In February of 2015, I sat down to write a blog post that it felt ridiculous for me to be writing. It was entitled, 36 Reflections on “Who am I to teach and charge for it?”.
Being 39 years young at the time, and an elder in training at the very best, it felt like a strange thing to even presume to have an opinion on and yet, it was a question that rankled in the hearts of so many of my friends and clients – a silent torture of feeling called to teach on one hand but question their credibility to do it on the other. One on hand there is the call to proceed as if they might be needed, and on the other hand wondering what the best manner of proceeding might be.
And, so I found myself wondering what Stephen Jenkinson, author, speaker and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, might have to say about it. I had interviewed him on the related topic of Right Livelihood in May of 2015 and hoped he might be willing to have another conversation. The request was made and sat on the heaping pile of the considerations of the days of Stephen and his wife Nathalie until a moment was found.
The conversation was sprawling and braided together the topics of teaching, culture, elderhood, globalization and cultural appropriation. The word ‘patience’ kept recurring like a caution in it all and reminded me of Wendell Berry’s line, “To be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial”. He implored us to see our cultural poverty and the woundedness that emerged from it but to ask that woundeness to earn its keep before giving it the megaphone and spotlight it might crave.
I hope these words are food for you and might enable you to provide food for others and all those yet to come.
You can listen to or download the audio version here.
“From whence comes the, let’s be frank, demand for more teachers?”
Tad: Greetings, everybody. This is Tad Hargrave with “Marketing for Hippies,” and I am joined by Stephen Jenkinson (pictured above). Stephen is a teacher, author, storyteller, spiritual activist, farmer, and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, a teaching house and learning house for the skills of deep living and making of human culture.
It’s rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, and working for a time yet to come. Welcome, Stephen.
Stephen: Thank you, Tad.
Tad: It’s good to have you here. Months ago, as a result of being in the Orphan Wisdom School, this question started to emerge, this wondering about being a teacher, coming from a lot of my clients wrestling with this, feeling like they’re looking at the world, and feeling like more teachers are needed, and feeling called into that.
And yet also feeling cautioned and not sure whether people asking them for wisdom or saying, “You should be a teacher,” is something that they should follow, or a temptation to avoid.
That, meshed with things I’ve seen in this scene of “In a weekend, you can become a reiki master,” people becoming life coaches in a year or two years. We just have this situation of people wondering, “Am I ready to be a teacher?”
A while ago I emailed you about this, and your reply was, “Who needs more teachers?”
Stephen: [laughs] Yeah, a measured response.
Tad: Yeah. I guess I wanted to open it up to you to see what thoughts you had and reflections you had on this for people who are wrestling with these questions.
Stephen: How about give me a located and concrete question to start with?
Tad: Sure. There are people who are — and to think of people, I mean in the Orphan Wisdom School who I know people have come to and started saying, “You should teach what you’re learning here at the Orphan Wisdom School. You should be a teacher of that.”
Or people who are studying with various shamans or medicine people around the world. Their friends are coming to them and saying, “Oh hey, you’ve been studying this, and you know more than we know anyways, so why don’t you do a workshop or host something, and why don’t you teach a bit of what you’ve learned.”
They don’t know what to do with that. I think, from what I’ve heard from some of them, their wrestling with that. “Should I respond to that, and share some of what I’ve learned? Or should I demure and engage in some other way?”
I don’t know if that’s any better…
Stephen: No, no better, [laughs] but let me not put you through it a third time.
One question, one place to begin is to wonder this. From whence comes this request? Not your request to me, but the request that you’re relating to me now? From whence comes the request/demand — let’s be frank — demand for more teachers, which I’m not sure that’s what it’s a demand for, but let’s start there.
The people who are asking for this, their request comes from? And the answer most certainly would be a combination of a proliferation of teachers already. Somehow that breeds the demand for yet more, on the one side. And on the other side, it comes from a fairly telling lack of familiarity with that thing that they’re requesting.
So the first thing to wonder about is whether this request is what it sounds like. I’m not inferring anything nefarious in here. I’m talking about something subtle, and the subtlety of a demand or an expectation for there to be more teachers is frankly a demand for what? It’s a demand for greater access to this thing that people are demanding.
That’s my first hesitation, is, “Look where this demand or expectation is coming from, and ask yourself whether or not it is to be served in that raw, frankly naked — and I might as well go the whole route and say — adolescent and uninitiated form.
Because any deep contact with a — let’s call it, in generic sense, a wisdom tradition, that’s really rooted somewhere, and at some place amongst some people in some particular time… I believe the first consequence of some kind of deep encounter with this is a more or less humble refusal to uproot it, to tear it from its home place and to insist that it proliferate where you live, where it has no kin, no homeland, no tradition, no history, no anything.
I don’t know if you can smell it… What I smell is something in the order of a kind of a conversion mentality, that most people who are making these kinds of requests or demands are ancestrally derived from them, and the conversion mentality — and I’m not just referring to Christianity, although it seems to take the biggest hit in this regard — but all of those religious traditions, and those traditions that claim not to be religious, who are engaged in some kind of transplantation, missionizing, almost across the board what you see there is it’s a kind of low-grade and maybe unintended assault on time, the specifics, the diversities, the rootedness of various times, of various places, and peoples and cultures.
