spring of well-being

cloud moment

“In Shambhala, the constant application of not giving up on ourselves is known as discipline. It is not that we have made a mistake and need discipline to correct it.  Rather, it is that we have not made a mistake, and we need to be constantly reminded of this.” – Sakyong Mipham

In order to work with discipline in relation to our students, it is a given that we need a foundation of discipline within ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we are always willing to endure the most pain, and push ourselves even harder than we push others.  It also does not mean we only care for others, and hold ourselves with such low regard that we can be eternally sacrificed.  It means we enjoy an inner sense of spacious goodness and health from which we operate.

Our practice of discipline has to do with gently returning to well-being.  If we feel that the jungle of coarse thoughts and habits in our being is too thick to change we may not want to even begin.  This little trick of shame gives us the impression that winter can never become spring.  A little leap of faith is necessary.  We need to work with ourselves where we are, connecting with a fresh moment of appreciation, and letting it go.  We don’t have to analyze or check to see if we are building ourselves up.  Like e.e. cummings’ writes,

Spring is like a perhaps hand…

moving a perhaps

fraction of flower here placing

an inch of air there…

With these tiny moments of worthiness we begin a transformation.  It begins with a seed of trust in our own being and becomes an entire environment that includes others.

like a lion licking your face

fsp-Snow-LionThe path of the Lion is connected with discipline and joy.  Do the words “discipline and joy” go together for you?  Here, discipline is not about rules and their enforcement.  The outer level of form, rules, protocols, manners, and rituals is important to attend to carefully.  But those forms should be a support and reflection of a more inner feeling, the culture we wish to develop.  Whether a school practices a precise, martial level of outer discipline or a reactionary freedom from rules of any kind, it’s the teacher who holds the feeling and intention of those forms within.  If that feeling is a lack of trust in herself or her students, the outer expression becomes controlling and harsh.  Before long the teacher is exhausted and burnt out.

Lacking trust in ourselves as teachers begins as a natural and inevitable feeling of shakiness and tenderness. Part of us fears that we’re frauds, that we don’t have anything of value to offer, that we will be boring or even despised, and that we don’t know how to handle the living dynamics of the classroom with skill.  If we solidify those fears we’ll try to use the outer discipline of the classroom as a shield.

Lacking trust in our students is not seeing their basic goodness and intelligence.  If we see our students as worthless, and education as a means of turning them into something worthy, we’ll try to use the outer discipline as a whip.

Because these doubts arise for all of us as a natural aspect of working with others, discipline needs to be an inner practice for the teacher.  This does not mean dividing ourselves in two, with one side watching, pushing, scolding and correcting the other.  It means trusting that given the right conditions, seeds will grow into beautiful plants and flowers.  Brilliant expressions of creativity, love, and intelligence are in our nature.  Our culture of learning and discipline can be like a trellis supporting their growth.

This practice is well summed up in the Shambhala slogan, “Take delight in others and propagate dignity.”  Delighting in others, even though they may behave poorly, be disrespectful or disinterested, depends on our ability to see them in the light of trust and care.  To begin with, we have to notice that others are there.  The discipline is to see past our self-preoccupation, our lesson plans, what we think is going on, and suddenly, actually see.  It’s a joy to do so, like a lion licking our face.



gentle and tough

IMG_4008Gentleness is nice and all, but it’s a tough world out there.  We can’t always live in a protected world of soft things, kind people, and the sounds of running water.  There are harsh realities in this world.  Some parents choose to send their children to tough schools for this reason, to acclimate them to the hard side of things.

I’ve heard that in some Inuit societies young children are allowed to handle sharp knives, despite the likelihood of getting cut. The use of knives is such a basic element of everyday life, that learning to handle and respect them early, through experiential education, is the norm.

Without  doubt, one way or another individuals need to come to terms with the hard edges of life– the cold winds, the burdens of everyday duties, not having what we want, harsh words, competition, and the sheer aggression that is an aspect of our society.  For some, that aggression is an everyday reality, a part of their family or school culture, or a presence on the streets they traverse.  How do we educate our children to relate with this part of the world?  What sort of culture do we want to develop around the truth of aggression?

We love our children and we want them to flourish, to succeed, and especially to survive.  We want to keep them safe, but we don’t want to keep them weak.  So what is the best way to teach them to be tough, resilient, and powerful?

In a traditional sense, it is the role of the father lineage to transmit these qualities and introduce the hard world.  In our culture, this transmission has become tremendously confused and perverted.  The qualities of toughness, fearlessness, and the ability to meet our world with power have been  thoroughly mashed together with aggression and egotism.

