In my role as a meditation teacher, I often feel like people don’t get a chance to know the real me. They see a curated persona who speaks with a calming tone of voice, someone who spent two years living in a Buddhist monastery and has written two books on meditation and spiritual life. I can imagine those things might give them certain misleading ideas about me.
Behind that persona, the truth is that I struggle a lot with anxiety. I don’t mean regular garden-variety anxiety. I mean the kind that I see a doctor about, the kind that has a diagnostic code in the DSM-V. Anxiety is something I have experienced for most of my life, going back to childhood. It can flare up along with insomnia to affect my sleep, my relationships, and my work. Many people might never suspect this about me because I’m good at keeping it under wraps and showing the outside world an exterior facade of calmness and serenity.
I’ve been practicing and teaching meditation for 16 years, and while I can say truthfully that meditation helps me regulate my anxiety and work with it more skillfully, I cannot truthfully tell you that meditation cures it. Meditation alone, practiced in solitude, doesn’t address the underlying structural issues in my personal psychology. I stopped expecting the practice to do that for me quite a while ago.
I share this confession because in the world of yogis and meditators and people walking various kinds of modern spiritual paths, there’s a pervasive misconception that anyone who’s been practicing for a while — and especially anyone who has stepped up from practicing into the role of teaching — is supposed to have it all together.
In my observation, and in my own personal experience, nothing could actually be further from the truth. And this misconception creates some really toxic dynamics between teachers and students.
One of the great ironies about people in the helping professions is that they are often among the ones who need the most help. I know a psychiatrist who has borderline personality disorder. A lot of therapists and social workers I know are depressed. The suicide rate among doctors in the U.S. is two or three times as high as the general population. There’s a powerful stigma that prevents us from talking openly about how people whose job is to help others may themselves need help addressing their own mental health issues.
The world of yogis and meditators and spiritual teachers is no exception. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the marketing hype.
If you’re that sort of teacher, it’s often assumed that you’ve wrestled with your demons, and vanquished them. You’ve worked out the kinks and foibles in your human nature, so you stand a cut above the rest of us. Your inner light shines through at all times, unclouded by ordinary human neuroses. Traumas? Shadow material? You’re beyond all that. This must be why you look so beatific and well composed in your Instagram photos.
My personal advice? Run as fast as you can in the other direction from any teacher who presents a highly manicured image of having it all together. Run from any teacher who looks down at the world from a superior perch and appears to have it all figured out, or who claims to have packed away all their emotional baggage.
In the past few years I’ve seen a lot of teachers who projected that sort of image fall from grace — exposing suddenly and almost violently their humanity, their struggles, and the demons with which were secretly wrestling. I’ve learned not to project too much of a sacred aura onto any of the cows roaming about in the contemporary spiritual pasture. If you spend much time around cows, sacred or not, you’ll find most of them are full of something. I know I am.
My struggles with anxiety, among other things, are part of what initially drew me to the path of meditation, and they’re still part of what keeps me practicing — and, perhaps just as importantly, part of what keeps me teaching. I may not always reveal to a room full of students what’s roiling beneath the surface of my own psychological waters because it’s generally bad decorum to appear like a basket case when you’re sitting in the teacher’s seat. But within the inner sanctum of my own mind, where no one else goes, I’m never far-removed from a lifetime of roiling waters, or from the wellspring of shadow material that percolates just beneath the surface.
There’s a famous quote from Richard Bach: “You teach best what you most need to learn.”
The longer I teach, the more truth I find in that statement. When meditation students tell me how calming my voice and my presence are, or how much a certain practice or teaching I shared helped them reframe their perspective on a difficult situation, I know that sharing it with them probably helped me twice as much. I needed just as much as they did, if not more, to be reminded of the teaching by sharing it with them.
I think what I’m learning is that it’s not in spite of my imperfections and human foibles, it’s not in spite of my ongoing struggles with my own inner demons, but because of those things, that I have something genuine to offer as a teacher.
I’m coming clean here about my struggles with anxiety because I think coming clean is necessary. In the world of spiritual teachers and students, we need fewer sacred cows and more transparency and disclosure. Without an honest and open relationship to the more troublesome aspects of myself, I would be just another one of those slick Instagram gurus trying to sell you the path to happiness, as if I had it all figured out.
If you ever catch me doing that, feel free to slap me, and bring me back down to earth.
Dennis Hunter: For over 15 years, Dennis has taught meditation, mindfulness and Buddhist studies in classes, workshops, retreats, teacher trainings, private sessions and online. A former monk who lived for two years under the guidance of Pema Chödrön in her monastery in Canada, he is author of the books You Are Buddha (2014) and The Four Reminders: A Simple Buddhist Guide to Living and Dying Without Regret (2017).
Photo credits: Roma Ryabchenko – unsplash.com