Renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield explains how to be an effective teacher and discusses the many ways teaching can help us grow.
Whether it’s demonstrating how to seed a pomegranate, showing a teenager how to drive, or modeling a sincere apology, teaching is something we all do in many forms throughout our lives. Learning is never limited to the classroom. In fact, we are all teachers.
Bestselling author and renowned Buddhist practitioner and teacher Jack Kornfield views teaching as one of the great delights of being human, as well as one of the most impactful ways we can heal ourselves and the world. “Someone once asked the Buddha if it was really true that he could perform miracles like walking on water or reading peoples’ minds,” relays Kornfield. “The Buddha replied that while those things are indeed possible, the greatest miracle of all is being able to teach in a way that transmits wisdom from one heart to another.”
Kornfield—who, in partnership with Tara Brach, recently created a two-year, international Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program that has already trained more than 5,000 people—shares that as we step into our roles as teachers, teaching itself becomes a practice that helps us continue to grow. “Sharing your knowledge means that you have to deepen your own understanding, as well as figure out how to articulate it in a way that will be well-received and truly understood.”
So what are the secrets to becoming a good teacher? Kornfield shares four essential keys based on wisdom he’s gathered from more than 40 years of teaching meditation and mindfulness around the world.
View Teaching as an Act of Love and Kindness
Teaching is an intimate, sacred, communal act. “It’s no small thing to give your time, attention and open heart to another person. Just that is already a generous gift,” says Kornfield. “Maybe half of teaching is that quality of presence and attunement, which I call mindful loving awareness. Bringing a sense of devotion and tenderness to the person whose world you are entering requires deep listening, both to your student and to yourself.”
Kornfield advises people to take a few moments before teaching to center themselves and clarify their objectives. “Words can heal and words can harm. As a parent or teacher, we want to be quiet enough inside that we can both listen to the intent of our words and sense the impact. Instead of acting reflexively, pause for a few moments to check in with yourself. Take some deep breaths, and then set the intention to make teaching an act of care and love.”
Model Trust and Patience
It’s essential to bring a sense of trust that the person can ultimately learn what you are teaching. “When you teach a child how to ride a bike, they’ll likely fall and perhaps skin their knee. But throughout it all, when you are holding the belief that they will eventually succeed, they will feel your confidence. Deep inside, they will believe it, too. People pick up each other’s energy and emotions.”
Along with trust, one must bring patience. “Every time you plant a seed in your garden, you’re expecting a miracle. You must nurture it, but you can never rush it. Meditation is a wonderful way to help us cultivate patience so we can move through the world with more steadiness and love.”
Bring a Spirit of Joy and Playfulness
Helping others is a powerful source of joy. “From making your child scrambled eggs for breakfast, to holding the door open for a stranger—every day there are countless acts of care that bring us happiness, but we usually don’t pay much attention to them. Sharing what we know in little and big ways is one of the most rewarding acts of care we can do. Take delight in sharing.”
Kornfield has noticed that when you bring a spirit of playfulness to teaching, “It goes way better.” Playfulness makes the experience more fun for all and fosters more enthusiasm and dedication. Kornfield especially enjoys the particular delight that arises when the person you are teaching encounters an obstacle, and together you are able to figure out how to overcome it. “The experience of joint perseverance followed by shared success is a vibrant and beautiful point of connection.”
Kornfield also believes that regardless of what you are teaching, one of life’s most important lessons is to consciously choose joy. “We are all well aware that the world has many difficulties and problems, but at the same time, we as human beings can choose what spirit we will carry forward. We can learn to choose the spirit of joy amidst it all.”
Approach Teaching as an Opportunity for Personal Growth
Kornfield views teaching as a powerful gateway to presence and self-awareness. It offers the opportunity to practice humility, as well as to tap into inner strength and healthy self-confidence. “When we step into the role of teacher, sometimes we can get inflated and full of ourselves, and sometimes we can feel deflated, flooded with self-doubt and insecurity. Because neither of these extremes goes over well, it’s essential to stay grounded and find the steady middle path. It helps to not be a perfectionist. Better to cut ourselves some slack and enjoy the moment.”
Kornfield advises people to pay close attention to themselves, acknowledging how they are feeling with kindness instead of judgment. “Perhaps if you notice you are feeling anxious or impatient, you can drop below that and tap into how much of your worry is because you care. That will return you to the pure connection of love.”
Being a good teacher also means realizing that you don’t know everything. “Every one of us is still learning, and nobody has ever done exactly what you’re doing before. That’s why we need to be experimental and stay flexible. Teaching should feel like a shared experience, not one person holding power over another. It’s something we get to do together.”
The awareness that we are always teaching each other can serve as a constant reminder to bring our best selves forward. Kornfield’s advice: “Remain calm and steady, cultivate trust, and look for the secret beauty in everyone.”
Jack Kornfield is the founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the bestselling author of 16 books that have been translated into 20 languages. The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program offers the unique opportunity to learn from him and his wise colleagues.