Ch 33. Authority, learning, and a bit of bread

The one who wishes to learn must first empty his cup.

[I wrote this post long before the pandemic, after the no-knead craze was well underway, but long before everyone became a sour-dough starter master… Now it sounds a little cliche, so you’ll forgive me that part. The take away lesson, err baked in, is still worth sharing.]

I love bread baking. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I loooove bread baking. I got into it about ten years ago (with the no-knead trend, which made it sound deceptively easy), and I have slowly nurtured this hobby ever since. I’ve even shared some of my love of bread baking with others, and got them hooked on it too. Bread can be very infectious. There is something very satisfying and pleasurable about the texture of kneaded and freshly risen dough… It sparks lots and lots of joy in my kitchen.  

When time permits and I feel the inspiration, I will bake a few times a week (depending on how many people I’m feeding). During more busy periods when I’m immersed in my work, I won’t bake for months at a time. When I feel most “into it,” I get adventurous and I experiment with the variables – altering water temperature, salt content/type, types of flour, oven temp and time, baking containers, etc. I’ve even used whey from cheese-making experiments as a substitute for the water, which creates a really really rich and beautiful chewy crumb. I highly recommend it.

After years and years of playing around with this, I am an amateur wanna-be baker, at best. Really. I have mostly learned what not to do, or what doesn’t work, from colossal disgusting failures. I can’t ever be sure that a particular loaf will come out right, or whether it will even be edible. Sometimes they come out magnificent, other times it’s a total nightmare. I get nervous every time I have to bake bread for others, and I warn them in advance that I may not be able to deliver. That’s how poor a baker I am, even after so many years and countless loaves, I can’t seem to figure out consistent reliable success.

It would be my dream, if life allowed, to apprentice with a real expert bread baker, to learn how to do it professionally, and finally finally feel some kind of confidence in my technique and skills. And I have silly fantasies of owning a bread-only bakery one day, some place where wild yeast wafts through open cottage windows…  

Anyway, I’m sharing all of this because never never never, not in my wildest dreams, would I approach a professional bread-baker and attempt to teach her about bread. That would be absurd, no? I would be so excited to talk to an actual bread expert (or more accurately to hear the expert talk about bread and impart her bread wisdom), that I would never dream of being arrogant, or rude, or insulting her, or diminishing her skills, or disrespecting her time and efforts at perfecting her craft and talent, pretending like we are equal in bread-baking ability, or demonstrating that I am somehow superior. 

Professional bread baker and I are obviously not equal in bread baking, and that’s a really good thing. She is a professional and I am not. She has dedicated her life and work to her craft, and I have not. She is someone who can teach, and explain, and correct mistakes, and guide, and I cannot. Obviously, there is no shame in this, this is the reality of what is. 

Now, set aside the professional baker for a moment, and let me tell you about my friend Q. 

Q is way more diligent about her bread baking than I am. She has been consistently baking for years, specializing in sour dough. She doesn’t have any degrees or schooling in baking (as far as I know), but I can accurately gauge that her knowledge and expertise far outweigh mine. Her instagram photos make my mouth water every single time. Her crumb is so gorgeous, the air pockets so big, and crust so perfectly crisp, that I don’t even have the words to convey it. It’s just incredible, and consistently so. My best loaves never approach her level of perfection. 

I would love to learn from her what she knows and how she does it, and if I were to ask her to teach me, I would be cognizant of the difference in our skill level, and humbly respectfully open myself to learning from her.

To me, this is normal. It’s how one learns. It’s how one respects one’s teacher(s). It’s how one grows in his own skills, and demonstrates respect and gratitude for the time and effort others dedicate to teaching him. 

Further, if Q agrees to teach me, I do not then fall apart in her presence, nor obsequiously flatter her. I don’t heap endless useless compliments at her, devaluing myself to the size of an ant. I do not lay down on the ground and kiss her feet. I do not lose my value, or sense of identity, or self-respect because she knows more than I do. I am humbly (honestly) bringing what little I do know, and allowing her to take me further in my learning. Her expertise does not annihilate me as a person. I deeply value the fact that she knows more and can help me become better.

During our time together I would not be focused on telling her where she is right or wrong, how I agree or disagree with her various methods, how this or that thing wouldn’t work for me, how I know better, or how she shouldn’t be so confident in what she knows or achieves. All of those behaviors would be arrogant and rude.

