What’s a ‘meditation teacher’ anyway?

When I first met my meditation teacher Paul a few years ago I was just dipping my toe into the ocean of meditative practice at a time when my life was pretty terrible.

Paul has over a decade of experience, and is a student of meditation elders Ken McLeod and Thich Nhat Hahn. He’s also the Director of Engineering at Interaxon, a Toronto-based tech-startup that makes Muse, the brain sensing headband. Muse is a device that uses EEG sensors to measure and deliver real-time feedback about the state of the user’s mind to provide guidance during meditation.

The first time I ever meditated in a group, Paul was facilitating. During the discussion afterwards, several people expressed difficulties they were experiencing in their lives, and I was one of them. Just as the discussion was coming to a close, Paul bowed in and responded in a fluid narrative consisting of his own experience. Every person’s issue was addressed. I was in awe. how did this guy know each of us and our situations so well? The more I did get to know him, the more I thought, wow this guy’s attitude and life is pretty cool… How do I do that?!

Apprenticing with Paul involves a consistent daily meditation practice, weekly group sits and regular 1-on-1 mentoring sessions. During a mentoring session I’m free to dive wholeheartedly into the various challenges in my life and to look at–and sort through–the specific, ingrained, habitual ways of speaking, thinking, seeing and acting I’ve developed over the course of my life.

Looking at how these patterns manifest in my everyday life helps me to acknowledge and explore the habitual negative verbal, cognitive, emotional and behavioural patterns that siphon my energy and attention, and prevent me from living a life grounded in what is actually happening, with fearlessness, clarity, and joy. Mentoring with a solid meditation instructor is helping me see the world as it is, not as I wish it would be. It’s also helping me learn to meet each day with wonder and enthusiasm–regardless of the weather in my mind.

In a typical mentoring session, I may ask Paul a technical question about how to do a specific meditation, share a recent concrete insight, or seek strategies for navigating difficult relationships or situations. Then I’ll either record or scribble down his response in my notebook so that I have a breadcrumb trail to help me out next time. The atmosphere of a mentoring session is nonjudgmental and experimental. During our 1-on-1 interactions there’s a feeling of safety that allows me to look at and admit things out loud that I had only ever glanced at in the periphery of my awareness before.

Sometimes when discussing strategies for navigating difficult experiences, Paul’s feedback reflects the correct aspects of my perceptions, and allows my unconscious assumptions (or paranoid judgments) to hang in the air unacknowledged. When I start to feel awkwardness, I know to direct my attention inward and see what’s going on for me.

Other times–when I have the courage to hear him–my misperceptions are systematically interrogated and pointed out until I can see their roots clearly. In the moment of seeing something as it is, the former misperception dissolves in awareness, like shadows in a beam of light.

Training with Paul has taught me practical communication skills. I learn how to effectively use language to phrase difficult experiences from the way Paul uses language to reflect my difficult experiences back to me. I learn how to take responsibility for my experience without assigning blame in any direction, and how to empathize with myself and others using good humor instead of uptight seriousness.

The most rewarding thing about mentoring with a skilled meditation teacher like Paul has been the way he inspires me to nurture and grow my capacity for mindfulness through daily practice, and to stabilize and integrate that increased awareness in my daily life. Much like working out with a good personal trainer motivates you to get to the gym, do your workouts, and eat clean.

Collaborating with Paul has been unlike working with any other coach, therapist or professor I’ve ever known. Though sometimes difficult, our sessions are often thrilling and enlivening, and leave me focused and internally motionless afterwards.

Brimming with gratitude, a few of the residual effects I’ve experienced over the past three years have been: an increased feeling of peace at work, an ability to relax my body in tense situations, and an unbreakable confidence in the power of meditation and Paul’s unique teaching style.

Working with Paul has been an adventure in discovering the many meticulous ways I’ve engineered myself into a cramped, rigid web of self-justifying neurosis. My mentorship has at times been humbling and inspiring, at others, frightening and stressful, but overall uniquely rewarding.


On Wed Sept 14th, we’ll be working through Verse 6 from Ken McLeod’s Reflections on Silver River:

With some teachers, your shortcomings fade away and
Abilities grow like the waxing moon.
Hold such teachers dear to you,
Dearer than your own body–this is the practice of a bodhisattva.

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