“this expectation or demand for more teachers strikes me as utterly in keeping with the globalization mind that many people who are requesting it would understand themselves to be categorically opposed to.”
By which I’m saying that to my mind, this expectation — this is a bit of a leap here now, but this expectation or demand for more teachers strikes me as utterly in keeping with the globalization mind that many people who are requesting it would understand themselves to be categorically opposed to. Do you see what I’m saying?
This is a great dilemma, no? We fancy ourselves to be opposed to NAFTA, and because of that, we imagine ourselves to be free of the instinct to globalize.
Well, I’ll tell you. I see it everywhere, the assumption, for example. You can’t imagine how many times I’m approached on the road and elsewhere, usually in a kind of a conspiratorial fashion, as if I would be on the inside, obviously, of what they’re about to ask me, and very, very kindly disposed to it.
They’ll start talking about ayahuasca. That’s the big one, especially the further west I go on the continent. The general thing is, the tone of it is, “But ayahuasca’s cool, right? Me using it,” and then they go into detail about how Mr. Shaman took them aside in the Amazon, or maybe not the Amazon. Maybe the Fraser River, in BC, and because it was Mr. Shaman and he comes from x place, or she comes from y place, this all legitimizes the whole enterprise.
I think the underlying assumption of the whole thing is, “Well if it’s in the world, then it’s for everyone, right?”
The real learning of these things, in the places where they’re actually learned, means that you don’t have an undisturbed life, that the willingness to learn these things rules your days, and that your daily life is enthralled to this learning.
Stephen: I don’t think so. I think that these things are specifically in specific parts of the world for specific reasons, and why don’t we learn that instead? Why don’t we learn about diversity and locality, instead of generalized ability based on the extremities of bereavement, culturally speaking? That most people who are making these kind of requests are living in day in and day out, generally unawares.
So the old adage, food makes hunger, is absolutely accurate. It’s not just true in the kitchen, but of course, it’s true culturally, spiritually, and the rest. When you are in the presence of something that seems bonified, legitimate, rooted, planted, ongoing, and that it’s earned its keep, the instinct in there somewhere is, “Where do I sign?”, without any willingness to realize that the labor of preservation of learning, of memorizing, and more learning, of losing and learning, of being entrusted at too young an age because of cultural mayhem and learning. All of that goes by the wayside.
And if it’s in the world, and it can be reduced to a weekend — oh, let’s be fairer than that — it can be reduced to a two-year program, once a month and… whatever it is, my point is that the real learning of these things is not something that your undisturbed life would be amenable to.
The real learning of these things, in the places where they’re actually learned, means that you don’t have an undisturbed life, that the willingness to learn these things rules your days, and that your daily life is enthralled to this learning.
Maybe you know people who are willing to go that route. I, myself, given the travails and the slings and arrows of normal life in urban North America, I don’t know that many of them. But I’m sure that the people you’re referring to who are making these requests and demands don’t fall into that narrow and devoted category that I just described.
I’m not saying that they should. I’m simply trying to observe a dilemma that I think underlies this expectation, so there’s the first consideration, is ‘from whence comes the request or the demand?’, and the answer is it comes from a place where the things that are sought do not live. There’s the first one.
The second one is something in the order of the machinery of teaching. This is something I’ve thought a lot about myself, and for what it’s worth, at least to get it started, I’d offer this up to you.
Teaching can be distinguished from other kinds of activity which would nominally, at first blush, might look like the same thing, but I don’t think they are. Teachers — and I have to generalize to say anything at all, so before anybody’s ready to take me down in flames, let’s just consider, before we vote, because I’m not voting. I’ve just been asked to consider out loud here, too, so let me see if I can do it.
Teaching as a function is a metaphoric function, by which I mean this. Teachers, even the best teachers, are conduit. I don’t know how to say it, plural of conduit — conduii, I suppose it is. They’re a pipe, and the things entrusted to them more or less flow unimpeded either to the next generation or the next semester, or whatever the arrangement is. That’s what the root meaning of the word “metaphor” is. It’s something in the order of to carry across, to transmit, if you will, this kind of thing.
There’s absolutely room in the world for that faithful function. Absolutely, that’s true. I think what’s missing in the function is a kind of discipline, if you will. Let’s start with a little etymology on this one. You’ve heard me talk about this one before, I know.
Discipline, the same etymologically rooted in the word “disciple,” and vice versa. People don’t like the word disciple in North America. They prefer teacher and student, I suppose, but disciple’s a little strong. It sounds a little mindless, right? A little abandoned, and the rest, a little slavish, and we’re not big on that thing.
The thrust of these two words happens something like this. It infers the following, that kind of quixotic combination of acquired habit and reigned in inspiration that you are willing to take upon yourself, for the sake of the — love is usually the word that is used here, but if that seems too strong, for the sake of the…OK, I’ll say it differently. Sorry.
That what discipline and disciple infer is that because of what you seek, in the name of what you seek, and from whom you seek it, you will take upon yourself a degree of studied, purposeful habit, and restraint, and all that goes with that, in the name of the devotion you have for the person you propose to learn from. That’s the kind of matrix of the thing.
