Back To School; Jaws of the Crocodile

“It really was a wild one, but summer has come and gone/ A lot of nice people faaaaaaaaaade away…” –Butthole Surfers

I had a dream the other night that I was in my classroom and some of the other teachers were there watching me, along with my students, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.  I wonder if anyone could possibly interpret this dream for me?

We all feel anxiety when it’s time to go back to school, and that anxiety is due to habitual patterns.  Well…and students.  And parents.  And coworkers.  And meetings. And work.  But pretty much it’s habitual patterns.

Habitual patterns are ways we try to get through our lives unscathed by reality.  They are the ways we harden against the world rather than letting it touch us in all its bittersweet fullness. For many, many people, work is a realm of habitual patterns with few opportunities for space. With no space there’s no appreciation, and without appreciation there’s no kindness, and without kindness it’s pretty much wall-to-wall suffering.

 It’s amazing that for teachers there is actually a built in cycle of the seasons which can allow us space to experience different times of the year in different ways.  We have seasons of work and seasons of renewal.  And when we feel the first crisp, smoky breezes of autumn we know it’s time to turn our mind back toward work.  It’s time to start looking into the nitty gritty preparations.  As Trungpa Rinpoche once described, when we begin a new venture, at first we are so inspired by the vast possibilities, but soon we find ourselves in the jaws of the crocodile.

A student asked him, What do you do then?

He replied, Examine every tooth.

We know we can’t escape, so now is the time for attending to the details as we prepare for the campaign of a new year. But as our attention is drawn into the realities of schedules and supplies and tasks, we also have an opportunity to create a new pattern, one that will reverse the inward-tightening spiral of habitual patterns and create simplicity in the midst of our daily routines.  Before we are completely swept back into the flow, we can decide to establish space for ourselves to be with ourselves.  This is forming the habit of meditation practice.

Dinastia_liao,_luohan_(arhat),_da_hebei,_907-1125_ca.The idea of meditation practice by itself is not helpful.  But actually practicing meditation creates a gap in which we can rest our minds and nurture ourselves with kindness and innate goodness.  We need to make this a part of our routine.  Creating this gap disrupts the mindless momentum of habits.

Practice is not just for our own well being.  Sitting is a proclamation of the heart.  It’s defiance of business as usual.  It’s how we care for humanity.

Sitting is a ceremony of honouring our inheritance.  It’s a practice of respecting ourselves, appreciating our existence.  With respect for ourselves we can remember to practice respecting our work.  We don’t have to like our work all the time.  Work is often challenging and problematic, but if we don’t respect our work it becomes a ceremony of drudgery, a theatre of habitual patterns.  We should honour our time, our activity, our place, and the people who share those things as sacred.  We don’t have to make a big deal about any of it–sacred is ordinary, but ordinary is not mundane.

Warm regards and best of luck going back to school!



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.”

educating the sky

little princeChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a text on how to educate a prince, someone who would grow up to be a wise, compassionate, skilful, and joyous leader.  The text states that the prince’s education should occur in an environment free of jealousy and competition, and that those who raise the prince should not think in terms of raising a child in a conventional sense.  Rather, they should take the attitude that they are educating the sky.  Then the prince will begin to have inquisitiveness toward the world, developing wonder about the details and processes of things.

Every student is a prince or princess, an heir of the royal family of human dignity, and a potential ruler of future society.  They possess a mind that is vast as the sky, and a heart that is pure, oceanic, and delicate as a drop of rain.  These qualities of mind and heart exist within all of us.  They may have largely been forgotten, but they’ve never been lost.  A true holistic education is one that fosters the rediscovery and blossoming of these qualities as well as the teaching of knowledge and skills.

The basis for this approach is innate goodness, knowing the students to be good, worthy in themselves, holders of true dignity, and worthy of great care and attention.  This is not to say that they are entitled to special treatment, or that they should be pampered and spoiled.  Trungpa Rinpoche’s text also emphasizes great discipline.  But discipline, learning, and the entire realm of education can be practiced as an appreciation and support of goodness.  Rather than beginning from the perspective of a problem to be remedied, we take an extraordinary leap of kindness, and hold the view of confidence in the natural perfection of human beings.

It is the student’s sense of this goodness, and its manifestation as self-respect, that becomes the fertile soil for the cultivation of the full human being, what we call education.  As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes, “emphasizing human dignity as an educational foundation brings to students an inherent respect for themselves.  The transfer of knowledge can then occur, and the discovery of wisdom is appreciated, which leads us to acknowledge the worthiness of others.  If we doubt our own dignity, no matter how much education we receive, we will always feel inadequate.” (Shambhala Principle, pg. 180)

In our capitalist, credential-oriented culture it is often the assumption that respect and worthiness are conditional, to be granted upon success.  The successful student learns to view their self-respect as earned, as opposed to inherent- it is the product of their choices, intelligence and hard work.  The worthiness of others is then measured by their degree of success.  Lack of success in others is simply a reflection of the level of worthiness they chose to earn.  Conversely, planting the experience of “failure” in the soil of unworthiness yields further crops of self-doubt.  In either case there is inadequacy, either of compassion or of confidence, as we have begun with a foundation of mistrust in our beings.

Teachers tend to be immensely practical, and this approach of great trust in human nature may seem naive or excessively philosophical.  However, many teachers were inspired by a teacher they had who showed great faith in them, even if they themselves had lost heart or felt unworthy.  What we see in our students and what we assume about them, not just about what they can do, but about who they are on the deepest level, determines everything that follows.  It is a matter of the greatest practicality.