Ancestors, Gurus, and Teachers

strict female teacher with book pointing at scribbled blackboard
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Throughout life we meet an endless stream of teachers to help us on our own individual journey through existence.

These might be teachers at school, or an instructor of some skill, belief or practice. They could equally be family members, friends, or total strangers. They could be icons, heroes or legends. They could be non-human, books or scenarios. A teacher can be anything, really.

Some of my most powerful teachers have been people who really get on my tits. Those people who really rub you up the wrong way; that leave you wanting to do violence even if it means long term incarceration. If nothing else, they teach patience. But when we look a little deeper into the reasons why we are so triggered, we often find aspects of those individuals, the aspects we don’t like, in abundance within ourselves.

This is all valuable data for self improvement.

So to all the royal pains in my arse, in the past and still to come, I thank you.

During my daily meditation, various people randomly crop up in my mind. After my session I like to contemplate those people and remember all that they have contributed in my life. I then use this as a prompt to get in touch with them.

What follows are some random teachers that have influenced me in my life and in particular have influenced my daily health practice.

And when I say random, I mean random.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has been an inspiration for millions. Buddhist monk, peace activist, poet, artist, author and teacher, he became known as the ‘Father of Mindfulness’ and major contributor to bringing mindfulness practices to the West.

I’m not a Buddhist but appreciate many of the mindfulness practices promoted by Buddhism, in particular that of the Zen tradition. Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach always brings a sense of joy and fun.

Much of my mindfulness meditation has been influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh and I highly recommend reading more of his work and that of Plum Village Monastary if this is a practice you’d like to learn more of. The Plum Village app is excellent and free, and I use it daily for it’s meditation timer and Bell of Mindfulness feature.

The greatest lesson I ever received from Thich Nhat Hanh is – to smile.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Science backs this. We discussed previously how our mind-body connection is a two-way street. Our state of mind directly affects how we hold ourselves posturally. But equally, how we hold our bodily postures affects our mind-state.

It’s a case of fake it ’til you make it. Smiling makes you happier.

This is something that Thich Nhat Hanh describes as ‘mouth yoga’.

I utilise this nugget of wisdom on every long distance/endurance event I do. I set an alarm to go off every 30 minutes as a reminder to smile, to wonder at the marvel that is my body doing stupid shit in fabulous places.

It has been a total game changer for me. It genuinely makes me happy and enjoy the experience so much more, despite the muscle cramps and blisters.

Go slowly, breathe and smile.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Here is a little documentary about him.

Bruce Lee

I remember watching Enter the Dragon for the first time as a kid (entirely inappropriate for my age) and falling in love with Kung Fu movies, Chinese cinema and Bruce Lee himself.

I idolised him. I would watch and read anything I could get my hands on about him. I had a photocopied picture of him on my wall as a focus point for my early attempts at meditation.

My Auntie Janet took this to higher levels, hiding out in cinema theatres so she could watch endless re-runs of his movies. After his death she visited Bruce’s wife, Linda and was given a personal family photo of him. This is what counts as real treasure.

But it was a book about his life that Janet gave me that opened up the deeper aspect of Bruce Lee. In particular his philiosphy.

Bruce Lee was a Gold Standard Meathead Philosopher. He really understood the interconnectedness of mind and body, effortlessly blending athleticism, flowing movement and mindset.

The lessons learnt from him have been many – the need for focus, determination, a willingness to be true to oneself. But…

…My favourite lesson from Bruce Lee – Be water, my friend.

As the video below explains, when we are ‘formless’, when we don’t restrict ourselves to set boundaries and limitations, we become like water. We are able to flow into any situation. Essentially this is the art of adaptability. It’s about being more than resilient or unyielding. It’s about yielding in a way that transforms us into a state greater than we were before.

This is about being anti-fragile and harder to kill.

Dick Van Dyke

Stay with me on this one.

Dick Van Dyke, that loveable, cheeky chimneysweep with the hilarious Mockney accent, from Mary Poppins, might not at first seem Guru material. But as the saying goes ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’

Physical education at school for me was not fun. I hated every moment of it. I was neither athletic nor a team player. I was a chubby, self-conscious kid in ill-fitting nylon shorts, desperate for some kind of ‘condition’ to keep on the benches during P.E.

