My previous “Calling a Spade a Spade” post is about telling the truth–– something our world desperately needs at this exact moment in time. Each of us has to talk about the truth, within our seemingly small and insignificant spheres of life, however uncomfortable or however much it may threaten our reputations. Our integrity and identity need to be taken seriously. It matters. But apparently there was a bit of confusion over the topic of that post, so I would like to clarify what in the world yoga has to do with the problems I am seeing within education today.
Who Am I?
The central topic of this post, then, is about the question, Who am I? or even perhaps more specifically, Who am I trying to be in my life vs. What am I trying to do in my life? One is about values, meaning and purpose, while the other is about practical goals to achieve “success.” Figuring out the answer to this question over the past two years in my own life generated this very Landscapes for Learning project. It turns out that I discovered my goals weren’t in line with my values, so I chose authentic living over and above expedience. YOLO, and I could no longer compromise my own values about learning which conflicted too often with my employer’s. If I cannot teach with integrity then who am I?
My Bikram yoga practice has led me, and continues to lead me, to the truth of who I am through a continual rediscovery of self, a continuous reconnection with authenticity. I am trying to express myself here, on this blog, honestly and candidly as part of an ongoing, life-long process of learning across the landscapes. I am not necessarily trying to make friends here (although that would be great!) nor am I trying to make enemies or alienate people! I am simply trying to voice my truth and invite people into a dialogue about the things I care about.
At home with my four grown children, in high school, and in the Bikram yoga community– these are the spaces in which I live; this is my tiny sphere of influence; this is where my reputation matters. Because these places are where I both learn and teach, obviously they shape my perspective. I have also been influenced by a number of intellectuals, writers, poets, psychologists, yogis, and podcasters from whom I have learned a tremendous amount about the nature of what it means to be human, therefore informing what it means to be me (see list below). Writers write about what they know. I am simply sharing the overlaps and interplay between both worlds of learning, which I discovered in my observations, experiences, and personal research. I am writing about what matters to me.
It turns out that the principles I learned for myself, by myself, through my Bikram yoga practice are the very same principles that I believe are needed in contemporary parenting and public schooling. If we applied such character-building principles to the education process, it might help parents to parent better and kids to learn more authentically. Schools might be able to create a more balanced curriculum based on an updated value system that focuses on exploring inner landscapes as well as the external landscapes for learning. And perhaps, I hope, this shift and rebalancing, would help address some part of the mental health crisis among teens. Bikram yoga is, afterall, a healing process. Although a focus on self-understanding, wisdom, and self-actualization is missing in lots of other areas throughout our culture, my focus is on my own limited range of experience which is within the world of teaching high school English, parenting, and Bikram yoga. This is my unique path, my niche, my angle.
The Landscapes for Learning mission is to revive authentic forms of learning and rebalance it with the aims of schooling– “balance” being the key term. Like yoga, my writing is about integration, connection to self, wholeness, and the kind of learning that comes from traveling both inward and across the varied landscapes of life, not just limited to within school or the academic realm.
Facing Discomfort as the New Normal
To understand oneself, to answer “who am I?” requires a deep and consistent exploration of one’s inner landscape. This question arises (sometimes subconsciously and later may or may not surface to consciousness) when a person steps into the Bikram yoga room and looks into their own eyes in the mirror in front of them, under very bright lights. The mirror and lights are a spotlight on the self, and the conditions for the practice are meant to challenge the practitioner with discomfort. This crucial experience is what we have stolen away from kids by overly-focusing on achievement. Individuals in the yoga room are confronted with the question, Who is that person looking back at me? It is a very difficult question for many people to grapple with; some who try Bikram yoga might not come back because the discomfort is too much– it’s simply too hard. Those who remain learn to face their own pain and suffering. Over time, with effort and grit, they become more agile and flexible in body and mind. They wrestle with their inner world- their emotional bodies and their monkey-minds. They learn through an often difficult and painful process of trial and error. They grow. Adolescents and teenagers are asking this same “who am I,” question often– whether subconsciously or intentionally. They begin to grapple with the notion of identity and experiment with their own. Their bodies are changing, hormones are raging, the limbic system is still trying to figure out how to work better with the pre-frontal cortex that continues to grow into their early twenties (Sapolsky). They likely spend lots of time either in front of mirrors or avoiding them. They need teachers and parents to guide them through this very important period of their development, but not take away their struggles— their opportunities for authentic growth however painful. We damage them through over-protection.
This deep and difficult exploration of one’s inner landscape to answer the question of who am I should be something we teach our children early on, at home and in school, so they can become more consciously aware of the existence of their inner world rather than carried away entirely or unconsciously manipulated by the outer world that will most certainly define their identity without their conscious consent. They don’t have to practice the physical asanas of yoga per se (but they could and should because the body and mind work together), but they really ought to embrace raja yoga in combination with exercise and a commitment to physical health.