The truth of the matter is that we are bereft of the institution of apprenticeship, really, and that’s to our deep, deep detriment, I think. We have workshopitis,
I don’t see the proliferation of teaching that goes on now as having, frankly, the patience and the belief in time in that such an arrangement, I think, probably requires. The truth of the matter is that we are bereft of the institution of apprenticeship, really, and that’s to our deep, deep detriment, I think. We have workshopitis, God knows, and we have weekend warrior syndromes and all the rest, but the idea of a long, unrewarded, unrecognized, unspectacular, ordinary, mundane, not-on-a-website kind of learning where there’s no sign that you are, in fact, learning, and the willingness to find the deep patience required in proceeding, minus any sign that what you seek is what’s happening.
That’s what’s missing, and that what I think the proliferation of teachers actually aids and abets, the unwillingness to slow down, to be an amateur, and to never graduate from that status.
So if anybody’s been in the Orphan Wisdom School and is presuming to turn it around, if you will — I’m not talking about the motivation now. I’m talking about the mechanics and the consequence. They’ve done so without ever asking me what I think about it, I could tell you that, because I’ve never been asked about what I think about that, or what my take on it might be. But you’re hearing it now.
Do people really imagine that as a consequence of one or two years, which amounts to between 10 and 20 days of sitting in the Orphan Wisdom School, that this is tantamount to the years that was required of me to be able to distill what I try to make available in those 10 or 20 days.
I don’t think anybody, when pressed, would ever say that they’re somehow similar, but yet the willingness to go ahead and teach this stuff after, frankly, nominal exposure to it, whispers that it is.
Or it whispers that the times are so desperate, that we don’t have time for time. [laughs] That could be true, too, and I would say to you, if that’s the sentiment, I understand it, but I would say, [breathes in] “It smells like more of the same to me.”
Does that get us started now?
Tad: It’s, I suppose, a question that comes up for me is, given the incredible poverty that we see in our culture, the lack of elders, the lack of initiation, the lack of apprenticeship, the lack of culture, in any meaningful sense…I just finished reading “The Sibling Society” by Robert Bly, so it’s sort of the absence of that whole vertical structure. What might we better be asking for instead of more teachers?
Stephen: How about this, Tad? How about investigating this instinct of asking for? How about coming to that with more hesitation and less resolve than we’re accustomed to?
That would be my instinct first, not to, “Hey, here’s the new boss. Here’s the new thing. Here’s what’s going to replace the poorly sought other thing.” You know what I’m saying.
“I’m saying that the instinct to get it, to have it, to be it, to wear it, to eat it, to snort it, to festoon yourself with it, to bewitch yourself with it, to feather yourself, and fur yourself with it, that’s the thing to be wondered about, because I don’t see those instincts, to do all those things, informed by a real willingness to learn them. I see them as informed by a demand to have them.”
I’m saying that the instinct to get it, to have it, to be it, to wear it, to eat it, to snort it, to festoon yourself with it, to bewitch yourself with it, to feather yourself, and fur yourself with it, that’s the thing to be wondered about, because I don’t see those instincts, to do all those things, informed by a real willingness to learn them.
I see them as informed by a demand to have them. That’s the first thing.
It’s that demand that perpetuates this witheredness that you alluded to earlier, I think, and it’s not just delayed gratification. It’s, “Is the world really here, materially and in its spirited form? Is the world really here to enhance our sense of well-being? Is that the fundamental dynamic? Is that what’s granted to us?” It sounds awfully like Genesis to me.
“You name everything. It’s yours, baby,” kind of thing. If some shaman looks you in the eye and says, “You’ll do,” why should you take that as it’s your turn?” [laughs] What if they’re wrong about you?
There’s a wonderful story that, I know it in a kind of Buddhist iteration, but I’m sure there’s other iterations of it. The gist of it goes like this. Somebody, let’s say, who’s Catholic or Jewish — it doesn’t matter what his ancestral affirmation was, and he’s seeking a path, the path, some path, and maybe he’s in an ashram, I don’t know, something.
At some point, he asked the guy in the robes how can he, he — the young guy — get to the status of the fellow with the robes. The fellow with the robes says to him, “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”, and the guy said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, be a good Catholic, that’s how.”
It’s so dispiriting, because what merit is there in being a good Catholic? Now, I’m not saying there is. I’m not saying there isn’t. I’m trying to say something else, which is…Well, maybe this is the heart of the beast. I see a lot of people who come to things that I do, and five minutes into any verbal encounter with them, you quickly discover that they’ve taken up all manner of traditions from the world upon themselves, either formal conversion or times in the wilderness, or whatever it is, whatever the compound fracture is.
They have it, and the thought that seems never to have occurred to anyone who’s done these things, when they speak at least with me about it, is this. Is there such a thing as real ancestry? Number one. If there is, is ancestry instantly and forever obviated, neutralized, withered, and rendered irrelevant as a consequence of dying?
