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Mental Wellness

Student-Self and Teacher-Soul

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“Very often, our anxious self will attack a problem, looking for how to juggle, maintain, or solve what has been set in motion, while the teacher within will stand back and question our very assumptions, even our very definition of what constitutes a problem.”

In a conversation with a student, the Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi was asked, “While searching for the God within, should we keep part of our attention on the physical work at hand?”

Sri Ramana spoke softly, “The Self is Universal. So all actions will go on whether you strain yourself to be engaged in them or not. The work will go on by itself. ... It’s not for [us] to work and worry about it ... but to allow [our deeper] nature to carry out the will of a Higher Power.”

“But,” the student replied, “the work may suffer if I don’t attend it.”

Sri Ramana answered clearly, “Attending to the Self means attending to the work.”

What are we to make of this exchange? When Sri Ramana speaks of the need to attend the Self, he’s referring to the center we carry that is larger than our identity and older than our personal history. He’s referring to the Hindu notion of Namaste, which means: I bow to the piece of God, the piece of the Universe that resides in you. When we attend to the piece of God we carry within, we attend to the work and the work goes on by itself.

To understand this fully, we need to look at the assumptions of both the student and the teacher. Inherent in the student’s question is the assumption that inner work and outer work are separate realities. And so, his earnest question is one of time management. How can we attend to two important things at once? The student is looking for an answer of technique: how to do this better. But inherent in his teacher’s answer is the assumption that these two essential forms of life-work are actually the same. And so, his teacher’s counsel is that attending one is attending both. Like a twin-trunked tree that has a common root, watering one is watering both, pruning one is pruning both.

The student resists this counsel, and Sri Ramana says only what he knows to be true: that attending to the Self is attending to the work. The Universe resides in the work. Through the work of being here, we find the God within. Sri Ramana offers this truth not as a viewpoint but as the acknowledgment of a spiritual condition that exists beyond debate like gravity.

So, while the student is looking for time management skills, the teacher is offering a different way of apprehending reality.

This essential difference reveals some recurring choices in our very human struggle to stay authentic. To start with, let me affirm that we each have both of these voices living within us: the voice of the student always asking for better techniques of how to manage what life presents, and the voice of the wise teacher who once asked will tend not to give us what we ask for, but rather offer us a different way of apprehending reality, which, if we dare to try, will often soften or eliminate the problem at the heart of our asking.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to solve, but whether we approach our problems from a grasp of the Whole or serve the tensions and urgency of our problems determines the kind of choices we make. It’s important to acknowledge that both the student-self and the teacher-soul are essential to our life on Earth. Without our student-self managing our ride through existence, we wouldn’t be able to survive in the world. And without our teacher-soul calling us into the wonders of being alive, survival becomes pointless.

Very often, our anxious self will attack a problem, looking for how to juggle, maintain, or solve what has been set in motion, while the teacher within will stand back and question our very assumptions, even our very definition of what constitutes a problem. When we can endure the disorientation and discomfort that our inner teacher opens us to, we can step, however awkwardly, into greater authenticity.

How, then, do we endure the disorientation and discomfort necessary to apprehend reality differently? This depends on whether we stay willful or risk our surrender. This presents another crucial choice: whether to dig in and keep asserting our will, trying to obliterate the problem, or whether to surrender and drop down into a deeper apprehension of things. Often, if we can surrender into that deeper sense of things, we become aware of larger patterns, which often present the one clear action that makes inner sense.

Often, surrender is misconstrued as abdicating all action, when it is more about leaning into the currents of the powers that surround us and our problem; the way a Native American will hold his wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing before sending smoke signals.

It is the vigilance of our student-self that wants to protect us from life, while our teacher-soul knows that the best protection is to submerge our problem into the river of life. It’s our fear of randomness that has us over- manage risk, while our soul shows us repeatedly how to risk finding the current that will carry us. Ultimately, when we can drop into a deeper apprehension of things, problems are undone more than solved. When so alive and engaged, being human is the fifth element.

A Question to Walk With

In your journal, use a problem you’re facing to explore a personal case study of your conversation between your student-self and teacher-soul. There is no right or wrong way to enter this. Ask yourself these questions: Are you seeing the problem with the eyes of your inner teacher or are you stubbornly adhering to the condition of your problem? Are you trying to hold it all together or are you trying to apprehend where things are strained but still connected? And are you trying to assert your will or are you trying to understand the deeper currents of the stream of life of which you are a part?