Taking a break from writing about mindful eating, I found myself in the kitchen eating from a spoon filled with peanut butter and jelly. I continued to double dip into each jar back and forth, creating a kind of no-bread PB&J eaten standing up. It was several minutes before I noticed the irony of what I was doing.
Am I really qualified to teach and write about mindfulness if I am still capable of unmindful moments like that? I found myself asking this question recently. Am I an impostor? I am clearly not enlightened, so what makes me credible to teach? A recent article in the New York Times quoted several Enlightened Engineers at Google. These engineers teach mindfulness because they consider themselves to be enlightened. Makes sense.
I’ve never heard any of my mindfulness teachers say they were fully enlightened, and yet they are willing to teach. I decided to ask a fellow mindfulness teacher, who also writes extensively in mainstream media, about her experience of what googling was suggesting was called “impostor syndrome.” My friend replied immediately to my email with an extremely sympathetic note about her own struggles with feeling inadequate to teach mindfulness. If she feels inadequate, I thought, then who is adequate?
As a mindfulness practitioner, however, I knew that the person I needed to most check in with on this was myself. As a dear friend often says, “take it to the cushion.” So I did. And I found that this struggle is an old friend of mine, something I have been working with my whole life, something inside of me not outside of me.
Sitting helped me to remember my place in the large scheme of life. I exist only in connection to everything and everyone else. As the diamond sutra explains, because we all depend so completely on each other, there really is no separate person outside of myself for me to help. Because we all inter-are, my teaching is for all of us– my students and myself– to be able to wake up together. And I am just one condition in that process.
Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that our eyes are not the only condition for seeing. Our feet may think they have nothing to do with seeing, but if we look carefully, we see that our feet can change what we see by moving us around. There are many conditions needed in order to see. There must be light, neurons, even the food we eat can allow us to live so that we can see. The object of our sight must also be there. In the same way, I am simply one condition in my readers and students journey toward enlightenment. And if my contribution can in any way help them move in the direction of less fear and more joy and freedom, then it is well worth my effort, even if I am far from enlightened myself.
A friend of mine, also a teacher, says that teaching is just carrying on our education in public. For sure that’s part of what I am doing. On a similar note, I read in this month’s Shambhala Sun that a bodhisattva, someone who has the intention to help liberate all beings, is like a ferryboat operator. The operator’s job is to ferry people to the shore of non-suffering. And in the process, she goes across as well. That’s how it feels to me. I am crossing over with my students and readers, and it’s because of them that I get to cross the water myself.
So after talking this over with friends and sitting on the cushion with it, I came to comfortable terms with this nugget of difficulty. Like a stone in my shoe, it is always there, and that’s just fine. It continually reminds me not to take for granted that I know more than anyone else about mindfulness, or to think that I am taking people across the water on my own. The Shambhala Sun article continues by suggesting that the paramitas – generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom are the fuel that gives the ferryboat operator the strength to keep going. Even though I am not fully enlightened, I can say for certain that I continue to practice these paramitas with my whole heart, and I am the recipient of many other people’s beneficial efforts as well.
An ancient proverb suggest that we keep two notes in our pockets at all times – in the left pocket the note says, “For me the world was created,” and in the right pocket, “I am but ashes and dust.” I may be able to write something useful about mindful eating, but I am also capable of double dipping the PB&J.