The Story From Day One

Words were once magic. They did not speak about ideas but were acts of creation. You said ‘sun’ and a sun appeared. You said ‘happy’ and it was so. You said ‘devil’ and you ran. (See Eskimo poem, 160) Students are seeped in or not far from this age of magic. If they’re lucky, even in high school some of this magic still sticks to them.


This insight helps explain why young children love myths and tales of ancient civilizations so much. Without such words, there would be no myths. Without myths or a similar context, there would be no words. Myths are magical words sculpted into storied beings and worlds. Myths are not and should not be taught just as literature but as the art of world creation. We need to teach students to try and understand these worlds, and try to understand and enjoy the great differences in perspective they represent. Understanding these differences in perspective teaches us what it means to be human. William Erwin Thompson said myths are not just read but enacted. And Joseph Campbell said they are stories that you live. They are, or once were, sacred. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…”[John 1:1, Genesis 1:3]


So much of our lives are lived within words that we forget their magic. This was true in the past and is still true for many of us in the present. Plus nowadays, more of us use and think of words from a distance. We study words, how they can be implements of construction and destruction. This study brings word histories and meanings to the surface but also might keep us close to the surface, obscuring depths of experience.


I used to teach a class called The Story From Day One. It began with worldwide myths of creation, heroes and tricksters. I loved to share stories like the Haida (Native American) “The Raven Steals The Light,” and Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf. Sometimes we read Grendel and Ishmael. Or, if it was middle school, Whale Rider. And we ended up with a contemporary novel like Animal Dreams.


Many people I know have an urge to learn more about their family roots. One goal of the course was to reveal the roots we all share. Imagery we use even today can be traced back to works created by ancient humans in the Paleolithic art caves. For example, images of bulls, horses, snakes and other animals, horns of plenty, venus figurines, all can be seen in the caves. The snake becomes the Greek Hermes. The bull becomes Zeus, born in a cave in Crete. The venus figurines become goddesses, like Gaia and Aphrodite. Modern heroes, heroines as well as monsters and figures of evil and can be traced back to mythical figures.


One such figure is the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the protagonist in the first written epic story, recorded sometime around 2100 BCE. The character, Gilgamesh, is the first hero, actually the first greatly flawed superhero. Much about the story is very familiar to us. It tells about a very powerful but out of control, egocentric, and sexist King, who oppresses his people until the gods send his opposite, Enkidu, to wrestle with him. Enkidu, a seeming monster created by the gods, is a wild man who runs naked with the animals until he is “civilized” by sex with a priestess. (If you teach this, you’ll need an appropraite way to discuss this early episode of sex.) She cuts his hair, introduces him to human food, and tells him of Gilgamesh. Enkidu turns out to have “a good heart.” He goes to the walled city of Uruk to end Gilgamesh’s oppression of women. He wrestles Gilgamesh until the two become deep friends. The story is about facing monsters and facing grief, death and urges for immortality and what can be learned from all three. The wise man of the story is Utnapishtim, who is very much the biblical Noah. The women evoke later mythical figures of Greece and other patriarchal cultures, like the Sumerian Inanna, a jealous goddess becomes the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Aphrodite. There is Shiduri, the tavern keeper, who turns out to be a sybil or soul guide. These myths introduce archetypes, patterns of human thought and behavior. The archetypes and imagery are not just literary devices to create a good story, but perceptual devices. They reveal what guides how people view their lives.


Students, especially in high school, too easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of the wealth of possibility human history can illustrate. They have little grasp of what they share and how they differ with early humans. I attempted in this course to give an intuitive sense of these possibilities, through literature, meditation and imaginative exercises, and an intellectual understanding, by analyzing and discussing the historical context of each work studied.


In meditation, there comes a magical moment when you realize you have drifted. You are being mindful, aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feelings, sensations—and before you know it, you lose the awareness. You are gone, lost in a thought and the story it has to tell. Then you return and realize: “I am drifting.” What do you then do? Do you berate yourself for getting lost and drifting? If you do, you get lost once again. Or do you stay with the awareness, let your mind clear, be free from any thought? You then take in the whole situation. Everything gets to be included in that moment. All that went before, everyone and everything. Yet, nothing need be said.


