Imposter Syndrome and Apprenticeship

January 10, 2024

Shambhavi and the Jaya Kula community gather for satsang and get real about all the questions we humans want answered. Intimate, courageous, heartfelt spiritual talk about pretty much everything. So happy you are here! A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Impostor syndrome is part of a karmic phenomenon called titan realm karmic vision.

And titan realm is part of a system of looking at classes of beings, but also ways that human beings express their karmic tensions, that comes out of teaching stories and epics from the Indian continent. And then was codified into a system of practice, mainly in Tibet.

And it's one of the things we study a lot at Jaya Kula: the six realms of samsara, and how to work with them.

So titan realm is the home of imposter syndrome. And imposter syndrome happens when you don't have real contact with your indestructible nature. With your indestructible value in particular.

And you're not sure how worthy you are.

And so you look to external accomplishments to assuage your uncertainty or confusion about whether you're really valuable and worthy. And this leads to a lot of competitiveness and posturing and measuring one's accomplishments.

And our whole culture here in the United States just supports us in doing that.

So if we feel internally a question mark or confusion about our own value. If we have lost contact with the inherent value that we have that doesn't depend on any accomplishments at all.

What is called in Tibetan traditions, Buddhist traditions: vajra nature.

Vajra means, like, adamantine. That's one of its meanings. Something that cannot be destroyed. That cannot be affected by successes and failures.

But when we have lost contact with that eternal value that we don't have to earn, then we have this confusion or uncertainty or insecurity about ourselves. And we try to make up for that with external accomplishments.

But it's never enough because, first of all, accomplishments also come with failures. So there's no such thing as a life of just accomplishment.

We all know that sometimes we're going to fail, also. Or miss the mark, even if it's not such a heavy word as failure.

And so we're constantly striving to succeed, and then because we feel fragile, because we don't have a feeling for our own indestructible value, when we fail, we're really shaken by that. Even, like, minor mistakes.

You'll hear that there's many people in this community who just go into a tailspin for the most minor, minor, minor missteps.

And I don't think it's something special about this community. I just think it's about our culture.

That's an aspect of this titan realm vision. And it gives rise to imposter syndrome because even when we succeed, inside we feel that maybe we're not that good. Maybe we're just fooling people.

Because we've lost contact with that indestructible vajra nature, or sense of eternal value.

Then oftentimes, we're projecting a more successful feeling-self than what we actually feel. Because that's actually what our titan culture expects of us.

Basically, American culture is titan realm.

And one of the expressions of this is that we're expected to exaggerate, massage, and lie on our resumes.

People go to classes to learn how to beef up their resumes. Which basically means positioning things in a certain way, and massaging things, and making ourselves look like we've accomplished more than we have.

Well, we go about our whole lives this way. On social media, in relationships, and how we present ourselves in public.

We're always, like, massaging our self-image to make ourselves seem happier, more successful, more adept, smarter, whatever it is that we think we should be.

And so of course, if we're not being honest, and being honest isn't okay, then even when we have real successes, they don't feel real.

We're just never sure what's real, because we just spend basically 12 hours a day projecting something. Being knowledgeable, being on top of things, being– all kinds of things that we do.

This is all fundamental lack of ability to be honest, because ourselves, as we really are, doesn't seem good enough.

And so this leads to more insecurity, when we can't just be ourselves and feel okay about that.

And this is expected! It's become so much a part of our culture that the amount of lying that goes on, particularly on social media, is not even registered as dishonesty.

What is it doing to us, for instance, that now all of these apps— that we communicate on a lot during the pandemic—they all put CGI on our faces? You can't even turn it off in some apps.

So then what happens when you go home and look in the mirror and you just look like a normal person, not all smoothed out? What happens then?

Sometimes this effect is so strong. For instance, they have an incredible amount of CGI on people's faces on news shows.

Sometimes those people look like animation because they have so much CGI on them that you're not even sure if they're actually people! [laughs]

Once in a while, I've wondered, wait, am I looking at a real person or is this animation? [laughs] Everyone's so smooth and glowy.

There's just so many, so many, so many examples of this that it just goes on and on and on. It's from the most gross forms of dishonest presentation of ourselves out of fear, insecurity. To the most subtle forms and the turn of a phrase.

For instance, in the way that spiritual teachers advertise themselves.

There are always these very small moments where there's some word choice or something being said that is manipulating you into thinking something or other about this teacher. The devil is so much in the details.

But understand that when we do those things, we make ourselves more insecure.

Because somewhere in us, we know we're doing it. And it causes more of a pattern of imposter syndrome and insecurities.

There's two medicines for this. One of which you can put into practice immediately, if you should choose to. And the other will take longer.

But the relative world remedy is to never misrepresent yourself. Never.

And the longer term and more permanent solution is to do practice and recognize your eternal value, which is completely indestructible.

And it doesn't matter what you do, how many failures you have, or what you think of yourself. It's still there.

It's always there.

Will you talk about the importance of being a student and student-ing?

Because I feel like everyone's an expert, everyone's doing a masterclass. It feels weird! How can everyone be a teacher? It just doesn't make sense to me.

