August 1, 2017

The Importance of Teachers

heart In 2010, I attended my first silent meditation retreat—a doorway to deeper practice and broader awareness. It was a big leap (scary at the time), which I’ve taken another 20 times since. Cheri Maples was my first teacher. She was no-nonsense, a straight shooter. Her dharma talks were clear, honest, and filled with abundant wisdom. 

I’ve sat 10 retreats led by Cheri. In that time, my practice has changed and grown immensely, and Cheri has changed, too. She transformed from a no-nonsense, former cop into a wise, kind, nurturing teacher. She applied self-compassion in her own life, leading by example. She lightened up, while still practicing with deep integrity—she lived her talk

Cheri helped me in more ways than she’ll ever know. While on her retreats, I recognized my unwholesome habit of striving (desperately “doing” to side-step my pain). I saw my identification with a victimized self—clinging to my mental story of unworthiness as an (impossible) way to control this uncontrollable life—and I began to let go; to make different choices; to be more real, vulnerable, and free. Cheri reminded us all, “If not now, when?” And she asked us to question our solid views, “Am I sure?”

Last fall, Cheri was in a horrible, life-threatening bicycle accident. For two weeks, it wasn’t clear she would live. She spent months in various kinds of rehab, where she practiced mindfulness, patience, and skillful effort. Eventually, she returned home in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. I attended a winter meditation retreat in Madison, typically co-taught by Cheri, but in which she couldn’t participate because of her health. After a silent, mindful lunch, I walked into the meditation hall and saw Cheri, in her wheelchair, on the stage. My heart leapt with love and awe.

intrepid

Cheri spoke to us for 40 minutes, which took an amazing amount of energy given her condition. Her bottom line, after everything that happened: She’s grateful. She laughs more, accepts help, practices patience, and savors life. During an early juncture in her recovery, she clearly saw two roads she could take: depressed, victimized, suffering person or grateful, genuine, open-hearted person. She chose the latter, with dignity and grace. On that day in February, she was my teacher in new and beautiful ways.

Last week, Cheri got a systemic infection and died within hours. It shocked everyone around her, but didn’t appear to shock Cheri. She understands—in ways very few of us do—that life is fleeting, ever-changing, and not to be taken for granted, even for a moment. The day before she died, she told a friend, “I have lived such a good life.” A teacher until her last breath.

I feel deep sadness. Personal grief as well as heartbreak for the world. We’ve lost a great teacher, a mindful social activist, and a beautiful person. (For a sample of Cheri's wise, compassionate, honest teaching, look here.) A world-wide community mourns. Still, I know where Cheri would invite me to turn my attention: Gratitude. I’m grateful for each bit of wisdom I received from Cheri. I’m grateful for her example of how to live life, especially when it’s hard. I’m grateful I took a chance on that retreat in 2010. It changed my life. Cheri changed my life. I miss her steady presence in this unpredictable world. And I carry her in my heart: a reminder that steadiness is within me, too.

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7 comments:

  1. Joy, I'm sorry to hear about Cheri's unexpected passing. I know what she meant to you as a teacher and steadfast presence in your spiritual practice. I know you will (and already do) carry her spirit and wisdom in your teaching of and interacting with others. Hugs!

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    1. Thanks,Steph. Your comment is a kind, thoughtful balm for my heart. Indeed, I hope to honor Cheri through the way I live, moment by moment.

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  2. How awful and sad. But, yes, I agree some people are given hardships to teach themselves and us. Life is about choice, isn't it. And, I'm sure you were a teacher for her as much as she was for you.

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  3. Ah, such a coincidence. I just read this quote and thought I'd share it:
    "Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath." Charlotte Joko Beck

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    1. Thanks for sharing this insightful quote, Kim. It's not the circumstances, but how we relate to them. Life is a rich, messy, beautiful teacher.

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  4. Joy, I am so sorry to hear about your teacher's passing. Thank you for sharing part of her story with us here.

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