One of the many small epiphanies I think of as ‘baby’ enlightenments was when I realised that first & foremost — before anything else — the Buddha was a teacher. As was Jesus.
I know Christians think of Jesus first as the son of God. But for me it’s the teaching thing: he was a rabbi. Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Bahá’u’lláh & other wisdom traditions’ great leaders were teachers. That’s a BIG deal to me.
Because teaching matters, folks. It’s possibly the most important ongoing job a non-parent can have. It’s not as simple as ‘knowing content,’ or even having ‘teaching strategies.’ It’s about (wait for it) teaching practice.
When you teach, it’s about something you rarely learn in education classes. Or in lit, or math, or science, history, phys ed, stats, or anything but an actual classroom. It’s about your practice. How you live your life, what you value. And it’s about love.
This is National Teacher Appreciation Week, in case you didn’t know. (N.B.: tell a teacher what a difference s/he made in your life!) If you read this blog much, you’ll know I adore teachers. I am humbled by their energy, their professionalism, their commitment to their students and the communities their students come from. Because you don’t teach a student (at least not in any significant manner) out of context.
Every culture (and micro-culture), every neighbourhood, every state and region of the country, provides a different context for a student’s life and learning. And the two are inextricably tangled (all good teachers know this).
In the same way that your mother tongue colours how you learn a second language, where you grow up, your cultural values, your whole geography shape the way you learn. If mine is a quiet, non-verbal home, I’m probably not going to be the kid who constantly asks questions (safe to say that was NOT the case in my childhood!). And if we all interrupt each other at my house, I’m probably going to forget to raise my hand a lot (yup!).
So, to understand that the Buddha stayed in the world (according to the teachings) to teach what he’d learned himself? Wow. I get that. I understand what it’s like to dedicate yourself to a classroom, to the kids in front of you, even if those ‘kids’ are in their 70s, 80s, even 90! But also if they’re only 18. 🙂 Suddenly these centuries dead thinkers are like my friends, only even wiser. And I understand the next point very well:
Teaching is a sacred trust. Because to learn requires that we bare our vulnerability, our ignorance. Note: ignorance is NOT stupidity. To be ignorant of something means you (the student) need me (the teacher). That’s job security! (As I used to tell my students 🙂 ) But it means that teachers are very special. To help students learn means to make them comfortable. To build a community where each student feels safe to share that vulnerability, and make a learning curve visible.
So when did we forget this? That our greatest spiritual leaders — add Gandhi here, add Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu…and so many more — were/ are TEACHERS.
The next time you hear someone badmouthing teachers (and I still do — grrrrr), say something. Remember the teacher who took time for you, the one who stretched your horizons, who loved you. And remember too: our greatest thinkers? All teachers. How cool is THAT?
I’m also giving away what scrapbookers call ephemera: my mother’s passport, someone’s international driver’s license from a very long time ago. Earrings I’ll never wear, tea sets I never really used. Even pots & pans & my mother’s table linens.
I’m making room.
There’s nothing to really ‘make room’ for, I confess. But it feels, sometimes, like all this stuff is smothering me. Even books. But the trouble is, a writer never knows what books might come in handy down the road. Still, I’m pretty sure I don’t need 20 fountain pens. I am keeping the dictionary of art terms, a guidebook to Việt Nam (once I spent an hour reading through it to make sure I had a bird right for a poem…), and waaaaay too many books of poetry. 🙂
The ‘things’ are a little harder. Who will love my fountain pens? I don’t use them much anymore — the older I get, the less time I want to spend doing anything that feels like ‘messing with.’ These days, I can almost achieve that lovely sliiiiip of ink in a good quality rollerball. Which have the added advantage of not exploding in your pocket or purse when you fly…
Still, I love them. Even if they are just ‘things.’ I love their stories — who gave me this one, when, why it looks like it does. The feel of a point scratching a tiny indentation, on a piece of paper, for ink to fill.
And tea sets: do I keep the Beatrix Potter tea set for grandchildren? What about my grandmother’s tea sets (I have THREE)? The silver tea set? And what about the ones I rarely use at all: the celadon green tea set w/ the Korean handle, brought back from one of Glen’s work trips? The white one that only seems right to use when it’s sooo hot outside…?
And don’t forget all the darn linens! I took half a LARGE suitcase full of linens to my son & DIL last month, and we still have BOXES. I have my mother’s, my own, and several of my mother-in-law’s. Not to mention all the doilies my great-aunt Bonnie gave me, knowing I’d actually use them (yup, I confess: I use doilies w/ tea sometimes — so sue me).
But it’s the books that my friends deplore. You’re getting read of Virginia Woolf?? You aren’t keeping your Fisher? What about …? And their faces look as if I’ve broken some sacred code.
So why do it? What am I making room for?
I don’t have answers. It just seems time to pass these things on to other lovers of pens and tea sets and books. Even though I’m still buying ‘things’ (well, a book on bees, a brass pencil sharpener, a small spatula… 🙂 ).
