Podcast: Grace Tempany, Multi-potentialite and teacher-extraordinaire

Grace and I discuss our desire to begin a conversation about teaching as moral and teaching with courage and integrity. We discuss the need for more authentic forms of teaching and learning in school, so that kids can embark on their individual journeys toward the self rather than just trying to find the right answer for an A on a test or college admission. Enjoy!

https://soundcloud.com/landscapes-for-learning/002-lfl-talks-with-grace-tempany

Check out Grace’s wonderful work at GraceTempany.com 

 

Tough-Love Lessons of Bikram Yoga

“We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing,” to embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself?”

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I love the idea of less.  Less isn’t so much about ridding oneself of problematic hoarding of cars, jewelry, furniture, houses, companies.  To me, it’s more about how I use my energy and channel the good and evil within. It’s about temperance: self-restraint and discipline, with a generous dose of compassion. You might also think about it as moderation or balance. Sometimes gaining more balance in life requires less– less resistance, less control, fewer expectations and lies, and less rigidity.

The idea of less occurred to me, as ideas so often do, when I was teaching yoga. In this particular class, three people practiced: One giant man who I hadn’t seen in class in a long while, one “regular” practitioner, and one other slightly crazy woman who always practices with sunglasses on in the back corner of the room and does everything but the postures I am teaching. As usual, an interesting combination of fellow humans from whom I learned four lessons.

Lesson 1: About Assumptions and Expectations…  

Expectations suck more than usual when they are based on unwarranted assumptions. It appeared to me that the students seem to believe that I expected them to go above and beyond in their practice because I had them in clear view. I believe they felt like they were “center stage” or “on the spot” because it was just the three of them and me. This was a not a class where they could feel comfortable “hiding” in the back, out of their teacher’s view. When people think they are being watched, judged, or held accountable for their actions, they seem to step up their “honest” effort.  (Yes, I made this assumption based on experience and instinct.)

However, I did not place any expectations on these people whatsoever. I assumed they would come into the room, set up their mats, and do their yoga. I assumed they would not try to kill me or charge the podium or tackle me or anything else irrational or uncharacteristic within that particular environment. (Again, assumptions based on a pattern of typical experience.)

Whatever perceived expectations they thought I had of them are the ones they came up with on their own. They likely made assumptions based on the conditions that evening, in that location, and made their own decisions to act according to the expectations they then set for themselves. (Does anyone else think about these things, or is it just me?) But, if I was a betting girl, I would put my money on the fact that none of these people even thought consciously about the expectations they put on themselves. I bet it happened out of habit.  And, let it be noted that I have absolutely no proof whatsoever that any of them had the expectations of themselves that I am ASSUMING they created and tried to meet. (Are you sufficiently confused?) But this, I think, is usual human interaction, eh? Each of us continually making assumptions, some warranted and some perhaps not, and setting expectations, usually unrealistic or unnecessary ones. (See The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz) When I observe, I learn.

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Lesson 2: About the Ego…

Excessive demands of the ego cause unnecessary suffering.  This is home grown suffering. It differs from suffering caused by unexpected, external events. We create our own suffering—unnecessarily, ALL. THE. TIME. I cannot speak beyond my own limited realm of experience and observation, but the problems we cause usually seem to be “first-world problems” that are completely irrelevant and unimportant in the global scheme of life.

Self-talk that literally causes unnecessary stress in your body (not the “good stress” of moving muscles and exertion) goes something like this:

I am so disappointed in myself/angry with myself/hate myself because I couldn’t kick my leg forward in Standing Head to Knee pose. When will my fat fucking ass ever be able to do this? My mother always told me I’d never amount to anything. And while I am on the subject, I hate my mother for never encouraging me or loving me unconditionally. I should just leave/quit/give up, because nobody will love me since I am so negative and I have abandonment issues. Nice attitude! God, I am so selfish! There are people with real problems in the world and here I am complaining in a yoga room. But the world sucks too and I didn’t cause poverty or violence or anything else, so why should I even care? I have my own problems, and everyone will die anyway, so what is the point?

Seem exaggerated? It’s not. It’s irrational, sure, but this is an example of real, internal dialogue for MANY PEOPLE. Negative. Judgmental. Critical. Cynical. Tyrannical!

Because we have been conditioned to shoot for MORE than perhaps we are capable of, and because we run up against limits and our ego doesn’t like that, we suffer. We, or the ego, always want more and more and more rather than valuing, loving, appreciating, and being grateful for what it already has or is. Chill the fuck out; you’re doing fine with all your limitations and you are loved whether you kick your leg our or not. If you didn’t have limits, you’d be God. You’re human, stop whining, and deal with it.

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Lesson 3: About Being a Follower…

Is it such a bad thing to be a follower? And why don’t people just do what they are told? When I went to yoga training, Bikram told us to shut off our minds and just do what we were told. Some people reacted with fright to the thought of not being in control. Not being in charge. Not being the authority. Not trying to figure everything out. Not questioning nor analyzing.  Not drawing conclusions and/or critically judging or evaluating. Can you imagine? Aren’t these the things we naturally do by default? Or are they so conditioned within us that they seem natural? The people who could not do what they were told, who couldn’t be a good follower to learn, struggled through the entire 9 week training because they couldn’t turn themselves over or “trust the process.” Some people left training. Some railed and wailed and blamed Bikram for being an asshole. They struggled with letting go of control. The “shutting off the mind” was meant to be a reprieve (and relief) from always having to be in charge; it was time off from thinking, and planning, and plotting, and reminiscing, and worrying. 

We students (and future teachers) needed to learn how to be “unknowing” students, embrace beginner’s mind, become skilled followers; we were being asked to suspend our authoritarian ways of thinking to become humble, open, and flexible enough to learn some things about yoga postures and anatomy and mostly learn about ourselves. How can you understand others or help them (as a teacher) if you don’t understand or help yourself? Try the right way, the hard way, and get 100% benefit. 

The dialogue we learn to deliver in class commands students to, very precisely, do what they are told, yet they often refuse. Sometimes it may be the result of confusion, poor listening skills, or lack of concentration, but often times it’s about flat-out unwillingness and resistance; not letting go of control out of fear. The woman wearing sunglasses in the back of the room in my class wants to do what she wants to do– not the postures. They make her feel uncomfortable; she doesn’t like being uncomfortable (or for whatever other reasons) and she refuses to compromise. It feels better to her to leave her foot on the inside of her thigh rather than up on her hip. She bends her upper body in a circular motion rather than up to the ceiling and side to side as she is told. Perhaps she is closed, inflexible, ideological, and arrogant. She is rigid and clings to her own safety. She refuses to let go or to trust. She is afraid to lose control. She won’t bloom like a flower petal, and she is missing out on finding her truth. This is where tough love comes in (and what many critics of the Bikram method reject).

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Perhaps the yoga teachers who refuse to say the dialogue as Bikram intended it do the same thing as that woman in the back of the room. They don’t like being told what to do or how to do. They think they know better. It’s more comfortable doing it their way rather than doing as they are told. Why is it so difficult for people to be honest and to trust? 

I know all of this seems slightly ironic: we inculcate students in school when they are children to do as they are told. Then we unschool them by teaching them to question authority and think for themselves. Don’t follow blindly, but blindly is the distinction. People should not follow without some understanding of what they are following or whom and why. I intended to learn how to teach yoga with the authority of that particular yoga system, Bikram Choudhury. I made a conscious, well-considered decision and choice to turn myself over to his direction. When you sign up for a Bikram yoga class as a student, you make the decision to do BIKRAM yoga- not some other form! You come into the room with a yoga mat and towel and you do as you are told. You follow the very precise commands given. You trust the process. If you don’t, you aren’t doing the yoga. Then, when you insist on doing things your way, maybe you hurt yourself and blame Bikram yoga and call it bullshit yoga.

As one of my favorite, seasoned teachers likes to say, “Bikram yoga is like a robbery. Do what I say and nobody gets hurt!”

AND THAT IS THE YOGA: doing what you are told. Sorry, but that’s tough love. Your teachers are here to make you better, not make you worse– to make you stronger and more flexible, not just in the body, but also in the mind.

Your ego wants you to be comfortable. You want the fans on. You want to avoid suffering. Welcome to the club. But you don’t always get what you want, and as a continually maturing human being—- you need to accept that truth and learn more effectively how to deal with it. (The Rolling Stones really did have it right, after all.) 

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If you are brave enough to struggle with all of this, one day you will discover that your ego went from being invisible to you, to visible. You see its existence and the power it holds; then you learn how to manage it– find out how, and when, and why it is useful and positive, and in alignment with your spirit and when it is not; when it is counterproductive, causes suffering, pain, and when it is the culprit of your misery and  discontent. You don’t ignore your ego– you identify it’s desires and you manage it in ways that don’t add additional suffering to your life or the life of others. That’s another reason we tell you to look at yourself in the mirror. Don’t move. Don’t even blink your eyes.

Lesson 4: About Flexibility….

Flexibility is a valuable commodity and something our world desperately needs right now.  A flexible rather than fixed mindset is helpful in preventing you from becoming so entrenched in your own perspective that you risk becoming a dangerous ideologue who is willing to destroy others to defend your views. A flexible mindset helps you listen with genuine attention and interest in learning more than what you think you already know. (There’s always more to learn). Oh, and here you were thinking this was about your body. Well, yes –when you regain full range of motion in your joints, or maintain the full range you already have, your body is more flexible too. People are not separately minds or bodies; these aspects of ourselves are intricately fused; they are inseparable. Yoga is becoming more flexible, in body and in mind. So stop fighting and start stretching.

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Yoga is an interesting state of being because the objective of the practice really isn’t about the posture– the object is you, and you are also the subject. Think about how simple this is: you move your body into a pose to the degree that you are honestly able (and only to that degree) and you hold still and breathe. That’s all. You come face to face with your limitations and you breathe. Simple, yet people love to make it (yoga and life) complicated. Why?  Because everything I have written here about the ego and the unwillingness to do as one is directed, flexible mindset, and assumptions and expectations are inherent in the human condition. Clearly, we wrestle with these things because the three people I taught in class the other night exhibited some sort of conflict with every single one of them.

Yoga is hard. Being a human being is a challenge, but what’s the alternative? Run away? Lay on the couch and cry, or blame life itself, the universe, for being unfair? Drown your sorrows and suffering in fleeting, unhealthy pleasures? Eat candy and play video games? Watch porn, hang out with others who do the same to justify your own degenerate and weak behavior? Or show up with an open mind and heart (and ears to listen), do exactly what your told, the best you are able– to your limits whatever they may be, and breathe within a loving environment among others who are trying to be the best they can be too.  Have faith that you will be better, stronger, more flexible, and good by honest effort, trying the right way, and not giving up– that’s the ultimate destination. 

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Observing those three students was my yoga, my opportunity to learn some great lessons that evening, and these students were excellent teachers. That’s why we, in Bikram yoga, refer to our instructions as a “dialogue.” It’s not just about the asanas, after all.

Namaste.

The Call to Insecurity

“It turns out that when you stop clinging to the safety and security that you think you have found in a particular lifestyle, other people, your carefully constructed identities, or material things, you find your way home to your truth.”

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The original title for this piece was “Meta: Choosing or Clinging.” I wrote it more than a year ago, but only now finding the courage to share it. This content includes a central theme of the book I am currently writing about life and learning called, Like a Flower Petal Blooming.

I was too afraid to post this reflection last year, probably because the content was far too personal, I doubted myself, and I was uncertain about my writing abilities. I am certain I shamed myself for being an idealist rather than practical (I have always been accused of being too idealistic!). I was at the very beginning of what would be a major change, so naturally, I felt insecure, vulnerable, uncomfortable. But, now, one year later, because I trusted my inner voice rather than trying to control my own destiny through pure logic, the world looks like an entirely new and amazing place.

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…….About a year and a half ago, in June, 2015, I returned home from a yoga training in Thailand where I studied Bikram yoga for nine weeks and made more than 175 friends from around the world. Life was never the same after training. Before I attended, I was told the experience would “rock my world,” but I wasn’t sure what that really meant. I suppose I thought that just being there and training for many hours per day and suffering through the intensity would make me stronger physically, emotionally, and psychologically. I knew it would be hard. I also assumed that being immersed in the yoga system I love with its original creator would be a wonderful affair, full immersion. It would be about living out my passion for this yoga and sharing it with so many other enthusiastic people who all had their own stories and reasons for landing at training. And, certainly, it did rock my world in all of these ways while I was there, but the real changes, the real “world-rocking” happened after training.

After the months away in a tropical paradise, returning to previous routines and relationships was a difficult transition, and I slowly realized that I was different–very different from the person who had left months ago. This took more and more time to fully realize. More evident things, like my diet, had changed as well as my tolerance for certain behaviors. My priorities shifted a bit too. But this was only the beginning of a longer, more gradual transformation that is still in progress.

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Do you know that inner voice? Call it your intuition or your authentic, most honest and pure Self? God? Consciousness? Life Force? Well, after training, that voice wouldn’t be ignored like it had been previously. That voice, so faint throughout my life, always there but barely recognizable, had become more prominent when I began practicing yoga, and more recently it has become much louder and clearer.

After I returned from training, it felt like a tidal wave of intuition was rolling through my heart, my soul, and definitely through my body, pushing me in very specific directions that I had no choice but to follow.

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My inner voice was prodding me, quite loudly, to change—- first, my career, which had been perfectly gratifying and financially secure, and also some of my important relationships; basically, I was being told to make one important choice: to focus on a deeper part of myself– a place where I hadn’t had the courage to go to yet.  I had to rescue myself– a deeper part of me that was struggling to be born, and I think that because I had learned self-compassion at training, I was ready to care for myself in a way I had been providing for others for so many years throughout my life. Training prepared me to embrace change, stay with the discomfort and instability that would naturally ensue from change, and trust the unknown and my inner compass.

The inner guide was insisting that I “let go” within the important areas of my life– my job and my relationships– the places where I was putting much of my energy and my heart on a consistent basis– to stop clinging to these identities. (And, by the way, clinging is MUCH different than choosing to be in a job or in a relationship.) I mean, I wasn’t hearing actual voices or anything, but it was just like, I had to do these things, even when my logical mind was screaming, “No!”

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How can you just simply “go with” a feeling or intuition when it doesn’t seem to make any sense?

As it turns out, the big decisions I was being pushed to make weren’t so much about the relationships themselves or the job of teaching per se; they were about the practice of letting go; it was about ME no longer clinging to those pieces of my identity and all the beliefs I had about myself in these roles. It wasn’t about love. It wasn’t about living with dysfunction. It was about how I needed to take time and space to attend to myself. I had to suspend each of them temporarily, to stand outside my conventional life, to take a much deeper look inside. I had to choose that voice, that core— me, and do its bidding.

Maybe THIS was the “rocking my world” part that people talked about who had been to this yoga training before me?

