Proverbs 4:23, Part VII

I told you, didn’t I, that this reflection on this passage in Proverbs for teaching so grabbed me that it became a long inner journey. Like all my reflections, I lived in it. It was a deliberate vagabonding that was so deep and extensive that I had to cut it up into a bunch of parts. Here goes Part VII.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.”

When we walk into the classroom, I wonder how many of us silently and unconsciously say to ourselves “ecce homo, behold humanity.” When we walk into a classroom do we exude the values of unconditional–uncondtional–open-heartedness, goodness, gentleness, caring, optimism, and kindness? I wonder how many of us consciously are what Rolf Potts calls “students of daily life” of each student. I wonder how many of us find, as Potts said, adventure in normal life and normal life in adventure. I wonder if how many of us see each student someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother. I wonder how many of us see each student as a vital piece of the future, too valuable to lose. I wonder how many of us realize teaching is a personal attitude; it is not what we do, but who we are. I wonder how many of us accept that teaching is service, and that service is to each student, each student unconditionally; that service to each student means to save each of them from abstraction by opening your eyes and heart, by being curious about each of them, by making each real; and, that openness comes from learning who is really is.

So, I wonder how many of us marvel at the marvelous and mysterious human complexity that is each student. I wonder how many of us unconditionally are prepared to welcome and embrace surprise, and ready to be spontaneous. I wonder, still paraphrasing Potts, how many of us have discovered that the simple act of walking to class is itself an exercise in possibility. I wonder how many of us recognize the naturalness of imperfection. I wonder how many of us refuse to be imprisoned by the false images, the false answers to questions, in two dimensional stereotype, generality, and label.

“Ecco Homo”: That exclamation should be as a wave washing over us, so washing our spirit and attitude that it creates a whole new classroom culture.

Louis

Proverbs 4:23, Part VI

To continue.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”

Viktor Frankl tied hope and meaning together. He said that without hope there is no meaning and without meaning there is no hope. To that, I would add faith and love. So, I wonder what lies asleep within us waiting to be awakened. If nothing else, we should be, like all that exists, in a state of perpetual transformation. We should abandon rigidity so we can live up to our truest selves. We shouldn’t settle for being “settlers.” We should search for ways to become “searchers.” In the classroom, especially, we should live a supportive and encouraging faith, hope, and love with a robust loudness and a passionate, almost ferocious, commitment that makes the everyday into something radiant; we should see the amazingness in each student. When we really are intensely attentive, when we are in a state of mindfulness, when we’re really there, we can’t help but connect with other people. There’s something about being mindful. As someone once told me, it’s like calmly and kindly talking with someone while you’re folding clothes. It’s a reminder of what too often too many of us forget: our identity actually depends on how much attention we pay to others and to which others. We each are shaped by our connection or disconnection with others. Too often we do not think about what classroom connection or disconnection means, what it does to our spirit, how it impacts on our enthusiasm and joy, and what it does to how we do things. “Aloneness” and “strangeness,” as well as community and connection, has an alchemical discouragement or encouragement reaction. So many of us are careful of our bodies and minds: eating properly, physically exercising, staying mentally alert. But, do we pay attention to forging a sense of community? I submit that John Donne was right, “no man is an island,” that connectedness is a commitment to knowing each other, that community is a dedication to transforming ourselves and others. I also submit that connectedness rests on faith, hope, and love. And, again, faith, hope, and love are choices we make from moment to moment; that while they be “heavenly,” we have to want them, seek them, work on them, build them, and build connection and community moment to moment. They must be in our tool belt, for they neutralize a sense of futility; they help us realize that no small effort is small, that each is an essential step in a great journey, and that each is both a beginning and continuing.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, from from it flows the springs of life.”

