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Who is a "Sensei"?

I ask my young students to call me “Sensei.” Some of them know this as a commonly used expression in Japanese to address teachers, doctors, or masters of any kind. I explain that the characters 先生 simply mean, “One who lives before you,” and is an expression of respect. This form of respect, given to those who are “elders,” is an integral part of many cultures, and provides the reassurance that there are those who can guide youth along their path. However, in our contemporary culture where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declares that “young people are just smarter,” we have lost the benefit of receiving wisdom from elders. The use of “Sensei,” is my way of saying to youth that they can rely on me to be an elder, one who has been around and trusts in them to find their own way.

I also want them to know that I am still learning. Leonard Bernstein explains how the origins of the words for “teacher” and “learner” in German are nearly the same, and how the two are interconnected. When we teach, we also learn; when we learn, we also teach. I am simply a fellow human being further along the path than my younger students but still searching for truth and beauty.

I am a “lifelong learner,” trying to be open to others and experiences, confident enough to be vulnerable, secure enough to open to the being and becoming of the unknown. Overcoming fear requires trust and learning to be comfortable with not knowing, ambiguity and uncertainty. The lightness of the “beginner’s mind,” is a state that may appear to be weakness and ignorance, but from which the new can arise. This is the art of teaching and learning. I teach what I need to learn. But walking the line between teaching and learning is tough. How do you have enough trust to stand in front of others and tell them something as if you know it, yet be open enough to admit that you are still learning it?

During the campaign, Hilary Clinton was asked by a rabbi about humility of a leader.

“Rabbi Simcha Bunem, taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. The note in one pocket says: the universe was created for me. The other pocket the note says: I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”

Clinton answered: “I think about this a lot. I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith, that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification—all of the human questions that all of us deal with. But when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it’s incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible. This is hard for me.”Ultimately, Clinton said, humility in politics is about maintaining a balance between one’s capabilities and one’s limitations, admitting that, “I don’t know that there is ever any absolute answer.”

Balancing ego and humility is a constant challenge. As a “Sensei,” I attempt to guide others in their journeys. Regardless of their cultural backgrounds I start by respecting and attempting to see and know them as fully as possible. I listen to their stories of where they come from and where they now are. I try to help them discover where they wish to go, liberate themselves from old chains, and walk down the road with a new narrative of their lives and new meaning--more whole, connected, and balanced.

It is never a simple matter of taking them where they want to go, because I myself do not know the way, like the line in the Grateful Dead song Ripple, “If I knew the way I would take you home.” I can accompany them for a while and trust in their ability to find their way and walk their path alone. I believe that each of us has a path that we must persistently attempt to rediscover and follow, though it twists and turns and we are repeatedly swayed and lured from it.

I try to guide with the understandings and intuitions that come when I am able to enter into and share their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I have traveled a similar path and I reveal whatever insights or wisdom I have gained when the person seems ready to hear it.

And because I am a fellow traveler, their troubles resonate deeply within me. In attempting to offer something I need to reach inside to a space where I face the same dilemmas and alternatives. Their struggles become my struggles.

We drift and stray and are bewildered at times, but I trust that though we wander we are not lost. I am guided by their voices, attempt to comfort when they are frightened, and encourage when they are despairing. I hearten them to consider that we are more than our problems, our bodies, and our egos.

I let them know that though I am responsible, the ultimate responsibility is theirs. I urge them to live in the moment rather than in dreams of reaching some destination. Then one day we will let go of each other’s hands and say good-bye. And I will accept their gratitude and thank them too when we part at the fork in the road.

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