The suffering involved with these changes was real. It scared me. It was destabilizing. To think of myself as anything other than a teacher? Impossible! To not parent? To focus solely on myself and be autonomous and not be in a romantic relationship? I believed for many years that I was born to teach; how could something be telling me that I need to leave teaching behind? What about job security? My income? The students? My colleagues? Who would I be, if not a mom? And, such a directive without any guidance about where I was to go next! It’s not like I had all this passion for a new project or career just waiting to be followed. Why would I quit? I was not heading toward anything, only away from, well… “security.”

It is interesting to look back now, in hindsight, at how I reeled against this flood of intuition, pushed back against that tidal wave that was absolutely relentless. Once the idea of these changes entered into my body, my psyche, my heart, I couldn’t ignore them. They were there to stay, at least until I followed through with making decisions and taking action toward their fulfillment. I literally knew I had no choice, though that did not stop me from whining, complaining, doubting, struggling, and resisting. Did I mention I was scared? How the ego wrestles with itself! How the logic mind battles against the creative heart!  Courage, not confidence, was necessary.

Once I changed my relationships with others by choosing to listen to myself, I knew this voice, this intuition, this tidal wave of change (and what felt a little like tough love), was worth trusting, despite the fact that I was really sad and still a little confused about the decisions I was making.

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Nothing is ever cut and dry, especially when it comes to difficult decisions– that’s why they are so difficult! I also worked on allowing my title of teacher to change. I dipped my toe into the water of radical career change by applying for a leave of absence which I thought was doable and would buy me some time to  explore new possibilities….but which ones?

I was headed toward nothing in particular! I was merely trusting what that little voice inside was telling me. For all the times I hadn’t listened and been miserable, I figured I ought to really go for it and make the leap this time. I mean, life isn’t really an adventure if there’s no real risk at stake.

As I began to review my finances, my future, retirement, etc…this assessment turned out to be a review of my values and the way I was spending my time. We only have a limited amount of time and I want to be sure I am using it intentionally. All of this ruminating and planning felt a little like making a decision to have a baby…is there really ever a “right time” to begin a whole new life, a new career, new relationships?

So, I decided to see what others did when facing such change and risk. I read all sorts of encouraging articles about quitting and true stories about people leaving their uber-rich lifestyles built on corporate financial success to go live in Fiji or to surf all day in some tropical paradise. Or, humorously and ironically, successful entrepreneurs leaving their millions to go teach– to give back; Where would I, public school teacher, go?  Who would this one-time teacher become instead? I certainly don’t have any ambition to pursue a life of wealth and leisure. I am pretty happy with what I have already earned. So, why couldn’t I just be content with security like everyone else, I asked my inner voice. But, the voice didn’t drop an answer or a new passion to pursue into my lap. That’s the thing with passion and inspiration– you can’t call it; it calls you. You just have to be listening and ready.

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So, months later I found the courage to allow myself to let go of being codependent in all of my relationships (with money, with jobs, with people, with places) and I am learning to let go of defining myself in such limited and limiting ways.

To me, too much security means stagnation.

I had been shutting off all of my potential to be different and to continue to change and grow, and my body and heart could sense this which is why that Voice began to object! As I listen to it and trust it, it is allowing me to redefine myself and to see myself and the world in new ways. To let go of clinging to the particular identities that grew stale and had become prohibitive to growth, I had to embrace change for the sake of change, even if my mind told me it was unreasonable. Sometimes unreasonable is the most reasonable thing to be.

So, since I made this decision, this leap, I have been spending time living as anything but a high-school-teacher-suburban-mom-responsible-for-everyone-else girl. I don’t know yet who I am becoming, but maybe that’s just the point— to “become,” without any expectations, without any specific goals in mind for myself, and without a to-do list for my life. Maybe the “accomplishing” will be not accomplishing anything at all but to follow my inner compass, be true to myself, and take care of me.

END NOTE: It’s humorous to me that some friends and family thought I just needed a vacation  from work and parenting; that I wanted to travel and relax. I know that some people thought I was miserable and merely running away from the burden of my responsibilities. That isn’t the case and never was.  This sabbatical has been an exploration of my inner landscape just as much as I have explored the external and natural landscapes of the world.  I haven’t been taking a break from “real life,” I have been living it more than ever. And for that, I am grateful.

Teaching and Truth

As I write my memoir-in-progress, working title, “Like a Flower Petal Blooming,” I am going to post excerpts from time to time to keep myself fighting Resistance with the capital “R.” Who knew writing a book is like wrestling with satan? LOL This one is a brief excerpt on the theme of honesty and truth.

“Someone asked me today, “How do you like teaching yoga?” I answered as if she asked, “why do you teach yoga,” because the answer is the same. I teach yoga because I love yoga and I love teaching. Both are ME. I love being part of people’s efforts to be better– to be alive, to learn, to be on their journey of self-discovery– to share a small part of that journey.  I respect the effort of the people who show up in the hot room (or torture chamber, as Bikram refers to it) and do the very best they can. They show up in that room and are forced to get honest– I respect honesty. I respect hard work. (I hate lazy people, as Bikram would say.) I love to see people rise to the occasion to do what sometimes seems impossible, for each individual in their own individual ways. I love seeing them grapple with the worst parts of themselves and the best and accept both with equanimity. I love to see people grapple with their suffering. If they can’t get radically honest in a Bikram yoga class, under the bright lights, in front of those mirrors, then they don’t come back. This yoga is hard. Making excuses is easy, justifiable even. You have to be tough to stick with it. Yes. True, physically, but even truer for trying to get honest with yourself and stay honest, like, forever.  Bikram yoga reminds me that every time I step on the podium to teach or in front of the mirror to face myself and practice, and I give the honest effort it requires to be alive and well, I am living my truth.

On Being Honest

“The problem with creating the habit of lying, especially to yourself, is that after a while, you lose your bearings— you can’t trust yourself and you suffer even more. Your identity is compromised, making you less likely to be able to connect with yourself– your inner wisdom– or others. We need good, healthy relationships based on the truth, by being truthful with ourselves first and foremost, otherwise we slowly die.”

    

Why is it so hard to be truthful?

Has your life been one long battle of figuring out what’s true, struggling to accept inconvenient truth or living out said truths through deliberate action?

Sometimes living truthfully conflicts with living happily. There’s usually a bit (or more) of suffering involved. So, then why bother tell the truth, face it, or live according to it? Why not just do what’s expedient and not give it so much attention? Why does telling the truth or discovering and living your truth matter?

The way I see it, after years of trial and error, living an honest life is a life that’s respectable, ethical, scary, challenging, burdensome, yet full of meaning and satisfaction.

I am exhausted from my pursuit of the truth and trying to live a truthful life. I have to build myself up in every way to be fit enough to face the challenge of living a truth-filled life. I mean, actual time, energy, and attention. Commitment! Sacrifice! And I still kinda suck at it! Why do I continue to pursue truth and live according to the truth if it’s much easier and more pleasurable not to? Why should I continue if I’m not even good at it? Why should I continue to make truth-telling rather than happiness as a priority in my life?

Because I feel stronger more alive and more authentically me when I follow the truth and feel weaker and suffer when I don’t. Like I said, I have gathered this through trial and error. I guess it’s about choosing which kind of suffering you’d rather endure. Pick your poison.

Ironically, when I was a college student studying philosophy, I learned a lot about the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It all seemed so idealistic and honourable to pursue the truth– you know, in an academic way, and through being inspired by great mythical hero stories and such, but damn, real life has taught me that aiming at the truth is incredibly difficult. It’s a total bitch, actually. Studying human nature is one thing. Actually being a human being is another! The ideal gets real and the philosophical gets personal. It’s so much easier to hide in studying phenomena than being a phenomenon!

I have found, through hindsight, that when I weaken or tire of pursuing or telling the truth to myself and to others, and when I thereby let my guard down, when I ignore or dismiss truth, I feel absolutely miserable: emotionally, psychologically, physically. And, when I lie to myself, I fail and fall hard and then am forced to pick up the pieces which involves even more, painstaking work. In my experience, it is more expedient to tell the truth, face the truth, and live the truth and live with the consequences. Let the chips fall where they may– which is so much easier said than done– and it surely is unnerving to be at the whim of the unknown future. This process is a grind, never easy, but always the best choice. That’s just my experience.

I have no idea what the point of my life is. I don’t have the answer to why I exist, but I can control the quality of my life through the type of person I am and become– through character, and the foundation of my character rests on truth. I don’t believe this is a result of cultural conditioning, my upbringing, my genetics. I believe morality is far more deeply rooted than that.  

When denying truth, ignoring my inner voice, dismissing a gut-feeling, or lying, especially to myself, I have found that the results are consistently disastrous, whether the disaster strikes immediately or days or months or even years after the fact. Not telling the truth or living according to what I know to be true causes plenty of suffering– almost always my own and very often, others’. Lying sounds so harsh, seems so visible, even childish, but really, it’s a super-smart, sneaky bastard who slinks and skulks around—sometimes it lands in your shoulders or your scapula; sometimes, lower back. It sort of lounges around, hanging out lazily inside your guts. It taunts your brain to analyze it, justify its existence, tell stories about it that sound convincing. Maybe some people become good at ignoring all of this chaos within caused from lying, but I’m not. As often and as much as I try, those lies get me every time.

The tension that results from intentional lying, misrepresenting the truth, failing to tell the truth, or ignoring what I know to be true, persists in my body, but thankfully, yoga practice has taught me to pay attention to what’s happening within, not only when I am in the room performing the asanas or relaxing in savasana, but in daily life, outside the yoga studio. I’ve become acutely aware of how much my body can tell me about the decisions I am making and whether or not I am being honest with myself and with others.

One example of a challenge related to living a truthful life has come from choosing other’s happiness or stability over my own. When your truth conflicts with how others perceive the world, this presents a big problem. Rather than living according to what I know to be true in both my heart and my mind, I fail to live my truth because it might negatively affect another person, usually someone I care about. Mostly, I compromise and negotiate, but when the pendulum swings too far away from being true to myself, I know it. Often, I choose to live a lie because I don’t want someone else’s feelings to be hurt. Martyr syndrome? Probably. Take one for the team? Sure. Take one for the team every single time to the point where it makes you sick and you don’t recognize yourself? No. If people in your life love you, they’ll support you in living your truth.

Here’s another example: Should you avoid pursuing a passion that others’ deem unacceptable (Maybe, like, becoming an artist?) Should you avoid making a choice for yourself that is based on what you know, 100%, to be true for you but that causes someone else to have to make a sacrifice or compromise their understanding of reality or their own identity? The answer is No and No. Does any other this sound familiar? I am pretty certain I am not alone in this failure-to-live-according-to-one’s-truth scenario.

Another example involves denial. This happens when my inner voice and my body tells me the truth and I don’t like it— the truth is like scary, disgusting medicine I don’t want to take, even though I know, on some other level, that it’s exactly what I need. It’s gonna hurt if I accept it and act on it. It’s gonna hurt a lot. Who likes pain? Most of the time, my little mind rationalizes in every way possible, jumping into buttress my emotional resistance by providing a million and one arguments that are really only justification for denial or ignoring the truth or telling myself outright lies, usually in the form of rather elaborate well-spun stories. The perception of the truth happens, and immediately, my talented storytelling mind layers it with all sorts of crazy scenarios and stories that are a cover for the truth I’m afraid to face. And, man, am I a great story-teller! I fall for those damn stories every time! Do you?

Another simple scenario where I wrestle with truth is through yoga. The truth is that, when practicing, I should do the posture and work as hard as I can in it, but I tell myself the lie that it’s not that important. This is my inner battle. It’s like I have two little mini-personalities fighting against one another. Live the truth- do the posture and work hard versus live a lie and believe the story about why you should take it easy. “It’s not that important, Maureen. It doesn’t matter” one voice says. But my values do matter; they have to matter! Otherwise, nothing matters and that’s a path that leads straight to anxiety, depression, and a whole lot of mental, physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering. Seemingly, a small thing to try hard in a yoga posture, but if you meditate on this, maybe you’ll see its greater significance. Add up all these “little” cheats and over a lifetime—have you really lived an honest life? Practicing the right way matters.

Another infamous lie I tell myself is related to sacrifice and martyrdom. Our social and cultural norms encourage and celebrate sacrificing for others as a noble act, especially if you are a mother, but mostly, I make up stories to justify denying my own truth, mostly because it’s easier to choose helping someone else instead of facing my own truth that may be more challenging or because I am avoiding fear of living according to that truth. Busying yourself on “fixing” and “helping” is an inauthentic distraction. Most of the time, I am not brave. I am scared and weak and cling to what’s familiar and safe. It’s easier to run away from the fire rather than towards it. Making excuses is another way to describe this phenomenon. You are rewarded for being helpful and kind but to the detriment of denying who you really are. You’re living a lie.

Everyone knows that lying destroys relationships. If there is no trust, there is no real relationship. The problem with creating the habit of lying, especially to yourself, is that after a while, you lose your bearings— you can’t trust yourself and you suffer even more. Your identity is compromised, making you less likely to be able to connect with yourself– your inner wisdom– or others. We need good, healthy relationships based on the truth, by being truthful with ourselves first and foremost, otherwise we slowly die. Being honest with oneself is the foundation for being in honest relationships with others. It really is a matter of life or death.

One of the most important tenets I try to live by is to alleviate suffering, and if I cannot alleviate it, I will, at best, try not to create more suffering for myself or for others. Therefore, I must be brutally honest with myself and others. Always. Consistently. If I pay careful attention and dig deep to find the courage to be honest, well then, that’s a quality life worth living. 

Plateau or Vista? Storytelling about Limits & Potential

Lately I’ve been focusing on limits. And transcending them. The clinical psychologist and university lecturer, Jordan Peterson, often talks about human potential, and he insists that we human beings are capable of so much more than we think we are. We do not know our own limits nor the limits human consciousness. Among his many videos and lectures, his Tedx Talk about potential and his lecture called “The Necessity of Virtue” have got me thinking about my own limits. What are they? Where did they come from? Do I want to transcend them? If so, how? And why? And why now?

I am consistently coming up against my own physical and mental limits in my yoga practice. You can only fix what you pay attention to, so I have begun to listen to the stories I have been habitually tell myself while practicing— most of them reinforcing limits that I know I am completely capable of transcending.

The usual story goes like this:  

I am not young anymore. I am an older woman who is reasonably fit but not super flexible; I am good enough for my age and stage in life. I lack incredible endurance and strength and lung capacity; I am consistent about my practice and overall fairly healthy; I am someone who tries hard (a relative term that I define and redefine as it suits the day or circumstances– in other words, I can make excuses for why-not anytime I please, and I do). Compared to other people, I am doing pretty well.

There are both negatives and positives within that story, but that’s not the most important point. The crucial point is that I have been believing this story; I have accepted it as true, and so have been living it out, most of the time unconsciously. As a result, I never push harder to challenge my own thoughts or my body’s capabilities. I don’t think in terms of my potential—- what I might actually do if I believed in my own untapped power and went beyond what my mind was telling me. Instead, the theme of my story is that what I am doing in my practice is just “good enough.” I have settled for “pretty good” because it’s easy to maintain. It’s comfortable. As a result, I have plateaued— mentally and physically.  