At the core of our encounter with life is our feeling about ourselves.  Generally we experience aggression as something that points toward a negative feeling, the sense that there is something lacking, inadequate, lesser, or unworthy in us.   This sense of lack is the seed of aggression within us.  Our culture waters this seed in many ways,  through competition– the premise that we could prove our worth by succeeding in comparison to others; materialism– the premise that we could be worthy if we had more; and through intimidation– threats of punishment if we don’t accept our lack of power.  In the world of children and teens, these forces loom large.  They speak through peers, parents, teachers, and media, and result in rage, depression, and apathy.

In order to meet and transform this culture we need to begin from nonaggression, a ground of trust in human beings.  As teachers we must develop this trust personally. Trusting ourselves we have no need to convince others by deception.  Knowing a trust in ourselves that is basic and true, we can trust our students. This is a deep trust, not a calculating one. It doesn’t ask our students to prove they are worthy of it, that’s the territory of aggression. It holds their entire being, which may be full of doubt, depression, anger, and frivolity, in a great embrace of trust and kindness.

Once the poet and Zen master Ryokan was invited to dinner by the parents of a teenage boy who was developing an angry and rebellious disposition. The parents hoped the priest would impart some words of wisdom to the boy and maybe set him straight. The evening progressed, but the parents were disappointed, as Ryokan said not a word to the lad.  As Ryokan prepared to depart, the boy bent to assist the honoured guest with his sandals.  Tying on a sandal the boy felt a drop of moisture on the back of his neck. Looking up he saw the face of Ryokan gazing down at him, smiling slightly, his eyes wet with tears.  After this, though the priest had said nothing to him, the boy’s attitude shifted.

Basic trust is the seed of a different culture, the “culture of no mistake.” This is an environment of basic acceptance and worthiness, in which one need not constantly compensate for an underlying sense of inadequacy.  No one has made a fundamental mistake, therefore we can make relative mistakes, we can be who we are, seeing our shortcomings without feeling guilty.

Learning to relate with aggression in an aggressive, fearful environment is like watering seeds with gasoline. Flames may spring up, not likely flowers.

Gentleness does not produce weakness.  From the ground of nonaggression we can begin to relate with the sharp edges of our world.  With trust in ourselves we can finger a sword’s blade.  We can take an insult.  We can feel cold rain on our face.  We can fuck up and apologize.  We can say, “NO,” when we need to.  We can compete when we want to, and we can turn competition off when it’s not called for.  Knowing the yang, we can keep to the yin.

Everyone needs the culture of no mistake.  We should create it for ourselves at least. If we can share it with another, that’s society.  Some people’s lives are full of aggression.  You may be the only genuine reference point they have.





serving like a tiger

Facebook_Graffiti_Tiger_by_kevhaoThe Tiger phase of practice has to do with learning to trust in our being, which is gentleness or nonaggression.  It is about the cultivation of contentment, a sense of being full as opposed to insatiably insecure in our body and mind.  If you gaze at a tiger at rest, even in the zoo, it emanates a sense of pure, intense tigerness.  It doesn’t seem to have one iota of preoccupation, wondering if it should be more like a zebra.  It is this fullness of ease with ourselves that forms the foundation for any kind of meaningful personal development, as well as for teaching others.

In order to cultivate this embodied level of gentleness we can begin with an attitude of service.  It’s too early to think about teaching others at this point, but we don’t have to think of this as being something that is just about us.  By learning to practice self-kindness we are making a great offering to others.  We are directly addressing the issue of how we are in the environment we share.

For teachers it’s essential to recognize how important a personal practice is.  As my friend Ethan said–this is one place where trickle down theory actually makes sense.

on MineCraft and Garudas pt. 1

IMG_3717Recently my 7 year old son discovered MineCraft, a relatively benign video game that involves building worlds, kingdoms, domains, palaces, whatever you wants, out of blocks and chunks of pixelated nothing.

CBC recently ran a piece on MineCraft and education.  Some teachers are embracing the game as a teaching tool.  They interviewed a class or school club that was all about it. They talked about how it works, how it engages young people, the skills it delivers, and resources available for parents to help their children get started.  The students described a tower or temple they had built in the club.  They were clearly proud and excited about it and reported that it had taken either two hours or two months to build (different kids said different things–cute.)  At the end, the teacher said that the point was that here, in MineCraft, these students can experience something they can’t in real life- the experience of creating something.

Whether or not MineCraft, or video games in general, have any virtue, educational or otherwise is not what this provoked for me.  It was the underlying feeling of the last statement that left an impression.

In real life you can’t create a tower.

There is a tangle here that needs to be unravelled with careful bravery.  When we feel that the momentum of society will play itself out, and that the general direction is toward entropy and defeat of humanity, there is a feeling that we can’t really do anything.  We can’t really build anything, or at least we can’t build anything worthy.  Even if we could create something, the things society has built have proven corrupt and destructive.  Empire building has brought about massive human destruction, business building has brought rampant environmental destruction.  The effigies of ego wrought by acts of creation are no longer appropriate.