This is our challenge today, and it has always been our challenge. Do we allow ourselves to learn enough from history and other sources so we can assimilate the lessons and let our minds take in the present situation with clarity? Or do we forget ourselves again and again with thoughts of attack and retribution? We can get lost in the stories we have created or we can live with an awareness of the magical possibilities of mind. Which will it be?



*The photo is of ancient Troy, in modern Turkey.

Retirement: What Does It and Can It Mean?

What does it mean to retire besides leaving your job? As soon as I thought of this as a topic, I received two related e-mails, which confirmed for me how important the topic is.  One was about the book The Age of Dignity, on the great numbers of baby boomers reaching retirement and how to care for so many people. The other was an article about how poor our health care system is in terms of caring for dying people. I’m, however, primarily interested now in what retirement means to the retiree and to society. What do you do when you retire? How do you think of yourself once you’re a “senior citizen”? How can society in general think of this stage of life?


Of course, I have a personal interest in the question.  I’m 67, close to 68. When I retired, the obvious stared me clearly in the face. Work had filled my life for years, not just my time but my sense of myself. I found status, friendship, purpose, value through the job. I was a teacher and felt gifted to be paid to creatively help other people. I had a plan, too. When I retired, I would do things that I didn’t allow myself to do when working. I would also do what I wanted to do since I was 6 or 8 or 18, namely write. Of course, when I was 6, I wanted to write about great adventures. Now, I’m writing about retiring, teaching, thinking– a very different kind of adventure. Earlier in my life, I needed to make a good deal of money if I wanted to write. Now, I don’t have to do that. I’m free from that demand.


But I still ask myself: I have hopefully 20-plus years of life left. How do I want to live it?


Huston Smith describes two stages of life beyond work in traditional forms of Hinduism, beyond what he calls the “householder stage.” There is the retiree stage and then the sannyasin. He says not everyone reaches either of them. The retirement stage is where one turns inwards to answer life’s deepest questions. You leave home, even your spouse and family, and become a “forest dweller” or a wanderer. You give up all your ties and live with “nothing” between you and reality. Your life is driven by questions: what makes life worthwhile? Is old age worthwhile? Is self-understanding truly important? What is the secret of ‘I’? This is a time of transcending the five senses “to dwell in the reality which underlies the natural world.” (53)


A sannyasin is a renunciate, “one who neither hates nor loves,” according to the Bhagavad Gita, one of the sacred books of India. A sannyasin has found self-realization and can return to the world, because everywhere is home, everything is enlightening.


I remember a discussion that was repeated several times and in different ways with my students. The question was “would you rather live with a comfortable illusion or a discomforting truth?” Or, “Is it right to bury your head in the sand in order to not be overwhelmed by fear or others suffering?” It’s a false dichotomy, but reveals real questions. Why should I live with no illusions between “reality” and myself? Should my life be guided by what’s comfortable? How much “truth” can I let in? How honest can I be with myself?


I have no desire to leave home, give up my wife, or cats but, in some sense, have I already done so? By giving up my job, I gave up a busy but scheduled, seemingly predictable life, a life centered on doing and earning. Sometimes, retiring seems like an extended vacation, other times, like a curse. What do you do when you have no work, no set of obligations to take up most of the day?


I retired when I did partly because I wanted to answer these questions before I died. Despite what I had told myself, what I did had value partly because other people valued what I did and paid for it. In the U. S., money concerns tend to creep in everywhere. Wasn’t it about time to care enough about life that I no longer needed to be paid to live it? Can I give each moment the same value I once gave to work? Can I open enough to the world, to others, and value them, feel them, so deeply that I gain security not in material things and other’s opinion of me, but in relationship to others and in a sense of what’s right, what “fits the situation,” what is?


All of society could benefit from re-conceptualizing retirement, not just as a reward for years of hard work, but also as important in-itself. We need times in life dedicated to questioning. We need elders to teach us about life and aging. We will (hopefully) all retire and get old. We can’t just bury our heads in the sands of youth. If we don’t think positively of elders, then we will fear aging and thus our lives. We might treat the elderly with disrespect and have years of disrespect waiting for us. How we think of elders is very much how we think about life itself.