My thought processes both in my yoga practice and in my life have lulled me into a dangerous place of security. I feel in control and safe. I can predict the future for the most part, and I am settled. My parents would be proud of me for obtaining said security. For some people, settled might sound pretty darn perfect, but I have finally figured out that it’s exactly what’s making me, not discontented exactly, but itching to change. Optimal performance and meaning are lacking when I remain floating, treading water, fearfully hiding? in this kind of static, safe state.

An implicit assumption within the story I mentioned above about limiting myself in my yoga practice and elsewhere is due to my faulty perception that reaching one’s potential or focusing on one’s potential is something only young people do. I have been erroneously convincing myself that tapping into one’s potential is something limited to the young– people who are just starting out their lives (as if life begins at some specific age that is culturally or socially appropriate?). Young people are busy planning, choosing careers and partners to marry, having a family and so forth. Young people are ones who “have their whole lives ahead of them” and they are more apt to continually grow, move forward, and be busily realizing themselves and making something out of themselves. Their bodies are strong, capable.

I am not certain when I stopped believing in my own unrealized potential. Maybe because I work with young people and have been raising children for so long, I have come to think of myself as an old person— closer to retirement and therefore done with most of my “life-planning” or “life-making.” As the elder, perhaps I have been spending more time looking back at my life rather than forward, and so consumed with other people’s learning and potential that I have neglected my own.

At any rate, this implicit belief, a conclusion really, that I am no longer a person who has to reach her potential has made me act as if I have arrived— you know, the place where you can brag that you “made it.” But the more I think about this, I wonder, is this place a vista or a plateau?  Well, the answer to that question is that I get to decide. I get to decide which words to use, which story to tell, which sort of life to live.

Here’s the plateau story:

I have a family, a career, success, financial stability. I have worked hard to reach my potential, so why work so harder or strive to be more or something different? If it ain’t broke, why fix it?  I can hang out with loads of people at this very plateau and party my ass off, drink my wine after work, travel and lie on a beach somewhere amazing, and post pictures online of all the fun I am having until I die. I can spend money on “stuff” and have a great time immersed in the pleasures of consumerism, having worked hard my “whole life,” and I can  “just relax” because I’ve earned it! I could sit back and enjoy watching my kids make their lives instead of continuing to make my own.

But why should I settle for the story that I’m doing pretty well at middle age? Why should I blindly accept that maintaining the status quo is entirely acceptable, respectable, appropriate? Why should I settle because that’s what everyone else appears to be doing? Why should I accept that there’s probably not much more I need to do or to be? Why should I cease making my own life alongside all the young people who are making theirs? Perhaps the story our culture tells us at midlife needs revision.

I’d rather tell a vista story, a story about looking ahead, exploring my future prospects, about seeing what’s just up ahead on the road, tapping into my limitless potential, even if the path is mysterious or unclear and less than secure.

vista luxembourg

I have accomplished a lot that I am proud of when I look back on my life; It is meaningful because I worked toward meaning; meaningfulness and purpose in my life resulted from hard work and dedication and passion. It came from having an aim, and then another and another; it came from the challenges, and the burden-bearing, and the blood, sweat, and tears. It came from working to my potential, not just at a specific age, but again, and again, and again.

So, after thinking about limits and potential, I have decided I need to climb the next mountain, to throw myself back into the young-man’s game of goal-setting and potential unleashing because I am capable of so much more than I think.  

But here is the truth about this decision. When I first looked at my own limiting beliefs and decided to change them and reached this epiphany about the need for more climbing, I instantly felt tired, overwhelmed, and intimidated. I resisted the notion, even though I knew it was the right and best and truest thing for me I could do.  I thought, do I really want to work hard to ascend the next peak? And, what is that “next peak” anyway— it doesn’t seem clear to me at all.  I questioned: Do I have the stamina, mentally and physically? Shouldn’t I be more realistic? Is this how I want to expend my time and energy? Change is hard!

Typical fear-based thinking. 

And so, I continue in my yoga practice to watch myself, to observe my thoughts, without latching onto them as truth; to acknowledge them and then move past them. And I trust that my will, the deep core of me that is strong and good and honest, shall combat the lies and limits that my habitual thinking tempts me with.

Learning about limits and potential has helped me come to the conclusion that I am not at all unhappy with my life, what I have done, or who I am. In fact, I couldn’t be happier and more grateful. But I don’t think I want to just sail along through life—coasting, or maintaining this sort of  unconscious auto-pilot state. I don’t want to stay at this plateau, and maybe you don’t either.

Maybe you have been wondering what’s wrong lately and haven’t been able to articulate your intuitions exactly. Maybe, because like me, you have been in the same place, surrounded by the same people, with the same or similar lifestyles for so long that you accept that this is the only or best path— the upside being that it’s familiar and safe. It’s a nice way of living; There’s nothing particularly “wrong” with it. But it’s complacent, a static state of being, and perhaps that’s why it lacks deeper meaning. (Too often when people feel something missing or not quite satisfying in their lives, they make radical decisions to “spice  things up” and so cheat on a spouse or do some other crazy things that define the mid-life crisis. Looking outside of yourself isn’t the answer. Dig deep and explore what’s going on inside and address the problem there.) 

Taking a year away from my job and the day to day life I have known for many years now is the first step in tapping into my potential. I don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the beauty of it. It’s a step toward facing my limits– my limited thinking, choices, attitudes, and behavior and pushing beyond them. So far, I am learning that I am actually way more than what I had been thinking I was; I am realizing that, as the famous American traveling poet Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself,  “I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

I am living beyond my comfort zone and my own safe, self-created status quo; I am facing the unfamiliar– crossing into unknown territory to see what I can learn about landscapes without limits.

Definitions

Vista: a view or prospect, especially one seen through a long, narrow avenue or passage, as between rows of trees or houses. (2) a far-reaching mental view.

Plateau: a period or state of little or no growth or decline; (2) remain at a stable level of achievement; level off. (3) Psychology. a period of little or no apparent progress in an individual’s learning, marked by an inability to increase speed, reduce number of errors, etc., and indicated by a horizontal stretch in a learning curve or graph.

 

The Pain and Hurt of Yoga

One fine morning after teaching a Bikram yoga class, a student charged out into the lobby to ask me why I used the word “pain” and “hurt” repeatedly throughout class with regard to the postures.  She clearly didn’t like it.

You know how sometimes some people begin an oncoming verbal attack with a seemingly polite question? You know, they’re “just curious” about something? This was one of those times. I wasn’t surprised by the question as much as I was shocked by her obvious fury, though I shouldn’t have been, as I have dealt with similar people and complaints in my job as a high school teacher.

“…push your head back until your neck hurts a little bit…”

“…you’re back is going to hurt don’t be scared…”

“…creating a tremendous stretching feeling, pain sensation…”

“…your back is supposed to hurt…”

“…elbows are supposed to hurt…”

“…make sure your back hurt…”

“…make sure your shoulders hurt…”

“…neck might hurt a little bit…”

Clearly, she wanted to engage me in an argument. She wanted justice done — for me to eliminate saying the words “pain” and “hurt,” as she believed the terms were misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst; to be telling people they should feel pain during a yoga posture seemed heretical to her. The notion of feeling pain, hurt, or any sort of discomfort seemed counter to her notions about yoga as healing and serene, among her other perhaps stereotypical perceptions about yoga practice— you know, namaste and all that shit.

This interaction presented me with a wonderful opportunity to think about the role of pain and hurt in the process of yoga practice, and more generally, to life and learning. Such thinking has led me to articulate for myself what makes my life as a teacher meaningful.

I don’t recall providing her with a fully articulated response at the time, but upon reflection, this is what I would have liked to have said. The first answer about pain comes from B.K.S. Iyengar who writes in Light on Life:

“…pain is an unavoidable part of asana practice…The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain. In the struggle alone, there is knowledge. Only when there is pain will you see the light. Pain is your guru. As we experience pleasures happily, we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes. As we see good in pleasure, we should learn to see good in pain. Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance, which is a spiritual attitude toward yoga. This is also the spiritual attitude toward life. Just as the ethical codes of yoga purify our actions in the world, the asanas and pranayama purify our inner world. We use these practices to help us learn to bear and overcome the inevitable pains and afflictions of life.”  (Iyengar, 871-877)

Iyengar’s words suggest that we remain humble and curious, respectful toward pain, as it is our teacher, our guru. This takes discipline and practice to learn, to get better at, to master, so the repeated reminders about “hurt” and “pain” within the Bikram yoga dialogue seem not only merely warranted or justified but appropriate and absolutely necessary.

Perhaps some yoga teachers will disagree with me (or Iyengar) on this point about pain, and that’s to be expected, but as a high school teacher, I have additional experience with resistance to such assertions.

I have many students and parents (and ,occasionally, other educators) who, like the questioning woman in my yoga class, object quite vociferously to the appropriate and necessary pain involved in the learning process that typically results from failure not only to learn but to achieve desired grades (and, by the way, yes, there’s a very important distinction between the two- a post for another day.)

The pain my students might experience and the variety of suffering they learn to cope with and manage in my classroom is healthy and paramount to their success and authentic growth as human beings, just as it is among the yogis within the asanas in the hot room. However, in today’s cultural climate of “everybody is a winner!” and “snowflake” parenting, such proclamations about pain are considered subversive.

People don’t like pain. They run from it, avoid it, and believe everyone else does the same which justifies such behavior and group think. Nevertheless, as a yogi who has developed an unconventional relationship with pain, I often seem to walk on thin ice, as my attitudes and approach to teaching and learning run counter to local cultural norms and expectations. I do not encourage risk-aversion, and that makes people uncomfortable– which is the point and the thing to practice.  

Adherence to the notion that real learning involves pain and sometimes hurt and a little to a lot of suffering is grounded in what it means to be human. I know this to be true through study of human nature and as witness to the amazing success of my colleagues over many years teaching and being a student of great teachers myself. This boldness and bravery is what enables me to be a perennial learner and therefore to walk the walk,  as teacher, without becoming completely discouraged. Such an attitude and disposition is exactly what is required to be effective within the institution of education today– that is, to get people to actually learn about themselves and their own humanity rather than merely achieve high grades or other unrelated objectives that have become fashionable. 

I am with Iyengar, all the way, on pain being the guru, whether it comes to learning math, writing, chemistry, dealing with romantic breakups, social phobias or anxiety, or whatever other dragons people or potential heroes may need to slay in their individual lives. No true growth and change happen without the presence of pain. The sooner you change your mind about it and make friends with it, the better. 

Living out the belief about teaching and learning as painful is difficult, as I am sure many teachers can understand. It would be easier to eliminate the words from the yoga dialogue to appease that woman and anyone else like her, or tell my students’ parents what they want to hear about their child, or inflate a grade to avoid problems with a supervisor. I have to defend my practical philosophy with steadfastness, on a regular basis, and that takes rationality, discipline, energy, and confidence; I am consistently making critical judgments and trusting my gut about when to spare the rod, apply tough love, or witness additional struggling of students. I am always trying to figure out whether to listen or speak, jump in and help, or allow the person to flounder and suffer more to reach their ultimate destination. Sometimes teaching is like sitting next to a terminally ill person and watching them die— because, in fact, sometimes people have to burn up and destroy themselves altogether before they can put themselves back together or be reborn. It’s painful to do, and painful to watch. 

It’s physically and emotionally challenging to be a part of so many people’s pain-filled journeys each day, over the course of many years, in the classroom and in the yoga studio. There’s a lot of energy that a teacher both gives and receives from collections of students each day, each class. There’s a lot of resistance. But, just like our students, we continue to engage with our own pain, learn how to resist it less, and try to be the model of learning our students need. 

Setting limits that cause a student to “hurt a little bit,” like saying no as a parent, or rejecting one good cause to enact a great and far more beneficial cause is something for which teachers need understanding. They don’t necessarily need your blessing or agreement, but fewer obstacles and objections would be nice, so they can continue to “be there” for students, to remain present as the steady witness to the learner on their unique, individual journey. Empathy is all. Suffering, as best we can, together is compassion.

Explaining this process to teenagers (and their parents and other staff) who struggle with the notion of the inevitable pain and hurt of learning— stewarding them through their “school yoga” is an enormous challenge, but one I still believe is worth taking on, even though on many days, the resistance to this process seems overwhelming. 

Life is a series of continual states of brief comfort alternating with disruption, disorientation, and discomfort, yes, including pain and hurt. We are constantly mapping out our lives, and re-mapping when obstacles arise, as they inevitably will. In this constant tooling and re-tooling process, theorizing, or what others have called mental masturbation, does nothing to prepare you for the real, practical challenges you will face in your life.

So the yoga practice? the life learning? Yes, it has to hurt a little bit, it has to be real, it has to be acted out, and even cause a “pain sensation,” because “tremendous stretching” hurts, whether you like it or not, think it’s unfair or not. Bikram’s dialogue is precise and accurate, carefully construed. Eliminating the words of “pain” or “supposed to hurt” robs students of important learning and the potential for authentic mental physical and spiritual growth.

As Iyengar says, “…the practices of yoga show us how much pain the body can bear and how much affliction the mind can tolerate. Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.”

Gaining such wisdom might hurt a little bit, but there’s no better process to dedicate yourself to than mining your own suffering for meaning and truth. And there is no better profession than teaching to witness such beautiful transformation.

*Bikram Yoga Beginning Yoga Practice, Teacher’s Dialogue

**Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Kindle Locations 877-879). Rodale. Kindle Edition.

 

 

The Landscape of Serendipity

We humans have a tendency to be control freaks. We think we know so much about ourselves (and the world) and I would argue we don’t know the half of it. We also think we are more in control of our lives and our futures than we actually are. So I want to share a little story about this.

My son texted me the other day regretting how he had fucked up in college and failed to pick a major that would have led him to a practical, lucrative job. He didn’t fuck up (well, maybe a little) so much as he didn’t mature enough back then to plan a bit more specifically for his future. So, I told him that, yes, many a white, middle-class, underachieving young adult have reached the same conclusion as you have, just as I did when I graduated with a philosophy degree from a Catholic college in 1991 with no job prospects whatsoever and no “passion” for doing anything that could contribute to my economic survival. (First-world problems, sigh.)

I also told him that lacking enthusiasm and drive toward one love doesn’t mean you are lazy or unintelligent. It just means you don’t really feel pulled in any specific direction.  And because you are lucky enough to not live in the middle of a war zone nor have to labor frantically to feed and clothe yourself (a.k.a. you can live with your parents until you get going),  you have a small bit of time (and fortune) to try to figure out what to do next. It’s daunting to figure out where to direct yourself when you aren’t necessarily being pulled somewhere specific, but is it impossible to create a life for yourself? Absolutely not! When you feel like you don’t know where to begin, you start at your first job, no matter how uninspiring or boring and beneath your capabilities it is—you start there. You have no other choice because you have bills to pay and your mom wants to collect a little rent in return for all this great advice and housing. 

