"I believed I wanted to be a poet, but deep down, I just wanted to be a poem." —Jaime Gil de Biedma
I was a high school English teacher for many years before becoming a psychotherapist. With an academic background in literature and writing, it made sense; after all, I had a passion for reckoning with the human condition which is the territory in which all great literary works traffic, ultimately. Teaching English, for me, was always less about giving a vocab lesson than it was about opening up a sort of collective existential inquiry.
During my teaching days, I steadfastly claimed that I could care less about pedagogical theory. I wasn’t compelled, for example, by questions of how I was going to teach, say, some conceit of composition. Instead, I was interested in offering students an experience.
In line with that, I arranged my classroom in a circle and I adamantly refused to lecture. To this day, I still have an allergy to didacticism (the likes of which I’ve sat through far too much of in two rounds of grad school and two psychotherapy trainings that, for being “experiential,” contained heavy doses of presentation). I reasoned that if I found sitting and listening to someone spewing information in a top-down way unbearable, I sure as hell wasn’t going to put anyone else through it. (I, admittedly, take a sort of perverse pride in not knowing how to create a PowerPoint presentation!)
And so I invited discussion, offered group work, and generally engaged my classes in activities that prompted students to bring themselves into the space in unique and sometimes unorthodox ways (I also got into all kinds of trouble for teaching books with sex and bad words in them…but I digress for now). I was far less interested in proclaiming, with any sort of absolutism, what the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock meant in The Great Gatsby, for example, than I was in creating a kind of participation that stirred something inside of these young people, perhaps something about the vicissitudes of being human.
In many respects, I see the work of psychotherapy as a synergistic endeavor: it’s a practice of engagement that seeks to help us discover and bear our own aliveness and, perhaps, to make meaning of it. In my world, this is always an experiential process—it’s not something to be dictated or gleaned through theory or lectured into being. In other words, it’s bottom-up work, and knowing too much can be a liability as it forecloses upon discovery.
One of the things that I sometimes miss about teaching is the dynamism of it—groups are full of an enlivened energy that feeds the extroverted side of my nature. Plus, there is something really beautiful that often gets to happen in the magic of collective space; we humans are relational beings, after all. For these reasons, over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a bit more “teaching” again, albeit in contexts different from the more traditional classroom. I’ve facilitated workshops, run several series, led retreats, and I will continue to do a bit of all of that.
As I prepare to launch an upcoming immersive retreat experience (as well as a couple of other forthcoming offerings), I’ve been prompted to (re)consider my relationship with this original moniker of “teacher.” In truth, I feel some ambivalence about identifying that way. To me, “teacher” has always implied a kind of hierarchy that I’m uncomfortable with—it sets up something of a positional one-up, one-down dynamic where the one on top is the “expert.” It’s tinged with a sort of “guru mentality” that has never been completely aligned with my own sensibilities. (For the record, I have similar reservations about calling myself a “psychotherapist,” as it, too, is derived from a hierarchical lineage. That said, I’m also something of a realist and I accept that we may not be able to live completely outside of these contexts of power that are so much a part our world.)
In any case, the idea of espousing too much top-down, how-to content holds very little appeal for me in any context. Not to mention that I feel downright oppressed by the onslaught of “expertise” in our culture. Let us not forget that we live in the era when every self-help guru on the Internet proclaims to have the answers (in five easy steps, no less!) to your troubled sex life or your financial woes and can’t wait to sell them to you ASAP. One of the thorniest dilemmas of our time is that we’ve mistaken information for wisdom and egregiously mixed up the two.
I suppose I seek to move people more than I seek to “educate” them in any formal manner. The best “teacher,” in my experience, is always the one whose transmission does the work; in other words, the energy that emanates from his or her being radiates a sincerity of reckoning that cannot be manufactured. All the technical, informational know-how in the world will never compensate for a lack of what Chögyam Trungpa called “full human-beingness.”
Nevertheless, what speaks to me at this juncture, whether I’m doing psychotherapy with an individual or leading a workshop or hosting a retreat, is this idea of prompting an experience; I seek to rouse something in the subtler depths that touches people in an inside-out way and has them making more profound contact with their own hearts (and perhaps with the hearts of others as so much of this work is relational ultimately).
To that end, I feel more like a guide than a teacher or even a psychotherapist. Perhaps I’m just a transparent practitioner. Stephen Jenkinson once said something really beautiful when he walked into a room of “students”: “I’m here to be troubled out loud. So don’t confuse me with a teacher—I’m a practitioner. Everything I teach I am practicing in front of you.”
Maybe all I’ve ever truly been interested in doing, at the end of the day, is engaging the inquiry and practice of being human, ardently and aloud, with the invitation for company on this rigorous adventure.