My grandfather told me that he regretted nothing. He had lived a full life. Only by valuing the moments of life can you say this. This is one reason not to bury your head in the sand in the face of discomfort or the face of others suffering or whatever. Burials are expensive. You pay a price for hiding. The world pays a price for your hiding. Both you and the world are poorer for it. Maybe learning how to be rich in this way is what retirement is for.

Experiments with Awareness and Metacognition

Try these experiment with yourself and, if you’re a high school teacher, with your students. (I’m borrowing this from Zen teacher Albert Low with a touch of David Hume.) It might reveal and challenge accepted ideas and beliefs about metacognition and perception. Put your hand on the surface of a table. What does it feel like? Hard. Cool. A little sticky. Gross. How much of what you feel is the table? All of it? Half? Half the table, half you? Is the sensation of being “gross” from the table? Let me ask this another way. Does the feeling of grossness or stickiness belong to the table or the hand? Does the table “feel”? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. When you’re feeling the table surface as gross, what makes it gross? Is it the table? Are you mentally commenting on a memory of the table? Are you possibly feeling your own judgment or interpretation of a sensation?


With your hand still on the table, close your eyes. The table is obviously not the same as your hand. Nor is your hand the same as the sensation. But, does the sense of hand, table, smoothness all arise together or sequentially? When the hand touches the table, is all that you sense sensation? All you feel is feeling? Are you aware only of awareness?  Or even more precisely, cut out the you. There is just perception or awareness. If you are feeling your own interpretation, there would have to be a separation between the act of feeling and the object felt. Can feeling and felt ever be so separated?


Or what about other senses? Listen to a symphony. Where is the symphony? The instruments and musicians might be on the stage in the music hall.  The sound vibrations might fill the space. But the symphony? Or let’s re-phrase the famous question asked by the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley : “if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound?” Without an ear (and a brain) is there a symphony? Or you see a beautiful sunset, with deep reds and vibrant yellows. Without an eye and a brain, where is the vibrant color? “Where does hearing end and sound begin?” Where does seeing end and color begin?


When we reflect, we think there is an ‘I’ who reflects. What does the ‘I’ reflect on? Another ‘I’? A memory or a concept of ‘I’? Some objective “fact”? But as we’ve possibly determined through our experiments, the “I” who sees and the “thing” seen are not separate. When we reflect, we reflect on our own perception or memory and then create a conclusion based on that memory. We’re reflecting not on some depersonalized truth but on a very personal creation. Are we the seen, the seer—or the seeing?


One more experiment. As you sit in a room reading this, sit back a little and just take in the whole space. You are at the center, yet all you are aware of, feel, sense is your surroundings. Just be aware of the whole room. Then, change your awareness to focus on one thing, maybe a word in this blog, a book, a table. Sense yourself at the periphery looking at the object of your gaze. This is another type of awareness. You can and constantly do shift easily from the center to the periphery and thus provide a necessary contrast. You need to be aware of the whole so the details can have a context and, thus, make sense. You need the details to construct the whole. Details and whole are interdependent.


But remember the first experiments. This word being read is not separate from the awareness reading. When you read a word, what is the nature of the awareness of the letters? The word comes to you as a whole. But the letters make up that whole. Albert Low argues you are aware not “of” the letters but “as” them. Can the letters have meaning without awareness-as them as letters? Pick up a pen and write a word. You can guide the pen to write a word because you have a non-focused awareness-as the weight, size, texture, and point of the pen. Or going back to the table; if you put your hand on the table to steady yourself as you stand up from your chair, you are aware-as the table. Or, even better, let’s say you turn on the music. You can be aware-of the music as you study and appreciate it. But as your feet start moving, are you aware-as the music as you dance?


What are the implications of these experiments in awareness? How can they help anyone? I find them fun. Each time I do them and try to describe what I find, I understand my own life and perceptions better. And possibly, if I understand awareness better at this very basic level, I can do a better job of recognizing and interrupting suffering as I notice it arising. I can better understand the role I play in the perceived world.

To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?


What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.


Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.


One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.


But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.


Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”


What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.


Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.


Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.


Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.


To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.