Unfortunately we can never be another person, no matter how close we are or how much we love them; we can empathize with them, but only to the degree that we first understand ourselves; everyone has to travel their own path and shoulder the responsibility of knowing oneself. Talking about identity as a theme in English class can help; great stories, especially archetypal or universally applicable ones can be great models; however, an academic exercise isn’t the only kind of learning kids need. They need explicit instruction, including regular practice and failure, to learn how to become the hero of their own lives which has to take place in their real, live journey to the self, not just within some artificially constructed simulation. It’s a solo mission for each of us, but parents and teachers have to be competent examples and guides through their own deep, inner work. And they can’t help kids too much. Less is more.
Attention, Concentration, Meditation
The external world is a enormous sea of information that contains messages about who kids should be, how they should feel and act, what they should think or buy— a level of manipulation and influence like nothing we have ever seen in our world before. The world online is persistent, relentless, insidious–that is, if we allow it to dominate our attention. Is it really no wonder the levels of depression and anxiety are out of control? Is it really so surprising that so many undergraduates get swept away with identity politics? One of the more positive attempts to address this phenomenon is the Mindfulness movement which has arrived in many schools. I am glad to see this happening, unfortunately I witnessed how such attempts at teaching kids meditation get co-opted in service to external goals rather than values rooted within the inner landscape. If a teen is using meditation to relax and escape their thoughts, clear their minds so that they can perform better on a quiz the next period, that isn’t really helpful. I know we can do better in guiding kids to be connected to themselves, to become grounded in being, not merely in service to doing. Maybe kids will learn that they are “enough” and loved just as they are, not just for what they can appear to be, complete, do, or achieve.
Schools don’t focus enough, in my estimation, on the inner world of kids; perhaps because parents don’t demand it. For whatever the reasons, it does not appear to be an important value that is lived out on a daily basis. What is the focus of attention, what is at the forefront for parents and schools are grades-–the symbol of academic achievement, mastery of content knowledge and skills which is revered over and above any notion of developing inner wisdom or nurturing the process of self-actualization. But if kids can easily acquire content knowledge and skills online, a new discussion about values and answering the “why” of mandatory public education are in order. Should we take a closer look at exploring the inner landscapes and discovering the value of and within that landscape? Or should we continue with the status quo of schooling? Perhaps we can create a balance.
Love, not Fear
Unfortunately, it seems as though some schools and parents create their values from a place of fear rather than love– afraid their kids won’t survive in a knowledge-economy; fear they’ll suffer from a life of hard work; fear of losing to the competition. Fear their children will not recover from failure. Such motives seem to crowd out the desperate need for more love– a love of self, a love of authentic forms of learning.
If we, adults, continue our over-emphasis on conducting school as a business, encouraging kids to focus their attention primarily on the external landscapes; if we continue to over-value such focus on and attention to achieving goals that lack foundation in real values built within the inner landscapes; if we continue to neglect teaching kids that an inner world exists within them that is ripe for discovery and that is essential to attend to for their vitality, wholeness, and wellness, then we will continue to see our kids suffer with mental health problems like anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide, eating disorders, and senseless violence.
Too Good, No Good
Kids are malleable and easily manipulated. Most kids are good kids! But what does “good” in this context of school mean? Our definition of “good” in formal schooling appears to be limited to academic achievement and performance. Nobody gets a trophy or an A for noticing that they have an inner guide or that they developed courage because they faced a fear. They don’t get a reward for taking time for themselves to just “be.” It’s all about the “doing”– the resume building; the homework completion and consistency; the degree to which they are able to find answers; how well they score on tests, rather than to muse, reflect inward or meta-cognitively; rather than to imagine, play, or focus on observing and understanding emotions and thoughts in order to know what it means to be a human being not just a human-doing. We don’t celebrate or talk about those things– they are private, unspoken victories (if one even recognizes that this is a good thing!). Inner landscapes are none of our school business; they’re too intimate– too emotional, messy, tangled in confusion– too human. For every STEM lab there ought also be a Humanities Lab, each being valued equally! Students and teachers are in the business of school, not in the business of raising human beings. Such inner-world accomplishments and authentic growth and development aren’t tangible or measurable– so therefore within the narrow confines of school, they don’t hold real value. If they aren’t on the transcript, they just don’t count.