I also told him that life has a funny way of happening to you as you are faced with simple, seemingly unimportant choices each day– like where to eat lunch or buy coffee (should I get a coffee today, or make my own? Brown bag it, or go out?) or whether or not to work out or try a new gym; or even something like your mom or roommate asks you, as a favor, to take their dog to the dog park.  Should you help or not? Now, as a result of all those choices, you end up in various places: the restaurant, the coffee-shop, the new gym, the dog park—which all seem so completely stupid and unimportant— but, then, into the coffee shop comes the love of your life who inspires you in ways you never knew existed and who lends purpose and structure to your life and leads you to new places– maybe to her family’s home where you meet her brother who knows a guy who knows a guy who is looking for a guy like you to fill a position in Company X. Or, in comes your next new best friend at the gym, or your new business partner appears at the dog park and you chat with him while your mom’s Golden Retriever plays with his German Shepherd; this young entrepreneur who struggled through stupid jobs just like you suddenly, on his cross country trip, decided to hop off the highway to walk his dog at this dog park, and there you are with that friendly fucking dog you begrudgingly agreed to take care of —-And, boom, your next (best) thing just happened. See, a “passion” might come and find you, almost by accident. Maybe.

So, knowing all of this— that “Life Happens” (not just “Shit Happens”) you only need to be open and ready to recognize your newest opportunities; you need to be ready and willing to connect with people or events and places while you continue to plan and execute your plans and travel your chosen path. (Ever seen Forrest Gump?) So here is the thing– it is as the saying goes, “Life happens when you’re busy making plans.” This is definitely true in my experience, but not all people realize this or actively embrace this knowledge and do something with it. The path isn’t always straight or exactly how we imagine it to be! The intentionally directed and pre-planned choices aren’t the whole story of our lives! We aren’t in as much control of what happens to us than we think, however much we like to think that we work hard and earn our way and make all our great shit happen. Frankly, I think the universe, happenstance, serendipity and synchronicity deserve a hell of a lot more credit.

I mean, really, the guy pulled off at the right exit? And you were kind enough to do your mom or your roommate a favor? You decided you wanted coffee that day, at that coffee shop where your new girlfriend walked in? You thought it a good idea to try a new gym, and voila, your new best friend was there?

So fine, go ahead, make plans. Of course, make plans! The sun will rise and you will get up and go to work at your first shitty job doing whatever it is you do there that doesn’t really suit you, and on this particular path you have chosen, you will continue to look for better and/or different, and you will follow your internal drives and desires and listen to that tiny little voice in your head or in your heart that seems to know a lot of stuff you don’t,  and you’ll make decisions about how to spend your time and where and with whom (hopefully surrounding yourself with positive people in a healthy environment), and you’ll stay open to anyone or anything that comes your way —-all of which is the part of your life that is in your control. Just remember that this is only part of what will determine your life— the other part happens to you and for you, and it isn’t in your control at all.

And because I really believe all of what I have been saying  here is 100% true (and trying to follow my own truth) I am hopping onto a different path myself to see what happens to me. I am investing in the trivial and unimportant and hoping for the universe to bring me something good. Will it lead me into new places with new people doing things that I cannot even imagine exist right now? Will that unknown landscape be scary? Of course! Even though letting go of routine and security and the familiar is daunting, unsettling, and turbulent, it’s also full of “good” stress and hope, as long as I stay open.

Even though both my son and I are having trouble envisioning our futures (I literally cannot picture myself anywhere in the world doing anything else besides the job I have always done)– maybe rather than getting upset, disappointed, or frightened by this, we can interpret it as a sign that we are about to go into places we have never been before, place we cannot picture, not even in our imaginations. It’s great to have dreams and to aim at goals, but it’s even cooler to experience the unknown that is beyond those wildest dreams or even better—the undreamed of.

And, just so you know, I am fairly certain that another “leap into the unknown” or more “out-of-my-control-experiences” will be added to the list of the best things that have happened to me in my life because so much has happened to me through serendipity already.  One example is that I did not know that Bikram yoga existed five years ago, nor did I even see myself teaching yoga, never-mind even practicing yoga. Yoga was never my dream or plan. Yoga happened to me because I made one seemingly unimportant decision to chat with a girl at my gym who then invited me to try a class with her. Merely because I was curious about her workouts and because I was friendly and engaged her in conversation, an entirely new life was born.  Yoga turned my life upside down with a new daily schedule; a new workout and spiritual practice; it led me to new love and a new community of friends; it led me to Thailand and back and into a second career, all of which has led to a life of travel and connection to people and places around the globe. If people reflect on how they got to where they are now in their lives, they’d have to give credit to forces beyond their control.

So who knows what will happen to us while we are busy making plans, finding our “passion,” and dreaming our dreams of our future? Hopefully, we can remember that our seemingly unimportant choices just may turn out to be more important than we ever conceived (if we think about them at all!)  and to remain open and ready to receive what the universe-beyond-our-control might deliver us. 

Meta: Why Learning? Why Landscapes?

Some of the most amazing learning happens beyond academia, and many of the best teachers positively affect lives outside of strictly academic environments. I hope to find  lifelong students and teachers of all sorts, in various domains, to explore the exciting and valuable learning that occurs everywhere and deliver these stories to the world.

In this meta post, I share a little bit about where my ideas come from and my thought process behind creating a blog and podcast called Landscapes for Learning. 

I want to create something new— a project that reflects my most important values and embodies my everyday living. Basically, I want to have fun doing something that doesn’t require me to work very hard–a worthwhile, constructive endeavor and something that’s valuable and beneficial for others, not another obligation. I want to make the world a better place (cliche, maybe), and the best way I know how to do that is through learning. So, I guess you could call this Landscapes for Learning platform a “lived creative project,” and its measurement of success is how meaningful it is for me and others who are impacted. It isn’t going to be a job. The second it does, I am quitting.

I am leaving the formal classroom where I earn my living to learn more about learning. I want to learn something new and be the perennial student, so I am going to try my hand at online publishing in various forms: books, tutorials, podcasting, and blogging. I have been frustrated for many years that the learning done at school is not as valued as it should be by parents, students, and definitely not the state nor the many professional development programs I have attended that reinforce a data-driven, utilitarian form of schooling. It seems that in school, learning is not the most important thing—-grades are.

I hope to step outside a narrowly defined learning environment and reclaim an authentic love of learning that exists beyond the institution. Disillusionment often leads to change, and I hope wherever this little project goes that it will lead me to positive growth. If I can grow as a person, I will improve as a teacher, thereby positively impacting my future students, whomever and wherever they are. 

Even though my primary aim is to learn new things for myself, I imagine the stories I collect from people about their learning will instruct and guide others by default, so in that way, I suppose I am still providing a classroom of sorts where people can come to learn about learning. I will be providing space in which others might learn alongside me.

I have a feeling the stories I find will be inspiring, entertaining, interesting, and helpful for people. My hope is that they motivate people to become more consciously aware of learning and the important role it plays in life, whether it involves going to “school” or not. I’m not so concerned about assessing my own performance in this endeavor; I only want to share incredible stories of ordinary folks who embrace learning in their lives.  I can’t wait to see all the learning that occurs outside the restrictions of formal education on my personal journey to reclaim the authenticity of learning– learning that is unmeasured, done for its own sake, and full of ambiguity, creativity, and originality.

So the reason I came up with the “landscapes” part of the title, Landscapes for Learning is that I love studying nature– its geographical landscapes, and human nature, which includes the landscapes of psychology, philosophy, history, and narrative. I was also teaching American Studies with another teacher and we called our first unit, “The American Landscape” which was focused on the settlement of the West. In the unit, we explored the clash between white settlers and native people while also closely following the contemporary politics and protests of the Water Protectors and the North Dakota Access Pipeline. We studied the transcendentalists as well as John Muir. We were deeply engrossed in studying the American people and their relationship to nature, our earth, and ecopsychology. Also, at this same time, the American presidential election filled the political landscape with horribly divisive rhetoric and behavior. This word, “landscape” kept appearing– not coincidentally. As a result of these various experiences, I internalized the curriculum while simultaneously becoming more creative through my personal writing, and this is going to be utilized to add something positive to the world rather than more social media noise. I am hoping my work appeals to the folks who expect a bit more from their online experience.

The “learning” part of the Landscapes for Learning title resulted from a bit of an identity crisis. If I left the classroom, who would I be, if not a teacher? Well, I realized that I will always be in love with learning and probably still teaching in some capacity, even if outside of the formal environment of academia; even if I am unpaid. And, the thought also occurred to me that many people think they are finished with learning once they leave high school or university, and that when they are in school, it is the primary and superior form of learning. It’s simply not true. Great learning happens all the time whether people know it or not; and, see, that’s the point– I want to draw attention to that kind of everyday learning and make people aware of just how valuable it is and how it’s constantly happening throughout our lives. It’s also what connects us. And, in my humble opinion, learning is what makes life meaningful. We are always trying to make sense of our lives and figure out how to make them meaningful!

Some of the most important people in my life were my best teachers: my parents and siblings; coaches and pastors; lovers and friends; roommates and professors; authors (both contemporary and from antiquity) and podcasters; yoga teachers and fellow practitioners; my students and children; and, of course, my enemies. Most of these people are ordinary people living ordinary lives, but the value of having learned from them, in one form or another, has had extraordinary impact on me and as a consequence for many others too.

I sincerely believe that broadening people’s idea about learning is an important and worthwhile endeavor, especially during this time when formal schooling is quickly becoming antiquated and the moral and ethical demands on our children will be far greater if we want to have a sustainable future on this planet. The world needs more authentic learning, more humanity, more stories about learning and our shared humanity.

So, there it is. I got an idea and I have begun. It’s sort of a simple thing, really, to look closely at all forms of learning, but I do believe it will not only be interesting to hear stories from ordinary people but inspiring and beneficial to many listeners. I know I will enjoy learning from people about learning! Perhaps the stories I collect will be useful in transforming the current culture of schooling somehow.

I am clueless about how to make a blog and podcast and all the other things I hope to create, but I am going to try to figure it all out. I am learning about how all of this publishing online works from others who have ventured to the internet to share their lives, their insights, their questions, or their passions. I have a long way to go to figure out how the Google thing works and how to get an audience and all of that, but I just decided to start anyway– to write poorly and publish—to get used to exposing my thoughts in a limited way, to a limited audience of friends. Hopefully, as I improve, I will also figure out the aspects involved in gaining a broader audience.  Perhaps I will make new friends. I am also figuring out how to podcast, and I have a bunch of interviews lined up. I’ll be bringing lots of humility and vulnerability along on my journey, as these will be necessities for learning.

I like the name, Landscapes for Learning, because I think it captures exactly how I am trying to live my life— continuously learning all that I can across as many landscapes as I can. Learning about how other people feel about learning and the role learning plays in their lives will be fun, and sharing those experiences and stories will challenge me in new ways.

I have already discovered through shifting my focus to places beyond the classroom and through writing here that my life is most meaningful when I am intentional about learning. Because I am always learning, I am always changing. Rather than resist change, I am trying to embrace it, even when painful (as the best kind of change usually is). Surely, I am full of fear about what the future will bring, leaving my job and my conventional routines, but I am also hopeful about approaching the unknown and the risks ahead of me. 

I am excited about what I will learn from all the people I will meet across the various landscapes, the landscapes themselves, and all the inspiring stories I hope to gather and share with you, my future audience. 

Turn the Teacher Off!

“I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to ‘turn the teacher off!'”

Almost every school day for the past thirteen years, I have been successfully and unsuccessfully teaching students how to express themselves through the use of the English language. Among other responsibilities, I am employed to inform teenagers about the concepts and conventions of language use, provide them with strategies to improve their skills, and encourage them to practice. It’s no surprise, after thirteen years of repeatedly listening to people ask for help with their problems, that offering help, solutions, and strategies has become my modus operandi. I love working with people; I am invested in each student; I take my job seriously. And at this point in my career my habits are deeply ingrained. The problem is, I can’t always “turn the teacher off,” outside of the classroom which is something I have been accused of several times by the people I love most. My teacher mode of listening, which is useful in diagnosing and prescribing solutions in order to achieve specific results doesn’t always smoothly transfer to my personal relationships.

In the context of life beyond the classroom (and within the classroom, too!) people often need a different form of listening– a more compassionate form. Most times, people who appear to be asking for solutions to their problems just want to be heard, and perhaps they don’t even realize that is what they are asking for– to be heard.  As the listener and friend, I certainly don’t need to treat them like a student who is struggling with a challenging concept.

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Conferring with a student about writing, in other words, isn’t the same thing as sitting with someone who’s grieving. The struggle to write (and to learn anything in general) is a painful process, but it isn’t the same kind of suffering as, say, the loss of a loved one or a break-up, or dealing with the pain of infidelity or the discovery of a serious illness. It’s certainly not the same kind of suffering as being wronged or a victim of abuse of injustice. All of this might seem rather obvious if you are reading this and you aren’t a teacher, but I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to “turn the teacher off!”  I didn’t need to be responsible for diagnosing and prescribing a recipe to address my son’s fight with his best friend. I didn’t need to offer a to do list to help a friend deal with her poor eating habits. I only needed to be present to listen, compassionately, to these most personal struggles and complaints without offering any sort of solution at all. Many times, less is more, which has always been a challenge for me, as I bet it is for others.

After all, teachers don’t act as teachers, we are teachers through in through; it’s the predominant part of our identity. So it becomes very difficult to shut that part of ourselves off, but we can certainly become far more conscious of our tendencies toward constantly feeling responsible for people and their problems, offering practical solutions, or taking charge. We can learn to bite our tongue, “hold our seat,” and offer compassion with merely our presence and attention. We can surely do this with our students as well, when appropriate. The knack is knowing when which sort of listening is called for (or both) and moderating our sometimes knee-jerk reaction of controlling a conversation and actively offering solutions. Just because we exercise our authority and expertise repeatedly with our students day after day doesn’t mean we ought to be the authority in our personal relationships. The modus operandi of teaching in school doesn’t always work “in the real world.”

listen when teacher speaks

More often than not, many people just need to sort through their own problems out loud with someone present, whether it be how to deal with putting their dog down or how to write a conclusion to their essay. Again, less is usually more. When we teachers jump in too soon to “help” the people we care about most, whether it be our students or our spouses, this active form of assistance can take away that person’s independence, self-confidence, and the golden opportunity for them to learn and appreciate the value of compassionate listening. And, really, the best way to learn how to listen at all is simply to be heard. To be on the receiving end of true listening is a gift you can then bestow on others, and as all effective teachers know, modeling is one of the most effective tools in the teacher’s toolbox.

