Nothing To Teach, And No One To Teach It To

August 12, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The Zen ChairThe Chair

I heard this phrase once in an Alan Watts lecture he had recorded years ago. "I have nothing to teach, and no one to teach it to." He was referring to the gathering of "students" who had come to hear his talk. In his Zen like fashion, I think he was pointing out the difference between teacher and student was non-existent. I've also heard it said that "we teach best that which we ourselves most need to learn."

I've been thinking lately about the topic of teaching, in particularly the teaching of photography that has mushroomed in the last several years. Reflecting on my first teacher, and what he taught (and how), as well as some inspiring mentors that I have never met, and as a teacher of photography as well, it strikes me that teaching itself is an art!  The best ones I know of don't teach you directly how to do something, how to do it like them, but inspire you find your own way through the teaching. Think "The Karate Kid", think Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society", Think of that one teacher you had, in whatever subject, who took the time to inspire you to think differently than you had before. 

One of my early mentors, Jerry Uelsmann,  told the delightful story of when he was a student in photography, and his teacher, looking over his film contact sheet, suggested he print two adjacent images as one image. Jerry said, "but what about the frame gap between the images?"  "What about it?" was his teacher's reply. It opened up a world of possibilities for the young photographer. He was given permission to photograph outside the lines, and the rest is history.

I have found that the best teachers, the ones truly deserving of the title, are those who turn you back on yourself, make you find the answers to your own questions, questions which you really already know the answers to. It's a Zen thing, really. What the best teachers teach is giving you permission to be your authentic self. No one can tell you, or teach you what that looks like. Hence, nothing to teach. Only you can really learn from your own experiences, hence no one to teach it to, outside of yourself. There is a wonderful post by Justine Musk on authenticity, which I wholeheartedly agree with.

Find good teachers, not ones who only show you how to do something just like them. They only touch the surface, and don't inspire authenticity. A gifted teacher will not only teach you the "how" of something, but more importantly the "why" of something. But always it should be your "why", not the teachers'. And in the interest of recommending one such teacher of photography and life (This may be an occasional feature here on the blog!), I give you the ever inspiring David duChemin, whose adventuresome spirit and passion for the craft is equally Zen-like. 


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