You’d think that as a good Buddhist, I’d always click the Zoom option to “Hide Self View.”
But no, there I was–gazing empathically into my own eyes, framed side by side in Gallery View with my mentee, a mindfulness-teacher-in-training, who was weeping as she lamented that she wasn’t mindful enough to be a meditation teacher. “The teachings are so beautiful and deep—and I just don’t live up to them.”
(Note: This mentee is a 30-something lawyer and mom who at that time was caring for her six-month-old baby during the first months of pandemic lockdown while also offering free online mindfulness classes to law students at the university where she is a professor. Clearly, she’s an expert at holding herself to a high standard.)
I watched myself nod sympathetically. My digitally softened face—I had selected the Retouch Video option–was set off by my lemon-and-butterscotch faux-finished wall. Over my right shoulder hung a teak carving of Ganesh, the Hindu god of new beginnings so beloved by writers; over the left, a scroll emblazoned with a quote from the Dalai Lama. To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, I was the very model of a modern major mindfulness mentor.
Until I stood up and grabbed my webcam off my monitor. “I want to show you something.” I spun the webcam around. On my desktop, just beyond my Tibetan meditation bell and striker: a cluster of mugs with desiccated tea bags stuck to their bottoms; a single earring; a few used Kleenex; a USB cable; a litter of post-it notes scribbled with phone numbers and passwords. On the floor: a landslide of manilla folders disgorging papers; a heap of poetry books bristling with sticky notes; a meditation cushion topped with a single sock.
“That’s what my real life looks like,” I told her as I replaced the webcam and sat back down.
I spun that camera around because I knew just how my mentee felt. As a job description, “mindfulness teacher” can feel impossible to live up to, like you’re putting “saint” on your resume.
Yes, the teachers-in-training that I mentor understand—at least intellectually––that photoshopped perfection is not what mindfulness is about and that you can’t compare your actual life to someone else’s Zoom backdrop. (In one of my favorite Zoom backdrops, my brother displays a photo of his living room behind him while he’s actually sitting in his real living room. The difference: in the photo, he has tidied up.) Like me, my students have read the bestsellers about radical acceptance; they’ve listened to the guided meditations about having compassion for ourselves and others just as we all are.
And yet it’s hard to shake off the delusion that mindfulness practice should be like a vending machine: put in the coins of your meditation time, and out will tumble your newly ordered life, in which your intimate undergarments—and your intimate relationships–have been arranged in neatly folded, color-coded rows a la Marie Kondo before she had kids.
In my decades in the yoga world, I’ve seen yoga teachers hide their bad backs and funky knees, ashamed that their bodies didn’t live up to the images on the cover of the magazine where I used to be an editor. Now aspiring mindfulness teachers feel the same way about their insomnia, anxiety, depression, messy divorces.
And I’m not immune to this tendency. For many years before I found myself in the teacher’s seat, I wrote about the world of yoga and dharma. My passion was for stories: especially stories about how the profound and inspiring teachings that I loved intersected with the mess and imperfection of our oh-so-human lives. I told the tales of Zen masters and gurus who had tumbled off their pedestals, and what they—and their students—learned in the process. I wrote a novel called Enlightenment for Idiots, which I described as “the story of a yoga teacher looking for spiritual awakening in India while screwing up her life.” In my memoir The Mama Sutra, I shared some of the darkest moments of my journey on the path of motherhood—the times when everything I thought I knew about spiritual practice tumbled into the diaper pail.
But now that my bio—and my livelihood—includes the label of “teacher” in these traditions, I feel my inner censor whip out her red pen: Can I really admit that there’s a heap of unfolded laundry next to my meditation cushion that’s been there for several days? Will anyone still want to come to my retreats? (Even that last passage got rewritten several times before I let it stay.) Before I stepped into the role of a teacher, I felt more internal freedom to be irreverent, mischievous, and above all flawed.
This is, of course, an example of what Buddhists call “selfing”—the egoic tendency to solidify a small, separate “I” around the fluid, everchanging, interdependent processes of being. The dynamic, living process of imperfectly practicing the art of waking up—and sharing with others, also imperfectly, what we’ve found helpful—gets calcified into a publicity photo accompanied by a 100-word bio.