If the answer’s no, it means your ancestors, present tense, are cultured, and that part of them being the dead, as an honorific title, part of them being your ancestral dead is that they have not graduated from the ancestry that they themselves knew in life.
I think this is very possible. Take all that and then wonder about the hordes of generic North American people who are seeking an affirmation from a religious, or spiritual, or cultural tradition that’s not their own, and ask yourself whether or not there’s any consequence at all that accrues to their ancestors who they so readily abandoned in the name of being from somewhere.
And is it not possible, if any of these things are true, that the desire to seek out and seek out and demand yet again from the Amazon jungle, or from the Himalayas, or anywhere in between, doesn’t actually deepen the cultural misery and void that has animated, I think, a lot of what you’ve been doing in your life, and certainly has animated what I’ve been doing in mine.
I think the answer’s yes. I think the solution that poverty whispers is, “More poverty.”
“Well, the Dalai Lama and a lot of other people know very well the old history of Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not glorious.”
Tad: It strikes me, sitting with this that what I see, and I’m sure experienced in myself often is this. I’ve been looking at wisdom traditions. It feels like there are two impulses that it’s coming from.
One is this, “How can this help my life today?” I’ll actually read from something I saw online recently. It said, “What is shamanism? How can I learn from these ancient indigenous practices and incorporate them into my modern life? How can I embody a balanced relationship in all of my relationships?”
But just that framing of it, of how can this help you in your life today… So, I feel like that’s one of the thrusts of ‘how do we use it?’, and I’ve heard it talked about as these ‘spiritual technologies’, in our modern life, and then this other thrust is something more about, “Yes, I’m critical about this culture, and so I want to get out of this culture,” because yes, North American culture, you’re right. It’s impoverished, it’s terrible. It’s destroying everything, and so I…
Stephen: Count me out.
Tad: Yeah, right.
Stephen: Count me out, right? Sorry. I’m sorry to interrupt. Yeah, go ahead.
Tad: Yeah, there’s that, “I don’t want to be a part of it, and I see that the religions, whether spiritual or the religion of progress of capitalism, I see that that’s all bankrupt,” and so there’s this deep hunger and desire for a direction to get out of it.
Tad: So either it feels like these get used either to get me out, or help me get deeper in and be more successful in it, yeah.
Stephen: Sure. Look, man. I don’t say these things out of any joy or malice. I say them with lament, with great sorrow, that so many of the solutions that we craft turn into more of the same.
But how the hell could it be otherwise, though? If we are following our own bliss…I just hacked a fur ball to say that, but I risked it. If that’s what we’re doing, from whence comes this bliss?
For 50 or more years now, there’s a segment in North America that’s believed, that has consistently believed that this idea of bliss, personal bliss, is somehow above the fray, is somehow and in no way tainted or touched by the malaise that you’ve just read from, that people are trying to escape, that somehow bliss is…Or your personal path, or personal truth — it doesn’t matter how you describe it, you understand the thrust of the reference.
The idea that there could actually be a part of you that’s not impoverished, that’s deeply informed, and that would know the real thing when it saw it, and would know how to behave in the presence of the real thing. That’s absolutely breath-taking in its naiveté. To me, it is. That’s number one.
Here’s number two. The various traditions that respond most favorably to their search engines on the Internet, [laughs] ask yourself whether the old history of these traditions is known by these people who are seeking them out. I can promise you that each one of these traditions is very likely to have a degree of historical darkness, or enslavement, or cultural imperialism, that is has inflicted as well as been on the receiving end of, but man, who knows about those?
Who knows about that part of things? Well, the Dalai Lama and a lot of other people know very well the old history of Tibetan Buddhism, and it’s not glorious, just to take one example, no?
So these things that we seek out more or less uncritically, hoping, believing, imagining, requiring that they are a kind of pollution-free zone, that they’re above the things that we ourselves are trying to get away from, that’s a very naive thing, man, because they’re there. That stuff’s there.
I don’t say this, I hope it’s clear… I don’t say this to discredit any particular tradition. I’m saying the real, the deep practitioners of these are, I’m sure, doing their best to live this stuff out, to wrangle it as best they can in their devotions and in their daily lives. I’m sure they are, but I’m sure they’re not doing this, believing that they’re somehow on the other side of all that stuff.
Think about this. There are a lot of religious traditions, spiritual traditions, or cultural, ancestral ones, that have a practice when people — mainly men — return from armed conflict, war, and the rest, that they don’t let them into the villages, that they have to go through a rather prolonged ceremonial sequence to, at one level, the obvious level, detoxify them from what they’ve seen and what they’ve been obliged to do. Yes, that’s true.
But the deeper realization is none of these things are undertaken for the sole or even primary sake of the returning war veteran. They’re undertaken, a) for the sake of the village they’re trying to re-enter, and b) for the sake of the people that they killed and made homeless and all the rest, and orphaned, and… All of that, and the ancestors of all of those people, and the descendants of all of those people.
You see, there’s a lot hanging in the balance, when you take a life, and the deep practitioners of real human culture understand that if you’re okay with it, [laughs] that’s nothing.
If you get on the other side to your PTSD, that’s nothing, man, because the real root of PTSD is the kind of, you could say, ripple of consequence that you didn’t intend, but that ensued, nonetheless.
