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?

Freedom Of Mind

In 1969, after being in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone for about four months, I was unsure if I was doing the right thing. I felt a personal sense of isolation. The culture was so different from what I had previously known. And I was only 22. I wasn’t sure that I knew enough to teach anything useful to my students. I took a trip one weekend to visit a colleague. There was no public transportation. To get anywhere, you hitchhiked or flagged down a lorry. I was at a crossroads and a man came to speak with me. After greeting each other, he asked where I was from. I told him. He asked how long I planned to be in Sierra Leone. I said that I wasn’t sure. I admitted that I felt like leaving. He said: “You can’t leave yet. You taught us how to eat with spoons. You can’t leave until you teach us how to make them.”

 

This story is very similar to a quote, of disputed origin, which is popular now but I didn’t know back then. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead of doing something for someone, teach him how to do it himself. The quote has also been interpreted in other ways, for example, as speaking about the value of teaching technological or employable skills. However, I think it is primarily about independence of mind. Knowing how to make the spoons you use frees you from dependence on other manufacturers. Knowing how to make your own choices frees you from mental dependence. It is mental freedom that is most important.

 

Learning a skill, like fixing cars or repairing computers or writing stories can be glorious. Career readiness is important. Many people think, as reflected in the Common Core, that the first priority of schools should be college and/or career readiness. However, without an equal concern with state of mind and social skills, this emphasis can teach students to focus in the wrong place, on some idea of the future instead of on what they are doing right now. Students can feel that being in school is not real living, and thus distance themselves from their own education and actions. If now isn’t real life, why care about consequences? And without the understanding that each moment is both real and important, students might feel that “real life” might never arrive. Learning is a moment-by-moment process, which is obstructed when the future, the imagined product, is valued over the process.

 

So, what exactly does freedom of mind mean to you? To me, it means having this broader perspective. ‘Freedom’ is the opposite of being controlled by someone else’s interests. It is the opposite of being restricted, stuck, bound or feeling lacking in some way, unless those bounds are mindfully self-imposed in order to accomplish some important goal, for example.  It means you think and act readily and fluidly. You rule yourself. To rule yourself, you need to know your own mind. To know your own mind you need to know how to think clearly and ask appropriate questions. It means understanding and being aware of your emotions and thoughts, so you know when your thinking and perception is distorted and how to let go of that distortion. It means that you can understand and thus better deal with the difficulties that arise in life. It means understanding how you create a sense of happiness and satisfaction. You can have all the academic and job skills most schools teach; yet, what does it matter if you never feel good about or satisfied with your life?

 

To rule yourself also means that you are free even from your idea of freedom. It’s not the idea that you want but what lies underneath it. An idea is not the same as nor as deep or complex as the reality it tries to describe. As I said in an earlier blog, your description of the taste of an orange is never as delicious as actually tasting an orange. The underlying reality is your ability to know, taste, change, and feel. It is the fact that you are never isolated from the world no matter how isolated you may feel.

 

Ruling yourself requires that you are attentive to how you influence others and they influence you. This requires empathy and the ability to hear other people’s viewpoints. So, when you find yourself holding so tightly to an idea or concept that your very identity or sense of security is dependent on it, focus instead on your awareness of what you are doing and with whom you are doing it. Realize that freedom of mind is the ability to perceive clearly and act fluidly, adaptively, in a harmonious relationship between your own mind and heart and that of others and the world.

 

When you combine the limited job situation in the U. S., the debt many college students accrue in order to get a diploma, and the habit of focusing on the future over the present, it is easy to understand why graduates can be filled with fear and anxiety once that future arrives. College graduates having difficulty finding a satisfying, well-paying job might easily feel something is lacking in them, their options greatly limited, or their lives held hostage by debt, afraid to speak out and take chances. A life aimed mostly at an imagined future only teaches you to live an idea, not a reality, and so misses the point of education–to learn how to live a good life, contributing to the reduction of suffering in the world. When you understand your mind, you realize there is nothing lacking in you. Only an education that fosters this understanding of mind is truly an education in freedom. And this needs to be made a central focus of schools and the Common Core.