Louis

Proverbs 4:23, Part V

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”

Those words are about what Thomas Merton said: “Everything that is, is holy.” Don’t miss that. Accept that. It takes away the impulse to be judgmental; accept that, and you won’t stereotype, generalize, label; accept that, and you see every person is sacred, too sacred to lose. Accept that, and you’ll see each student has her or his own beauty. Accept that, and you’ll become a nurturer and shun being a weeding gate keeper. It’s about understanding that It’s about seeing great potential and opportunity in an otherwise impossible student. It’s talking about faith, hope, and love being living and breathing things. It requires that we honor the complexity of both the classroom as a whole and each individual. It is a conscious-raising that awakens that disparity between the real human complexity and the fabricated abstract over-simplicity. It asks that we abide by the complexities and engage them rather than being seduced into trying to understand and unwind them with distorting simplicities. It means we accept that the complexities have to be and will always be, and, thereby, avoid resorting to the dehumanizing trap of stereotype, generality, and label for understanding. It means we realize that a classroom is a gathering of diverse, unique, noble, and sacred “ones.” In a sense, it means we teach to discover each individual and help that individual discover her/himself. Teaching is a process about that adventure; it’s not just information transmission and skill development for the sake of test-passing, grade-getting, and credentialling. It is talking about realizing that we live inside out, about how we have to sort through the vast stuff of life, about what is held and what goes, about asking questions that lead us to meaning and purpose, about understanding why and how to live each moment, about how to live in each classroom moment. It is talking about alchemizing faith and hope and love into vision, conscience, and action. It’s a simple idea to have, but a hard reality to live.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”

Louis

Proverbs 4:23, Part IV

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.”

You know, all my degrees, titles, positions, publications, workshops, and grants don’t approach being all there is of me. They are only a part of my being. They sure aren’t the whole of my wholeness. In fact, they are the least of me, for we all, as James Allen said, are great or small according to our controlling desires or dominant aspirations. Our unconditional faith, hope, and love for both ourselves and others should be a dais for being the larger person.

The academic culture, which puts up distancing, disconnecting, and disinteresting walls and barriers of disheartening “objectivity,” that focuses on credentialing, that almost promotes a social phobia, that doesn’t recognize education as a “people business,” however, has not caught up with the research on teaching and learning. Just one example is Stanford’s Clifton Parker and Gregory Watson who found that a central tenet of teaching is to build an empathic-mindset in teachers, if for no other reason than empathy, a better understanding of and relationships with each student, a compunction to be kind, better connects the teacher with each student, supports and encourages the teacher and each student, and improves the teacher’s and each student’s behavior and performance. I was recently reminded by three students I chanced to meet separately over the last few days, who had been in class with me that last fall semester before I retired, that the great feat of making a difference comes from one’s humanity within, from making an altruistic commitment of serving others, not from a self-centered lengthening of a resume, getting a promotion, achieving tenure, or acquiring more zeros on our salary.

By seeing and listening to students through a moral lens that reveals our own human quirks, habits, faults, and fears, we are better able to be empathetic to the faults and fears of others; we can stand in their shoes; and, although we may not agree with them, we can perceive the world through their eyes; and, we can appreciate and validate their point of view. When, with a certainly, we judge, abstract, stereotype, generalize, or label the individual and unique humanity out of students, however, we leave ourselves little room for faith, hope, love, respect, kindness, and caring for each. Only by being honest with our own story, can we really begin to understand what other may be going through. While we need to see ourselves clearly, that doesn’t mean we obsess over our faults; it means we learn from them and about others. Trust me, that is not an easy task, and it can be at first painful.

To do this, as the Zen saying goes, we must simultaneously sit and rake the garden. Outside and inside the classroom, we must quiet our mind, stop and listen, stop and see, soften our spirit, and open our heart. To discover ourself and others is, as this proverb says, loving self-kindness, and we sense the need for connection to help others do the same; we offer because others are part of us and what we are doing. To put it in classroom terms, there is no teacher without a student and no student without a teacher. They go hand-in-hand. Then, we will have learned to see the hidden beauty in the ordinary. As Rumi said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” I say there are as many ways as there are students in a classroom. We will nurture new energies, leave worn and accepted paths, strike out on new ones and help others do likewise, and still feel comfortable and safe. We will see beyond the sights; listen beyond the sounds; go behind and between the words and body movements; notice the pregnant silence. We will become intensely interested; become curious; pay attention; shun assumption and presumption; slowly walk rather than jump to conclusions; anticipate less. We’ll be receptive to surprise and delight; seize on the unpredictable; notice the unique; go for potential; we see into the future and imagine what can become. To do all this are acts of faith, hope, and love; they’re acts of respect and of giving a damn; they imbue individual dignity, nobility, and sacredness. If we know her or him, if we know her or his story. If we know a few peculiarities about a student, then, it is hard, almost impossible, to do a life-sucking-out assault on her or his sacredness, to jump to conclusions and rush to judgment, and turn her or him into a flattened, lifeless anonymity of abstraction, stereotype, generality, or label. When we do that, as these three students just reminded me, we will be surrounded by a field of exciting possibilities. And, then, you enjoy it all.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.”

