The following quotes are taken from The Places That Scare Us by Pema Chodron where she describes the exploration of the inner landscape that I believe is sorely needed as part of kids’ education more than ever before:
“We’re encouraged to meditate every day, even for a short time, in order to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves… As we continue to sit we see that meditation isn’t about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It’s about being able to stay present with ourselves. It becomes increasingly clear that we won’t be free of self-destructive patterns unless we develop a compassionate understanding of what they are.”
How can young people learn to nurture and guide their own lives, to take responsibility and learn to be honest, if they don’t spend any of their time or attention getting to know who they are—or to their interior world, which includes both their bodies and their minds and the union between the two? Are they too over-scheduled? Are they too distracted with social everything– media, their friends, socializing, bullying, copying, and comparing– to travel their inner landscape?
“One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. Because meditation emphasizes working with your mind, it’s easy to forget that you even have a body. When you sit down it’s important to relax into your body and to get in touch with what is going on. Starting with the top of your head, you can spend a few minutes bringing awareness to every part of your body. When you come to places that are hurting or tense you can breathe in and out three or four times, keeping your awareness on that area. When you get to the soles of your feet you can stop, or if you feel like it, you can repeat this body sweep by going from bottom to top. Then at any time during your meditation period, you can quickly tune back in to the overall sense of being in your body. For a moment you can bring your awareness directly back to being right here. You are sitting. There are sounds, smells, sights, aches; you are breathing in and out. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you—maybe once or twice during a sitting session. Then return to the technique.”
Kids who sit in hard chairs all day get bored, restless, and fat and inflexible. Very little attention is paid to their bodies, as schooling is about the development of thinking and acquiring information; it’s a busy day of processing data and internalizing it long enough to show that you “know” it on some sort of assessment. The body merely carries you around from class to class.
“In meditation we discover our inherent restlessness. Sometimes we get up and leave. Sometimes we sit there but our bodies wiggle and squirm and our minds go far away. This can be so uncomfortable that we feel it’s impossible to stay. Yet this feeling can teach us not just about ourselves but also about what it is to be human. All of us derive security and comfort from the imaginary world of memories and fantasies and plans. We really don’t want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. It goes against the grain to stay present. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humor can give us the strength to settle down.”
The mindfulness movement and meditation being incorporated into schools is great– I hope it helps; I bet it already has; however, when meditating becomes another activity in service of schooling, that is– achievement, performance, and grading then it’s inauthentic and counter-productive. I hope schools don’t co-opt a very helpful opportunity for kids to explore the inner landscape in order to get them to settle down, behave, and perform as a high achiever — to meet the expectations set for them by some well-meaning or some ignorant adults.
It’s important that adults not steal such uncomfortable experiences away from kids as they grow and mature into adulthood, but instead introduce and mentor them with this more interior form of education. We could educate teens about the important life-long processes of cultivating a steadfastness with oneself, understanding our self-destructive patterns (thought-patterns, emotional body responses and reactions to stress etc), developing compassionate understanding of oneself, learning about oneself in order to understand what it means to be human and therefore be better and more equipped and insightful about other people.
Rather than controlling the external environment to prevent trial and error learning, rather than relying on safe spaces where scared victims remain for protection and see the world through fearful eyes, students need to practice facing inward- toward themselves and all of their catastrophe– as a more authentic curriculum, as a more authentic and foundational learning experience for life not merely for succeeding at school.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).If 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.
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.
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.
Louv 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)
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.
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
“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?