I thought I was a fairly capable listener when I first began teaching, but I have improved the quality of this skill after lots of trial and error with both students and my loved ones who taught me what it means to turn the teacher off; through my own frustration of not feeling heard; through quiet reflection and writing; and through my yoga practice, which is essentially showing up and being present for yourself as well as compassionately listening to what is happening in your body and mind while suffering through postures in an overwhelmingly hot and challenging conditions. In yoga, I learn to get quiet, simply stay with the difficult sensations and thoughts as they happen within, and hold the postures using stillness and conscious breathing. This discipline trains me to better “hold my seat” (and my tongue) with people when they need it most. 

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I also learned how to get better at compassionate listening from the example of one very close friend. At first, I judged him as slightly disinterested and incapable of finding good answers and solutions to my problems when he failed to say much. I only realized later that he was not unsure of what to do at all, but was being mindful, empathetic, nonjudgmental, and was providing space for me which allowed me to sort through my own dilemmas safely within the security his presence provided.  That’s love. He knew that’s what I needed, despite my pleading with him for answers— for him to do something! He was there for me.  His conscious and intentional decision not to act, to do less rather than more, was the exact brand of helping I needed in order to feel capable, independent, and strong. Count yourself lucky if you have this sort of teacher in your life!thanks teacher

I think that in this age of accountability in education, a lot of times, we teachers believe that we must always be taking action with our students, that we always must be doing something concrete and practical, for we are observed and evaluated on our performance, as are our students. Many of the yogis I teach also believe the same– that a more visible demonstration of posing is what shows the most progress in their practice, but the art of self-control and presence for oneself is invisible yet far more valuable than any external show of mastery in the asanas. Why do we feel that we are supposed to consistently demonstrate our skills and strategies and that they must all be outwardly visible? Is it because otherwise it appears as if we are doing nothing or we are unproductive which runs counter to our deeply ingrained values?  As many teachers already know, some of the best teaching and learning, like compassionate listening, is entirely invisible; it’s relatively unquantifiable; and it’s found in a consciously chosen “not-doing.” I wish more people knew this.

By failing to turn the teacher off, I have learned that, at times, my mere presence is all that is required, and to show up for people I care about and do less rather than more is sometimes the best kind of teaching.

Real Teaching is Risky Business

Recently, I had a minimalist-inspired moment and decided to simplify my life, starting with my living room. I had no problem removing excess decor, but when it came to my beloved bookshelves full of my precious books, I winced. Could I, should I, part with my books? Why had I kept so many all these years? What was I hanging on to? The truth is that the books made me feel good, safe, kinda smart, and accomplished. I realized that they fed my ego and my need to feel knowledgeable. I mean, aren’t teachers supposed to become knowledgeable and impart that knowledge to others? My books reminded me that I am well-read, educated—but what the hell does that really mean? And is that all there is to teaching?

My mind flashed to the scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character, Will, tries to assert his intellectual prowess over Robin Williams’ character, the psychologist, bragging that he had already read all the books in the doctor’s office. But then Williams’ character responds to Damon’s character, questioning him about why he thinks he knows how life works because he’s read all “the books.” And here is the trope: Will sucked at life, even though he was “book-smart.” He struggled with affairs of the heart.

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Pondering the Good Will Hunting scene, I revisited an old question: Is amassing knowledge the same thing as learning? Is becoming educated the key to a meaningful life? Is knowing, in the strictly rational sense, the key to good teaching? In that movie, Damon’s genius character learned that having all the answers doesn’t mean you have all the answers, no matter how many books you read or math equations you solve. He got the girl but didn’t quite know how to connect with her or how to keep her. How about them apples?

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Flash back to my minimalist moment. Off to the donation bin I went, with about 30 boxes of books, an outgrown belief, and a small piece of my identity; however, I kept a few token titles: a set of hardcover American literary classics; the Harry Potter series, of course; one Shakespeare anthology; and a bunch of paperbacks of my favorite authors: Tolstoy, Thich Naht Hahn, Mary Oliver. I also kept the The Tao Te Ching and some books about yoga. And there was one other random title I kept, and I am surprised I did, called The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998) by Parker Palmer. I am not sure why I didn’t just chuck it out with the rest, but now I know.  It’s crazy how specific aspects of the world come into focus exactly when you’re ready and able to see. Timing is everything.

Some grad professor probably recommended Palmer’s book to me when I was a soon-to-be teacher or newbie, circa 2003. Re-reading it, some fourteen years later, I laughed a little as I thought about how my former self must have read and understood this before actually teaching in a classroom. I probably felt like I belonged to this profession somehow, because I had been learning so much about how to teach, what to teach, and why to teach. Ironically, though, this book is not about instructional technique or any sort of “how-to” of teaching, nor does it include inspirational advice or stories from the classroom. It turns out that Palmer reflects on his spiritual journey as a teacher; it’s about the “who” of teaching; it’s a story of continual learning, of becoming, and what it means to be a teacher. It’s existential; it’s epistemological; it’s ontological. It’s about embracing and celebrating mystery, the sacred, the unknown, and it’s about living in ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s about being human in the classroom rather than maintaining the typical, dogmatic duality of subject and object which almost always results in the disconnection so sadly commonplace in all levels of academia today.

NETHERLANDS EXAMS

What a pleasant surprise to read a book about teaching that avoids the cliches of “what to do” or “how to do,” and instead promotes the humanity of teaching and learning! For once, I thought, professional development that is personal, human, and meaningful, as opposed to a litany of new strategies or reforms that only work within, and serve to reinforce, the status quo of institutionalized schooling. This book is about exploring inner landscapes– identity and integrity and the human heart. It’s real.

My recognition that the books on my bookshelf represented a piece of my identity as “educated” or “knowledgeable,” along with my subsequent desire to free myself from old habits of mind and limiting beliefs, aligns with Palmer’s criticism of the predominant Western scientific definition of knowing and truth which essentially minimizes teaching and learning to acquisition of knowledge, when the process is so much more than facts, figures, and concrete skills. Palmer reminded me of the intimacy and personal connection that is necessary for teachers and students to explore the world together, as they engage in a dynamic process, or what Palmer calls a “community of truth.” This reminded me why I love teaching so much and why I am “a good tired” after work everyday.  He writes, “Community, or connectedness, is the principle behind good teaching” (115), but what makes Palmer’s work different from (and better than) other professional development is that he doesn’t sell you a bunch of gimmicks to create that community. Instead, he encourages teachers simply to know themselves in order to create a uniquely suited environment for good teaching and learning to happen. He claims that most teachers avoid talking about who they are by talking about what they do. In my opinion, safety and conformity are the enemies of authentic teaching, and good teaching is, sadly, subversive. 

risky business

I agree with Palmer’s conclusion that the identity and the integrity of the teacher is absolutely everything. Good teaching is deeply personal. He writes in his introduction:

…good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. The premise is simple, but its implications are not…in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and I am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning. (p.10)

Ah, yes, vulnerability! And this is where the courage to teach comes in. Courage is the mental or moral strength to withstand difficulty and danger, to persevere despite fear. Being vulnerable is the last thing most teachers want to feel or talk about. It’s threatening. After all, they are, in their own minds and in the minds of others, the perceived authority in the room— in control; carefully organized and planned; the person with the answers. A typical teacher’s worst nightmare? Not knowing. But how teachers deal with fear (their own and their students’) is rarely measured or mentored. It’s barely discussed, perhaps because sharing that type of experience and information requires additional vulnerability, something most teachers are taught to distance themselves from. We are trained to stick to the business of the mind, the standards, assessment, methodologies, technique, leaving no room (or time!) for intimate exploration of the inner landscape; that is, the heart and souls of students and teachers.

If teachers (and students) approach the classroom embodying an identity of  “objective” rationality, with the preconceived notion about teaching and learning as a business transaction, and with suppressed inner fear of being vulnerable to students, that environment will be cold, disconnected, and uninviting. Sure, grades will be earned and credits accrued, acquisition of knowledge will occur, but all devoid of humanity, risk, personality, and warmth.  

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Palmer writes, “Good teachers [have] a strong sense of personal identity [that] infuses their work,” and they are “there” when teaching; teaching and the subject is their life (p.10). Ah, to be fully present! What a gift! What bravery is required! Imagine what real presence might do toward developing authentic listening, attention, love, and connection, the many qualities and behaviors our world sorely needs.

“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers varies…As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, their heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart– and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.” (Palmer, p.11)

Indeed, as Palmer extolls: the human heart…is the source of good teaching (p.3)

An exploration of one’s inner landscape should be foundational to teaching, prior to learning methodology or technique. Palmer proposes that, “As important as methods may be, the most practical thing we can achieve in any kind of work is insight into what is happening inside us as we do it. The more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more surefooted our teaching—and living—becomes” (p.5). And “Face to face with my students,” he says, “only one resource is at my immediate command: my identity, my selfhood, my sense of this “I” who teaches—- without which I have no sense of the “Thou” who learns” (p.10).know thyselfIf you don’t know yourself or understand your own humanity, then how can you, teachers, possibly connect with other human beings and nurture a community of learning?

Rather mysteriously, Palmer’s book showed up for me just as I am preparing to embark on a leave of absence from my position as a high school teacher.  Something urged me to clean out my bookshelves, which serendipitously led to the discovery of Palmer’s book, which added to the ongoing exploration of my identity as a teacher.  As I step away from the formal institution of school, I plan to open further to the mysteries of life outside the classroom and in uncertain territory. I hope to discover all kinds of communities of truth. I want to dig deeper into the definition of teaching and learning, going far beyond rational thinking and objective truth, as I travel across the landscapes— inside and out. 

A Meditation on Learning

Every moment has something to teach. Can you look closely, deliberately, at the landscapes in your life as opportunities to learn — to live fully and authentically as you, as nobody else can ever do, except the one and only you? You don’t have to do it well. Just try. Learning lends life its meaning, and that meaning is tailored specifically for you and only you.

The landscapes have so much to offer. Can you be open to what they have to say? They speak, if only we might get quiet enough to hear, to develop the ability to listen deeply. If only we might slow down. Just stop. Be. You don’t need to “use” the landscapes. You only need to be there: in them, on them, with them, and experience them fully, to appreciate them. You cannot wrestle meaning out of them; you must allow for that meaning to come to you, and it will. But it takes courage and patience and fortitude to act in a way that may be unfamiliar– to be a receiver, to be gracious, to allow. It is our true nature to live this way, in harmony with landscapes both inside ourselves and across the natural landscapes of the earth.

Listen to the landscapes– what stories do they tell? What lessons will you learn? What do the landscapes teach us? How can we learn to listen to them? In listening to landscapes we are listening to ourselves, our true nature. Indigenous people know this, intuitively, spiritually. We tend to disregard that type of “knowing” because it isn’t rational. It seems “beyond” us, a little bit too “out there” for us because we tend to want to master or utilize the products of learning for some sort of gain, to get ahead, to profit. But, there are more ways to “know,” beyond logic. It’s sort of like taking a leap and hoping a net appears. If you trust, the net appears, without fail.

Stay open to receiving the universal life force and energy which provides guidance to you; this is the other way of “knowing.” This type of learning through listening for what life is telling you can serve as an important reminder of how much you cannot control. It will show you your limitations and guide you to accept, let go, or move beyond those limits.

Have you ever had the experience where an answer to your problem just comes to you, seemingly from nowhere? A great idea just drops itself into your lap, like a butterfly lighting on your windowsill? The truth is that we are dependent creatures– dependent on the messages and unexpected experiences — the gifts and struggles– life sends to us. We are not as independent as our ego leads us to believe. For this, we should be grateful.

You don’t have to be in control or utilitarian when you are learning, only awake and willing and attentive. Lifelong learning isn’t like school. There are no grades. It’s not about progress. There is no competition. There are no parameters! Simply become a student of your own life to see what you can learn. As HD Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I hope to inspire and encourage you to recognize all that you have to learn about yourself and the world, each day, each moment over the course of your entire life. You have an inner wisdom waiting to be heard.

Learning requires openness, vulnerability, willingness, and humility. Children have such qualities, by nature. They are human sponges, intrigued by everything in their environment, but sadly that intrigue and openness stops. Why? School happens; western culture happens; socialization and conformity happens. But we can learn to recover from our conditioning. Learning can re-open us to our innocent and youthful natural curiosity. We can become a flower petal blooming, over and over again.

Learning will inevitably lead you to growth, but some people resist learning because they fear change, and fear overwhelms. This is also why we need to explore our interior landscape so we understand our emotional body, our psychology, and our physical body and how they work together to make us uniquely an individual human. Self understanding will enable us to do what’s best for us rather than copying the responses or choices of others. We don’t need to follow the crowd. We can trust ourselves.

Fear is so manipulative within the physical body and the mind, it can literally cause a person to see black as white or down as up. Reality becomes distorted through the lense of fear. It doesn’t just cloud our judgment, it changes our perceptions of reality! So much so that valuable learning is resisted or denied, and that is a tragic loss of opportunity for growth. Indeed, the hardest lessons are the most impactful, valuable, and memorable– but they hurt because they usually involve fear and other overwhelming emotions and reactions in the body. Nobody likes pain, and few learn about why it happens or how to cope with it when it does. We can learn to embrace our pain, our suffering and transform it through learning. Then we can find meaning, even in pain and suffering.

The fact is when you stop learning, you start dying; you wither. Water corrodes when stagnant. Human beings have to keep laboring, moving, thinking, feeling, learning, and thriving. Through constant and continual learning, that is, when you deliberately pay attention to life and see all your experiences as landscapes for learning, you will discover there is joy and wonder all around you, all the time (and always will be!), no matter what.

Even in the most brutal of situations there can be opportunities for learning and growth. At Auschwitz, Victor Frankl observed human beings, despite their tremendous pain and suffering in the concentration camps, continually finding reasons to live through learning. He writes in his famous, Man’s Search for Meaning:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity–even under the most difficult circumstances–to add deeper meaning to his life… What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life–daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. (p.67,76)

Perhaps because most of us do not live under such duress, we take the power of learning for granted. Do we think learning or “education” is only for the privileged? Do we think it occurs in a particular or conducive environment? Do we forget or become complacent about the opportunities to learn and continually grow throughout our lives, across every landscape? Perhaps we are just too busy or distracted by the hustle and bustle of life in an industrialized economy that puts tremendous demands on us and constraints on our time, even though some demands we put on ourselves and are excessive or unnecessary.

You will find opportunities for learning in the places and faces that you meet each and every moment of each and every day of your life; you are surrounded by nature as well—that is always available to you as a landscape for learning! You will find learning opportunities in the steps that you take across the landscapes of your life, whether those steps are tentative, merely casual, or aggressively intentional. Together, we are all travelers over the landscapes of life where love, fear, pain, and joy are only some of the very best teachers, but only IF you are open enough and only IF you are aware enough to receive the lessons. Adjust your frame of reference to learning and the world will change right before your eyes.

