Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

adjacent to the possible ~

credit Rafe Furst

A friend introduced me to a new term: the adjacent possible. What a rich phrase — a field for dreaming.

The term comes from theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, who talked about what might happen in biology to precipitate life. But the way Steven Johnson explains it in a Wall Street Journal article, “The Genius of the Tinkerer,” the adjacent possible is more a room opening off of a single door, that opens into several more rooms off of that first room, and then builds exponentially off of those rooms.  Each subsequent place you end up — or new area of exploration, or new combination of amino acids — makes possible so much more… infinite possibility, adjacent to now.

credit Slow Muse

When I was younger, I thought I could see the futures. Plural. Like a map of possibilities spreading out from the point of decision where I stood at that moment. It was as if I could actually see the lines that led out from that point forward. Now, my life so much more tangled and its threads so tightly interwoven, I am often traveling in the dark.

So the idea of all these futures that become possible as we move through the decisions that mark our days, our hours, sometimes even our minutes… this entrances me. Today, for instance: what if I had decided not to do my stationery bike? What if I had fallen when I took the dogs outside while the guy repaired the washer? What slightly different — even very different — futures might I have cut off by small decisions today? And what are now open?

I have to agree w/ Johnson: ‘Ideas are works of bricolage.” But I also think of the way the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss uses the word bricolage, how we bend old myths to forge new ones, to address — if not answer — age-old questions & problems. The possible answers to my current dilemmas (small & large alike) can be seen as a kind of steampunk kit ~ the pieces are all there. I just have to figure out the best (and most beautiful) way to use them.

This intrigues me. And it appeals to my understanding of Buddha nature — always & already in us. We just have to open up. Set it free. Or, possibly, put it in working order … :) With all the possible tools to hand.

 

one week into Lent ~

It’s a bit more than a week since Lent began. But the vaguely lighter feeling that modest sacrifice generates is still warm. And I don’t feel particularly ‘without.’ Perhaps I should have picked something more important…

In the past, I’ve given up most of the things listed: chocolate and coffee more than once. Since I no longer drink, alcohol isn’t an option. And not drinking really includes sodas, as they’re not one of my favourite things.

I do swear too much, but I’m trying to give that up completely. And it’s noo sacrifice, just a lazy bad habit. Ergo, no offering up involved. Same with fast food & sugar — I wouldn’t miss them, as they’re not big draws now.

The point for non-Christians following Lent seems to me to cultivate empathy & compassion for the many without, as I’ve written before. I understand it’s far more complex an observance for Christians, but I see it as a way for me to remember how lucky I am to have my life, just as it is.

This past week I had the amazing good fortune to listen to several men & women discussing how the Holocaust impacted their lives, their families’ lives (& deaths). One, my wonderful mentor & dear friend Eva, is a survivor of the camps. Bea, a new acquaintance, is a survivor’s widow. David’s family lost uncles & aunts & cousins; Marcel’s father also was a survivor, as was Mark’s mother. As they shared stories with us, David said something I think about often: It’s just a stroke of luck that I was born here & not there. Buddhists say:How lucky we are to be born into our precious human lives. And as the Dalai Lama reminds us: Why would you disavow your happy life?

I respect people of faith — all faiths. And Lent is a lovely way to show that respect, and also mark how very lucky I am. In fact, I almost feel guilty that I don’t miss Facebook more. I haven’t visited it on Sundays, as some religions allow with Lenten sacrifices. It’s just not part of my daily routine these days.

But the remembering? That is. For which I am also very grateful ~

 

technology, non-attachment, and feeling flaky ~

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding the difference between detachment & non-attachment. Detachment is not a Buddhist virtue; non-attachment is. But when technology becomes my framing metaphor? I get it. Believe me, I get it.

I had an important conference call today. A meeting of a group of people I respect & admire, doing work that is significant — both to me and, I believe, to the state. So what happens? The conference call software drops me. Three times. Then, when I try to call back from my cell — thinking my landline may be screwy — I can’t make the passcode work. Sheesh.

And here’s where I began to see Buddhism in the whole mess: I don’t want these people — to whom I am a new & relatively unknown quantity — to think I’m a flake. That’s attachment, folks. I’m not a flake, so why should I be worried? It really isn’t my fault that the technology is squirrelly. So I texted my immediate contact — the executive director — and told her what happened. Guess what? The technology works FINE for Mary Ellen. Grrrr….

So there you have it: attachment (to an image of myself). And I can detach, certainly. But what I have to do, according to practice (which I know, but do NOT do nearly often enough) is live in this horribly uncomfortable feeling that somehow I screwed up royally, and move through it. THAT is non-attachment: acknowledge the here & now (oh! feeling flaky, are we? interesting…) and just go on.

Yeah right. Well, at least I know what I should do…:)

 

teachers, ‘my kids,’ & lovingkindness ~

This is a photo (of me) that one of my students photo-shopped a couple of years ago (no, I wasn’t really wearing a troll mask…). It went out on our class listserv. A private joke — well, not toooo private, I guess, if the whole class is privy. It represents the best things about teaching: the students. Which is why we (teachers) become so incredibly attached to our students.

A dear friend says he wouldn’t continue teaching if he wasn’t always learning from his students. And what I miss most about teaching is just that: learning. Every day, something new. Every class period, a new perspective, new music, a term or a book or an idea. Day in, day out.

Recently I read a meme on Facebook that said students are always ‘our kids,’ once we’ve taught them. Irrespective of their ages, or how they grow, once in my class, you’re my kid.

But a colleague contends that this is one of the problems teachers face in the popular culture: by calling our students ‘our kids’ we infantilise teaching. Turn ourselves into moms/dads & babysitters. I’m not so sure about this… My students never treat me like I’m their mom, nor their babysitter. It’s more like I’m a valued teacher… (gee, ya think?)

This makes me look at my own teachers — spiritual, academic, professional — through a completely different lens, now that I’m fielding the questions I once used to ask. What should I write in my teaching statement? How should I answer this interview question? What should I WEAR?? :) I wonder if the man who told me to follow my dreams even if I didn’t think they would pay would agree with the warnings of penury I offer my students (teaching is NO get-rich scheme — quickly or otherwise!). And what about the teachers who couldn’t believe I submitted A papers for revision? Did they think I was a total OCD nutcase?

And the answers? I have no idea. But somehow, remembering what it was like to be a student is good for the teacher in me. And looking back at the men & women who so generously answered my questions, helped me along my professional path, and took time to mentor me is — still — a kind of learning.

I know not all teachers LOVE their students (I’m thinking of a dear friend & colleague who would be shaking his head in dismay at the thought!). But it’s so very hard NOT to. And nooo fun. :) Lately there has been article after article about what makes a good teacher. And you know what I think? Love. Love maketh a good teacher.  Actually, lovingkindness — Buddhists actually have two words for lovingkindness: metta and karuna.

Metta has the connotative meaning of a state of being — a generally positive attitude towards all beings. Karuna is more active — more of a kindness, even (as some sources say) a kind of pity. I don’t pity my students. Although my heart sometimes aches for the burdens they carry: poverty, depression, abuse… The general travails of today’s messy, complicated world.

What I miss most about teaching is lovingkindness. My own, for them. And if your life is, as dharma instructs us, a kind of theatre for us to polish our buddha natures, I suppose it’s time I figure out a way to translate that feeling of general benevolence into other venues.

Teaching was just a LOT easier. And more fun.

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