Exercise held no fun whatsoever.

Enter Dick Van Dyke.

Growing up in a dancing school (the only kid who didn’t dance) I was no stranger to musical theatre, and despite my refusal to dance I loved the physicality of it.

Dick Van Dyke is a master at this physicality. He is a pure athlete.

Take this clip from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Now, bear in mind that he is 41 years old when he filmed this. The movement quality in this is phenomenal. I have nearly lost my front set of teeth many times trying to mimic his jump over the stick at the end.

But beyond his physical prowess, what shines through the most for me is his sheer joy of moving. It appears to be the epitome of play.

I literally cannot walk past a low wall or set of railings without jumping up and balancing on them like his character Bert from Mary Poppins. To me this was the first televised depiction of Parkour, the original ‘Jump London’

My favourite lesson from Dick Van Dyke – Never neglect to see the joy and a fun in moving your body, regardless of your age.

Edith Garrud

I’ll wager that many of you will not have heard of Edith Garrud. Think of her as an amalgamation of the last two teachers. If you combined Enter the Dragon and Mary Poppins then Edith would be the star.

Born in Bath, in 1872, Edith became a physical culture instructor for girls and in 1899 witnessed a demonstration of Ju-jitsu by Edward Barton-Wright, the creator of Bartitsu. This was an combination of Japanese and European martial arts with which Sherlock Holmes used to defeat Moriaty in ‘The Final Problem’.

Edith and her husband went on to train with Barton-Wright, and in 1909 she set up her own dojo, making her one of the first female martial art instructors in the western world.

A staunch supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, she became a member of the Women’s Freedom League before being approached by the militant Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), otherwise known as the Suffragettes. She was asked to teach the women self-defence against the increasing violence that was thrown against them during their protests.

She would later go on to train the WSPU’s Bodyguard unit to protect the WSPU’s leader, Emmaline Pankhurst, from re-arrest and violence, regularly engaging in hand-to-hand combat with police.

Journalists of the era often referred to this combative art as ‘Suffrajitsu’.

Edith’s story would be phenomenal if it played out now. But considering this took place starting in the late Victorian period, where women had very little rights, and any kind of female empowerment and forthrightness was severely frowned upon, it makes her story the stuff of myth and legend.

She showed women that they were powerful, dynamic forces of nature, equal to men in every way.

Every child should learn the story of Edith Garrud. She stands like a beacon of light in what must have been a stifling atmosphere of oppression.

My favourite lesson from Edith Garrud – Conventional norms and limitations are merely the feedback mechanisms we need to push against to create new ways of being.

Essentially, embrace your weird self and forge ahead. You’ll be a beacon to like-minded folks and you’ll soon find your tribe.

Nanna Florrie

I’ve mentioned my Nan before in the article Being Harder to Kill, but I think she definitely deserves a special mention here.

Not what you’d typically describe as an athlete, she was nonetheless a mover of epic proportions.

Like a wrinkly Gladiator, decked out in her trademark blue leotard and thick orange tights, she’d head out to her ‘keep fit’ class wielding a wooden Indian club (the weapon of choice of the Suffragettes).

Or else she’d be seen side-stroking her way up and down the Solent in all weather conditions, at all times of the year, like a mermaid. The one that no-one could ever catch.

If Skynet made a Terminator that looked like a little old lady, they’d make it like Nanna Florrie.

It took 101 years for Death to finally build up the courage to pay her a visit. And no doubt it was on her terms.

My favourite lesson from Nanna Florrie – Chronological age is never an excuse. Do what you can when you can, with whatever you have to hand.

Sometime warriors wear cardigans.

My Dog

A regular feature here on the website. We’ve discussed his sage-like qualities in Life Lessons from my Dog and life Lessons from my Dog – part 2, but he continues to surprise me with his wisdom and teachings on a near daily basis.

My favourite lesson from my dog – For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

We all need a pack to be part of, and we are all vital to the packs that we belong to. This would be what Thich Nhat Hanh would call ‘interbeing’. I told you my dog was clever.

This is just a select few of the teachers who have impacted me and Wild Life. This is a great way to explore what makes you you. Who has been an influence in making you the person you are?

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