Become an enthusiastic student of life. Take learning into your own hands, rather than living merely as the victim of what happens to you in your life. Rather than thinking that things happen to you, perhaps you might come to understand instead that things happen for you– they occur as continuing education, as Frankl noted, even within the most challenging environments and times. Developing the attitude of a student will transform the way you see the world and all of your experiences.

To develop a disposition for learning and openness you might be required to complete a considerable amount of unlearning as part of the process of growth. You have been taught and conditioned in ways that likely have severely limited the way you see the world and the way you see and think of yourself. Examining your own life– your mindset, your worldview, your values, your beliefs, how you spend your time, your habits, your carefully constructed perceptions about yourself (your identity) is a process every capable person can learn to address to better understand what it means to be human, so that self understanding can be gained as well as understanding of our fellow humans.

Indeed, it is every person’s responsibility to “know thyself” as many great teachers from Socrates to Buddha to Emerson to Martin Luther King have urged. What comes with self-understanding, though, is the often challenging process of unlearning, which is why many people start toward self-knowledge but abandon the path. It isn’t easy to deconstruct yourself because you feel like you might come undone or completely fall apart: emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially. Loss is part of the learning process. It takes a great amount courage to confront yourself, do the work, and rebuild yourself– to get your shit together, but the payoff is worthwhile both for you and for the rest of the world. This is what the hero does! This is what Frankl did and watched his fellow prisoners do, each choosing to “take up [their] cross.” Brave people look in the mirror. Cowards run, pretend, hide,or give up. They become closed, unwilling, ignorant, arrogant, and stuck.

Shedding limiting ideas about yourself, others, the world, and an inflexible mindset will allow you to become more pliant and supple, more flexible and strong (this is your yoga). You will discover your true self, the pure self you were born to be. You will have to excavate all of your social and cultural conditioning. You’ll have to go back and reclaim that innocent unadulterated, wild child you were, so full of potential and life force, that self you were before your were subjected to the “industrialized” world and “ schooled” and “socialized.” This is when you lost all that lovely divergent thinking and when your imagination was put to the side, or minimized, or put into the all encompassing service of your logical thinking / academic brain. It’s when you went indoors for hours and hours to be tamed and taught self-regulation and conformity and order; your head was then filled with “shoulds” and “oughts” and “musts,” and when you wandered away or imagined anything unconventional or you questioned authority, you were scolded back into the carefully shaped reality that was efficiently managed for you, lest you be labelled and cast aside as “abnormal” or a “trouble-maker.” It’s when you became disconnected from nature and thereby yourself.

You were kept inside the container of school, institutionalized, confined to a chair in front of screens for hours on end, and those who did not rebel, the do-wellers and the get-along-and go-alongs, who blindly accepted what they were fed without question grew up to be the same people who keep the system chugging along to inculcate the next generation in the same ways. This will stop when we begin to reconsider the real purpose of real learning. Rehabbing the current education system from within is not the answer. Reconnection with nature and ourselves, our souls, is.

It is my contention that the current mental health crisis among our youth, the skyrocketing levels of anxiety and depression, is a result of our long-held Western cultural values based on materialism, excessive consumerism, ego-based competition, and progress. We have raped and pillaged the natural landscape and as a consequence soiled and littered our interior landscapes —the body, mind, and soul. The sacred has been replaced with science; beauty and mystery replaced with information and answers for gain. Yet, what we fail to recognize is that we are the natural landscape; we are not separate, as we have been conditioned to believe. So how can we create a more meaningful, healthy life for ourselves and others?

We can immerse ourselves in landscapes– that is, we can commit to lifelong learning. We can commit to learn about ourselves, our inner landscapes, finding good teachers (counselors, therapists, mentors, coaches) to help us explore. We can learn from the natural landscape to care for our world and all forms of life. We can learn how to learn better and more often, and we can make learning– authentic learning—our most important value, priority, motivation, behavior, habit, identity, right and ritual. Finally, we can find people to share our lives with –next door, across the street, or across the globe. We can share our humanity through learning.

Post Surgical Post

Post Surgical Post:
To suffer or not to suffer; there is no question

So, here I am, your Landscapes for Learning hostess with the mostess, recovering from surgery and pondering the meaning of life, or um…rather…philosophizing about suffering…again. (That’s supposed to be a funny reference to my previous post.

As I sit here coexisting rather unpleasantly with my abdominal pain, I realize that circumstance has presented me with a wonderful opportunity to confirm that I definitely prefer physical suffering far above any other kinds of suffering, emotional or otherwise. (I also just realized that I hate when people use the word, “definitely” and so many other awful qualifiers in writing that you are about to read throughout this piece. One of my favorite Stephen King quotes is “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” I love having my own blog where I can edit by choice and add parenthetical thoughts to entertain myself and funny pictures: see below.)

Anyway…

I was in rather acute pain the other night and completely exhausted for the entire next day from the associated writhing, but I would take that, any day, over the pain of, say, heartbreak or the loss of my dog. I would even choose physical pain over major disappointment because disappointment results in expectations not being met, which leads back to doubt about whether or not I should have held the expectations in the first place, which often leads to self-criticism and questions, and questions can lead to uncertainty, which leads to insecurity, which can lead to a sense of nihilism, which also often brings up regret, fear of the future, or lots of negative judgment about the past and previous decisions made or unmade and other stupid expectations that may have gone unmet and further disappointment and despair, and this process often lasts ad infinitum–like a record that skips (is that too old a cultural reference?) or at least as far back in time as early childhood, and everyone knows what that walk down memory lane brings you– a mess of unaddressed emotional wounds, and then you have to wrestle (or not) with bouncing back and forth between past and present problems and what seems like one gigantic tangled hell labeled, “what’s my fucking problem, anyway?”  or, if you prefer, “Why bother expecting anything from life, it’s pointless anyway,” which is way easier not to deal with, so you pick up a drink or a smoke or a pill or a person (and their problems which are far easier to solve than your own) or some other obsession, a good HBO series maybe, and then you are left where you started– completely lost (in the series, in someone else’s business posing as a do-gooder, or pleasantly buzzed) and still actually suffering except you don’t exactly “feel” it or even “know” it because it is effectively temporarily submerged (a.k.a.repressed), sort of neatly put aside like a beautiful statue on a shelf (doesn’t it look perfect in that exact spot? Hey I did something!) but you know it will be (added to the pile of unaddressed emotional shit from your past) back with new results potentially even more disastrous, had you just not turned to HBO (and turned away from your suffering) like an irresponsible, weak, scared, unknowing human that you (and all of us usually) are. 

statue on a shelf
Hey, I did something!

 

Yuck. Not a story of heroic proportion (or is it proportions? does it matter? Notice how I am staying with the theme here). 

So, my current state of physical pain is my preferred mode of suffering because it’s simple and doesn’t ask a lot from me. I am glad for this kind of suffering, where all I have to do is lie on the couch and wait for my body to heal itself. Your body is not a mystery and you really don’t get a choice in the matter of physical pain once it appears. There is no question of responsibility, of choice, to deal or not to deal, to be (with the pain) or not to be (with the pain). In other words, physical pain cannot be repressed!

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Make a choice, Dude. I don’t have much time.

And I am not exactly taking up the cross as I wait for my stitches to heal and the inflammation in my gut (or is it guts? see what I did there?) to subside. I don’t have to do any rational work. I mean, I am sitting here thinking about the nature of pain in my abdomen, and it has led me to conclude that I prefer this pain above other kinds, but there’s nothing else to figure out, no real problem to solve, and I already have the answer about why the pain exists at all —because I had an organ removed, Dummy!

So this brings me to the end of my story about preferential suffering (you know I mean only when I have to bear it; I don’t go looking for it and, of course, I avoid unnecessary pain whenever possible!), but there are so many, many more great stories you might like to read about human suffering and all its forms. Typically, they involve a hero from whom you might learn a thing or two. I would begin with either CONTEMPORARY CULTURE and work your way backwards, or start with HUMAN HISTORY and work your way back to the future. Or, even better, you could share your own story in the comments below. 

 

 

Dear Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

Dear Dr. Jordan B. Peterson,

Thank you for being: Courageous, Informed, Logical, Intense, Persistent, and Passionate.

I suppose you could say I have deeply immersed myself in a self-made course called, ‘The life and times of Dr. Jordan B.Peterson.’ I have been reading your book, Maps of Meaning (Routledge, 1999), reading about you online, watching videos about you, listening to your podcasts and listening to podcasts where you are the guest (Joe Rogan, Sam Harris 1 & 2), and intently watching many of your videos about psychology, myth and narrative, maps of meaning, personality, and your position with regard to Canadian Bill C-16. I think you are brave to tackle the controversial issue of free speech and political correctness, especially as it applies to life at university and educational institutions, but I am even more grateful for access to your instruction about Jung, narrative, psychoanalysis, and the humanities in general.

My readers can inform themselves by listening to your videos and podcasts because I can’t quite do your argument about political correctness justice here, nor can I adequately describe the depth and breadth of your knowledge about psychology, philosophy, history, and human nature. All I really want to say is thank you— for making me think even more deeply and critically about myself and others, about the notion of identity and social groups, as well as the nature of good and evil, and the power and value of language. I especially enjoyed your talk called “The Necessity of Virtue” and both my son and I found your self-authoring program helpful.

One of the goals at Landscapes for Learning is to celebrate our shared humanity through storytelling and to spotlight all sorts of fabulous teaching and learning that occurs across the various landscapes of life (internal and external, near and far). The stories collected will not be limited  to academia or famous, “successful” people. I believe you are an ordinary person doing extraordinary things with your particular talents.

I have included a comment I found about one of your YouTube videos below because it articulates the importance of your voice in modern civic discourse today which is in desperate need of rehabilitation:

“The people who criticize Dr. Peterson in the comments below just based on what he’s expressing here would be well served to go to his channel and start listening to some of his lectures on philosophy, psychology, ideology, and how these ideas work in history and social contexts. His insights transcend the extremes of any ideology. The various polarizing extremes of ideology that are dominating modern civic discourse have deep roots in human and social group psychology, which has been a dominant theme in his various lectures, as I have interpreted them.

People, as a general rule, have almost no understanding of basic psychology, and by extension, have no real control over themselves and what they think. And I would suggest that people are already at a point in social conditioning that they have been wired to act in an dictated manner, without even realizing it. And since they act in a way that they have been programmed to feel is “doing the right thing”, it’s an ego reward and feeds that behavior to react. And that’s a big piece of what is going on in modern discourse, the majority are acting as reactionaries. They are actively seeking things out to react to, typically in a negative manner. It’s a vicious cycle and it’s not only extremely unhealthy for social systems, it’s likely just as unhealthy for the individual.

I’ve said it over and over, if people want to improve the world, or political systems, or whatever, the best thing they could do is get a basic handle of human psychology and their own psychology. Until people understand how their own mind works, they can never solve anything outside of it, and will continue to be manipulated by insidious external forces they aren’t even aware of.

Dr. Peterson analyzes philosophy, psychology, history, social systems, etc, and the ways they intersect with critically deep insight. Before you dismiss him based on one lecture, do yourself a favor and listen to more of his work. The best lectures on philosophy I’ve listened to are by Dr. Peterson…”
—-Strangersound, Youtube, March 28, 2017

Your work has reaffirmed and positively contributed to the way I teach my high school students to be heroes in their own lives. By trying to understand their human nature through the examination of archetypal stories as these pertain to their own personal psychology, I think they may be on a path to awakening and finding real meaning in their young lives, rather than blindly adhering to the cultural values of overconsumption, narcissism, and extreme egocentrism. Also, your comments about writing have been added to my repertoire in helping young people understand the value of lifelong learning, precise language, the power of logical argumentation, and writing skill.

You have an amazing ability to articulate your interpretation of the human psyche and the world and its contemporary array of problems and suffering in the context of your knowledge and understanding of history and psychology. Even if people disagree with some or almost all of what you teach, they cannot possibly deny that you are informed, articulate, and dedicated to the service to something much bigger than yourself.

I happen to think your voice is exactly what is needed right now, particularly in this time in history. I am glad people are listening. 

Sincerely,

A Concerned Educator @ Landscapes for Learning

 

 

Podcast 000: About Me

cartoon me

In this, the inaugural podcast, I introduce myself, the purpose of the Landscapes for Learning platform and the LFL Podcast Features.

I look forward to sharing the inspiring stories and conversations I’ll be having with extraordinary “ordinary” people from around the world.

I hope you’ll tune in and enjoy the journey with me!

I am here. Now what?

 

A meditation on learning and brief defense of the humanities.

Life is suffering.

Life is one big problem; it’s problem after problem after problem after problem, isn’t it? I am not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but this is the fundamental truth of human life–it involves suffering. Nobody denies that pain is true. If you haven’t figured this out for yourself based on your own experience, stories from religious tradition and classic myths from around the planet have made this clear since as far back as we can recall. So has the story of human history. And, again, if you didn’t already realize this in your own life, human beings suffer to greater and lesser degrees, depending on circumstances. If you were born Jewish at the turn of the 20th century in Germany or Russia, for instance, well then, your particular brand of suffering was likely immense– practically beyond rational comprehension. Yet, if you are as lucky as me to be a college-educated, middle-class, professionally employed, white American woman with a fairly high IQ and good physical health, then your suffering is of a different sort. Though such difference exists, pain and suffering is real for all human beings, one way or another.

 

burden sysiphus

 

So what do we do when we become consciously aware that we suffer? Well, we either learn to accept and deal with the suffering, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we either run, remain in a constant state of anxiety that compromises our health, or we settle for an identity as helpless victim at the whim of a threatening universe. We will suffer continually whether we deal with it or not; we may also cause additional suffering for ourselves and others and the planet if we remain capable victims! So who or what teaches us to accept our suffering and problem-solve?

Here are two problems most humans face: How do I live or act in the world? Is my life meaningful? Another way to put this is, “I am here. Now what?” I mean, What do we do? The survival of humanity literally depends on our capacity and willingness to face problems and learn how to solve or at least somewhat effectively address them rather than pretending they don’t exist or otherwise ignoring them out of fear or laziness or entitlement (and ignoring is so easy with all the many delicious distractions that we choose in order to stay oblivious, busy, or continually satiated; perhaps we get fat and happy, but is that meaningful?)

It’s no surprise that all sorts of addiction, anxiety, violence, and terrorism, pervade contemporary life. How well are we bearing our burden? What are we doing to cope? Are we running, hiding, numbing out, pretending? Are parents and educational institutions properly preparing young people to bear the burden of a life of suffering? Do we teach them the knowledge and arm them with the tools they’ll need to problem-solve? Do we teach them their responsibility to themselves and their community? Do we warn them that none of this will be easy? Are we honest, or do we shield and protect them from the harsh truth of reality by spoiling, coddling, or desensitizing them, effectively reducing their chances of a meaningful life and sentencing them to permanent victimhood? 