Well, this is one little iteration of what I’m talking about when I say “when we seek out a tradition as if it’s pristine.” These traditions internally understand themselves to be otherwise. I’m sure of it.
This is a degree of torment that perhaps when you thought about talking about this, [laughs] it didn’t seem it was necessary to visit, but here we are.
Tad: It has me think about purity, and I think especially in the New Age, for lack of a better term, scene, there’s this idea of purity, and that that’s kind of the point of life, whether through our raw vegan diets that we eat, or the spirituality as pristine, and that pristine seems to mean a lack of culture, that it’s pure, in a way, and that this is cross-cultural, that this is just from a more evolved spiritual level, where everything is pure, and everything is untainted and intact, and…
Stephen: It may be not really humanly derived. Maybe not really a product of human endeavor, but somehow granted from the forehead of Zeus or the equivalent.
Tad: Yeah, and then there can’t be any cultural appropriation of that, because there’s no culture.
Stephen: Because there’s no culture to appropriate, exactly, because it’s there for everybody. I can’t make a distinction between that and fir trees, or oaks, or anything that the people who are the MacMillan Bloedells of the world, see these things as a renewable resource.
Tell me the difference between that and what you just described. I’ve never seen the difference. I think it’s the same orientation. The grandchild of the MacMillan Bloedel executive is the ayuhuasca king.
“My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.”
Tad: One of the things you speak a lot about in the school is heartbreak and poverty, and it seems like the…I’ve noticed in myself, when there’s that inclination to — which I’ve had in various points and various forms in my life — that instinct to teach, that instinct to want to be in that role. I can also feel like there’s a way of avoiding the heartbreak and the poverty, and getting…
Stephen: By teaching?
Tad: Yeah, because then I know something, or I’m trying to help people get out of that, and it’s something I just see a lot, I suppose particularly in the New Age scene, but I guess I could imagine in other religions, too.
If the instinct for more teachers is driven by this poverty and heartbreak, in part, of where we’re at, and yet what’s being taught is the getting over the heartbreak, and replacing that poverty with some new fancy information. It just strikes me that there’s not a lot of room on the altar for the heartbreak or the poverty.
Stephen: Who that you know seeks out heartbreak? I’ve told you a story about a guy I knew who prayed for it, remember?
Stephen: When he and I watched the film “The Elephant Man,” that’s what came out of his mouth at the end of it. He said, literally, to me, “My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.” He was not seeking a pristine sort of post-morbid restoration of his self-esteem or something. No, man.
He was seeking memory, and he realized, I think, that his capacity to remember the deep things that he was born to and that were entrusted to him at some point in his life, required that his memory be engaged, active, and informed by the realities of his time.
And from him, although this image is not his, but the understanding is, I’ve taken this in the last year or so…I fancy — I even have an envy where the practice of rosary is concerned. I didn’t grow up with anything like that. I didn’t grow up with anything to speak of. I sure didn’t grow up with that, and I think it’s cool beyond measure, and here’s why.
It is a kind of choreographed memory. You might — not you, personally, but someone might find this inauthentic or contrived. Well, okay, then you try to remember on your own.
“… you become recognizable to them the instant that you begin to resemble the time that you were born to.”
Stephen: It ain’t easy, man, and all the heavy hitters, and all the heavy cultures in the world know very well how hard it is to remember how to be a human being while you’re out in the field trying to be one.
Often it’s the first casualty. Your memory of how to be one is the first casualty of your renewed efforts to try to be one, so these rituals of all kinds are fundamentally, in part, a way of choreographing your memory without leaving it up to you. In other words, the distinction would be your being reminded instead of being expected to remember. Different function.
The rosary is in that realm. I think it’s as funky as it gets, but here’s what I think. I don’t know that our time is any more fraught than other aspects of our time, but I don’t know that it isn’t. I would suggest this, that…
Man, there’s an eagle right in front of my house, just diving into the water. That’s amazing. Just as we speak, right now. Literally, right in front of the house, over the river.
I’m sorry, I got distracted, as I was watching there. [laughs] It’s a sign, baby.
But I’m not going to say of what. I don’t know.
Okay. So now, those beads. It seems to me that the particular afflictions of our time have to appear on those rosary beads, that in fact the beads are not a way of not being in the time that you’re in or solving the time that you’re in, or give you an alternative to the time that you’re in.
I think that they must be an incarnation of the time that you’re in, and the way I’ve taken to say it is those beads have to be engraved with the nature, including the poverties of your time, etched into every bead, and when you feel them, your times, your contemplations, your yearnings, your strivings, your happiness, your deep satisfactions as well as your heartbreaks, all of those things have to, I think, bear the mark of your time.
And this is what renders upon you the possibility of being a reliable human being, reliable to other people, reliable to the non-human world, which is, frankly, most of the world, reliable to everything that had granted us our days, which may not be overly visible, and maybe particularly reliable to those ancestors who have you in mind, who find that you become recognizable to them the instant that you begin to resemble the time that you were born to.
