Updated: May 3, 2022
The need to be a ‘know-it-all’
I have a problem with teachers.
When I was little – for various reasons I won’t bore you with – I always felt that I had to know the answer before the question was asked. The possibility of being wrong or not being ‘perfect’ was a big problem for me and I would consistently feel the need to be a ‘know-it-all’. I was what in Transactional Analysis they call ‘a little professor’ – a child pretending to be a clever adult.
This was a real issue when it came to being taught. Because a big part of me couldn’t deal with the possibility of not already knowing what the teacher was about to teach. I developed an unattractive need to be smarter than my teachers. And an unconscious way of achieving that was to belittle what it was they were teaching me. Or to kid myself that I knew it already.
My conflicted tears on Mrs. Jackson’s capacious bosom
Of course, this was an illusion. I didn’t know how to speak German before I started German classes with Mr Davies. Nor did I understand long division before Mrs Jackson explained it to me. (In fact, aged 10, I remember breaking down in shame-faced, conflicted tears on Mrs Jackson’s capacious bosom because I couldn’t “do” long division straight off the bat.) I didn’t know what Boyle’s Law was before Mr Offord wrote it on the chalkboard.
The truth was I didn’t know any of these things. However, for my unconscious, it was shameful not to know. And so to avoid the shame I would either belittle the teacher or pretend that I really knew it – but had simply needed reminding.
The student has to have their cup facing the right way up
I have been fortunate in the course of my life of being taught by some really wonderful people. But you can imagine how that sort of mindset makes true teaching very difficult. If the student already insists that he or she knows what the teacher is transmitting, then at best there’s going to be a very narrow transfer of information. Basically, just enough to fill out the space the student already inhabits.
To really receive the depth and breadth of the teacher’s knowledge, the student has to admit that he or she doesn’t know stuff. In the image that Chögyam Trungpa uses, the student has to have his or her cup facing up the right way. If you come to your teacher to receive the ‘tea’ of knowledge but your teacup is facing down – nothing gets transmitted. The tea can be poured but it just lands on the floor and the student gets scalded. If the student wants hot, energising new tea, they have to hold the cup up the right way. And the teacup also has to be empty before the pouring begins.
For me, showing up with an empty cup triggered shame. So I would either turn it upside down or refuse teaching. Or have a cup overfilled with my own previous thoughts and conceptions of what it was I was about to learn.
The hours I have spend arguing with Reggie in my head
This is a real disaster when it comes to receiving something as precious as Buddhist teachings.
I’ve written elsewhere about how my relationship with Buddhist teacher, Reggie, was far from plain sailing. I used to get deafened by a cacophony of cognitive dissonance whenever I studied with him. On the one hand, I was aware that previous to working with him, I had never really understood any of the Buddhist teachings deeply. I had book knowledge but no real, embodied knowledge. On the other hand, it was too triggering to really admit that. So I would find a hundred reasons why I actually already knew what he was teaching. Or that I actually could teach it better. Or that I might have learned it better from someone else.
This sort of blustering negation of the gift a teacher gives is exhausting. I spent so much time arguing with Reggie in my head – debating, pontificating, raging, whining – that the actual pleasure of receiving new knowledge got covered in an avalanche of unconscious conflict.
The Tibetan word mögu is central to this stage of the path
This weird knot became crystal clear up on Holy Island this January as I was plugging away at my practice. The focus of much of it is exploring this teacher-student relationship. And training the practitioner (me) to keep my cup facing the right way up.
There is a Tibetan word, mögu, which is very central to this stage of the practice. It is often translated as devotion – a word which makes me and many other “Western” practitioners come out in a rash. Given what I have explored above, you can understand how it’s a painful stretch for a ‘little Professor’ to really glory in the superior knowledge of a teacher. Kneeling, cup-up, in front of the person who is further along the path, who has achieved what I am longing for, sounds like a good idea but actually jars every conditioned bone in my body. Devotion gets snarled up in this knot around “knowing best”.
Being “interested” and “humble” feels less of a stretch than devotion
So, just before heading up to Holy Island, I was happy to chance across another translation of the word ‘mögu’ by the Tibetan teacher Traleg Kyabgon who taught in Australia before his death in 2012. He translates the word as “interested humility” and this opened things up for me.
There is a significant part of me that longs for the liberation and compassionate openness that Buddhism promises. And that same part of me resonates strongly when I see this embodied in the world or I hear about this in teachings.
However, there is another part of me (outlined above) that gets snarled up in childhood schemas about ‘knowing best’.
In the light of that, being devoted to a teacher feels like a bit of a stretch. But being interested in what they have, and humble enough to admit that I don’t (yet) have it, feels more manageable.
I kid myself that I’m as enlightened as the Dalai Lama
Somehow, this linguistic shift really freed things up for me on the Island. Breaking “devotion” down into “interest” and “humility” cracked open the neurotic pattern that has haunted my relationship with all my teachers, my whole life long. And particularly when it comes to these very precious teachings of Buddhism.
To kid myself that I was in fact just as advanced as Reggie or just as compassionate as Akong Rinpoche or just as enlightened as the Dalai Lama was massively delusional. But it also completely blocked the flow of their advanced knowledge and ‘blessings’ into my life.
Pride is a dreary landscape to inhabit
My great neurotic blockage has been pride. It’s the unenlightened characteristic of the white, ‘Buddha’ family in Tibetan psychology. And as I was saying to a Dharma friend yesterday, it’s a terrible dreary neurotic state to be in. Thinking you know best when that knowledge is based on a frightening recoil from shame is a shabby place to be. The pride is completely hollow and propped up by fear. And letting go of that hollow pride is an incredible relief.
So the humility part of mögu is profoundly liberating for me. To admit that I don’t know and to sail through the shudder of shame into the open space of humility feels completely wonderful. And once I’m in that open expanse then the ‘interest’ part comes on board. Suddenly – free of the constriction of know-it-all pride – I can follow the passionate interest I have in this process of liberation. And my mind sails out into the vast landscape that opens up with these Buddhist teachings.
“Causing my practice to blaze with devotion”
There’s a line in the liturgy I chant each day that speaks of practice “blazing with devotion” and until recently I have always stuttered over that line. I wouldn’t say my mögu is blazing yet, but I feel it’s definitely alight. At the very least., cup-up, I can savour the hot tea of instruction and revel in where its taste takes me.