 

suffering

 

There are a lot of factors involved with how we learn or not, and cope or not, how we find the bravery and courage needed to deal with our problems or not. Human beings are very, very, very complicated, seemingly beyond measure. Because we are each unique, our learning should be primarily about self-understanding. We must ask the question and find the answer to “What makes me tick?” Each individual must know what it means to be a human being, intimately and thoroughly, so as to become aware and responsible for one’s place in the world and one’s relationship to others and the natural environment. We also must understand how other people tick. Perhaps all of this seems a terrible reality, a tremendously difficult obligation that also causes us to suffer. It doesn’t sound like fun. It sounds like work. Yes. You have a choice to pick up this burden or not. If you don’t, the burden will fall to others, in one way or another, and, even then, you will suffer along with everyone else anyway, one way or another. 

We are social animals. We live in groups. We can be vicious and cruel beyond comprehension and creative, imaginative, and loving beyond belief. We are a complicated web of synapses and chemicals; we are bodies that function optimally and minimally, sometimes abysmally. There’s a lot to learn.  And it isn’t easy, even for the most intelligent. So what shall be the purpose of education? And what about those less fortunate, those born with fewer capacities or personality disorder, chemical imbalances, low IQs? Again, the responsibility falls to the able, willing, and courageous in the group. Ugh, more work! More suffering! More meaning. More relief. More love and appreciation. More survival.

And, by the way, formal “schooling” isn’t necessarily the only route to learning. (In fact, unschooling may be equally effective as the most effective types of schooling.) One of the most accessible (and efficient) ways to understand human nature and human suffering is to immerse yourself in stories, the stories of your own life and of others’ lives. You can also explore the myths and great narratives from around the world and study history—these are the stories that embody the life experiences of humans since the beginning of their conscious awareness of their own existence and its inherent problems. These works of art are available through multiple media formats today, and many of the archetypal stories from antiquity are retold in ways accessible to millions of people all over the world. Stories bind us, always have, and always will. Check some of them out. They will speak directly to you. They are about you. They have been created for you. See what you can learn.

 

humnaities

 

I doubt very much that science can solve every single problem for every single person in this world. I doubt that any sort of government can alleviate the oppression of every single oppressed individual (and it does come down to each individual because we are each uniquely oppressed). I doubt that blaming and finger-pointing or ramming an ideological stance down someone else’s throat will be productive either. I doubt that remaining ignorant and dependent is helpful. History shows otherwise.

It might be useful to learn how best to deal with human suffering and problems in our world, in our individual lives, each one of us, through an understanding of our own humanity. We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to continue our education throughout our lives, not just when school ends.  We can always, at any time, both turn inward to get to know ourselves better (and we change continually!) and look to our ancestors and the stories they told about what they learned, how they coped, to instruct us on how we might cope too. Find good teachers.

There’s much to learn about yourself, the world, the unknown, and the best way to start educating yourself is to become immersed in a study of the humanities and therefore your own humanity. Continuing your education — learning— should be the focus of your life. You should be striving to learn everyday, not only learning about yourself and the world, all the unknowns of your life, but also learning how learning works, learning how to learn, and learning to learn better. All of your effort will not only make the world a better place but the quality of your life will be immeasurably richer and more meaningful.

 

art humanity

 

Humans have made civilization possible and we have made life infinitely better in a number of ways because of our voracious desire to learn. And, even more importantly, we have survived because we have learned to act according to moral truths– that is, in appropriate ways that prevent us from using all our brilliance to self-destruct and destroy the planet. We haven’t allowed the evil that resides in all of us to completely destroy our race or our humanity….yet.  A lot has had to go right for us to continue to exist at all. Let’s continue to teach our kids to look to the stories from our past to guide us in constructing meaningful lives and ensure our survival. Let’s revisit those stories ourselves, again and again. Let’s support the arts and the humanities,  not as an interesting relic of a classical education, but because it is urgent for our continued survival and the exact type of education the world needs most, right now.  

Learning to Unlearn

It was in the hot room at a Bikram yoga studio,
standing directly under the bright lights,
in front of the mirrors,
trying to balance,
in silence,
everyday, for 90 minutes,
where I learned the art of unlearning.
I learned to let go.

A vital aspect of learning is unlearning.

Unlearning is intending to let go of what you have already learned or acquired. It’s an undoing the effect of, a discarding the habit of what you have learned. Unlearning must be intentional, deliberate, and active, otherwise it’s merely forgetting. Sounds simple, right? Not easy because the problem is that our learning leads to beliefs which lead to habits and, as you well know, habits are hard to break.

yoda

Frustration, pain, crisis, and suffering usually catalyze the process of unlearning. This is why psychotherapists sometimes encourage us to “lean into” the painful experiences of our lives. Our yoga teachers do the same. “Hold” the uncomfortable posture, they say, “using stillness and breath.” With compassionate support, yoga helps us uncover lessons we might learn from our pain, cope with suffering, and see ourselves more clearly, all to enable functionality as a healthy human being in the world. For me, yoga is not about how high I can kick my foot to the ceiling or how deep my backward bending, it’s about living an authentic life of quality and purpose.

Pain is our best teacher. She is real and unrelenting in her demand for our attention. Almost always, her lesson involves unlearning, a letting go, a clearing-out, sloughing. When we run from pain and discomfort, we miss out on growth and added strength and flexibility in both our minds and physical bodies. Maybe we push too hard in our consistent pursuit for more, recklessly moving beyond our range of motion, causing unhealthy stress rather than healing. This is a common scenario for many people who have been raised with a Western mindset, schooled in an American culture of competition and lack. 

What’s challenging for most people about “Letting Go” is that it’s about loss, not gain. Letting go is unlearning the habit of clinging, of hanging on; of wanting to have more– more time, more money, more attention; it is the relentless battle— to the very end— to avoid losing; it’s the widely admired “never give up” attitude we reward and for which we earn trophies and accolades. The problem (among others) with these attitudes and habits intrinsic to a competitive mindset is that very often it involves personal comparison, which can lead to feelings of lack, of not having enough or believing we are not enough. We lose and feel inferior. We don’t “suffer with” a competitor (even if it is ourself); we try to outsmart, outdo, beat down, or absolutely destroy them to cross the finish line first or to win the match or to best our prior “time.”

notgood-enough

The fear of poverty and competition are taught to us when we are very young, when we are most vulnerable and open, by our schools (administered and reinforced through the grading system), cultural icons who act as our models and mentors, our peers, our families, and by industry, entertainment and social media. These values are then consistently reinforced over time. But I believe we can live compassionately within a competitive landscape. We can live a soul-centered life in an ego-centered world. Compassion and competition are not mutually exclusive; we do need to function and take care of ourselves in the world we find ourselves in. We have to survive.

yin-yang

A little unlearning isn’t such a dangerous thing. By making yourself more open and a more compassionate competitor, you can bring out the best in yourself (if you really know who you are at your core) and your opponent. It’s about your intentions and aiming for balance.

Discovering yoga began some very crucial unlearning for me. While practicing, I learned how to lean into the discomfort I felt in my body and in my mind, under the duress of intense heat and within the strict discipline of the asanas, including savasana which requires lying still on your back with eyes open breathing consciously through the nose. In savasana, “less is more” which is incredibly challenging for people who are conditioned to solve problems, attain goals, want more, do more, be more, have more. In fact, it can be incredibly painful.

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Compassion literally means “suffering with.” I had to teach myself, through disciplined daily practice to stay with my suffering, to stay with myself, to not abandon myself or my pain. I had to stay loyal to that which underlies the labels and the cultural conditioning, my spirit. The yogis on their mats next to me aren’t my competition; they are my fellow sufferers, my fellow spirits. The hot room is a community of compassion. And, as I look back on the history of my most memorable life experiences, compassion was beckoning me to embrace it all along. Apparently, I wasn’t available to listen or open enough to accept its invitation. I am grateful yoga found me and that compassion continued to persistently knock at my door.

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By clearing the way, unlearning has positively affected my understanding of my own capabilities; my intrinsic value; my true strengths and weaknesses. In the past, I passively agreed to labels my environment pinned on me, and unknowingly, I internalized these labels, turned them into limiting beliefs, then turned them into “truths,” and acted accordingly. That was “me.” How could I be anything else?

And I wondered why I suffered.

Yoga taught me that the problems in my life were not the fault of others, as I had always hoped; blaming is easy, a shortcut, because it seems to relieve pain, at least temporarily. No, my suffering and frustration were the result of my own doing, my own “learned” habits, my carefully schooled perceptions. And although done to me when innocent and indefensible, I must take responsibility. I make my own choices. I agree more with my inner voice rather than with Father culture.  This is work. This is struggle. This is uncomfortable. This is freedom.  
Notes

Unlearning and unschooling are not new concepts. This post is about an example of how the notion of unlearning has affected my personal life through the yoga; but if you are also interested in the application of unlearning to business, click here and here, or if you are interested in unlearning as it applies to education, click here.

“My yoga class is that sweltering day. It’s one long, hot meditation. We put incredible pressure on you to teach you to break your attachment to external things and go within. Instead of blaming others for your own weakness, fear and depression, you will learn to take responsibility for your own life. You’ve got to face yourself in the mirror, every part you don’t like, every mistake you make, every excuse your mind creates to limit your potential liberation–there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. No escape from reality. With these kinds of demands on your abilities and attention, you will soon forget that there is anyone on the next mat in the classroom, much less notice what they are wearing. After you learn to discipline your body and mind under these conditions, you will truly be able to concentrate; no external will be able to break your powerful focus. That’s why I say the the darkest place in the world is under the brightest lamp. In the Torture Chamber of my class, you will find a beautiful light, and the source of that light is within you.”

—–BIKRAM CHOUDHURY

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all,

In The American Scholar, his speech to Harvard graduates, Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed, “Life is a dictionary!” encouraging Americans, especially the young scholars in front of him, to trust their own experiences: direct, sensory experience in nature, if they truly wanted to live a life of learning. You can read all you want and spend all your time in the library, blindly accepting the dogma that’s been handed down to you by rationalists who supposedly know better than you, he said (in so many words), but that will never substitute for discovering the world, nature, and your own inner nature, through personal experience. It was unconventional back then and sadly still is today.

In our Information Age, we can know just about everything, everyone, and everywhere. That’s how you became the Know-it-alls! We spend far more time in front of screens, typing and clicking, safely in our minds (often completely unaware of our own bodies), safe from nature. It’s “out there” and we are “in here,” separate, unequal.

adultsiphoneskidswalkingwith-iphones

The library of Emerson’s time is the Internet of our time. Young “scholars” today look at almost every aspect of their lives: the world, nature, and themselves (selfies) through the lenses of their iPhones.

 

According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2008), our disconnection from nature causes a shrunken sensory world, impoverished experiences, and a sort of “cultural autism” which include  “feelings of isolation and containment” (p.64). We are literally trapped indoors, inside our own minds, as we surf the Web, thinking we are “everywhere” yet sadly, not anywhere at all, not even in our bodies. Knowledgeable, but not. Connected, yet disconnected.  

girlat-computer-silhouette-2Louv quotes Daniel Yankelovich, a public opinion analyst, who says, “What I see in America today is an almost religious zeal for the technological approach to every facet of life…It’s a value system, a way of thinking, and it can become delusional” (p.65).

Ah, Ya think?

Louv goes on to write in his chapter subsection entitled “Losing our Senses,”

“Today, the life of the senses is literally, electrified. One obvious contributor is electronics: television and computers. But simpler, early technologies played important roles. Air-conditioning, for example…Few of us are about to trade our air-conditioners for fans. But one price of progress is seldom mentioned: a diminished life of the senses…as human beings, we need direct, natural experiences; we require fully-activated senses in order to feel fully alive (my italics).

Twenty-first-century Western culture accepts the view that because of omnipresent technology we are awash in data. But in this information age vital information is missing. Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing below the ‘transparent mucous-paper in which the world like a bon-bon is wrapped so carefully that we can never get at it,’ as D.H. Lawrence put it, in a relatively obscure but extraordinary description of his own awakening to nature’s sensory gift. Lawrence described his awakening in Taos, New Mexico, as an antidote to the ‘know-it-all state of mind,’ that poor substitute for wisdom and wonder:

        ‘Superficially, the world has become small and known. Poor little globe of earth, the tourists trot round you as easily as they trot round the Bois or round Central Park. There is no mystery left, we’ve been there, we’ve seen it, we know all about it. We’ve done the globe and the globe is done.

        This quote is true, superficially. On the superficies, horizontally, we’ve been everywhere and done everything, we know all about it. Yet the more we know, superficially, the less we penetrate, vertically. It’s all very well skimming across the surface of the ocean and saying you know all about the sea…

        As a matter of fact, our great grandfathers, who never went anywhere, in actuality had more experience of the world than we have, who have seen everything. When they listened to a lecture with lantern-slides, they really held their breath before the unknown, as they sat in the village school-room. We, bowling along in a rickshaw in Ceylon, say to ourselves: ‘It’s very much what you’d expect.” We really know it all.

        We are mistaken. The know-it-all state of mind is just the result of being outside the mucous-paper wrapping of civilization. Underneath is everything we don’t know and are afraid of knowing.’” (p.57-59)

nddevolution

And, so here you sit Mr. & Mrs. Know-it-all: efficient, progressive, high achieving, American travelers and patriots, with the world (of information) at your fingertips sitting on chairs in your air-conditioned schools and cubicles Googling away for answers. 

Sincerely,

A Little Birdy
p.s. Here’s some food for thought:

  • Might an antidote to the “know-it-all” state of mind be Shunryu Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind?
  • Where does “schooling” fit into such delusional thinking amongst our young people?
  • Why are kids locked up in the institution of public school all day completely disconnected from more direct, sensory experiences?
  • Has the institute of American public education actively supported a disconnection from nature and instead promoted the values of technology and utility to ensure a dumbed down work force so numbed out and disassociated from their true nature that they won’t ever revolt?
  • Do you think about nature as something “out there,” separate from you?

For Further Reading:

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, (2008) Workman Publishing, N.Y..

Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Leo Babauta’s Zenhabits post for further reading on the concept of Beginner’s Mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar

John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Complusory Schooling

Zachary Slayback’s The End of School

Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

When you woke up. A poem

Sometimes I wonder if I am an example of a midlife crisis.
Sometimes I wonder if I just missed an important lesson that everyone else must have learned a long time ago.
Maybe I missed that lesson because I was drunk?
Maybe I was shopping?
Maybe I was  busy? I was probably busy. Or distracted.
Maybe I am, like you, a product of my environment, a product of the universe.

When did you wake up?

You didn’t get to pick your parents.
You didn’t get to pick where you were born, nor did you have anything at all to say about which period of time, epoch, age, century, you arrived in. You just appeared.
From where?
When were you born?
Were you (un)lucky enough to be raised as a consumer, a worker, an informed citizen in the “democracy?”

Oh, c’mon now. Be grateful!

Did you ever wonder why the things that happen to you, for you, in your life, happen to you, for you, in your life?
Did you ever wonder why he doesn’t see it the way you see it?
Did you ever wonder,  “why don’t I see it the way he sees it?”
Did you ever wonder why your teenagers aren’t rebellious?
What happened to mud pies?