Now I’ve never said anything that good in my life, I don’t think. That last sentence, that last sentence, if I die tonight, that’ll stick. I think that’s as true as anything that’s ever occurred to me. I’m very lucky that I heard myself say that.
“For what it’s worth. No elder wants to be one.”
Tad: [laughs] It strikes me so much how that doesn’t get a chance to show up in a manner of understanding the world, or teaching, or wisdom. That’s the sort of universal “It’s always been true.”
I supposed I find myself wondering…Gosh, I suppose a whole other thing, but in so many traditional societies it seems like teaching — and I don’t even know if teaching is the right word, but the elders who are the ones doing that, and that there’s so many people today who are drawn to that idea of being an elder, and then self-appointing themselves elders.
I’m curious, to your understanding of from maybe a more traditional standpoint, it feels connected to this teaching piece of how does one know when they are one? How does one know when they are ready? How does one not get prematurely out of the gate and do damage as a result? Nobody wants to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Stephen: Okay, are you ready?
Stephen: For what it’s worth. No elder wants to be one.
Stephen: The desire to be an elder is the particular purview of those who are not. It’s very counter-intuitive — crazy idea. Not that welcome an idea, but “how do you know if you’re an elder?”
“Hey man, that’s not an elder question?”
“Well, wait a second. You’d have to know in order to be one.”
“No, no. That’s what it looks like from here.”
Here might be a good parallel. I used to work in the death trade quite a long time, and it became very, very sexy during that time to take upon yourself the self-appointed task, generally, of crafting a living will or advanced directive declaration.
For those who are not entirely sure what it is, it basically means that when you’re no longer able to operate or articulate or what have you, that the caregivers around you and the loved ones are guided by what you would have wanted for yourself should you have been able to direct them in that moment.
It sounds very good. Here’s the dilemma. “Who wrote that thing?”
“Well, I did.”
“Yeah, but where were you when you wrote it?”
“Well, I was able to write it, so that’s obvious, I was able to articulate it.” [laughs] “I was able to consistently express my wish over time,” which is one of the hallmarks of being sane, apparently in our culture.
“Yeah, but you weren’t at the time that you were instructing people about, were you?”
“No, you weren’t, were you?”
“In fact, you’d never been there, had you?”
“…The real skill of elderhood in a time as demented as our is, the real skill of elderhood is the skill of being able to have elders in your midst, not the skill of being able to be one of those people, you see?“
And so all the articulation came from is an artifact of never having been there, which means you were engaged in a very volatile and probably useful fantasy about what “enough already” would look like, and you know what happened more often than not?
When people got there, it bore almost no resemblance to what they imagined. This goes right back to the patience thing I was talking about at the beginning. The people who are longing for personal elderhood are the people who’ve never been there, because elders are not people.
Elder is a function. It’s not an identity. It’s not, in that sense, an achievement. It’s being achieved by not being sought. It’s functionally servitude. That’s what elderhood is, functionally. It’s servitude. It’s mis-apprehended leadership. Our understanding of leadership is, to some degree, above the fray. Those are the people you trust, that kind of thing.
The elders bear the thumbprint of the makers of their time, and they’re wrought by that. Let’s go further and say overwrought by that, and it weighs heavily in a time like ours, to be an elder in a time that allegedly seeks it, but has no use for it when it’s present.
The real skill of elderhood in a time as demented as our is, the real skill of elderhood is the skill of being able to have elders in your midst, not the skill of being able to be one of those people, you see? Because if elders are not sustained in their function, in their trouble-making function, they will never be there for you when you seek them, and there will be no elderhood for you to take upon yourself.
The only way to become an elder is to seek them out, in that sense, to employ them, to recognize them and to give them something to do. How are you going to do that if you, yourself, want to be that elder that you seek? That you want the confirmation.
I’ve said, using the word “pushback” these days, but I prefer the more authentic rendering of hostility, which I think is what happens. You can’t imagine how much pushback I get if I ever have the kind of marred judgment of talking about these things out loud. You can’t imagine the degree of offense that people beyond a certain age take upon themselves, and it basically comes back, Tad, to this.
“When is it my bloody turn? When do I finally get to cash in? When does it…?”
You understand what I’m saying.
Stephen: It’s so sad. The answer is, “Man, as long as you’re asking that, you ain’t never going to get there.” It’s an exercise in controlled futility masquerading as a pilgrimage.
These things are mysteries. They’re not strategies. They’re mysteries, even now, in a blighted time like ours. We have blighted mysteries, but we’re not bereft of mystery. One of the mysteries about elderhood is, “Well if you’re seeking elderhood for yourself, then this is an uninitiated understanding of what it means.” So then you have to go back to the drawing board.
“Okay, so I’ll go get myself some initiation.”
“Man, you’re 48 years old. What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, but it’s not too late.”
“No, it bloody is too late for what you’re talking about.”
Do you know why it doesn’t work for people at 47 years old? Or 52, [laughs] or 29, or 21? Here’s why it doesn’t work, because they can put your ass out on the top of a mountain, they can freeze you to kingdom come, they can not feed you, they can expose you to the torments of the age, they can threaten you with the oncomingness of the demons of the dark, all of that shit, but, somewhere in there you’re going to be able to say, “I’m cool. I’m out of this shit on Monday. I’m cool. I can get in there. I can imagine myself on the other side of this shit right here.”