Well, I was just thinking yesterday that we should just eliminate the word master from our vocabulary. [laughs]

My experience, having participated in various wisdom traditions, is that the more you understand that there's no such thing as mastery, the less desirable it becomes to have any self-concept like that.

Because these wisdom traditions are, in my view, my experience, just an endless adventure. They are inexhaustible.

So you could never come to the end of them. And that's one of the things that's so wonderful about them.

They are lifelong studies. You are a lifelong student.

And that isn't to say that we have to be fakely humble about what capacities we've gained in interacting with these traditions and embodying them.

But there literally is no such thing as mastery and it is not even desirable.

It's like I've always said about games. My favorite thing about games is when you get into endless mode. Endless mode is so much more fun than end mode. Right? [laughs]

I feel like some people inherit this idea of mastery. But I feel like when you get in deep enough, it just becomes completely beside the point.

And then in terms of student-ing.... Again, that has to do with finding that heart of devotion.

There's a beautiful Kashmiri siddha—he lived in the beginning of the 10th century—named Utpaladeva. And he wrote beautiful devotional writings. The Shiva Stotravali.

And in it, he says over and over again, I just want to remain your servant. And we should understand that, on some level, the servant is the position that God most enjoys.

It's really hard to explain that. But I think we all discover that eventually, even if we start out as huge titans. And even if we start out somewhere like, I'm going to master this and master that and blah, blah, blah.

If we have some sincerity and we go deep enough and we discover that heart of devotion, we just discover that servant-ing, which is, I guess, a late form of student-ing, is really where it's at.

And we feel God is also the servant. I can't explain it. It's just one of those things that you discover.

What gets in the way for contemporary students is, first of all, many, many students of yoga studios. Or even people who have come to Jaya Kula or other similar organizations. They have only a passing understanding of these traditions.

And they understand them through the lens of American titanism. This lens of accomplishment.

Just to give one very minor example. When I was teaching in Maine... I teach this little Ayurveda self-care sequence. And this fellow came to the teaching, and he'd never studied Ayurveda before, ever.

And he walked out of the first class because there was no certificate. He only wanted a class where there was a certificate.

This is our culture being overlaid onto this kind of tradition.

And I think that student-ing is a beautiful thing in relationship to the teacher. But in relationship to the whole tradition, I think apprenticeship is a very good lens to look– or to think of oneself as an apprentice.

Because then we get some idea of the length of this.

When you're learning a trade, you don't think, I'll be done in three months and I'll get a certificate.

You know, if you're learning to make things in a trade situation, you know that it's going to take years. And that possibly you might be learning things about it for the rest of your life.

Like if someone is a ceramist, or they're making objects. You're always an apprentice in some way or another.

And I think apprenticeship is a very good model for us to begin to understand the longevity of this process. That it isn't–

Student-ing, is like, well, I'm going to be a student for the next year, but then I'm going to be a teacher. You know? It's, like, too easy to go there in this culture.

And then what do we miss? We miss everything! We miss everything.

You cannot discover the depth and beauty and transformative power of a wisdom tradition, whatever that wisdom tradition is, if you don't apprentice yourself for many, many years.

And we just have lost that understanding in this country by and large.

People who do things like paint, or write, or dance, or make things understand this. The people who are makers understand apprenticeship. There's no other way to do those things.

But barring that knowledge, barring coming into it with that, there's so many people who don't understand it.

I've been invited to teach little modules at people's yoga teacher trainings. And on some level, I'd like to do that because then maybe people would get some idea of what these traditions are actually about.

But on the other hand, when I tell people, well, I can't do teacher training because these people haven't been students yet.

Somebody will say, can you do a module on mantra in my teacher training? In my yoga studio?

I'll say, yeah, but these people will not have chanted any mantra. So how can they be teachers of this? I said, I'll do student training of mantra.

But what they're promising these people is that they'll be equipped to teach once they finish these courses.

So most of the time I just end up not doing it because it's just not serving anybody, really. So we just have to get out of that mindset.

And then, of course, in spiritual life in general, if we have an idea of what our goal is, we will be obstructed.

So, in the beginning, some sort of goal that we have might get us started. If we have some goal. I want my kundalini to rise, or something like that. That might get us going, but eventually we have to let go of all those goals.

We have to find out what's really here. We have to let wisdom be our teacher.

So that means not having a goal. That means following wisdom, not telling wisdom. Not making demands on what we want.

In addition, whatever we think is the goal is just a product of our limited condition that we're in right now.

So it requires an incredible amount of creativity, adventuresomeness, the more of a[n]... attitude of an explorer and a servant at the same time, incredible listening skills.

And just being able to go along day by day by day, slowly accreting capacity by doing practice every day.

It's just not the kind of thing that, in the United States, people are used to doing, used to expecting anyone else to tell them to do.

I so often have had people come, so, so often and say, I've been doing this mantra for three months and nothing happened. [laughs] I'm just, like, are you kidding me?