When did you wake up?

When did everything you knew, even the ways you knew,
everything on every single billboard that flashed itself in front of you,
everything on chalkboards that you were forced to sit in front of,
everything you inherited,
everything you believed about yourself and the world and others and therefore the choices that you made because you thought you were making “good” choices based on your very “good” ways of knowing
turn out to be false?

You didn’t get to choose that moment.
You didn’t get to choose insanity, irresponsibility, incompatibility. The Loneliness.

Now what?

A Soul’s Calling.

What does it mean to follow your path, your soul’s calling?

I am learning that finding my purpose doesn’t have a whole lot to do with thinking, as if a problem needs solving or something  needs “figuring out.” If anything, my rational mind very often seems to get in the way. (See Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield)

So far, this adventure seems to be more about trusting the process, using my intuition, and listening to my inner voice. I am trying to remain true to what my heart is telling me, and to remain open to what is in store from a source that exists in the universe and deep within me. I am deliberately refraining from trying too hard to find my way, but instead trying to be led. I am afraid, uncertain, excited, and hopeful. The struggle has been anything but boring.

I believe this website is a part of my calling, part of my path. The call to share everything I learn about myself, my life, and my process with you is real, so I have created Landscapes for Learning to be my place of expression, of vulnerability, of learning, and growth. The “Meta” feature of my blog will be where I share the ins and outs of my creative journey with you. Many days I have no idea what I am doing. Other days, it seems completely clear. I presume this pattern will continue.

I always thought teaching high school English was my life’s purpose, as I know in my heart that teaching and learning is in my bones, but perhaps my career has been a training ground for what’s next. I don’t know if a creative life (writing) is my ultimate purpose, but it is a step forward on the path. I am taking a leave of absence from my job to listen to my muse and see where it takes me. I plan to take you along. Please, share your adventures with me too!

Oprah asked Caroline Myss, a guest on her show, SuperSoul Sunday, “How do you know when you’ve found your purpose in life?” I find her insight valuable. I hope you will too.

Watch more of the interview between Oprah and Caroline Myss. LOTS of great discussion about the inner voice and intuition and trusting the process!

Also, check out “The Journey,” one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

Dear Efficient Utilitarian Student,

It’s not your fault that you were raised with the great American values of utility and efficiency. These values are enacted and followed by virtually everyone around you– your parents, your school, your government; they’ve been enacted throughout most of American history, especially in the Industrial Revolution, in the world of corporations, and throughout most of modern and contemporary society. And, the invention of the internet along with new information technologies has exponentially accelerated and reinforced these values (and created so much distraction that you have no ability to sit quietly long enough to reflect honestly about values).

It’s not your fault that you have been influenced by these external forces. You never really had a choice. These values, on the surface, are fairly important, but, unfortunately, when these two values become an approach to learning, their effect is devastating. If utility and efficiency are intrinsic to how and why you learn, there’s probably not a whole lot of room for mindfulness or appreciation.

If your goals are expediency and efficiency when it comes to learning something new, whether a concept or a skill, you’ll miss the pleasure of authentic learning, the appreciation of the subtleties of that concept, idea, or skill. If it’s all a hurried process of finding what you can use, you may miss developing an appreciation for language, numbers, angles, the concept of infinity, the way your body works, or F.Scott Fitzgerald’s writing style. Again, not your fault, as we “educators” have invested in this thing called “time on learning.”

What about slowing down to savor all of your learning experiences, even the painful and boring, for no other reason than to remain open to learning itself and to learn for the sake of learning? What about lingering over a piece of art, wrestling with a difficult mathematical concept or skill? You don’t have to “do” anything with these learning experiences except experience them, and they will benefit you regardless of your desire to utilize them in your own pre-planned way. Please, slow down, and just enjoy learning, without expected payback or any added value beyond mere appreciation and present moment awareness. This approach may affect you in unanticipated and sometimes unwanted ways, but it will lead to the best sort of growth.

growth

Think about meeting a new student in your school, a stranger. If that person doesn’t fulfill a social or other goal for you, will you tend to, because of efficiency and utility, ignore that person? If you do actually meet this person and efficiency and utility are at the forefront of your mindset, are you narrowly fixed on only the aspects of this person that will potentially benefit you? Are you contemplating how this person can potentially help you in achieving your individual goals?

Can you consider the possibility of slowly and mindfully taking in everything about this person, thinking about him as a fellow human being who suffers and loves and hopes and wonders and experiences loss and smiles and cries and puts on his socks and shoes everyday, just like you? Can you take the time to focus— to appreciate the details of her face, her eyes and the contours of her cheeks and jaw line? Are you interested in this person as a person, or are you only focused on how useful she may be to you; what he may be utilized for? And, are you dismissing this person too quickly  (using stereotypes) because you can’t waste your time getting to know them beyond a surface introduction? Or are you deeply engaged and intrigued as if your were looking at exquisite art?

student-thinking

Are you, Efficient Utilitarian Student, while in your classes, thinking to yourself:

“Hurry up and get to the point.”

“How can I use this information, this experience, concept, idea, skill to get an A ?”

“Is this going to be on the test?”

“I wish the teacher would just hurry up and tell us what we need to know for the test and forget all the other extra or irrelevant stuff.”

“I hate working in groups with other people because it negatively affects my grade.”

Efficient Utilitarian Student, you are missing so much beauty and joy in your life! You are missing out on how deliciously long a moment can feel and the way life can unfold before you within each and every one of these precious moments! And for this, I apologize. We have steered you wrong for too long. But, it’s not too late!

mountain-flowers2

Now that you are more aware, you might try to approach your learning the way you might walk along the beach and enjoy a sunset, or the way you might climb a mountain and survey those tiny flowers that make you question how they could stay alive so far up amongst nothing but rock, or how you might fish on an enormous lake where the water looks like glass and everything around you is still and quiet.  Live out that sense of wonder, curiosity, openness to experience, where likely the last thing you are focused on is expediency or how any of these experiences, these moments, may be utilized.

If you took the time to read this letter, I hope you found something useful in it.

Sincerely & Apologetically,

Your Teacher

A Note to the Spiritual Academic

Dear Spiritual Academic,

According to the super cute monk, Thich Nhat Hanh,

“Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones.

Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind that exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as with the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.” *

So, put the book down. Stop reading. Stop searching for just a few moments. Stop the analysis. Realize that what you are looking for is with you, wherever you are, wherever you go, whatever you do. Stop hiding in the library and get out there and live.

And, by the way, you don’t have to put “finding enlightenment” on your To Do List or compartmentalize it into blocks in your schedule labeled “yoga, 5-7 pm” or “meditation 6-7am” either.

checklist-cartoon

Wash those pans, walk that dog, kiss your kid, teach your students, eat your lunch, take that poop (yeah, I said that), ride that bike, turn the key and drive, and in all of these moments, BE there.

Sincerely,

A Recovering Spiritual Academic

*The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh. Shambala Pocket Classics, 2012, p.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just a thought…How Higher Ed. Can Help the Natural Landscape

After reading “Ending Extracurricular Privilege” by Olga Kahzan in December 21st issue of The Atlantic Monthly, I realize just how much influence higher education has on the values, beliefs, behaviors, habits, and choices of their incoming students as well as their parents and their high schools. (I mean, I know the competition among students over grades has completely destroyed the joy and authenticity of learning and creativity, but…)

I’ve seen the administration and school committee where I work (and my children’s high school) consistently respond with, “How high?” when colleges and university admissions request that they “jump.” You want global studies? Done! You want cross-curricular courses? You got it! Study abroad programs? Yes! Right away! Community service? Of course! And a substantial portion of the job of an entire department (Guidance) is to help students create these required stellar resumes starting in 9th grade. By grade 11, it’s too late! That’s a lot of resources geared toward shaping kids to meet college admissions expectations.

volunteers

The personal qualities and characteristics colleges seek in candidates almost always become the secondary school community’s goals which are aimed at raising and shaping teens’ behavior and time, at least from what I have witnessed. And it’s not an entirely bad thing! Achievement and service are valuable. It gets out of control when it’s forced or completely ingenuine. I believe intention does matter, especially when it’s a gauge of character. When kids are competing against each other over who can gain more community service hours to best the other’s resume? Umm… no. That doesn’t seem very “communal.”

The extracurricular resume of students is a map of how they spend their “free” time beyond the strictly academic realm. Many times, I might argue most times, students complete obligatory community service hours for the sole purpose of their resume and its desired effect on college acceptance. How can admissions officers know which student has genuinely community-oriented values?

christian-community-service

It also appears that schools require community service because that will help their students gain favor with college admissions; they build it into the curriculum, if you will. Kids have no choice in the matter or they don’t graduate. I have heard the following, and other versions of the same from students: “I have to get my community service done or my parents will kill me.” Is that service or forced labor? This is only one of the issues Richard Weissbourd raises in the article; he raises several others worth considering.

recycle-green

It’s rather impressive that higher ed has such power to motivate kids to complete service, and work, and play sports, and join clubs, and do well in school (c’mon, you know that kid, those parents), so what about requiring applicants to go green– to serve our earth, to be 100% focused on full immersion in the wild, or to nurture the natural landscape and all it’s living creatures, or to provide evidence that they recycle and show that they moderate or eliminate their carbon footprint, and somehow show that they don’t support (via consumerism) unhealthy and corrupt business practices that harm the environment, including all its life forms?

It’s just a thought.

Waiting to be exposed, I mean, publish.

shakespeare-inner-critic-2
Rationalizing voice: I have to wait to share this site with friends until I can produce enough perfectly awesome perfectly revised and perfectly edited content that can withstand criticism and ridicule.
Fear/ Inner Critic: (My ego isn’t ready! I can’t be that vulnerable!)
Rationalizing voice: I will have to wait until I figure out what this project is supposed to be. There needs to be a single point of focus. I have to establish my audience and purpose. You are an English teacher for Christ’s sake! All you have is a domain name.
Fear/Inner Critic: (I am interested in too many things! It’s a collection of uninspiring disconnected ideas! It’s too soon! I have no idea what I am doing!)
burden-of-inner-critic-2
Soul Speaking: Stop rationalizing. Stop making excuses. Fuck Fear. Drown out the Inner Critic. Do my bidding. Trust the process.
(To find the courage to follow your heart and excavate your buried creativity, please read, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, referred to me by Joe Rogan; and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, referred to me by Tim Ferriss).

Changing the Landscape from the Inside Out

Each moment of life is a new moment, and we get to choose how to experience each one. We can label some moments as less useful than others; we can label a moment as boring, good, bad, nothing special, amazing; we can judge it as entirely purposeless or extraordinarily purposeful. The point is, we get to decide.

We have been fooled by a Western culture that has inculcated us with conventional responses to each moment and we have been trained through our education to affix the same labels to our life experiences as we perceive others around us to be doing. But we don’t have to follow along blindly forever. We can choose our own labels, our own beliefs, if we are consciously aware. This is far from an easy process, as it involves substantial un-learning. As anyone knows who has been addicted to anything, it is VERY difficult to quit old habits and form new ones.

When people realize that life is about the labels and the stories we tell ourselves and the beliefs that we decide to believe and live according to, the world is literally turned upside down. This is no small awakening. It’s HUGE.

A yoga teacher once said, yoga is an inside-out process, rather than the outside-in. Yoga isn’t like a beauty cream you can slather on your body to change. The work happens on the inside.

rosecolored-lenses

Discovering that we can change some of our most deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the world and live according to new ones is radically transformative.  When you alter the internal landscape of your life, when you live from the inside out, when you trade in the glasses you were given by your culture for a new pair that you choose, the external circumstances of life transform and everything looks different–those same old faces and places in  your life suddenly appear to be new places and new faces. Transforming the inner landscape radically alters the external landscape.

There’s lots of advice online about how to be happy or how to be “successful,” usually found in inspirational quotes, memes, and videos, or from motivational speakers, life coaches,  and “successful” people, but here, at this site, my goal is to find and celebrate success stories of ordinary, everyday people who are living extraordinarily well.

I invite the people who are traversing the landscapes of life from the inside out to tell their stories here to inspire others to awaken.  Because once you “wake up,” one of the first things that you might think to yourself is, “does anyone else know about what I just discovered?” Let’s connect, build a community, and genuinely subscribe to one another’s lives.

Qs & Qs: Henry David Thoreau

 

“I found thus that I had been a rich man without any damage to my poverty. But I retained the landscape, and I have since annually carried off what is yielded without a wheel-barrow.”

— Henry David Thoreau

I thought it appropriate to begin my first “Quotes & Questions” blog post exploring a few words about the landscape from Henry David Thoreau.

In these two lines from Walden, Thoreau defines what it means to be a “rich man” by implying that financial concerns, property-ownership, and money have nothing whatsoever to do with being “rich.”  Cliche, right? Yeah, yeah. We know– money does not equal happiness, blah, blah, blah.

But, Thoreau also is interested in preventing any “damage” to his “poverty,” as if poverty were a good thing; and it is, clearly, important to him to protect it. Why? What does he mean by poverty? Why protect it from damage?

In this early part of the chapter, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” these particular words about being a rich man, poverty, and the landscape follow a description of how he lost his claim on a piece of farmland that he had hoped to own, when the deal was rescinded. He was left with the original ten cents and packet of seeds he began with, and he seemed pretty stoked about that. I believe that, in Thoreau’s estimation, he still won by losing. Unfazed by and completely accepting of his misfortune, he allowed the farmer to not only keep his land but the ten dollars he had paid him for it.

Although he may have lost his original purchase, he insists that he “retained the landscape” which profited him in other ways. What was it that he “yielded without a wheel-barrow?”

Do you “profit” from the natural landscape that surrounds you, as Thoreau was able to?

What might one annually carry off the landscape (without a wheel barrow)?

Are you “the monarch of all that [you] survey” as Thoreau then metaphorically claims in the very next lines?

How do you see people “damage” their “poverty” in contemporary life?

Can we afford to live as Thoreau lived, without “damage” to one’s poverty? If so, what does this kind of lifestyle look like today?

Do you know anyone/people who live according to Thoreau’s definitions of wealth and poverty?

Do you know anyone who profits, in the same way Thoreau suggests he was able to, from the natural landscape?

How much time do you spend considering the value of the natural landscape or the landscapes of your life?

 

On Getting High

I read a lot about addiction and this article below, by Tommy Rosen, published in the Elephant Journal, is a beauty!

Many people distance or disassociate themselves from the word, “addiction” as it seems to connote something extreme, like the heroin addict living on the street half-dead, for example. That image does not apply to most people, but the more I read about addiction, the more I see that we live in a culture of addiction, the most obvious being consumerism, and I recognize that I and many other “upstanding” or “normal” people exhibit the qualities and behaviors of the addict. Addiction is insidious. So, maybe you aren’t an alcoholic, maybe you don’t even smoke weed, maybe you are sober, but I guarantee you will identify with this article nonetheless.

On The Subject of Getting High

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