Now here’s the thing. A 12-year old can’t, and that’s why these things, in certain fashion, are timed when they’re timed. There’s lots of other reasons, too, but that’s one. So you see, you get to a certain age, that the machinery of the deep molecular conversion to a deep humanity can not have its way with you, because you become too clever.
Something like this, I was superintending the death of kids for a while. It was a pretty rough ride, and of course the parents were, needless to say, out of their minds with all of this and the great lament that the parents had, if you really obliged them to verbalize it.
It was not so much that the kid was dying, but that the fundamental, the epic rip-off of this was that the kids were not going to get to have a full life. That was the operative phrase, “full life.” You’ll see why I think this is pertinent now.
So I would usually say, “Well, why don’t we just go ask the kid?” Seven years old, dying of leukemia in the hospital, but let’s ask him anyway, and the parents would be horrified that you’d even think of it, and then they ask you to go ask him, because they couldn’t bear it, and properly so, they couldn’t bear to go and ask their kid, so I would literally do so.
I did it many times, and I can tell you that kids, up to a certain age are absolutely mystified by this question of whether or not they are being deprived of a full life. It simply does not compute, as they used to say. Do you know why?
Because they have no capacity for the understanding of potential life, that’s why. Because the only life they’ve ever known is the life under their fingernails. In other words, their life is a lived life, not a hypothetical life, not a possible life, not a “if” life. The life that they’ve inhabited is entire, and — maybe the word “complete” is not right — whole. That’s the word I’m looking for. Their life is whole.
Up to a certain age, which it looks to me to be somewhere between 9 and 11 is when they learn how to be crazy like the rest of us, when they learn how to nurse a grievance about not getting their allotment, their hypothetical allotment. When they open up The Book of “Supposed To” and start reading from it, when somebody at school looks at them between the eyes and says, “You’re not living up to your potential,” and they take that inside themselves as an authentic rendering of their lives, that their real life is yet to be.
Something happens, and we seem to have to learn that. The big dilemma now for that is that the capacity to inhabit the functions of elderhood, or to be inhabited by them require your understanding of yourself not to be one of…You’re like a human in waiting, or you’re some kind of potential something, or if you just fill in the blank, then you will just fill in the blank.
The plea I’m making, I suppose, is that the degree of patience that I’m talking about approaches the primordial. It’s not some delayed gratification strategy by another name. The patience I’m talking about is the likelihood of you getting what you want. Your want being informed so deeply by your bereavement, because of the troubled time you were born in, guarantees that the troubled time will continue in its current iteration.
The willingness to forgo being delivered from it so that you might be of some use in it is the patience that I’m pleading for and kind of a secret intonation of that is that might be at the very least, a proto elder function. The willingness to forgo the payday that you were certain that enough feathers and enough ayahuasca and enough being approved of by a smaller browner person than you was going to give you.
“Sit at the door and see if you can discern the sound of knocking when it happens, instead of flinging it wide open and saying, ‘I’m here. Any dangerous work for me to do?’, or things of that kind.”
Tad: Do you have time for one more question?
Stephen: One more boss.
Tad: Sure. In the school, you make the distinction sometimes between the teaching and being a practitioner.
Tad: And that feels relevant to this whole conversation.
Stephen: That’s the part I left out at the very beginning. I was going to come back to it, so thank you for prompting me. Did you want to ask something about it, or do you want me to just speak to that?
Tad: I notice when I said, “How do you know when you’re ready to be a teacher?”, and in the email you replied, “Who needs more teachers?” That’s the place my mind went to, was the, “Do we need more people at the front of rooms imparting information, or do we need people living this and weaving it into their everyday living, and practicing the arts of hospitality, and practicing courtesy, in whatever they end up doing?” I suppose that’s where my mind went with it.
Stephen: Sure, and a fair response would be to say, “Well, we don’t have to choose between those things, do we?” It is possible that somebody could be a deep practitioner of human life and then on occasion have a breakdown of good judgment and talk to people about it.
“I think that’s what friendship is, and I think that’s what these practitioners, as a function among us, are, is they make the world somehow worth the trouble.”
Stephen: You’d like to believe that those two things are possible, and I suppose they are, but I think what I’m saying is that teaching shouldn’t be a time out from what you’re teaching about, and too often, way too often, it is.
So if you’re really have been entrusted with something that you’re absolutely persuaded is the stuff of the ages, let the world let you know that. Sit at the door and see if you can discern the sound of knocking when it happens, instead of flinging it wide open and saying, “I’m here. Any dangerous work for me to do?”, or things of that kind.
It’s enormously seductive now. There are so many people willing, very temporarily, to listen to you, that the seduction is, “This must be the sign, that you should be talking.”
Bob Dylan always said, when he was a young, young man, in one of his songs, he said, “I know my song well before I start singing it.” But he also said, “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” and that’s very compelling to me, because our normal understanding of law-abiding citizen is that you are honest, that you tell the truth, that there’s this faithful orientation to think, “Nothing of the kind, baby.”
