A Story of Different Perspectives

In 1969, after graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions. They were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity because the political and economic conditions in his country were undermining the quality of people’s lives. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different from changing the position of a raindrop. So, no change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

Both of our perspectives had value. His pushed mine to a new place. By allowing myself to take in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. I learned a valuable lesson about how to think with a deeper and wider perspective. I think such a perspective is an important element of thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking.

 

A Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan, named Daito Kokuji, wrote:

            No umbrella, getting soaked,

            I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.

I don’t think I fully understand or can put into words exactly what this means, but I feel the rightness of it. Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold and the miserable feeling of being soaked, I can allow myself to feel the cold and the raindrops as me, too. And then I am no longer a skin wrapped soaking package. I am something much more.

 

In the same way, we all can feel our self-judgments, our pains, as something to learn from and let go, as a raincoat, not our identity.

 

Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”

 

 

Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?

The Magical Construction of No. And Yes.

No. Just say it. It sounds so powerful. No. Some people have trouble saying no, whether it be to a desire or to pressure from others or even to something that might hurt them. Others say it almost all the time. Think of children in their terrible twos saying it like a mantra. No is necessary for you to exist and taken too far it can kill you. It can feel good or horrible. And it can disappear like a passing cloud. So, every once and awhile, analyze the sense of no so you don’t hold on to it too tightly. Here is one analysis.

 

For the two year old, no is a necessary element of the maturation of a sense of independence, a sense that you can influence the awesome power of your caregivers. It does this by distinguishing “me-here” from “you-there.” The philosopher Ken Wilber said that any identity is a circle drawn so that what is inside is me and outside is all others, or not-me. No makes a me who stands up in the world and demands recognition. “You must listen, to me.” It creates the impression that the power to act independently is dependent on a sense of a distinct, acknowledged self.

 

The power of no is enhanced by how, and how much, you are cared for and can receive the care. Love can confer power, value, on an identity. If parents/caregivers tie love to acting or being a certain way, a further boundary can develop and the child’s sense of self gets smaller. The parts not accepted by the parents are not accepted by the child and pushed outside the circle to hide them away. Carl Jung called what was hidden the shadow.

 

When parental love isn’t clear, the child can be confused. He can go around putting a no in places just to demand a love to arise. Or she can fear no as if it were the magic or curse that drives love away. So, who you are and how powerful you feel is sculpted by love.

 

And then there’s yes. Every boundary line is both no and yes. No is the shadow of yes. The self is a me you say yes to bounded by a no. Do you say yes to your eyes? Hands? But who says yes to their nose hairs? Between no and yes there is and must be some pushing and shoving going on. In yes you give back and enjoy. In no, you push away and deny. The two are dynamically one.

 

Could you touch others if you didn’t have a boundary? Without your skin, there wouldn’t be any touching. If the bottom of your feet didn’t push against the earth, how could you walk? Ken Wilber also pointed out that a border is a place of contact. So, to think of the skin as only a boundary is to mistake its very nature. To think of the self as only “me, in here” is to mistake its nature. How you think of your boundaries has a lot to do with how you relate to the rest of the world.

 

These yeses and nos are not just ideas. You can mistake them for reality. You can feel them strongly. As a student you might say yes to listening to music and no to studying math or social studies. You can forget that what you think of as your self, your likes and dislikes, is a response to a particular situation. It changes. When you bring yes and no to awareness, you have the possibility of letting them go. Practice the following with yourself, and then, if you’re a teacher, with your students.

 

Close your eyes for a second and let your attention go to your inner world. Just take a breath in, and out. Notice if there is any tension as you breathe in or out. Where is it? Go there. What is the quality or feeling of the tension? Is it painful, stiff, scrunched up—a ‘no’ of some sort? Or a ‘yes’? Or neither? Notice how tension arises– or how it is just there. Then notice any gaps or lessening of tension. Notice how it changes and dissipates. The no dissolves into something else.

 

With clear attention, the gaps in any sensation are noticed and extended. Letting go is easier. It is helpful, especially when you are relatively new to mindfulness, to move attention around to different areas of the body.

 

With your next inhalation, go to somewhere else in your body. Notice the pressure as you inhale. As you exhale, notice how you let go.

 

As I meditate, I notice a tension, a pain across my chest. It pulls strongly on my body. When I attend to it, the pain at first seems clear, sharp. The no—and yes—can feel like absolutes. As I breathe in, I feel the history of where yes becomes no, of how I was first loved and cared for. The shape of my boundary, my sense of myself, is the shape that my felt capacity for yes, for love, creates. Yet, I rewrite this with each breath. The pain dissipates. How big can you allow your yes to be? Can you say yes even to no?

 

As I stay with the pain, accept it by attending to it without saying no, or saying anything, it softens. It feels almost aerated, bubbly, and then it’s gone. There is no sense of boundaries, of me and you. Only awareness.

 

 

Of course, its not just love that shapes us, nor is simply wanting enough to reshape us. Insight and self-awareness practice is needed. A person needs not just love—or genetics. Just think how your neighborhood, economic class, gender, or wars, a tornado, polluted water, a falling comet, the sound of birds affect you. It takes a universe to raise a person.