Who knows what might show up if I make room?
At some point, we need to stop identifying with our weaknesses and shift our allegiance to our basic goodness.
~ Pema Chodron
I love this directive. And I especially like that it comes from a Buddhist thinker I so admire & respect. Because this, it seems to me, is the heart of the difference between Buddhism and many other wisdom traditions. Buddhism starts from the premise of an old song I also love: If I love myself enough/ loving you won’t be so rough. One of my deepest beliefs is that the Golden Rule means zip if you don’t begin w/ strong self-love and acceptance.
And yep: that’s the heart of the matter, right there. It’s what Buddhists & Quakers have in common (a lot of Quakers I know are also Buddhist, a fact that puzzled me until I learned more about Quakers) — the belief that there is an inner light/ Buddha nature in everyone. And — Buddhists would add — everything.
Today, as I stretched my arthritic joints on the deck, beneath the breathtaking Oklahoma sky, w/a chorus of wrens & cardinals to serenade me, I thought (as I often do) of how much the world is filled w/ beauty. Even arthritis can’t mess that up.
What my frail human status can do, however, is remind me that it’s all so very ephemeral: spring, the wren, even the arthritis. If I sit in the sun, then stretch, I’m better. It’s that simple. But if I beat myself up I’m so stiff… it hurts to move… oh woe is me I’m a mess. And sometimes (true confessions time) I AM a mess. 🙂
But knowing that, and forgiving myself for it — picking my bruised beginner’s heart up off the floor of self-loathing — I am far better equipped for empathy. Which is, I think, just another word for compassion. For metta, or lovingkindness. All branches of the same root, as I see it. (But ask your teacher — just another beginner’s heart, here.)
After all, how can I love someone I don’t know if I can’t love the person I know best…myself? If I can’t find it in me to forgive myself for my many flaws (I don’t say faults, as the geology of fault lines and splitting into pieces is NOT a good analogy), how can I love anyone at all? We’re all so damn human! I.e., flawed, the natural state of human beings. Like precious stones, w/ inclusions, but still so very beautiful.
So I’m working — gently and as kindly as I can remind myself to remain — with an aging, creaky body that bears only the vaguest resemblance to my mind’s picture (firmly set in my 30s, I’m afraid…!). I’m firm w/ my practice — my writing, for instance — but kind. Kind is grossly underrated. Well, except for the Dalai Lama — HE certainly gets is!
Do yourself a favour today: be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a lovely child. Be as helpful, as patient, as kind. Focus on your many strengths (I write well. I’m a good teacher. I can cook. I love deeply and with eyes open.). It will make you nicer to everyone else, as well. Which will bring you (& all the rest of us) joy. How simple is that?
Today, I’m breathing for those of you with stomach aches. Somehow, that helps. Really. Tonglen is, perhaps, the best manifestation of compassion I know. Stomach hurts? Offer it up for all those folks who have REALLY bad problems w/ their stomaches: starvation, cancer, the big deal aches. Breathe in pain, breathe out peace. Repeat.
Mine is just a small nag, so I distracted myself with garden dreams. In which my wonderful husband indulged me fully — buying me daylilies as an early Mother’s Day present! He bought me not the pale pink ones — which I bought myself (they’re Catherine Woodberry, very fragrant!) — but Hyperion, an old (also fragrant) type.
The first house we owned, I was a young and pretty ignorant gardener. Which is sooo unfortunate, because we moved in to a house w/ an amazing garden. I hadn’t learnt that you do NOT tear up anything for the first year you live somewhere, though, so I dug into naked lady bulbs (lycoris squamigera) with no idea what they were.
She — although it might have been a ‘he’; I’m projecting my own many generations of women gardeners — had planted Hyperion daylilies — hundreds of them! — as a border on the back fence line. Easily 100 feet of daylilies, all marvelously sunny & fragrant. She’d also planted beautiful fragrant roses beneath the casement windows. And a pecan that was probably 70′ tall when we moved in.
What did I learn from this? Besides how much I love daylilies, especially Hyperion daylilies (which happen to be some of the most expensive of ALL daylilies)…? I learned to join the city garden club, for one thing. Except that when I went to join (the only way for a poor gardener to access great gardening books), the woman in charge said they didn’t really have any gardening clubs for someone my age… 🙂
I also learned that gardening is a waiting game, as much of my life seems to be. You need to take the long view (good practice, that). And that gardens are unpredictable, even if you have a plan carefully drawn out, and think you know what you’re doing.
Because here I am, decades later, still trying to figure out how to plant around what’s in a garden bed. A bed I planted myself! And I’m doing it with a stomach ache, at that. I’m sure there’s a new lesson to be gleaned from this, but right now? I’m just glad I have daylilies coming next week. If I’m lucky, they’ll bloom this summer! In the meantime, I’m breathing for you.