If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you don’t even need a conscience. You need a capacity for basic obedience, and that’s what the law requires of you, and that’s all it requires of you. It doesn’t require discernment. The enforcers of the law don’t say to you, “Now, Tad, which of these laws do you propose to obey today, because you know, it’s really up to you.” No, there’s no discernment at all.
There’s no discernment at all. One thing only — “Obey,” and there’s no honesty in that, because there’s no discernment in the rest.
On the other hand, if you propose to find yourself, or you do find yourself on the outside of the thing that you wish you could have been able to change, that outsider status, that’s the beginning of the possibility of you wrangling something that’s more authentic than obedience, and that, in his lyric, he called it honesty.
So, yes, I think that the proper alternative to the multiplying of teachers is that if we had people practicing life instead of coaching somebody else in it…Let’s go one step further and say I propose to you that it is not a function of human being to teach human being to provisional human beings. I don’t think it is.
I think that you have to take upon yourself as best as you’re able to a degree of humility that might be in the realm of…I think it was Rumi, but it might have been one of his cohorts over there, who regularly in his poetic kind of ramblings pleaded with people to wake up, and the way he often said it is he would end a particular iteration or plea or something with the phrase “like this,” and of course, you’re reading it on the page. You’re not exactly sure what the reference might be.
But I think this is as close as a practitioner might get to teaching, is to, just in case you’re missing it, that practitioner might look up from the page or the spoon that he or she’s carving, or the shoe that he or she’s making, or whatever it is, and say, “Well, it’s like this,” and then look back down and keep going, because maybe you missed it, and they break form.
So it’s not an orthodoxy I’m talking about here. It’s not the new ten steps or anything of the kind. It’s a kind of nuance, I guess, and the idea of being a practitioner, that’s the way I crafted an alternative that I thought might be available just with a phrase, that the mind could think something else, other than, “How do I impart this thing?”
You don’t impart it. You practice it, and in so doing, see to it that it’s still in the architecture, and this means you have to rely on witnesses, not shanghai students, not…What’s that thing they used to say when they…Pressed. Not pressed students. That’s the old thing that they, when they would gather drunken guys off the wharf and turn them into sailors for the royal navy during the bad old days.
So the press gangs of ashrams and the rest, maybe we could set that aside for a while, and entertain the subtler possibility that if there’s a real good practitioner, that if we’re willing to find practice and not inspiration, if we’re willing to find somebody who, in a much less spectacular way than we counted on, is seeing to it that the thing we’re seeking is in the world without them writing a book about it, or having a website for it, and that that way of seeing to it that it’s in the world is the thing that we’re seeking.
To know it’s in the world…Okay, maybe I’ll end with this. I have a friend. I’m going to name him. His name’s Peter von Tiesenhausen. Quite a handle. Peter von Tiesenhausen’s one of the most accomplished sculptors in this country now. He lives in rural Alberta, up in the north in the Peace River area.
I just called him my friend. We virtually never see each other, and somebody could say, “What kind of friendship’s that?”, and I say to you, “Well, here’s what kind of friendship it is, that on occasion, if I’m writing to him or something, I’ll say to him the equivalent of,” and he’ll say something similar, “You know, as long as I know that you’re in the world, then it’s a good world to be in. And I don’t need, much as I’d love it, but I don’t need the ongoing hit of visits and flowers, much as I’d love it. But if I have to choose between, I’d rather know that you’re in the world,” and then I’ll say to him, “so you’ve got to let me know when you’re not, because then what binds me to this place would become a little looser than it was.”
I think that’s what friendship is, and I think that’s what these practitioners, as a function among us, are, is they make the world somehow worth the trouble.
Tad: Stephen, thank you so much for taking the time. I know you’re in the midst of a lot of things going on right now.
Stephen: That’s very true.
Tad: And I don’t feel like a very good interviewer, but somehow you have wrangled something wonderful out of my stumbles and attempts and my questions, and so I’m grateful for that, and so grateful for your time, and for all the time that you’ve put in to be able to make something of this conversation, and for all the time that people put into you to deliver you to our doorstep. I’m just grateful for all of it.
Stephen: It’s a great heredity we’re in, isn’t it?
Stephen: None of this happens, Tad, and I’m not blowing smoke up your kiester when I say this, and I appreciate what you just said to me, but none of this happens if you don’t ask and you don’t proceed as if maybe, maybe, I might have something that’s been entrusted to me that’s worth hearing. If you don’t proceed that way, who knows, including me, who knows?
But when you ask, I’ve got something to live up to, and that living up to seems to me to be…That’s the partnership. You ask, which means…I’m not naive about it. I’m sure that some place in your life, you’re being hit up all the time to do these very things that I’ve been talking about, and probably slandering during the last hour or so.
I’m sure you are, so I wasn’t talking about something that you’re vaguely interested in, but doesn’t really touch your days, and I know that’s a risk for you to wonder about these things, because people who are in on what you’re doing are probably looking to you for the very same thing.
So we really both took a chance, and we’re both hoping that there might be some merit in having done so for somebody who might, by accident, come across this rambling enterprise that was our conversation, and if we both kept up our ends, maybe there is.