Master teachers

Contemplating about the Passover holiday has brought up thoughts of stuck-ness and redemption. The word for Egypt, the place where the emerging Jewish nation was stuck 3,300 years ago, is Mitzrayim from the word meitzar, a narrow place.

As slaves they had no control over their own destiny. They were totally subjugated under their Egyptian taskmasters. They also took on the identity of the mother culture and became idolaters. This is the experience of slavery. They lose their identity and forget who they essentially are.

We recreate this experience and imagine what it was like to have taskmasters beat us ruthlessly and to be so submissive that we no longer have a mind of our own. They were so stuck that only God alone could pull them out of there, and the redemption is compared to pulling a fetus out of its mother to be born as a separate entity.

Through the process of redemption instead of being avadim (slaves) to Pharaoh they became avadim to God. If all we did was stop being slaves to man only to become slaves to God what have we gained?

In both the relationship to Pharaoh and to God the same Hebrew word is used but there is a world of difference between the two experiences. A slave is not free. A servant is free to serve. The fact that he serves something beyond himself makes him free not only from others but from his own internal stuck places, becoming free to determine his own destiny.

What does it mean to serve God?

During the past week I had an opportunity to have a music lesson with my son, which gave me some insight into this question.

He did three things for me:

a) He taught me some rules

b) He showed me how I could practice the rules in a way that would work for me.

c) He gave me a structure for spontaneous expression

What do I mean by this?

a) He said things like: “Learn it very well slowly before you do it faster” or “Play the rhythm with the emphasis on various sixteenth notes all in the high range and once you’ve mastered that you can play the emphasized notes on the bass” or “Make sure to keep all the sixteenth notes even.”

b) He listened to me playing and he said “Practice with this music in the background because it follows the pace you need right now” or “Practice with your right hand more because it’s not as strong as your left hand”

c) He said “Play a rhythm you know well once, and then the second time, replace the second half of the rhythm with something else completely different that comes into your head.”

In other words he was saying:

a) These are the rules everyone needs to do so that learning can take place

b) This is a good way for you in particular because of your unique learning style and stage of development right now.

c) This is the space I’ve left up to your own self-exploration

A master teacher tells me the rules, knowing this is how a person can progress. But a master teacher can see what I need in order to progress, that is different from what a different student needs.

In many areas of life there are rules. There are societal laws, there are natural laws, there are divine laws and there are rules for how learning can take place.

I want to take this a step further to a personal experience of stuck-ness I had. I’m not going to share the details of my personal experience but I hope the theoretical piece of it will make sense to you without it. I am trying to express a deep and subtle feeling.

I picture being stuck in a very concrete way, like Winnie the Pooh stuck in the window. I reacted to the situation by refusing to accept that I am here. At times I tried to force my way out by trying too hard or I just gave up.

Saying “I will do it all myself” or “I know it all” kept me as stuck as ever.

A master teacher will be able to guide me through it by teaching me the rules, by helping me to recognize where I am and where my freeing abilities lie and by helping me see beyond my situation.

The physical dimension is a me-centered place. Being stuck there usually boils down to being cut off from life or from relationships or both. Slander is a good example. If you want to be connected to people there are some rules you just can’t break because doing those things destroys relationships.

God’s law is the spiritual content of physical life. It’s not a parallel existence. By bringing the spiritual content in we create channels of connection. Physical life has its own tempo and texture and flow. In my stuck place I felt disjointed and at odds with myself and with life itself, either resisting of forcing.

When I instead accepted the guidance of God’s law this colored the stuck-ness of natural existence with meaning, so that I became more accepting of the process on the physical plane. I sensed myself opening up again to see new possibilities. I’m not a victim. This is my challenge and I can and will accept it out of choice with strength and courage. The spiritual content of God’s law freed my spiritual energy and opened me up to see new possibilities. After this process I felt like I was flowing again.

When we say that by serving God we are free it is because God is a master teacher. If I want to learn to play an instrument I have to submit my learning process to the master. If the master tells me “Master this first and then I will give you more to do and take you further” I have to trust him. By giving myself over to the wisdom of the one who guides me, I am guided and I myself gain mastery.

