Yesterday I lost one of my favorite professors from college. Paul Backer, School of Theatre faculty at USC, was one of the kindest, dearest, most important teachers of mine during college, and today I honor him for being one of my first yoga teachers, champions and an example of true generosity of spirit.
The full moon today is celebrated in the Vedic calendar as Guru Purnima, a day when we honor "the guru, who is of the utmost help on the spiritual path." (Georg Fuerstein) Purnima means full, and Guru can mean teacher, guide, or that which holds weight (gu is the Indo-European root of our words gravity and grip.)
I love the celebration of Guru Purnima because it is an undeniable homage to the metaphor of the moon: a reflective surface which guides our way in the darkness, which ebbs and flows and cycles in and out. That is to say that while some teachers may be with us for a very long time, the real indicator of a successful teacher, a brilliant guru, is one who knows how to step back. A teacher carefully sets out the tools and entrusts the student to make a choice, or, as the Buddha put it very simply, to “light [their] own lamp.”
Each person we meet, every situation we encounter is a teacher. These people, places, things grip us for a while, holding us in place in order for us to learn, grow, transform, bloom; seeds grow where they're planted. I've had many teachers, some gentle, others stern. Some I treasure and revere for the light they shined on my darkest nights, and some for the darkness they cast. Some lessons had to be repeated, because I couldn't sit still long enough to register their meaning. Others were learned swiftly. The potency of each teacher, and therefore their lessons, rests on the principle of catch and release, of tending the relationship to their student like a parent teaching a toddler to walk- at some point they have to let those uncertain jiggly legs figure it out.
In his article, “Recognizing the Guru,” Rolf Sovik details the various characteristics, skills and roles of a teacher. These include looking upon the student with compassion and confidence so that student may outgrow limitations or insecurities, as well as stepping back and empowering the student to come up with their own answer. This principle of empowerment is an essential quality to look for when selecting a teacher, and something to keep in mind for those of us who are teachers. The moon holds steady as the earth turns, shining brightly at first to ease our transition into night. And then night after night, the Guru shines less and less, so that we might learn the lessons that only the darkness can reveal.
In a true learning environment, "Gurus become knowledge-sharers; teachers become holders-of-space; students become collaborators; and all hold each other to account in support, love, and integrity." (VK Harber)
Today, make a list of your teachers: the fullest, brightest beings that lit your path, and the empty, lonely nights you cursed and questioned. Offer them flowers, a mantra, a prayer, a thank you. Give their lesson a once-over in your body, sense where it lives in you, and breathe with it. Guru is the Creator. Guru is the Preserver. Guru is the Dissolver, and this is your homage to that supreme inner guide.
Thank you Hala Khouri, Mira Shani, Nikki Vilella, Alex Auder, Rhia Robinson,Swati Miller, Kelli Wright, Edwin Bryant, Shari Friedrichsen, Rolf Sovik, Jen Warakomski, and Sunita Tarkunde.