A professor called me today out of the blue to ask how I stay constantly serene. She was ready to tear her hair out because of “these students.” People can get bald by all that end-of-the-term stuff. if they allow it. We talked a while. I thought I’d share a thumbnail sketch of my side of the conversation. The first of my five-part answer was, “Thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that uneducational stuff like finals and grades anymore.” My second part was, “I don’t buy into the recruiting and fundraising PR images of pretty smiling faces of self-motivated mini Ph.D.s walking walking hand-in-hand with totally student oriented faculty on a pristine campus that create false expectations. See the real individual people in the classroom and on a real campus.” My third was: ”I never disrespect a student in thought or action, whether in “I didn’t mean anything by it” or “it’s just fun talk” among colleagues or non-academic friends. Never. I have an unshakeable–unshakeable–faith in, belief in, hope for, and love of each student–even if they don’t have it for themselves. Fourth, I told her, “Remember what Carl Rogers, the psychologist, said. To paraphrase him, ’You can’t teach anyone; you can only help him help himself find his unique abilities, talents, and potential.’”
My final part was, “I was not born in Assisi. A saint I’m not.” But, I told her that I don’t have unreal expectations. I know nothing is perfect, not everything will go my way, not everything will work out, and not everything will go right. I accept that. I accept that I will screw up; I’m ready for things to go awry. And, it usually works out. I told “usually” because I experience emotional downers. I can get bored, be disappointed, be sad, be frustrated, and be angry. But, when I do, I usually catch myself quickly and don’t allow those feeling to get me or become me. Part of the reason is that I have learned to use them to teach me more about the serenity prayer: what I cannot control, what I can control, and to know the difference.
Another reason is to understand that no accomplishment, nothing rewarding, occurs without travail. What I told this professor was that all the facets of mindfulness–alertness, awareness, attentiveness, otherness–don’t offer superpowers of zeroing in only on joy and serenity. It’s a step-in/step-back being aware of, noticing, and acknowledging the emotions I am experiencing.
Sounds good, doesn’t it. Well, I don’t always initially follow my own philosophy. I didn’t the last semester before my retirement. When I felt a tad defenseless against a subtle age discrimination sneak attack that made me decide to retire a year and a half ago, I was angry. I almost lost it for that entire last semester. I didn’t want to let go; I didn’t want to go quietly into the still night. I was not a model of peacefulness or calmness; I wasn’t carrying a grateful smile. To be honest, and Susie will verify this, I was a growling bear. This sudden, unexpected, unwanted letting go was almost too much for me. This was one class offered by the school of hard knocks I did not want to attend.
Thank goodness for mindfulness! I discovered that I was ignoring Rumi’s chiding: ”Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?” “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open….? ”Why should I stay at the bottom of a well, when a strong rope is in my hand?” Now, I didn’t have some quick fix to walk through that door or climb that rope to make my anger–or fear–dissipate. What I did have was mindfulness. I constantly questioned myself, asking what’s going on? Why am I angry? At what am I angry? At whom am I angry? And so, as I constantly asked all that of myself, I slowly found the door knob and the rope, and the inner gold.
You see, mindfulness is a mood minder; it is also a mood reminder. It has taught me to ask myself constantly what I need, over what I have control, what I need to leave behind, what I need to look forward to, and what I must do to go on. Denial only makes uncomfortable feelings unmanageable. Avoidance leads only to getting lost. Mindfulness allows me to admit, acknowledge, identify, and deal with my emotions. It’s like, as Rumi said, when I start walking a path, the path appears. This allows me to see myself more clearly, and find a path of action rather than mindlessly fling about reacting.
Goodness knows I can’t escape the twist and turns or ups and downs of life anymore than anyone else can. If nothing else, an unexpected epiphany, cancer, a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and an unwanted retirement have shown me that. When we can learn to hit those curve balls life throws at us, however,we can see they’re all really ugly ducklings by learning from them, making our lives more graceful, richer, more interesting, more exciting, more meaningful, more wonderful, and more grateful. If we learn to “fall up” by “falling down,” we see Rumi was right: ”God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly — not one.”