06/20/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Aug 20, 2012

The Purpose of the Teacher

I recently had the opportunity to reconnect with a friend in Bali. It's been half a year since I've seen him, and since then he's spent a good amount of time studying with a teacher here on the island. There have been profound transformations for my friend via this Balinese healer's guidance, the kind you rarely read about in paperback novels.

As my friend was sharing his story, I was deeply moved by one experience in particular. My friend lost his dad at the age of 14, and he explained to me that his dad was a tough fellow. Not unkind, per se, but strict and never let my friend cry or show too much emotion. (Incidentally, my friend's favorite Johnny Cash song is "A Boy Named Sue.") After his father's death, he hid a lifetime of resentment under a thickened exterior. His spiritual practice has been moving him more deeply toward these hidden emotions and he developed the feeling that this teacher would finally be the one to allow him the emotional release he felt he'd pent up over the last 20 years.

While he shared his story, I connected to his experience, feeling the common thread that many of us know -- some incident of repression in our early years yearning to escape and be recognized by a fellow human. I was expecting to hear a consoling tale of surrender and support where his teacher listened and allowed him to shed two decades of tears.

What I heard was so much better.

On a certain day, my friend had built himself up to the point that he knew this would be the moment he'd been waiting for. He hopped on his scooter and motored to his teacher's house, feeling choked up with the emotions welling beneath the surface. He arrived at his teacher's house and shared his tale of a hardened father raising a tough son. As he finished his story, on the verge of the inescapable tears, his teacher looked at him, laughed and shoved a cigarette in his mouth.

I sat across the table and a smile crept across both our faces. He smiled brightly at the remembrance of this teaching and went on to say that his teacher explained that his father had taught him to be a strong man. My friend drank in the wisdom of the moment as he tried smoking the cigarette, and realization of that truth dawned within him. Suddenly, a lifetime of resentment fell away and he saw his father's actions in a different light. He knew that his father loved him deeply and prepared him for life in the best way he knew how.

His heart opened, he felt more connected to his father than he ever had.

He finished his cigarette, suddenly feeling no regrets about his relationship with his father.

What a tremendous and profound gift. Rather than dwelling, hashing or reliving the tension, sadness and shame, his teacher immediately dispelled it. Rather than vilifying his father and affirming my friend's suffering, the teacher did the greatest thing a teacher can ever hope to do: He set him free of it.

In an instant, my friend saw his life and his history in a different way, feeling the love from his father and knowing that he'd been raised exactly right, provided with all the tools he needed to navigate a happy, whole-hearted lifestyle.

His story echoed the liberation in other stories I've heard. A teacher of mine went crying to her own teacher once, expecting to be consoled, when instead she was told to try and be more miserable. She couldn't. In her trying to be more miserable, she recognized the silliness of her reaction and realized the fleeting impermanence of emotions. She was also freed from her suffering in that moment.

Another friend of mine had spent years in therapy. One day, he picked up a book by Caroline Myss, in which she bluntly explained that therapy is awesome and often a necessary step in our journey. But, like crossing a river, once we've made it through treacherous waters and reached the other side, we have to get out of the boat.

Get out of the boat. Leave it behind. Actively choose freedom over suffering. Choose life.

In the Eastern traditions, it is said that the guru carries a big stick. Because some of us are pretty hard-headed and need to be hit over the head (or have a cigarette shoved between our lips) to realize the simplest of truths: Suffering is optional.

Everyone has baggage, drama and trauma. But, it's not the trauma itself that causes the suffering, it's the holding onto, or the constant reliving or reaffirming of a dramatic story that causes suffering. Byron Katie would ask, "Who are we without our story?"

Who, indeed?

Our stories and our history can either keep us down or set us free. They can be the hammer that nails us to our darkness or the switch that sends us into the light. My friend's history didn't change in that instant that his teacher shoved a cigarette in his mouth, it was how he perceived his history that changed. It was his choice to drop the oppressive suffering and look with newly minted eyes upon his history to see that his story taught him more about himself than it did about his father.

When we get out of the proverbial boat and choose life, we are completely free to be who we want to be. No strings or stories attached.

It's not the story, its how we let it define us. It's not the baggage, it's how we let it weigh us down. It's not the trauma, but whether or not we choose to suffer by reliving it over and over in our minds. Some of us have teachers strong enough to whack us on thick heads, or grab our hands and pull us out of the boat. Some of us have to crawl ashore on our own.

That day, my friend discovered his internal strength and resilience.

And in an instant, his suffering was gone. He got out of the boat. Now he walks around proud of his history and his father and himself. He carries himself with an open heart and joyful vulnerability. Hopefully his transforming story can inspire one of our own, without the big stick, Balinese guru, or cigarette, but simply by giving us the presence of mind to recognize that in every moment, we get to choose how we see our story. We get to choose who we are, free ourselves from suffering and choose life.

For more by Alanna Kaivalya, click here.

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