Thursday, January 22, 2009

Evolved to revere teachers

I’ve been keeping an ear on an interview with an Aikido teacher that S. has been listening to. Shaner Sensei frequently points out and marvels at the insights and skills of the teacher that founded this particular branch of the art.

The meditation technique I’m learning is also built around a charismatic teacher, in spite of himself; he keeps rejecting “gurudom”, and focuses attention on the practice. But this teacher, in turn, deeply and publicly reveres the teachers that preceded him.

A predisposition to teacher-reverence is probably in-born. It’s easy to construct an evolutionary biology Just So Story to explain it. Learning is clearly adaptive, and our genes encourage us to engage in it by making learning pleasurable. Since one learns better when one trusts the teacher, our genes predispose us to revere teachers and put them on pedestals.

Like all behaviors, this has risks as well as benefits. Along with the ability to surrender ourselves to a teaching that brings benefit, comes a proclivity to give ourselves over to people who lead us into evil or oblivion. The problem is that it’s hard to know where a path leads when embarking on it. If one really knew the end-point, one would already have completed the journey. Teacher reverence will therefore continue to beckon us onto both good paths and bad.

This argument goes through with minimal changes for leader-worship. It probably also has a basis in evolutionary fitness, and is also double-edged. I wonder whether one is related to the other? Both are based in respect for a leader, though the purposes (learning and inter-group conflict, respectively) are different.

Note: The image above is a statue of the founder Swami Vishnu-devananda at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch. It comes from slide show in a story on spiritual retreats in upstate New York by Shivani Vora, “The Simple Life”, The New York Times, 12 December 2008

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