With that feeling in the background, the way forward seems to be either passive or critical.  The passive approach is to assume there is nothing to do but survive in this world.  We must gather the skills and conditions we need to get by and hopefully have some fun.  Life is experienced mostly as a screen- something to watch and respond to, but not to fundamentally shape, unless we are literally in screen world, playing MineCraft.  We don’t feel like full participants in the co-creation of society.

The critical approach is about taking things apart and revealing their weaknesses.  This approach is sharper, more engaged, and highly intelligent.  It is being wary of assumptions, and examining complexity.  It is seeing through the surface stories and appearances of things, unveiling the hidden stories in Disney movies, smelling the starvation in a cup of Starbucks.  Higher education is especially geared toward this approach, but its ethos is not limited to academia.  It pervades our culture (we weren’t really surprised by Robb Stark’s demise were we?  It was his fate for having the audacity to embark on a noble venture, and for being a character in a postmodern novel).

We need this active, swordlike intelligence.  Without it we would be in the Middle Ages or the Tea Party.  The problem is the way it intertwines with the passive, defeated mind frame and yields up a sense of nihilistic pointlessness.  We feel that everything falls apart under analysis, revealing its underlying corruption.  So the only safe place to build a tower is in a fake world.

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.”

um…where is this train even going?

Whether or not we think in these terms, our lives and our activities are in service to something.

Our duty is to become good ancestors.  Thus we must practice being good and true servants.  In order to be a true servant, to have a heart that serves with purity and fullness, one must know what one serves.

Ideally, education serves society.  Conventionally, an educated society helps society progress and flourish.  What we learn in school and how we learn to be imprints our cultural traditions and values.  Education is generally seen as a service profession, and is arguably devoted by nature to a collective benefit.  It’s interesting then how the codependent forces of individualism and materialism that hold sway in modern society interact with our educational motivations.  For an institution that has a natural basis in service and collective welfare, there tends to be a disproportionate embodiment of individualism and competition. Basic schooling is frequently rationalized as a necessary means to the goal of further education, and ultimately employment.  The spectre of social failure is implied, and sometimes invoked directly, as a goad to personal motivation for students.  Success in the world, seen as a finite resource, is something to be won, Hunger Games style, from our peers.  And this competitive spirit trickles down into the school years.  These days even pre-school children are expected to be hitting learning objectives to get them on the train toward higher education.

For now, let’s set aside the fact that the train is fucking broken.  Society and the economy no longer function such that “a good education” (for middle class white people) is more or less a guarantee of a good job. More important is the question of what kind of society this entire approach is preparing students for, what kind of culture it embodies, and ultimately what it is in service to.

David Loy writes, “Today the values of a liberal education are increasingly subordinated to, if not swallowed by, the demands of the marketplace.  Schooling is becoming little more than exam preparation and job training.  this deference to market values reflects our preoccupation with money, which from a Buddhist perspective is upside down.  In a spiritually healthy society, the most important institutions, which would receive the greatest social attention and therefore the greatest share of resources, would be schools. Instead of economic development as the ultimate goal or end-in-itself, such a society would evaluate itself according to how well educated (in the broadest sense of the term) its members were and wanted to be.  This understanding of education includes culture, not in the sense of entertainment but in the root meaning of self-cultivation.” (The Great Awakening, pg.33)

In order to explore “self-cultivation,” an inquiry into the “self” is in order.  The Shambhala tradition shares similarities with a variety of Eastern and Western contemplative traditions in which the self is not viewed as an independent, self-existing entity, but as a nexus of relationships.  As humans we are, in a sense, inherently social, in that we exist in association with others, with the earth, with the dralas.  Self-cultivation then, has to do with cultivating our whole being, which is not separate from our relationships, from nature, or from our world altogether.  Since this connectivity is inherent, “cultivating” is simply becoming aware, or becoming educated.

The wonderful Confucian scholar Tu Wei Ming writes, “Education is more than the mere acquisition of knowledge…it is a holistic way of learning to be human.  In Confucian terms, such learning is defined as ‘learning for the sake of the self,’ ‘the learning of the heart-mind and nature,’ or ‘learning to be a profound person.’  It is misleading, however, to assume that Confucian learning is a quest for individual happiness or inner spirituality.  Rather, far from being ‘individualistic,’ Confucian learning is a communal act… The self as a center of relationships is inevitably interconnected with an ever-expanding network of human-relatedness.”

An education that cultivates a living relationship with society, and a vibrant sense of the whole person as integrally related to the world, is somewhat more compelling than one that seeks to create a society of successful consumers.  It could be a way of serving and fostering a culture that folds the spirit of good ancestry into the future.