Louis

Proverbs 4:23, Part III

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life.”

I didn’t expect to have cancer; and, I sure didn’t expect to face death by massive cerebral hemorrhage. But, having survived, especially having survived the hemorrhage unscathed, of being consciously aware each day that I am what the neurosurgeon called a “walking 5% miracle,” I know, intensely know, what it is like to have words in my heart that I cannot form. I know, intensely know, what it is to be alive each day. I know, intensely know, it is the greatest of all sins not to feast each day on respect, faith, hope, love, and promise. As I just told someone, that I’m alive, touch the miracle of being alive, can spoil my three grandmunchkins, can cuddle with my angelic Susie, am happy, can talk with my flowers, can sip a cup of freshly brewed coffee by my koi pond, can notice the profound beauty surrounding me, am in the pink of health, am imaginative and creative, and am thriving is what most excites me. Each day I live life to the fullest by cultivating respect, dignity, uniqueness, sacredness, faith, hope, love, and promise. Each day I practice my gratitude exercises. Each day, as Gandhi would say, I gently shake myself, and thus others and the world around me. And, the irony is that I found the more I was committed, the more I persevered, the freer I felt. Because of all this, I laugh louder, smile larger, twinkle brighter, walk lighter, hope more, have greater faith, love deeper, am kindlier, am more respectful, and do it all harder. It is my daily conscious practice. My heart is filled with gratitude for the many joys, large and small. They do so diminish troubles and oppressive challenges, for gratitude insures that nothing is compared to beauty, respect, faith, hope, and love. They change reality for the better and make the world more than a bit brighter.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”

So, I also am very much aware that self-conpassion is so very important. We are what we have faith in, hope for, are kindly to, care about, and love. That is, an academic who craves to do research and publishing, who prefers to be in the lab or archive or out in the field, who concentrates on getting promotion and tenure, is really a different person in the classroom than a person who truly wants to be in the classroom, who wants to unconditionally believe in each student’s unique potential, who wants to have faith in, hope for, care about, respect, and love each student, and who wants to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Our wants tell us a heck of a lot about who we truly are, on what we truly focus, what governs our thoughts, emotions, and actions. We are more defined by those loves than we think or admit we are. Our heart-engagement, our heart-calibrating attitude, our habit-forming attitudes toward ourselves and others, is the epicenter, as Proverbs 4:23 says, of each of us. The hard and often painful question for us to face up to, then, is: do we really love being in the classroom? The harder and more painful answer is that we can change if we care enough for ourselves and others.

But, from my experience, you have to recognize that focusing on yourself cannot be done at the expense of others; it cannot be done without attending to others. They go hand-in-hand both personally and professionally. This is reinforced by the research by Elisabeth Dyers of Vanderbilt which shows that in being mindful–being alert, aware, and attentive–of others we help ourselves. We worry less, sleep better, are less moody, happier, less angry, live more in the present moment with joy and appreciation, no matter what that moment may bring. As Jack Kornfield said, we human beings are growing and complex organisms. We grow best out of love, faith, hope, and caring. We grow out of wanting to blossom.

We have to keep the door open for our own change. We caregivers have to take care of our own selves. It’s the only way not to be overwhelmed, not to stop taking water from the well of well-being, not to cut off that which fuels our flame, not to collapse into frustration, faithlessness, hopelessness, resignation, futility, and even anger, not to have our springs of life dry up. That’s not being self-centered at the expense of others; it’s learning to practice the skills of resilience; it is realizing that among those for whom we care is ourselves; it is balancing the caretaker with self-care. It’s keeping constant alert that we are human beings, that we have to care for ourselves. It is hard; it demands honesty; it takes patience; it requires commitment. There’s no one sudden insight with which you can throw off the crutches and proclaim that you’re cured. Being fit extends beyond the biceps and washboard abs. Caring for yourself is not just a seven mile power walk or upper body lifting or planking; it’s not just keeping yourself mentally agile. It’s hugging your heart and your spirit as well.

“Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flows the springs of life”

Louis