For one thing: in our culture we’re taught, by psychologists, to face up to the negative things our parents and teachers did to us as we grew up. Facing up to our emotions, including the negative, is a good thing no doubt. However, it does leave one with a bad taste in the mouth.
Gratitude meditation counters this. After all, for most of us, however much we may have quarreled with them, our parents were a positive in our lives. Like our teacher reminded us during the Lam Rim: babies are very difficult creatures to take care of. They wake you all hours of the night, they require constant care and attention.
We were such a baby once upon a time, and our parents took care of us. The least we can do in return is be grateful.
Similarly our teachers had to put up with a lot. Having been a high school teacher myself for a few years has given me a whole new appreciation of this fact. Teachers are jugglers of teenage emotion, trying to impart information while also managing the social processes in the class room. Anyone who survives that (never mind doing it well) is a champion in my book.
I don’t think our culture appreciates teachers enough.
Our own teachers deserve even more gratitude: they were there during our tantrums, when we refused to learn, when the material just could not get in, when we did learn, when we did make progress… They were there day after day, feeding us tidbits to absorb, showing us how to live…
Part of the daily Lam Rim meditation is a visualization of all our teachers. It starts with Buddha in the center and all our other teachers around him. If you’re a Christian you can of course put Jesus in the center. I don’t think I’ll be able to do that meditation in full just yet, but I did find it wholesome – just now, in the middle of the night – to contemplate all my teachers (or the ones I can recall) and thank them for their trouble.
In the Lam Rim instructions it says that to forget even one teacher in this meditation is a major hindrance on the path. Be that as it may, as a spiritual purification it’s probably most important to at least remember the teachers we may have meditated negatively on: the teachers we had issues with.
For instance, my second grade teacher, her name is etched in my memory though I’ll keep her anonymous here… She taught us multiplication tables, as second grade teachers do. Unfortunately, though I was generally not one of her worst students, memorizing those multiplication tables didn’t come easy to me at all. And instead of accepting that as it was, she kept on harping me about it. I’m sure she thought I was lazy. The result was that we quarreled all that year. It left me with a frustration about not being able to memorize things well for the rest of my learning life. We all have a weakest point in our learning process and mine is my memory.
That’s just the way it is and I won’t bore you with how it affected me. After all, I did finish two college degrees and there really isn’t much to complain of when it comes to my brain power. I mean, objectively, compared to other people. Subjectively is another matter, as it often is.
I was again faced with my memory limitations trying to memorize the Tibetan Buddhist rituals that were part of our Lam Rim course. The fact is that the people there didn’t make an issue of whether I was able to follow along with every chant. But for me, with that teacher still in my system, it was a confrontation. I was reminded of her again, and I do think I worked through it deeply this time.
You can imagine that bringing myself to feel grateful to this teacher is a step. But I can: she must have taught me loads that year. Reading, the basics of multiplication, geography, history… Having to deal with the feisty stubborn girl I was can’t have been easy.
As a teacher myself I know just how impossible it can be to try to be fair to every individual student. Sure – it’s a duty, but unfortunately it’s also impossible. Or rather: it was impossible for me. How can I blame her for something I couldn’t manage when I tried?
Of course I also have good teachers to recall. In fact, in general, school was a pleasant experience for me.
In the Lam Rim it’s said that the teacher (the guru) is the basis for all good qualities. Rationally I think that is going a bit too far. However, it is true when I think about it, that a LOT of my good qualities go back to good teachers. Whether it’s my parents (professional teachers themselves), scouting leaders or teachers proper: there is a lot I learned from people who cared. In fact, I can’t think of one positive quality of mine that does NOT trace back to someone whose words or attitude made sense to me at some point.
On the other side of the coin is of course the ability to listen and hear such words of wisdom, but while the Lam Rim reminds us of that, it makes a less inspiring topic for meditation. And contemplating just how well we were able to learn, doesn’t help one develop either humbleness or gratitude. Remembering the trouble others went to, so we were able to learn those things DOES help one develop these spiritual qualities.
I’m going through the Lam Rim not in the very specific order in which it is taught, but in the order in which I’m processing all I’ve learned over those two weeks. You’ll have to forgive me and find a real lam rim teacher to get the whole thing from start to finish if you are inspired by this series.