As well, because we adults jump in and do everything for our kids and over-protect, because we manipulate their environments and pad them for safety and sanitize them, because we insist kids remain within the safety of the indoors, because we hardly ever leave them to their own devices among their peers (because we are, again, working from fear) without constant adult supervision or cheerleading from the sidelines, we ultimately rob kids of the crucial and necessary opportunities to explore their inner landscapes in authentic ways (Haidt). We don’t afford them the opportunity to learn authentically—that is, to be uncomfortable through the process of trial and error so that they can develop self-knowledge, wisdom, deep trust and faith in themselves and their personalities and abilities, along with the coping skills to thrive— to feel physically and be psychologically alive and well. Instead, we are raising half-dead zombies addicted to their phones or whatever else they decide to pay attention to rather than themselves.
Teenagers who are disengaged, those who are disconnected from their inner lives are weak, which makes them far more vulnerable to manipulation. They remain unaware of the existence of their Jungian shadow or what to make of it or how to respond to it when it rears its ugly head. They develop addictions to phones, to porn, and drugs and alcohol and develop co-dependencies on authority, needing protection and rescuing from the smallest of micro-aggressions that invade their safe spaces. Their narrative becomes one of victimhood and they find others who live the same story. The world within and without appear to be places to fear rather than to love and engage with. These are kids with serious problems; these are kids who are more vulnerable to manipulation by extreme ideas and violent people.
Disconnection and Reconnection
Another problematic observation about the kids I taught in my fourteen-year tenure as a high school teacher was how many of them were passive, did as they were told, and copied the models they saw in their school culture. And many of them wound up sick. We are responsible for teaching kids where to put their attention– and it has to stop being overly-focused on external achievement. They need to value their inner lives as much as, or if not more than, they value the life of the external world. I am not arguing for no grades or no accountability or no skills and knowledge growth. I am lobbying for correcting what I see as an imbalance resulting from skewed values. Once kids are focused on everything outside of themselves, they can very easily remain disconnected from their inner guide, their inner sense of themselves. If they aren’t taught earlier about how their bodies and minds work (how to recognize, feel, and manage emotions and thoughts), if they remain unaware that they can be an active and conscious participant in their own becoming, or that a self-actualization process exists for them, tragedy will continue in the form of addiction and illness.
Exploring the inner landscape is akin to becoming your own best friend– getting to know what makes you tick, your human nature, and discovering that you are a story-teller. These are the same things we learn as we practice Bikram yoga. You have thoughts and feelings that exist that are data to mine, not necessarily directives to live by (Davis). Kids will remain unaware of their own inner landscapes unless we reinforce their own discovery of it. Some kids are more intuitive than others– so we need to encourage these intuitive kids to honor their inner-knowing and actively, consciously, and consistently develop it. An active transfer from receiving guidance from adults in their environment about their inner landscape to them taking full responsibility for it should happen throughout adolescence and adulthood. We all need to mentor children by exemplifying such attention to the inner landscapes of our own lives. An exploration of the inner landscape will help inform and re-contextualize kids understanding of the gazillion influences from the external world that are upon them. Just think of the simple notion of comparing oneself to another that teens have the tendency to do. Perhaps more enlightened, self-grounded, and inner-connected teens can say, “well that’s nice for that person, but that’s not what I am all about.” You cannot say that if you don’t actually know what you are all about! We must all do our own yoga practice. More conscious judgement, discrimination, and therefore wise, informed choices can be made if a person has a better understanding of who they are at their core.
So how do you figure out who you are at your core? Well, when, in yoga, you stay with your discomfort, whether physical or mental or both, you create a space (the same one Victor Frankl is so famous for describing in his, Man’s Search for Meaning) — the space between stimulus and response, rather than automatic, unaware reactivity. You notice how you think and how you feel. You identify and name such thoughts and feelings and become familiar with them. You notice that some of the labels you apply to your thoughts and feelings may not be true! You recognize that not all the stories you tell yourself are true! You learn why you may have told those stories and that they no longer serve you, and then you have the glorious opportunity to change them. With repetition and regular practice, you become friends with your self and the inner world isn’t so foreign or scary as it once was. You know your own suffering and you develop responses to cope. This is not happiness, or high self-esteem, this is wholeness and wellness. This is a prescription for good health. It’s often a painful journey requiring lots of attention and honesty and grit, but one that is absolutely foundational to real happiness. This is the hero’s journey! (Campbell; Peterson)
Values can be and should be rooted in such self-understanding that you have actively culled with attention, time, and great effort whether through yoga, journal writing, mindfulness practices, meditation, or other therapeutic techniques that are uniquely helpful to you. This must be an honest process, a difficult, uncomfortable process at times, and it is challenging for most. But there is so much value in doing something hard; in facing your fears — doing the exact thing you do not want to do (Jung; Peterson; Davis; Haidt). Once you begin to know yourself in a really deep, intimate, and loving way, you are better suited to realize the highest good for yourself and what promotes your best and highest self (Peterson). This will benefit the world. This is the path to social justice.