I suggested to somebody the other day that they might do Shamatha for a year. They made a derogatory sound as if this was just an absolute inappropriate thing to expect anyone to do. [laughs]

But we're lucky in this community that there are people who do want to do that and who do understand. And who are in it for the long term and doing their practice every day for many, many years. I'm very grateful for that.

In this environment, it's somewhat of a miracle.

I was just saying that practicing with Shambhavi in the morning practice has helped me to see what you are paying attention to.

And I'm realizing that I haven't paid attention to some very simple things that are in my actual bodily experience.

Well, there's a few different reasons why people don't connect in a more embodied way, in a more creative way. On the spot. In the moment way.

One of them is not recognizing what these practices actually are, what these traditions actually are.

I think that when you do recognize what they actually are—the round world aspect of them, the thoroughgoing-ness of them, what they are actually putting you in touch with—then you try to go for that.

But if you don't think about that at all and you just think that you're doing some practices. Or you just haven't gotten in touch with the non-ordinariness of life. Then it's like what I always joke around about.

If you're an alien coming to this planet for the first time and you don't know what chocolate is, you won't look for chocolate. [laughter]

That's one of the main reasons I'm doing it, is to try to break down those barriers for people.

I have so much confidence that it's painful for me. Because I know what I'm missing. I just feel so much longing to participate more deeply in reality. I have zero doubt that it's possible.

But I know I can only go how fast Ma lets me. And that's, like, I don't know, I'm sure it's schooling me in something. Tremendous patience and humility.

Since I was born, practically, I just knew that there was more to this world than I could experience.

And then when I met these traditions, I was just, like, okay, this is it.

But yet having gone for so many years practicing, and having some deepening of my ability to participate, I just know there is so much more. [laughs] Sometimes it's painful.

Could you say a little bit more about thoroughgoing-ness?

Well, there's many teachings in this tradition and also in various Tibetan traditions, Dzogchen, that the ultimate freedom is in holding no view.

Like having no view of anything that you're applying to reality. Just meeting reality fresh and new in every moment with no view. No concepts that you're organizing your responses to things with.

I mean, that is wicked thoroughgoing. [laughter]

Well, it's like never approaching anyone with the feeling of what should be happening. Never. So that's one level of thoroughgoing, which is having no prefabricated concepts about how anything should be.

And then the other thoroughgoing is what happens to your sensorium. What happens to your body, energy, and mind. What happens to your perceptions.

I've joked about this before. I wish I could [snaps] be like I was 20 years ago and [snaps] be like I am now because I think it would just be utterly startling.

My experience of my physicality, my sensitivity to energy, my ability to work directly with energy, and my experience of my mind, my experience of just radically different than it was 35+ years ago when I started. Radically different.

And yet, I'm still not enlightened. So, God knows what I'll be like if I live another 20 years or more lifetimes.

But it remakes your whole body and your energy and your mind. It creates a completely different sense of embodiment.

One of the things that you realize is that body and energy and mind are all the same thing.

And this is part of the teaching, too, if we look at the cascade of the tattvas. That all of those tattvas are expressions of each other. But that's one thing, but–

You can understand that intellectually, that they're subtle forms of body. Energy is more subtle than what we call matter, and mind is more subtle than energy. We can understand that they are versions of each other, going from subtle to gross.

But to actually be able to interact with that on a day-to-day level and have that be useful understanding is something else.

And so some of the insights that I've gained from my sadhana, which is that mind can control everything....

I can move energy in my body and in other people's bodies with my mind. Just like you would move a pencil from one place to another place on a table.

Because it's that embodied knowledge that mind and body and energy are the same, that they're expressions of each other, and that feeling of continuity with everything.

I feel a localization of a person, but I do not have any experience of being in a closed body anymore. I have an experience of being in an ocean of energy and awareness and wisdom.

That's my day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience. And it feels physically different than I used to feel.

So, in some sense, I feel like I used to feel when I would have these special spiritual experiences many years ago, where I would get shaktipat in a dream, or something would happen in my seated practice.

And I would just feel this incredible aliveness. And I would look at my body and I would see it was made out of light in addition to being flesh. And I would have that experience of myself, and it would be very, very special.

But now I just feel like that all the time.

So there's this feeling of aliveness everywhere. I can't really describe it, but just this real feeling of aliveness everywhere in my body. And now it feels normal.

I notice if it gets soggy or heavy, because I'm not in the same condition every minute or every day. But 20 years ago, it would have been like, oh, my God! I can't believe that I feel this way. [laughs]

Now it's like, oh, I feel that way all the time. And if I don't, there's something wrong and I have to do something to relax and open up again.

And then I've just come into this tremendous inheritance of devotion that I was not aware of before. And that, looking back, I can see the roots, I can see the beginnings of it even when I thought I wasn't aware of it before.

But this feeling of open-heartedness and devotion that's not completely even all the time, but is with me all the time in some way or another.

And that feels like the greatest freedom I've gained so far.

I mean, it's fun to play with energy and blah, blah, blah, but the greatest freedom really for me has come in just feeling love for everybody and not having to count anybody out.

That feels like freedom, and it's very relaxing.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.