setting the fire of knowledge

IMG_3161If we approach education as working with the whole person, and as forming the building blocks of society, our practice needs to begin with a good foundation.  Holding a view of human goodness may offer a profound glimpse of possibility, and aspiring to foster a meaningful and compassionate society may be an inspiring mandate.  But left in the realm of ideas, these principles can easily be swept away by the speed of daily demands and piled onto the heap of potentially helpful concepts that we have accumulated.

When we teach we come face to face with a great deal of energy.  We encounter and feel the state of mind and body of our students.  Their attention, body language, and tone of voice combines with the ineffable presence of what they carry in as cultural energy- the feelings they have from home, society, and everything that has happened that day.  In some schools the classes are large and unruly, and may even feel dangerous.  Some days the students may be utterly disengaged.  In other cases our classes may be cute, tender and earnest.  Adults sometimes frown and grimace when they sit in a class, which can be unnerving for a teacher, but may simply be a sign of thinking deeply.  In any case, encountering the raw, human energy of our students can be quite intense.  Principles which have not been deeply layered into our beings through training and practice are quickly forgotten, or else they float around as concepts meant to help and guide the class, but don’t really land in any tangible way.  Unsure of how to handle the energy of the situation we quickly defer to the content of the class and focus on our duty to deliver it.  The inner curriculum is easily overwhelmed by the outer curriculum.

In order to begin living into a more full sense of teaching, we need a means for grounding our principles in experience.  In the Shambhala tradition we often refer to “holding the view,” which means actually meeting our lives and living situations from the perspective of wisdom, or basic goodness.  By contrast, “losing the view” is what happens when we follow the path of habitual patterns based on fear.  The image of “holding” is helpful.  The view, like pure water, can slip through our fingers.  We need a way to gather it and to actually hold it.  Like a good cup of tea we can hold it in our hands, then we can feel its warmth, and we can offer it to someone if we wish.

The starting place for crafting a good tea cup is friendship.  Friendship is what allows us to open to the view, to trust in the goodness and natural intelligence of ourselves and others.  Friendship provides a basic environment in which teaching can take place.  It is an open space that allows the hierarchical nature of teaching to function.  In other words, teacher and students can meet together in the space of friendship as humans, and can then engage in the activity of being teacher and student.  Without that ground, the hierarchy may be felt as an insult to the students.  Or the teacher may feel inadequate, improperly credentialed.  Sometimes teachers feel that their power resides in that hierarchy, which is only maintained by their superior knowledge, thus they don’t actually want their students to learn.  Beginning with friendship is actually very humble, again like a simple tea cup, and open, providing space for possibilities.

Chogyam Trungpa addresses this basic relationship.  “When we talk about education, we are not talking purely in terms of making the illiterate literate.  We’re not particularly talking about a learning process which constantly delivers a tremendous slap on the face and exposes your stupidity, a process in which the more you’re confronted with learned people, the more stupid you feel.  We’re not talking about education as a form of insult to the learner.  That has been the problem all along.  The form of education we’re talking about is a celebration… First of all, a meeting of the minds has to take place; you have to acknowledge your own existence and that of your teacher or teachers… The teacher’s attitude is no longer that he or she is dealing with ignorant people, but instead that he is dealing with tremendous intelligence on the student’s part.  Some kind of spark is taking place, some new form of friendship.  So the teacher and the student form a tremendous friendship.” (Education for an Enlightened Society, 1978)

We might fear that our students don’t want to be friends with us, but that’s not really the point.  Here Trungpa Rinpoche’s instruction for the student is also the basis for the teacher: “you have to acknowledge your own existence.”  The relationship begins with ourselves, acknowledging our own existence and beginning to make a friendly relationship with ourselves.  Then we do not feel threatened by the energy of the students, and we can begin to include them in the atmosphere of friendship.  This doesn’t mean being chummy and trying to get the students to like us particularly.  It is more that we begin from an open and nonaggressive space.  As Rinpoche also says, “we should not mistake that to mean that the teacher is being casual, being nice to the student in a free-style manner.  This kind of friendship is based on mutual understanding.  And this kind of friendship could become the kindling wood with which you set the fire of knowledge.”

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