On her end, she would treat me with care and respect, determining how much I know, and making decisions about what I need to learn next. She would balance her position of authority and expertise with my dignity as a person, never condescending nor talking down to me. She wouldn’t diminish me, or ridicule me, or make me feel small because I don’t know something. She wouldn’t use her situational authority to hurt me. 

She would support me and help me, by offering both her knowledge and her confidence in my ability to learn and succeed. She would empower me, rather than seeking to control me. And if she’s a really talented teacher, she would create the circumstances for my curiosity to blossom, and encourage me to explore on my own, rather than feeding me all the answers herself. And if I don’t understand something, she would make it safe for me to ask for clarification and additional help. That’s how a normal healthy teacher/student relationship works. 

And yet, this is somehow entirely lost on many many people. People go to a professional of one kind or another, under the guise of wanting to learn or retain that professional’s teaching service, and then they diminish that person’s expertise or authority, because it somehow threatens their sense of identity. Instead of learning, and listening, and watching, and asking questions, they shove their own ignorant poorly informed opinions at the teacher. They criticize and undermine the teacher. They ridicule and diminish the teacher. They reject the teacher’s authority. They ask questions, but don’t listen for the answers, or worse yet they use the answers to compete with the teacher. They do the psychological equivalent of kicking and screaming and throwing tantrums refusing to learn. This is how adult arrogance impedes the ability to learn. 

If I imagine that I’m some kind of master baker, superior to everyone else, and I attempt to shove my lame ass baking skills at a real professional, he would rightfully ask me to leave his kitchen. Since I am not open to learning, and am only there to be a pest, why would he waste a single moment trying to teach me? It’s not just disrespectful to him, it’s egotistical and delusional on my part to think that I came there to teach him, judge him, or critique that which I do not know. 

But this is what lots of people do. Something has gone terribly terribly wrong in our wholesale rejection of all kinds of authority. Certainly we each have inherent value, worth, and dignity as human beings; that is without question. But it is some kind of foolishness and idiocy to pretend that everyone is equally proficient or knowledgeable in all things, and that rightful professional authority (in each sphere or arena) is inherently bad, merely because it is an authority. 

Granted, there are lots of illegitimate or corrupt expressions of authority. There are bad people in positions of power who cause a great deal of harm. But that doesn’t mean that all authority is to be rejected. Without the proper ability to bend, and learn, and discerning legitimate authority to obey, we are left in chaos. 

Without proper respect for rightful authority and expertise and proficiency, and the ability to gauge who has what knowledge, skills, or ability, we have anarchy and ignorance – a veritable Lord of the Flies, where bullies rule by arbitrary and capricious violence and aggression, answerable to no one. And truth, justice, and decency (not to mention compassion) cease to mean anything. Sound familiar? 

This is especially specifically true in the spiritual arena, not just between human teachers and students, but in a mystic’s relationship to Spirit. The same defiance that hates and rejects human authority shows up in a mystic’s work with divine authority. In our language, we call it resistance, but the nature of that resistance is often made up of the same material wounds. It is obstinate spiteful defiance, for its own ultimately irrational sake. 

Throughout the process, in every mystic’s life, there are clear and ubiquitous requirements of surrender, reverence, obedience, and compliance. To some ears, those sound like dirty words. Our society unfortunately favors the rebels and troublemakers, even when the rebellion is meaningless and harmful. Rebels don’t like the idea of a God to whom they must surrender. They fight and fight, refusing to submit, rooted in and unconscious of their own trauma, which makes them feel as they do. Their wounds are so sore, and egoic defenses so strong, that they become unable to yield. 

And yet, the mystic who is unable to get with the program, so to speak, suffers, a lot. Unnecessarily so. The mystic is required to master both sides of the spectrum (both total obedient surrender and total independent rebellion) without issue. Mysticism teaches us that there is a balance to be found between obedience and disobedience. To attain that balance, we must be equally capable of both (without resistance and without fear, respectively), depending on the circumstances. That is the ultimate virtue. 

This side of the teaching is speaking to those who are resistant to obedience and authority. Undoing the trauma related to authority, learning how to trust, revere, respect, and learn, emptying one’s cup of the I-know-it-all arrogance which prohibits learning and growth, is the threshold understanding of this teaching.