God’s guidance comes in these same three forms as the master teacher whom I’ve described above:

1) Respect for the Law

2) Adjustment of the law to individual need

3) Attunement, choice and playfulness

God’s laws tell me how to live my life. There is certainly a huge difference between the source of authority when the rules are coming from God or coming from a human teacher or coming from nature but there is one thing all of these different kinds of rules have in common:

You just can’t get what you want without the rules.

I believe that the master pianist Bill Evans knows what he’s talking about when he says that you won’t be able to play the piece well if you try to only approximate how it sounds, while playing it too fast for your ability right now. You have to play it well slowly first, if you want to play it well fast.

In the example of natural law it’s not too hard to figure out that if I want to live I can’t disregard to laws of gravity and step off the top of a tall building. I have to respect the laws of nature.

God’s laws are like that too but it takes deep contemplation and a reorientation to see that they are not an adjunct to reality but guidance that accompanies reality.

There have been situations where I felt not only am I stuck but this rule is making me even more stuck. As I came to a place of acceptance my perspective softened. I came to appreciate the support and solidity of God’s law. If the law would not be there, the circumstance of fate still would be, and I would be without guidance regarding it. The law provides an orientation of constancy that accompanies me on this journey.

On top of this “constant” is the reality of ever-changing circumstances of my life situation and the law as it accompanies me through it, maybe telling me in one situation to go easy on myself and in another situation telling me to be strong, or maybe telling me to start again from fresh. Whatever it is, the law is guiding me through it, not only by its being the “constant” and anchor of security throughout my changing circumstances (the first aspect of fixed laws and rules in life) but also by being a guideline for my particular situation and developmental needs.

This second aspect is similar to what Frankl says about the adjustment of universal law to the individual situation. From Jewish religious perspective there is a slight difference in perspective on this point but I want to stick for now to what Frankl has in common with Judaism, i.e. what is common to all people regardless of their faith.

In any kind of life experience there is strength to be gained by the stance I take towards the suffering (the “law” that is beyond my control), there is much to be learned by the understanding of the lesson for me and how the reality I face reaches into and pulls me out of my stuck place and there is even greater still spiritual achievement gained by the freely chosen stance I take towards God’s guidance that accompanies my suffering situation.

I’ve learned to not be like Pooh Bear but to say, “Okay, here I am, stuck. Let’s see… How can I get out of here?”

God is a master teacher who wants me to do the service and become a master myself.

This leads me to a basic question I have. What does the psychological community need? What does the world need today? What do the Jewish people need? What do I need? How can logotherapy fill this need?

There is more than one way to answer this question. One way to answer this that occurs to me is the following:

The world needs to change from an ego-centered orientation to a service-centered orientation to life. We need to stop asking “What can you do for me?” and move to an orientation of “What can I do for you?”

The world is very stuck because the basic goal in life is self-focused. “I know what I need and want and I’m going to get it. I can do anything. I can have anything I want.” And this is at odds with the concept of service, of submitting to a master teacher.

The physical plane of existence is always limited. How do we push past the limitation and grow? We bring a spiritual content into it.

All growth comes through learning and there are three aspects to learning.

Even though I have expressed my experience from a particular viewpoint (because I can only speak personally from my own viewpoint) I would like to take it to a view from beyond myself, that would relate to anyone in the world.

It seems to me that Frankl’s conception of conscience, as a view from above does just this, and relates to all three aspects of learning that I’ve outlined:

a) Respect for The law – from gravity to a fateful experience to music lessons to God-given spiritual law – in any kind of learning process rules serve the function of setting up parameters. Disregard the rules and you will not transcend being stuck in the physical, me-centered dimension.

b) Adjustment to the law – The second aspect changes from person to person and changes for the same person with changing circumstances. Learning and growth take place within the context of a trusting relationship.

c) Choice – On the backdrop of these two aspects a person is free to see possibilities that were hidden from view before. We can relate playfully with our reality and grow through it.

I have decided to take more of a personal slant in my posts and this is what has come out. I guess I am a philosopher by nature. Please ask questions if something doesn’t make sense to you. (And please also comment if it does!)

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