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.





on MineCraft and Garudas pt. 2

IMG_3715Progressive education is leaning into the challenge of a slogan that serves the development of critical intelligence- “teaching not what to think but how to think.”  But an element that is often missing here is not about thinking at all.  It’s how we feel.  Being smart enough is not humanity’s challenge right now.  It’s whether we feel good enough to wield our intelligence with creative bravery.

The element that instructs and informs feeling is culture.  Culture isn’t made by a teacher, a parent, a student or a child.  It’s an entire environment.  It goes beyond individuals, which is why it’s powerful.

Shambhala represents brave culture.  It is based on the vision of creating good society.  “Creating” implies an outrageous trust in humanity and its ability to wield power.  It’s not difficult to find examples of the abuse of power in history and in the world today, but power is not inherently corrupt.  It is an expression that is vivid and potent.  It can be artful, compassionate, and clear.

The way the world is today is simply a creation- the expression of someone’s story and values.  We have to accept the challenge of living in this world as it is, but we don’t have to swallow the stories that go with it.  If they’re stealing our power we should drop them, not feed them to our children.  Other stories are available, ones that can unleash our power and help us create the world we long for.

The whole story of Shambhala culture and power is symbolized by the Tiger, Lion, Garuda, and Dragon.  They represent an unfolding feeling of fullness, intelligence and power that prowls through our lives, soars in our bellies, dances in our magical heart of possibility, waiting to be uncovered.   When we feel good and powerful as we are, we can learn and create without fear.  We can fully participate in our world.

like birds eating throw up on the sidewalk

IMG_3358Today I took my middle school class on a field trip via city bus.  On the drive my eye fell on the text message the guy sitting in front of me was writing. It said, “Like birds eating throw up on the sidewalk.”

Full confession: I spied on his conversation for the next few minutes.  Here’s how it went.

Girl: What?

Guy: The kids on this bus.

Girl: Oh, hate that.

Guy: I’m surrounded by them.

Girl: Pleasant…

Guy: If they don’t stop screaming I’m going to kill someone.

Girl: Shouldn’t their teacher be handling that?

Guy: He’s not doing anything.

I had a small avalanche of thoughts in response to this.  None of them were guilt about snooping on someone’s private conversation, although I’m now thinking they should have been.  My first thought was to wonder if my class was actually being disruptive, and if I had become so inoculated to teenagers that I was out of touch with acceptable energy levels for public spaces.  But as I paid more attention I decided my students were actually behaving well within parameters.  They were definitely bubbly and excited and chatty and laughing, but they were not screaming.  They were staying in their seats.  No one was swearing.

So then I had a maybe cynical thought.  Is the true purpose of school to corral the youthful rabble and protect civilized society from it during working hours?

And then I thought about how easy it would be for me to utterly subdue my students into quiet passivity– all I would need to do is give them permission to use their electronic devices.  Then they would stop relating to each other and reacting to things outside the windows and so on.  They would blend right in.

And then as we drove on I felt moved by the life and edge and brightness my students exuded and infused into the space around them.

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.

care for a cookie?

img_28903.jpgTeaching is a questionable undertaking.

Most of the teachers I have known have good hearts and and are willing to work hard, often for few tangible rewards, to help their students succeed.  No matter how rewarding, teaching is a challenging endeavour under the best circumstances, which rarely come together. Many teachers work in very difficult systems, and loss of heart is common.

But that’s not what makes it questionable.  It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or if we’re not sure whether we’re making a difference.  Teachers know that teaching is worthwhile, no matter the challenges.  What is questionable is our assumption that we know what we are teaching.

If we think of teaching as simply passing  knowledge from one person to another, it’s a fairly simple matter, like making a cookie and handing it to someone to eat. We know how to spell, so we teach someone, and then they can spell.  That’s a good thing in itself, but that’s not all that happens.  Teaching is a social interaction that taps into some of the most volatile forces embedded in society.  So much is transmitted and communicated beyond the facts and figures of what is being taught on the surface.  It looks like a cookie, but it’s a nuclear bomb.

