Summertime 2

This is my second summer writing blogs. Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, (or maybe even if we do) we can have free time once again.


The longing for summer is a longing for renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.


This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains. This is it. I actually hear my own life speaking to me.


When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, mountains, and forests. I meditated every day. I also took classes, in whatever interested me. I wanted to learn something new and meaningful, feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. I wanted to take in whatever I could. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.


Summer is a season, a rhythm of nature, a pulse of change. Because of the beauty of summer, it’s hopefully easier to notice and accept change, and thus ourselves. We are alive thanks to change. To breathe, our lungs expand and contract. To eat or speak, our lips change position. We can feel the pulse or all the different rhythms of life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. There are monthly cycles. What other biological rhythms do we have? Our blood has tides. Cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.


Cycles help fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sun cycle) or time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.


T. S. Eliot wrote: “…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” We can use the stillness of summer to refresh ourselves, maybe learn things like how to dance better, how to better relate with others and our world, and how to teach our students to do the same.



P. S. One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High School students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. Students at several schools, including the Lehman Alternative Community School where I used to teach, brought such studies to the school board and were successful in pressuring this welcomed change in policy.

Orienting Ourselves

Every morning when I wake up, I resurrect the world. I check the time, look out the window, remember my schedule. When at home, I especially check up on those I love. I look over to see if my wife is next to me. I look for each of my three cats and worry if one is missing. They have a cat window and go in and out at will. I think of my Dad and other family members. This is, of course, what caring and love entails. But love, especially when it leads to marriage or an ongoing relationship, is much more than the emotion of love. It is part of my identity. It is a way of saying ‘yes’ to the world. So every morning, to orient myself, I check on those I love.


If I don’t find one of our cats, I think of him or her as lost, missing. Lost is an awful place to be. It is a black hole in my consciousness that disorients me. Being lost, or not knowing what has happened, makes my day difficult. I try to fill in the hole with conjectures but can’t quite make any conjecture stick.


We create this disorientation or sense of something missing in many ways. It is one primary way we torment ourselves. I formulate a goal and create a sense of something missing until the goal is achieved. I see something I want and feel the lack of it until I get it. I have a discussion with someone and don’t say all that was in my heart to say, and feel what was unsaid as a missed opportunity or a lie. I have an idea of how my class will go; I have my lesson plan. But if it doesn’t go as I wanted it to or how I thought it should, I feel bad afterwards, or that I am just not as good a teacher as I should be. And then there are the ways other people/institutions treat me or I interpret how they treat me. These lacks are disorienting and knock us off-center.


It is easy to lose sight of how we each orient ourselves. A few years ago, I was on my first visit to Turkey. It was a tour, and we were in a new place every second or third day. I woke up one morning with a sense of panic. I didn’t know where I was. The smells were confusing, and the curtains opposite the bed were clearly not from my home. We think we wake up and are just there, wherever there is, and don’t realize what goes into being there, or here.


In Buddhism, this sense of lack is likened to thirst. When we’re thirsty we feel the pain of missing fluid and nutrients. Our body needs nourishing. But how do we think about our thirst or what story do we tell ourselves about how to fill or end it?


We often try to fill this lack and orient ourselves with beliefs, ideas, identities of all kinds, often stories and images of who we are as somehow separate from the rest of the world. A story can fit elements of the world into a narrative in order to make sense of it all. Space and time are how we lift the story of our self from the pages of memory, emotion and intellect into the three (plus) dimensional world we live. The world is whole and complete. But the story is never complete, and can’t be completed. Reality always far exceeds our ability to imagine, explain, or write about it. To expect any story to fully capture or complete us is doomed to fail, is doomed to add to our sense of thirst, confusion, or of something lacking in us and/or the world.


We might never be able to totally free ourselves from narrating our lives. But since this story making is near the heart of our world, when we slow down our thoughts and aren’t judgmental, we can be aware of what we do and how we do it. We can step out of any particular story of lack but not the reality of how stories are created. Zen teacher Albert Low said: “When we awaken, we do not awaken from the dream; we awaken to the dream.” We can realize ourselves as the story-maker, not just the story; or more accurately, as the act of creating, as well as the creation, a moment when the world speaks, not a separate self. When that happens, we are more clearly oriented and the story that is written is likely a good one, and a loving one.

The Story and the Reality

A big event occurs. You graduate from high school or college, you win the lottery, get married, and what do you expect next from your life? You imagine the joy of seeing the winning numbers going on forever. You imagine the ceremony, the parties, the honeymoon. But after the celebrating, what then? Do you imagine cleaning the house? Taking out the trash?


We expect the world would be changed or we would be changed. That the quality of our experience of life would be better, heightened, maybe. Or the quality of our mind would be different. And it is, but not like we expected. We are always changing. But we easily get caught up in the idea or the story we tell ourselves and miss the reality.


Daniel Kahneman described this as a “focusing illusion.” When we’re thinking about the wedding or the graduation, it is big, tremendous. When we’re in school, we might think that, when we graduate, life will be so different. Or we’re in love and imagine that, once the love is celebrated and wrapped in the marriage license, we will feel more secure and loved. But what we find is a new moment and a new day. We forget about adaptation, getting used to living with a spouse or getting used to the job or whatever it is we do after graduation.


