Acharya

A few weeks ago, we went to Esalen to study with Mark Whitwell. One of the many reasons I like him is that he also doesn't buy into the culture of teacher certification and yoga celebrities that seems to be happening now. I think this culture comes, in part, from the appropriation of yoga into the Western context of the 20th century, but also reflect pretty well the caste system that had seeped into yoga long ago. Peeling away these distortions, he gave an idea and definition that I found so interesting and helpful. It reframed our challenges in such an important way. In the classes I teach and the people I get to work with, I see the deeper yoga and a different understanding of difficulty. The following is from notes from his lecture and from my own thoughts as well. I found it very helpful and I think you might find it helpful too. 

The idea was about "Acharya". He defined an acharya as someone who has gone through their own difficulties and learned how to be well. He said, in these traditions, acharyas are seen as the best teachers. It is even said that, one who has not been through human difficulties (such as avitars - ones who are born free) are NOT the best teachers. Acharya is one who has overcome their social conditions so that they can help others do the same. This concept acknowledges that there are avitars - one's that come into life with less suffering. Or what some might call, "more enlightened". But it is understood that - while they are good examples of the light...freedom...etc, they are not necessarily the best teachers on their own. They might come and hand to humans a magical tool, or an example of divine love. But in order for this information to be put into use and applied to life - in order for people to learn - an acharya is needed. The avitar works with the acharyas. 

To learn to be free within it all - we need the acharyas. You are the acharya for your family, community and friends. Through the things in your experience that you have found freedom within (perhaps you have freed yourself by transforming it, or perhaps found freedom within things that cannot change) - your freedom is of service and teaches those around you. It may be that you literally teach them the tools you have learned, or that they see in you the journey and commitment. In any case, this perspective makes it clear that our challenges are not weaknesses - they are our gifts. They are our curriculum to learn and to teach. This also makes it clear that we do not need to be perfect. We only need to be exactly where we are. An acharya is fully and deeply human. We all have unique journeys that makes us uniquely useful. This concept honors your life journey and all that you have overcome and are overcoming.

This reminds me of the concept of Responsibility of Incarnation - that we are born at a particular time and place with particular circumstances that, in part, determine our work. As a bible verse says, "grow where you are planted". It also reminds me the importance of doing your own work honestly and that, often, the real work is invisible from the outside OR looks like things are totally falling apart. That is to say, its not about looking like you have it all together. It is the vulnerability to be along the path, rather than to pretend to be finished. 

To be a yogi, in this sense, means to break the patterns of the past. To see the patterns and not participate in them anymore. Most of these patterns you did not create. Many of them have been passed through families for many generations. These difficulties of your family, you must overcome for your sake and for theirs. They are grateful that you do not need to duplicate their suffering (even if they can't show it in this life). You are born at the tail end of many generations of suffering and you now have the choice of duplicating these patterns, or bringing them to an end. The acharya claims their own life in the midst of the patterns. A yogi is one who claims their own life, not just continuing the patterns. 

From everything you've been through, to come through it all and come to love life - even your family  - even yourself. This is no small task.

Seeing things in this way reframes suffering and gets us a step closer to seeing suffering as grace. I do believe that we all suffer and I do like the idea that we are all old souls. But, it is absolutely clear to me that some have a heavier burden to bear in this life time. I have been told by many teachers that we can't compare suffering (of course not), and even that everyone suffers equally (no to that, too). I have been told this in situations where I was being called "dark" because of what had been written on my body and mind in this life so far, as compared to someone who carried the lightness of someone with a very different life experience that far. Let me say it simple - some lives have bigger karmas. And with that, bigger opportunities to carry on the pain AND bigger opportunities to clear. If you see yourself as having a lot of suffering, this is to say, don't see it as an opportunity to be a victim or excuse your anger - but rather as an opportunity to unwind it all. To find your way through. Sometimes this means you are able to change outer and inner situations. Sometimes, this means finding freedom right within things as they are. 

I made the distinctions in the beginning of this blog about an interpretation of yoga different than what comes to us through the caste system and celebrity hierarchy because, if you were to look up the uses of the word "Acharya", you would also likely find it used by some where it almost denoted royalty or leadership through empowerment. You might also see it used simply to mean "teacher", which is a perfectly good definition too. However, the word itself translates as something like "one who goes forward with practice and self-conduct". This means that is someone that goes forward by doing their own work. And - if they lead others - they lead by doing their own work. It is a place that puts teacher and student on equal ground of humility, and places the power in integrity and effort, rather than divine empowerment, magic, or lineage of birth or teacher. 

Mark told a story as an example of a Buddhist teacher who had many schools and followers (I don't know who exactly the story refers to, but there are many like this). The story went that this teacher gave many powerful teachings over the years and was very helpful to his students. But it just took one time that it was seen that he slapped wife, and the next day, all the schools had dissolved. The self-conduct is more significant than any other teaching. Now. I don't recount this story here to say that a teacher must be perfect. Actually TOTALLY the opposite. I would say that the teacher in this story was potentially on his way from being a teacher who had been given empowerment through blessing of hierarchy or credential, to being an acharya - realizing his humanity and doing his work. Big teachers like this can be very public. And their falls can be public as well. However, the work that follows - the real work - may well be invisible. May look like loss and humiliation. But may be his actual initiation. Into practice and teaching in a different way.

Back to the concept avitar and why they need the acharya. You might not have heard the word "avitar" before, or maybe not in this way. It translates as "descent". Is a deliberate descent of deity to Earth. You can take this literally or metaphorically. For some well-known examples - many see Jesus as an Avitar. And, while Siddhartha/Guatama Buddha is a story of obtaining enlightenment, he is also seen as an avitar. Shown, in part, in that both of these had interesting births. Though they both went through challenges, seeing them as avitars is a statement of the freedom they already carried through their suffering that was symbolized in many ways. And both also needed acharyas - ones that worked with them and after them. And some who even worked before them to carve the way. Because the thing is that, humans have tremendous ability to glimpse truth without integrating it into daily life. Tremendous capacity to experience divine love, and yet still have old patterns of anger and fear intwine their hearts. We hear words that sound true and say "oh thats so beautiful", or something happens as a revelation....and too much of the time, we just go about our day. Through the element of continuous practice, humanity, and intention of integrity, the acharyas work to bridge this gap between heaven and earth. 

Mark said - "If Christ comes to you, the appropriate response is yoga". You put it into practice. You put it into action. Yoga is the appropriate response to the pain of our patterns and conditioning AND it is the appropriate response to glimpsing truth.

For a few years now, I have believed more strongly in invisible lineage and I think the concept of Acharya is exactly that. It was necessary for me to come to understand the invisible lineage because there were times when I felt so alone and disempowered because I did not have a lineage of blood or of empowerment (for those unfamiliar with that, in many ways of studying yoga and meditation, there is still a concept of receiving man-made initiation into or right to teach as well as just the social situations of in-groups). I now relate to it strongly, and the idea of the acharya brings it together: there are people in all sects and situations who work for freedom and truth by doing their own work. There is a truth where life gives its own initiations to learn BOTH though unbearable joy and pain. 

If someone comes to read this, I bet you are an acharya, or at least one in training or however that should best be said. This doesn't mean you have to be perfect to teach. But that you are doing your own sometimes ugly work. Perfectly, imperfectly and humbly - you are exactly where you should be. And that, through anything you have already freed yourself from, you are guiding others by that. I really respect that. And I hope this writing helps you respect it in yourself.