Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.

waterfall

Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.

~

Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).

~

And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.

~

Read the article here.

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Spaces

Ah, the traditional New Year’s blog post! 🙂 I have spent time away from the computer to tend to other things, among them, my own “space” for being less busy. Finding that space has not been easy, but it is the sort of discipline we human beings ought to practice in this Age of Information. Without a little inner space, it is far too easy to become anxious and overwhelmed.

So I think of Bachelard’s quiet exhortation to cultivate the creative or childhood space, which I contemplated in 2013 at about this time of year (in this post). And I think of Jon Kabat-Zinn and other writers–often classed as spiritual self-help authors but whose writings need not be considered spiritual at all (Kabat-Zinn, in particular, avoids using the term)–who remind us to be attentive, aware, mindful, compassionate even to ourselves, and willing to take ourselves away to inner stillness now and again.

I am particularly drawn to the notion that contemporary human beings can come to mindfulness through actions rather than through withdrawal from the body and the world. Really, we hardly have any other choice. Although I enjoy solitude more than most people do, I am ill-constituted to be a hermit or a renunciate. My temperament precludes noisy advocacy against injustice or for specific good causes; but I could certainly do more helping, more of the kind gesture, more listening, and more giving of the type that lets not my left hand know what my right hand doeth (Matt. 6:3).

There were difficulties this past year, and aggravations, and sufferings both personal and social. So be it; we can learn from failure and adversity. The best way to learn to problem-solve is by being faced with problems!

In his 2000 book about aging and dying, Ram Dass wrote: “My guru once said to a visitor complaining about her suffering, ‘I love suffering. It brings me so close to God.’” Well, that is another way of looking at things; and perspective matters. Creative thinking involves full analysis (even when the analysis seems intuitive, immediate) and often employs a total restructuring of the problem at hand–a widening or narrowing of scope, a different point of view, a new set of tools or skills for puzzle-solving, or quiet cogitation while the thinker digests the whole situation…which may be, for some folks, prayer.

Or poetry. When I am not writing poetry, I am always reading it. Other writers’ words open me to a sense of communal understanding, a sense that we are not alone, not a single one of us, who can hear or read or remember a poem or a word of love or praise. Even when those poems depict sorrow or suffering, for then we know we are not the only ones who feel troubled.

“And our problems will crumble apart, the soul
blow through like a wind, and here where we live
will all be clean again, with fresh bread on the table.”

Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

Let the wind make space for fresh bread on your table in 2015 and always.

 

bread

bread

Flow & dough

I have no doubt that, for some people, making pies is a flow experience. I’m reasonably certain that my grandmothers, and sometimes my mother, felt a sense of flow when pie-making: fully engaged in the process, challenged, immersed, and enjoying the fulfillment of a task as it evolves. Making pies can be intrinsically rewarding, but–alas–for me, it is a bit too much of a challenge and the purpose is generally extrinsic (though a good pie is surely worth the effort).

Today I made pie in preparation for the Thanksgiving feast we celebrate here in the USA. But I feel more of a sense of flow when I am cleaning up the mess I made in the kitchen and stopping occasionally to gaze out the window at the falling snow and the sweet little juncos hopping along the porch railing. The actual process of rolling a pie crust involves, in my case, swearing and cussing and patching torn dough. I am positive that my Methodist grandmother never resorted to salty language while pie-making, but I imagine she may have also enjoyed glancing up from her work and appreciating a view, a fellow-creature, something aesthetic or pleasant to behold in the midst of family life.

The activities that keep me actively entranced and purposeful do not include making pies. My re-reading of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, however, has reminded me that feeling happy means making meaning in my life and continually seeking out challenges that offer me a sense of building a conscious self and a disciplined, mindful attitude toward life.

Even if I never get really expertly engaged with concocting desserts, I can find some sort of flow throughout my days through reading, art, gardening, writing, tai chi, interactions with friends and family members. And who knows what else? There is so much to learn; that is what I feel most thankful for today.

Not the prettiest pie.

Not the prettiest pie.

Here’s a TED talk by Csikszentmihalyi, if you want to hear more about flow & happiness.

End of semester crunch

The university year here in the USA is almost over; at my college, today is the last day of classes, and next week is final exam week. As a result, I have little space in my mind for speculative musings and little time for reading–other than reading student papers.

This is also the time of year when my colleagues in academia, feeling stressed and slightly burned out, share stories from the trenches and sigh over perceived inadequacies of students in general, higher education in general, academic administrations in general, and life in general. I admit to occasionally joining the chorus, but this year I am making a concerted effort to refrain from generalities in order to cultivate a bit more mindfulness and compassion.

I have been thinking a great deal lately about stereotyping and how the short-cut of pigeonholing people by general traits, which demographics tends to bolster as sociologically “true,” can hinder the ways human beings interact and value one another. Most of us shy from outright stereotyping by race; and many of us are aware that there are ingrained stereotypes concerning sexual preferences, disabilities, and nationalities about which we ought to try to be sensitive. So I would like to remind my colleagues–who do have every reason to be exasperated as the academic year closes–that much as we want to generalize people by their generation or their status as students, each one of them is a human being, individual, unique, with his or her own burdens and inconsistencies, worthy of compassion.