We forget where feelings come from. We think the person we love creates the love. We think the achievement creates the thrill of success. We forget that to feel loved one must love. To be touched, one must touch. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. We can even view enlightenment, whatever that is, in the same way. “Once I get enlightened, all will be different.” Or, “If only I’d get enlightened…”


All we ever have are moments. Hopefully, most of these will be spent with more clarity than confusion, more compassion than anger, more love than greed. When I first fell in love with Linda, the woman I eventually married, I wrote a poem in which I described her as “the apple-mad lady with a third eye.” We built a little cabin in an orchard and sold apples with friends and made apple cider. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Our feet were very much made of clay, or skin and bones, and we made mistakes. Yet, luckily, we stayed together.


A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will, henceforth, be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to really seeing the other for who she or he is. Once the illusion is over, some retreat; some mistake this as a signal to leave the relationship. But really, this is the moment of awakening. Now you are real, to see what was always there; now you see yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, not for your own projection. The other can be seen to exceed whatever you can think, explain or contain. As you affirm your commitment, you affirm not only the relationship, but you take yourself to a deeper level. The other is accepted and you are accepted, too. The same with a graduation ceremony, getting a new job, whatever.


As we let go of trying to contain reality or to protect ourselves with ideas, the richness of our life expands. We learn to trust ourselves to an unanticipated depth. The storytelling about our lives continues. But we recognize ourselves clearly as the storyteller, not the story.



*This is adapted from the text of an original marriage ceremony I performed and inspired by a Carl Jung analysis of the anima/animus archetypes.


Myth, Meaning, and Social Change

I was in college during the 1960s, the heart of the war in Vietnam and the struggles to end the war. Like many people I knew, I went to protests in Washington, D. C., the Pentagon, New York City, and downtown Ann Arbor where I went to college, so many places to protest. Protesting became a frequent and necessary act to right wrongs. And there were many other wrongs to right— unlawful arrests of protestors, police violence, inadequate welfare payments to the poor, etc. I felt that I was part of history and my life was immersed in meaning.


And when the world didn’t change fast enough our discussions became disturbing. How far do you go to fight for a cause? How far do you go to create a revolution? Do you bomb buildings? Attack police? One day, I was accused of being part of a “pacifist conspiracy.”  I was a marshal at a protest. Some of the protestors, with the idea that newspaper headlines of police clubbing demonstrators would get us more sympathy and support, tried to break through the prearranged lines and attack police. We marshals stopped them.


Very recently, a former student started a discussion with me that followed along these same lines. The discussion shook me up. Maybe people with a conscience today are asking the same questions that have been asked for hundreds of years. There are so many injustices. Change can take so long, compromise can seem a sell out. How do you stimulate positive change?


Many people feel their lives have little meaning and they work so hard for so little. It is important to feel your life has meaning and it is necessary to act to make the world better. So, isn’t it right to act, even to make bombs and physically hurt others, in order to do something meaningful?


No. I think that you can’t start a social action or commit violent acts of protest because you want to find meaning or be part of something “greater than yourself.” You do it because of the importance of the act itself and its consequences. Acting for a cause or to right wrongs has huge psychological, even mythical, power. By joining a cause, you join Odysseus on his journey and the legions of the godly. You feel you are the good, the righteous, and all your problems ultimately derive from the one source you oppose. Once those with other views are labeled as evil enemies, all sorts of crimes can be enacted upon them that you would never contemplate doing otherwise. You know this. Almost everyone feels their perspective is correct, is the right one. It is so easy to feel that after the struggle, after the war, like in World War I or World War II, all will be different and better. However, as recent wars have shown so clearly, what many find in battle is both never ending and too disturbing to forget. We mustn’t become our own enemy in opposing a wrong.


Social action is necessary, even crucial, for our survival today. But our actions must proceed from understanding that the aim of social action is changing the viewpoint and thus behavior not of mythical monsters but of other humans. No mythological thinking should ever be used to make killing or hurting others easier to do. The aim is awakening others and ourselves to the relationship of mutuality and interdependence that we all have with other humans and the planet itself. Gandhi, for example, had rules for changing the world. One rule: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Is your action consistent with the world you want to create?


Violence, injustice, racism and the other isms, and war are the enemy. Ignorance or a lack of awareness, empathy and compassion, are the enemy. The institutionalized forms of these attitudes and conditions need to be brought to the forefront of awareness of the human community and confronted. But we can’t forget that how we do it is as important as that we do it.


A note for teachers: Many secondary school social studies classes already analyze how propaganda dehumanizes the people a group or society oppose. Propaganda dehumanizes by mythologizing. If you can do so, use the links in this blog to help add discussions of mythological thinking and archetypes to the curriculum. Students need to understand how easy it is to get lost in the stories and myths we create.


*Photo: The Lion Gate of Mycenae, home of mythical Agamemnon.