All social interactions have invisible dynamics in that we are always communicating more than the simple content of our words. Our attitude, outlook, bearing, eyes, tone, and the whole environment determine the feeling of the interaction.   In the teaching relationship those dynamics are heightened.  The hierarchy of teacher and student contains a treasury of unspoken implications.  Foremost among these is that the student must be open, on some level, in order to receive whatever is being taught.  What comes with openness is vulnerability.  Even just showing up in the role of a student invokes a degree of vulnerability.  Being a learner implies that you have something to learn- you don’t know something, and that makes you humble and soft.  The student is vulnerable to the teacher and the environment, and this meeting in the space of vulnerability brings a quality of intimacy to the relationship.  In this intimate space of communication, many lessons are being transmitted.  These are lessons of culture, values, how we are as people interacting, assumptions about human nature and society, and perhaps most importantly, how to relate with that feeling of vulnerability itself.  Knowingly or not, through our example, we are modelling and teaching how to be as human beings.  This is the inner curriculum, and although it is probably more important than the outer curriculum of academics in shaping the character of individuals and influencing the direction of society, it goes largely unacknowledged in the realm of education.

This is why “teaching” is questionable.  If we acknowledge the influence of the inner curriculum, teaching without intentionally examining and developing it is a failure to acknowledge the true influence of education.  It’s unclear what we and the whole environment are actually transmitting, though it most predictably defaults to the status quo.

On the other hand, there is something unsettlingly presumptuous about the notion of intentionally shaping the “character” and fundamental outlook of students.  What credentials do we have to do so?  What training have we gone through, and who agrees on the intended outcomes?

broken leaf

leaf enso Walking from here to there on any given day we might encounter, among other things, a broken leaf on the sidewalk.  Most likely, we will not see it.  Our eyes see it, but our minds are elsewhere, preoccupied with things that matter.  The leaf does not matter.  Not only is it merely a leaf, it’s a broken leaf.  It’s not even worth pressing in a book or capturing in a photo.  It doesn’t effect us, it won’t help us accomplish any of our urgent tasks, it’s boring.

Except that the leaf is the entire universe.

There are some valid reasons why we don’t see it.  This is the age of inundation.  The demands on our time and our attention are overwhelming, and the speed of daily life is increasing.  As we find new ways to be efficient we find ourselves more tightly bound to efficiency. Our schedules command our bodies to move swiftly from place to place.  Our attention is not only absorbed in our media, our media demands our constant participation.  The ocean of entertainment is all around us. We are in the deluge. So it might seem natural and practical that as we navigate this landscape of sensory and intellectual input we do so from a slight distance.  Watching and observing the flood of experiences from a remove, we numb our senses and close our minds and hearts to the vast display of life.  Imagining our life as a story, we naturally assume ourselves the protagonist.  When we experience events that we consider pleasurable, or important to the story, we try to pay attention to them.  If we are eating an ice cream cone or proposing marriage, ideally we are really experiencing the moment.  But when our experience has no bearing on the story, if we are just waiting for an elevator, or if there is a chilly breeze, we tune out. That moment, when we decide that our experience is not worthy of our attention, is very meaningful.  We may think we are simply judging the broken leaf on the sidewalk as unimportant.  But that moment of perception is our moment. For that moment there is nothing else.   In that moment, that experience is our entire life. The Shambhala tradition teaches that our humanity is fundamentally whole, worthy, and good.  We have the inherent capacity to be fully alive in each moment of our life.  Most of us do not feel complete and fully worthy in our lives.  We long for meaning, but we search for it outside of ourselves because we have forgotten the goodness and wholeness that we already possess.  On the most basic level, it all comes down to how we relate to our moment by moment experience of being human.  As William Carlos Williams wrote,

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
We all have the innocence of fresh, childlike perception within us.  It’s simply a matter of rediscovering how to be open, as opposed to preoccupied; alive, as opposed to zombified.  It’s not that everyone has to constantly write poems about each white chicken and post pictures of every pretty flower petal on Facebook.  It’s a question of whether we feel good as we are, or whether we constantly need some kind of remedy for an unending sense of anxiety.
This is not just a matter of how we feel as individuals. Our entire culture and society revolve around this simple dichotomy.  If we feel that on an elemental level we are broken, then the culture and society that we perpetuate will be broken; an elaborate ceremony that continuously reinforces a sense of something missing.  On the other hand, knowing we are complete and good in our beings we express and live a world that reflects wholeness and celebrates humanity. We don’t have to seek far and wide to find the wisdom we need to build a better world. It’s present in every instant of our human experience.  Sharing a moment with a broken leaf, we can begin to create an unbroken culture.