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.


Experiencing Big Changes

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 graduation or the wedding, 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 and 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 is 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 and made apple cider with friends. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Yet, luckily we stayed together.


A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to 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 yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, and not for your own projection. The other can then exceed whatever you can think, explain or try to contain. 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 transition you make. When you graduate from high school, you have ideas and expectations. If you are going away to college or a new city, you are stepping away from all you know. Like when you love someone, you feel vulnerable. And this can be difficult to face. But feeling vulnerable is another way to say you are free to feel life more intensely. The fear you feel, the discomfort, is there to awaken you to the opportunity you have given yourself. To be open means open to learn from whatever arises, even fear and discomfort.


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 more clearly as the storyteller, not any one of the stories.


*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.

This blog is a re-write of an earlier blog.

Meditation and Exercise: For Clearer Thinking and Better Health

Meditation has been shown to improve your health as well as thinking. It can help students catch up in school, overcome adversity, and improve their mental and emotional outlook. It can help stressed and aging adults live better, be happier and think more clearly.


Two well.blogs from the New York Times make these points very clearly. The first, by Norman E. Rosenthal, talks about meditation as one element that can help students overcome the achievement gap between children in inner city schools and those in more affluent districts. Meditation helps these students overcome the higher stress levels they face and gives them the advantage of an improved ability to focus attention and regulate emotion.  Of course, improving the funding of their schools and the job-economic situation in their communities would also be a great help.


Gretchen Reynolds writes about how yoga and meditation combined can improve mood and mental function as you age. The two practices go together well. In my own practice, I usually do some yoga, aerobics, and Karate each morning before I meditate. The exercise helps my alertness and overall sense of well-being, which assists the meditation. The meditation helps me maintain a deep focus and enjoyment in my exercise (and in everything else I do).


This mutual benefit should not be a surprise. Mind and body are inseparable except in the conceptual frameworks held by many of us. Meditation is living the reality of how everything, what we call mind, body, environment, and others arise together, interdependently. No mind without a breathing body. No breathing without an earthly environment. No self without others. And no teacher without students.


Meditation is not a panacea but it does help those who practice it, students, teachers, whomever. It could help teachers not only relate better to their students and improve their performance in the classroom, but stay in the profession longer. Our society could greatly benefit right now by the increased understanding of interdependence that meditation can develop. So, why not do it? In fact, why not include meditation and yoga programs in teacher-training schools? Administrators are looking for ways to retain experienced teachers—this might be one part of a solution (along with better pay, more support, and improved school culture—but that’s another blog).


*The photo is the entrance to the track in Olympus, Greece,.


To Hear, First Listen

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing. I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality.


So today, when he brought up the topic, I just listened, sometimes repeating back to him his own words, merely empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions. When you feel heard by others, you are more likely to listen to yourself. I don’t want this anecdote to be taken as a warning to never give advice or never point out to others lines of reasoning they might have missed. It is only a suggestion to listen carefully for projection, especially when fear and its close relatives, worry, anxiety and depression, are involved. And to listen carefully to notice your own response to anger.


A similar process can happen in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, or all human beings are machines, because they fear a life without love, have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their lives are meaningless.


And when such meaningful moments arise in a class, do not put them off because they are not in the curriculum or not in your lesson plan. Because they are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and the classroom is one place this can occur. Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason.


Students ask questions, we all ask questions, because we glimpse a deeper reality and thus know the answers we have now are unsatisfying or incomplete. One reason we get angry is we realize there is something crucial we are denied or can’t understand. We feel we are in the dark because we know what light is. What a good teacher does is point students to their own inner light.


No emotion exists by itself without other feelings, sensations and thoughts trailing behind it. Love is only as strong as our ability to tolerate vulnerability and face the fear of loss and hurt. Joy pushes back against fear, happiness against sadness. We learn when we acknowledge our mistakes and our lack of knowledge—and we accept that we must make mistakes in order to succeed. We must actually take in and notice what is truly there, both in us and in what surrounds us, even our fear and anger, in order to learn. Without this openness and engagement there is little learning.


To get answers, you must feel your own feelings and hear your own thoughts. Only if you listen can you hear.


**After writing this, I read the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing book, The Art of Communicating. To study deep listening, practice mindfulness and enjoy this book. Almost everything I say, and so much more, is inside it. He says: “When you can truly come home to yourself and listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.” (35) “To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.” (15)