And that’s too bad, because so many powerful insights can come from pulling back the curtain to reveal the rumpled wizard who’s working the gears to generate the illusion of the perfect mindfulness teacher. Some of my fondest memories of my decades teaching on Buddhist meditation retreats are the stories of our own retreat failures that we traded in the teacher’s lounge: How one person missed their new partner so much that they tried to sneak into the unlocked retreat manager’s office to call them at midnight—then bolted when they set off a burglar alarm. How another broke out of three months of snowy silent retreat to walk five miles into a nearby town to watch the Super Bowl. How after weeks without dessert, someone put the ashram car in neutral, pushed it silently down the driveway after lights-out, and drove to Baskin Robbins—and then, upon spotting a police car, reflexively hid the ice cream cone under the car seat so as not to get arrested for sugar and dairy possession.
Waiting in the wings to teach, we witnessed each other in our unscripted moments: on the phone chewing out a used-car salesman after purchasing a vegetable-oil-fueled vehicle that wouldn’t make it up the hill to home–then heading into the hall to guide a loving-kindness meditation. Weeping over a breakup, then sitting on the dais chanting “All things are impermanent, they arise and they pass away…”
“No mud, no lotus,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote. The human stuff of our life is the ground of awakening, not an obstacle to it. Seeing the muck of each other’s lives didn’t take away from our appreciation of the blossoms—it actually made us cherish their beauty even more.
Paradoxically, over my decades of practice, it is through my mistakes and the innumerable ways that I have fallen short that I have learned the most about dharma and yoga–just as I learn about being present in those moments when I notice (for the three billionth time) that the riptide of my thoughts has swept me away.
So I’m committed to continuing to include the sharing of real, human, imperfect stories as part of my awakening path. As a writer, I can choose to spin my webcam around and share with others the cobwebby corners that I might be tempted to hide. And that’s what I encourage my writing students to do as well. Spiritual teachings are beautiful ideals. Our actual practice is a temple built brick by hand-fired brick of the messy clay of our everyday lives.
The truth is that I didn’t come to yoga and Buddhism, at age 19, because I was a naturally wise and tidy person. I lurched into it because I had a hamper full of emotional laundry and a tendency toward panic attacks. Because I signed up for a college class called “The Self in World Religions” that I chose simply because it didn’t meet too early in the morning—and then found that the teachings on yoga and Buddhism resonated with the insights I had late at night getting stoned, eating pizza, and listening to “The Festival of Frothy Muggament.”
Yoga and meditation have shaped every aspect of my life since then. It’s not just the hour or two of formal practice with which I launch each day—it’s everything from the food I eat (I’m looking at you, sustainably harvested seaweed snacks) to the parenting choices I made (hello, Dirt Time for homeschoolers) to the fact that I never learned how to walk in high heels.
But decades later, I still have to work with my familiar wiring— hyper-vigilant, boiling with plans and ideas, galloping toward the next big project before I’ve finished washing the scrambled-egg pan. And yes, organizing a physical space is still a challenge for me, despite multiple sessions with feng shui consultants. I’d love my home to feel like a cross between a Zen temple and a Container Store catalog, and when I return from retreat I always engage in a blizzard of clearing and organizing: labeling kitchen shelves (“spinners, strainers, steamers, graters”; “spices A-D”), trying to pair containers with their lids.
But momentum is strong, and there are so many things to put back in the places I remove them from! Should ramen go on the shelf marked “pasta,” or the one marked “soup”? On my deck is a meditation cushion with a huge tear in the corner of it, disgorging its buckwheat shells. I sat on it every morning for months in my outdoor “sit spot”—but I kept forgetting to bring it inside, until the foxes who live in our yard chewed a hole in it. I once dumped out my purse on the kitchen table, looking for the contact lenses my eye doctor had handed me the previous week. The contents included a free toothbrush from a dental appointment, a pound of spare change from three countries, and several receipts from a café in Gotzis, Austria, where I had eaten strudel two years earlier while teaching a mindfulness retreat.
But here’s the good news: meditation and yoga are always there like a trail of breadcrumbs to help me find my way back to serenity and order again, dozens of times every day. I turn to them—and deepen my understanding of them—not despite my imperfections, but because of them.
And as I continue my life as an untidy dharma student, I’m going to keep on picking up the webcam and pointing it around my world.