated in the paragraph above) about the perfect father figure guru who has finally set us on the straight and narrow and saved us from ourselves. This instructional move is not original – it’s characteristic of the more esoteric wing of 20th Century yoga (J. Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky…). And I assume it’s the way the nameless, countless women teachers have operated all along.
As above, so below. Or, at another angle, the left-handed path.
I’m going to pretend there are two contrasting ideal types of transmission: transcendent/ right handed/ masculine (in which knowledge is delivered from above to open minds) and immanent/ left handed/ feminine (in which a knowledgeable person immerses himself as a forever-student among other co-learners). In a minute, let’s throw the binary away, but for now maybe it’ll help clarify something.
Ken Wilber distinguishes between hierarchies of knowledge and hierarchies of power (in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 2001): in a top-down (right-handed) situation, students are purely receptive. The teacher has the knowledge and power. But in the receptive model, in which the teacher has relatively more experience but also identifies as a life-long student, their students have to do more. More deciding, more figuring-it-out, more taking responsibility, more work. That kind of empowerment appeals to a lot of us in the West for the wrong reasons (a cultural inability to just buck up and have a boss since about November 1963) but when it’s done honestly it’s actually hard. It requires a practitioner go toe to toe with himself, in the field of practice, instead of consigning all decisions to someone else as a relatively clear way to route around his own mental and psychic obstacles.
Historically, ashtanga comes from father figures. Yet at the same time I see receptive teaching all over this practice– in every great teacher. Especially in strong men who have been made to be flexible. And it appears that a tremendous amount of our community’s strength and creativity comes from this sort of secret way of operating.
At random, here are some ways that receptive teaching seems to show up.
Uncompromising technique. Receptive teachers are surprisingly demanding about getting the small stuff right. If you’re going to survive on your own, you need the right foundation. Uncompromising teachers don’t want to babysit you for the first decade of your practice, but they will ride your ass for a few thousand hours until you have a consistent practice and correct method dialed in. That represents a huge energy expenditure on their part.
Investment in relationship. Receptive teaching is not about spreading one’s seeds as broadly as possible and letting yoga Darwinism sort out the rest. The feminine archetype imagines reproductive material to be precious – taking on a new student is not a casual decision, and the little monkeys are looked after carefully at first.
Letting them struggle, and letting them own the learning. . When you take your first steps (er, dropbacks), that’s yours. Your receptive teacher didn’t show you the crucial trick, and doesn’t get credit for anything. He just set some boundaries and held the space.
Speaking of which, boundaries. Receptivity requires safe space. Once you’re in, you’re in. But for a sacred space to come about, not only is there a need for strong transmission, but also for gate keeping. Maybe boundaries are for receptive leadership what hierarchies are to archetypically masculine leadership.
Openness about their own struggles and their suffering. My receptive teachers are transparent – when they have an emotion that can be ethically expressed in a given situation, they go ahead and let it show. In my experience, there is not a lot of distance between their public and private personae. Although this quality in a teacher can be horribly disappointing at first, I have come to find it inspiring. Profoundly so.
They don’t want your power. The archetypical mom has been waiting for you to get your driver’s license since the day you were born. She’s not going to give you the keys if you’re a basket case, but otherwise, for godsakes, please go ahead and drive yourself to soccer practice.
Unconditional acceptance. Students aren’t broken, and don’t need to be fixed. Love isn’t something one earns; it’s a background condition of everything we do.
“I don’t know.” Because they’re still a student. Or they want you to figure it out yourself.
“I AM NOT YOUR TRANSFORMATION.” When my teaching mentor stared down on me with his eyes popped out and Shiva hair flying, and staged whispered that line in the lobby of the Santa Monica YogaWorks in 2007, I started to give in. Fine. You are not my transformation. Working with this instruction is a different kind of surrender.
Study the guru to forget the guru.
So there is a party with said teaching mentor, right here, four weeks from today, and the price of admission is reading all 427 pages of Guruji: A Portrait of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. We have a good number set now upon the work, and they know they know better than to show up having just skimmed or skipped a few chapters here and there.
I plan to sit back in the corner, drink gynostemma (jnano – gyno tea), and frame leading questions here and there. After four weeks and 400 pages of dreamy hagiography, will they be ready to have a senior teacher play search and destroy on big ideas?
Seven years ago, he and I would sit together after practice and I’d ask for stories, and instead what I’d get most days would be exercises in keeping it real. I was addicted to nostalgia and obsessed with the story of who we were. Still am. Sometimes he’d throw out a gems of the Guruji history, which I wanted more than anything (in those days, there were no published interviews and the best source for our history was the archives of the EZBoard, which probably makes better reading than the clickbait in your feeds).
But other times he’d just roll his eyes at my eagerness, look up to the perfect Santa Monica skies, and stage whisper that these are the good old days. These.