Strength, Flexibility, and Balance
My mission with Landscapes for Learning is to draw attention to and start a conversation with parents, kids, and schools about how this exploration of inner landscapes is the foundational value to better navigating the external landscapes (content knowledge, skills, practical forms of education, achievement and goal-setting that schools and parents over-value in my estimation) and seeing how the interplay and interconnectedness between the internal and external is essential for being with purpose and authenticity in the world. Rather than a teenager’s self-development focused primarily on ego-driven goals (Plotkin) he or she must achieve according to social norms, set by parents, schools, other institutions of influence and authority— external achievement and financial success, the focus should be on the intrinsic values that motivate a person to be their authentic selves. In the process of self-actualization, the Bikram principles apply: balance between strength and flexibility, proper alignment, and trying the right way— which is the hard way.
Setting Intentions for Your Practice
I don’t believe the problems we are seeing among kids today in schools result from malicious intent— far from it. If anything, I think parents and schools are trying too hard and are too present and too helpful to the detriment of their kids’ independence and level of engagement with their own lives. Less might be more. I also don’t believe parents and schools are fully conscious about how their values and goals are so terribly misaligned. I think we’ve all simply lost our way in a sea of information, misinformation, and complete overwhelm and busy-ness due to economic, technological, and other forces that have happened upon us in the past few decades. Understandably, with so much rapid change, we struggle to find our balance, and this is exactly why yoga may be the antidote in shepherding us back home to ourselves.
Here is A Terribly Disorganized and Incomplete List of Influences, Resources, References, and inspirations cited improperly and according to no style manual because I am too tired to organize…
Tony Robbins, I am Not Your Guru netflix special
Dr. Susan Davis, her Ted Talk, appearance on Rich Roll Podcast, Emotional Agility
George Carlin (standup acts online, youtube)
The Rich Roll podcast
Rich Roll, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, becoming one of the world’s most fittest men and discovering myself
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Lectures, Interviews, Maps of Meaning, podcasts
The Joe Rogan Experience (podcast); personal conversation with Joe Rogan
Bret Weinstein (interviews with Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan)
Eric Weinstein (interviews with Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin on The Rubin Report)
Alan Watts, lectures, The Way of Zen, The Wisdom of Insecurity, In my Own way: an autobiography
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, inner peace and ultimate freedom
Duncan Trussell Family podcast
Sam Harris, Waking Up with Sam Harris Podcast (#121, telling the truth)
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: 25th Anniversary Edition
Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Full Catastrophe Living, Coming to Our Senses:Healing Ourselves and Our World through Mindfulness
Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovery Mercy
Ken Robinson, Ph.D. The Element: How Finding your passion changes everything, videos about education system
Pema Chodron, Meditation: How to Meditate: A practical Guide, The Places that Scare you,
Jack Kornfield, interview with Tim Ferriss; audio meditations and talks, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings
Carl Jung: Modern Man in Search of Soul and other writings
Mary Oliver: Upstream, and other poems
Ally Hamilton, Yoga’s Healing Power: Looking Inward for Change, Growth, and Peace
Bill Plotkin Nature and The Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World
Steven Pinker, videos and interviews with Sam Harris, Joe Rogan; A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st century, The Blank Slate, and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
David Hawkins, Letting Go The Path to Surrender
Tori Hicks-Glogowski (Views from the Podium blog)
Rumi: The Book of Love (Coleman Barks); the essential Rumi
Rilks’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (Anita Barrows)
Writings in ecopsychology.
Writings of the Transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, Henry David Thoreau, Walden, other writings)
On the Ragged Edge of Silence John Francis
John Muir, writings
Daniel Goleman, A force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World
Shakti Gawain, Living in the Light
Thich Naht Hahn, Silence. The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, list other books
Joss Sheldon, The Little Voice: A rebellious novel
John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
Wayne Dyer, Change your thoughts, change you life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao
Zachary Slayback: The End of School: Reclaiming Education
Mark Manson, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck
Mary Karr, The Liars’ Club:A Memoir, Lit, The Art of Memoir
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Parker Palmer: The Courage to Teach, online videos
Kevin Griffin, Recovering Joy: A mindful life after addiction, One Breath at a time: Buddhism and the 12 steps
Tommy Rosen (online Recovery 2.0)
The Mindfulness Summit Online Conference (the mindfulnesssummit.com)
Gabor Mate (videos, and podcasts with Tim Ferriss)
Benjamin Lorr, Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for???
Chade-Meng Tan and Dan Goleman, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to
Tim Ferriss, Tribe of Mentors, blog, The Tim Ferriss Show (podcast)
Behave, Robert Sapolsky and other online appearances and speeches; lectures on Youtube