Not necessarily worthy of a higher grade than they’ve earned…that would not be compassion so much as rescuing or caving to some sort of pressure. But when we must place an ‘F’ on the transcript, I hope we remember to do so with compassion rather than irritation, resentment, or triumph.

photo by Patrick Target

The “Black Madonna” –A view from the heights of the DeSales University Campus; photo by Patrick Target

 

There are other stereotypes we employ regularly, partly because language was invented to get information across to others rapidly, and generalities offer the expediency of compressed information. The culturally and perhaps evolutionarily ingrained “us vs. them” attitude of included, excluded, and outliers of community also lends itself to forgetting the individual. As a person who often takes such language- and thinking-related shortcuts in conversation (and in little angry rants), I am in no position to chide my fellow human beings about their shortcomings. I do, however, want to remind myself that it would be a good idea to recognize, in my heart, that general judgments of others occur all too easily–unconsciously–unmindfully.

Now, back to the pile of student papers. {crunch, crunch, crunch}

 

Clear skies

buddhaedited

(A friend traveling through Thailand took this photo.)

Given that these are the coldest, darkest days of the year, I have felt the need for clarity quite keenly. Today, we had clear skies. When I walked outside this afternoon, I felt as though a note from a singing bowl was vibrating through my body.

{Wake up!}

Ignore more?

One of my brothers-in-law has been visiting from Berlin during the holidays. His young adult children all live in the U.K., and it is enjoyable to hear what they are doing and how they navigate the world as they grow–having children of their own, pursuing academic degrees or careers in the arts–and finding parallels between their lives and their American cousins’ lives. My brother-in-law (Lee, a jazz musician, listen here on YouTube) told me he recently asked his older son what the most valuable skill for the next couple of decades was likely to be. The answer surprised him:

“The skill of learning what to ignore,” his son said.

When Lee pressed a bit further for clarification, his son explained that “information overload” and real-time social and other media, along with television and Google Glass and smart phones and whatever next gets developed, overwhelm the human brain to such an extent that people tend to lose the ability to sort or to prioritize. When we get distracted, we become less efficient; several recent studies suggest that there are costs to trying to do everything at once.

So, according to my nephew (who is studying neurology at Oxford), those of us who learn to shut out unnecessary information are likely to be more successful in a highly-communicative, highly-technological social landscape. The difficulty is knowing what kind of information is unimportant. Another difficulty is that our brains are wired to sense everything. In fact, our brains are already highly developed to screen out “useless” information. Managing an even more intentional focus will not necessarily be as automatic. It may be something we have to learn: i.e., a skill.

I think I need to re-develop my ability to ignore things. It seems likely that a lack of intentional focus and time away from technology would get me working on my poetry more than I have been. One way to regain this skill might be to recharge my mindfulness/meditation practice. The intentionality of the practice, and its conscious use of both awareness and screening or letting go, seems valuable enough over all that it would be well worth the time away from multitasking.

One possible “New Year’s Resolution,” then?

Ignore more.

QAL

Wisdom of insecurity

My mother pointed me to a short piece on mindfulness meditation excerpted from Jack Kornfield‘s work (it probably came from one of his books, such as The Path of Insight Meditation).

He spends several paragraphs writing about the dharma of wisdom and about impermanence, quoting a Buddhist sutra “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world.” He notes that when meditating, one is more likely to realize that everything around us is in a state of change. It’s more noticeable, this changing, because the person meditating has become still and is observing closely.

Change is dharma’s first law: uncertainty and impermanence. The laws of science bear this out; entropy, evolution, constant change and motion everywhere.

Kornfield then does a good job of explaining to Westerners what Buddhists mean when they say “all life is suffering.”

“This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same and to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer–this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something the way it is, it does not stop changing, Trying to hold onto ‘how it was’ will only create suffering and disappointment.”

What could be clearer? We know we cannot wrestle a person or a place to the ground and pin it in place and have it remain unchanging for us. Without change, nothing can live.

What upsets people is that they are uncomfortable with the insecure feelings change tends to bring. Also, there’s that tendency to look for cause and effect, for blame, for control and certainty.

Thinking about thinking–as I have been lately–and consciousness and, to some extent, fear, I recognize I need to “relax with uncertainty.” That’s how Kornfield puts it. he says there is wisdom in insecurity because it is natural.

“Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way,” Kornfield writes. Sometimes, when I feel content and relaxed and able to “let go” of nagging and difficult and scary and challenging things, loved ones ask me whether I care or not. I do care. I recognize, though, that there are times no amount of caring can “fix” a problem. Sometimes, acceptance and encouragement and letting go work much better than controlling intervention.

A great deal of my poetry begins in a flexible, accepting “space” that recognizes, and embraces, uncertainty. I wish I could find myself in this Way more often.

Impermanence (thanks to David Sloan)

Impermanence (thanks to David Sloan)