Beginner's Heart

Yesterday in the undergraduate class I teach, everyone was quiet. Working. Drawing and colouring.  Thinking. I often use ‘childish’ tools and practices in my classes, even though I teach university students. Or retired adults. I do this because of the effects: it makes learning almost effortless. The assignment wasn’t easy ~ to construct a metaphor for what your portfolio shows about your writing (thus what you’ve learned) this semester. I asked them to draw and colour this ‘metaphor,’ calling the whole process ‘drawing the arc of your portfolio.’ What would have been an ‘OMG!’ moment instead became a moment of discovery, of happy sharing and quiet intention.

The entire room was raptly writing.  Open windows flooded the room with autumn light. Music from one student’s laptop gave us a soundtrack from Florence & The Machine. This is when a writing teacher’s heart is happiest ~ when the room is broken only by the clatter of pencils, the soft swishing of crayons and pastels on paper. An occasional walk to the centre of the room to pick up new colours, or another of the home-made chocolate chip cookies one of my students had brought to share. Writing as learning.

I’m not sure why this kind of learning — learning that’s engaging, where you’re comfortably  enjoying the process — isn’t felt to be ‘rigourous.’ Why must learning be ‘not-fun’ to be legit? What dark legacy of Puritanism is this, that the joyous exploration of knowledge we have at 2, or 3 or 4, should become hated slogging by 20, 30, or older…

It’s much the same way, I think, w/ beginner’s heart. If we’re enjoying our practice, if we begin to feel good about compassion, or derive pleasure from helping someone else, we begin to question our motives. Am I in this for the strokes? we ask ourselves. What if my motives aren’t pure?

But when I pet the cat’s silky fur, I give us both pleasure. Do I pet the cat just to feel the softness on my own skin? Don’t I also enjoy the throaty purr, and the cat’s happiness? Isn’t the tactile comfort just a bonus? Why is it we distrust the pleasure that giving pleasure brings?

Every day I teach, it’s my beginner’s heart that learns the most. I think about the Buddha, teaching us 2,000 years ago  how to be happy. And I’m absolutely certain that brought him happiness. I also bet he did not disavow that happiness. But he may not have had a third chocolate chip cookie…

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