 

 

*The photo is from Maui.

Teaching Drama, Identity, and Interdependence

When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I once got the chance to witness spirit beings emerge from the jungle to dance a story about the origin of creativity. The spirits were also people wearing carved wood masks and raffia from their neck down to their feet. After the dance, the spirits walked amongst us and then returned to the jungle. I didn’t realize then that I was seeing an early form of theatre.

 

In Ancient Greece, the legendary poet Thespis was supposedly the first to have an actor step on a stage and turn choral recitation into drama. The first dramas told mythical stories. In fact, they were enacted myths, so drama emerged from a religious ceremony. Actors, just like the spirit dancers, were those who could take in and express the power of a myth or spiritual story. In fact, Thespis also introduced masks so actors could play different roles and genders. This was not just putting on a costume. It was putting on an identity, often an identity much bigger than one’s own.

 

When students today take on a role they are partaking in a very old tradition. They are taking on someone else’s character and history. To do the job well, the actor must let go of their own ego border enough so they can feel the feelings of the role, of the other person. The student standing in the shining lights of a theatre illuminates the question of identity which all of us, certainly teenagers, face. Who is it standing in those lights? And who are you when the show is over?

 

The actor makes himself vulnerable, open to the community’s judgment. It is almost sacrificial. If the actor fails, forgets a word, loses connection to the dramatic reality, they often feel devastated. In this way, an actor is heroic. This is extremely powerful. To be seen in stage lights is to be seen in a heightened light, in a way you can’t be seen in ordinary life.

 

Just imagine the effects acting can have on a student. A shy student, a student unsure of her identity, or a student who is disenfranchised or ignored by others can, with drama, become a hero. The intensity, creativity and sheer amount of work that goes into a production can also bring students closely together, make them feel cared for, part of a group, part of something larger than themselves.

 

But this power can work on people in many ways. The actor, feeling the vulnerability on stage, can either carry that openness over to their daily life or build walls around it to be opened only in the lights. They can let themselves think their special status onstage is their due offstage. They can so identify with being in the lights that they mistake the mythical power of the stage as their own. Our culture worships stars and this worship can either fuel or distort the creative process—and one’s own sense of oneself.

 

This worship and the dreams it inspires in students made casting our annual big production the most difficult time of the year for me. There were always disappointed students, always tears. Some schools just thought of putting the “best” singer or strongest actor in the lead role. I wanted not only a great performance but a great learning experience for everyone in the group. Sometimes it was not the lead who carried the play, but one of the supporting roles. Sometimes, I had the students cast the show themselves. This practically always worked out well, with few complaints.

 

Students must learn the historical background out of which modern theatre emerges. They must learn how to take on and then let go of the power of the stage. The power is not only one’s own but derives from one’s engagement with the role. The role is part of a whole play. It is dependent on the rest of the cast, the tech crew, and the process of rehearsal. It is dependent on the audience. The actor must learn that identity arises in a situation. It is not formed once and forever, but moment by moment. You don’t do something wild, like play Romeo or Juliet, and for all time you are a romantic hero or heroine.  For one glorious moment you enact that role, you give people that example of how to live. Then, a new moment arises, a new situation. What role will you then play?

 

I clearly did not always succeed in getting across these lessons. The pressures that develop during a production can be enormous. In order to help both the educational and creative process, it is important to get students to take on roles not only on stage but off. Students can help in casting and in researching and choosing the play. They can be assistant directors and choreographers. Almost all schools have student costume designers, stage managers, and tech crew. It is important to choose plays and even musicals that have several good parts, so as many people as possible can be stars. I did a series of one act and short plays each fall. This enabled almost everyone to get a decent sized part and one that they wanted to play. Each spring, we did a larger production. We did shorter runs, of one to three shows, in order to not get overloaded—and to emphasize that the whole process was important, not only the show itself. We used meaningful rituals to get everyone engaged, loosened up, energized, and to have fun. One of our most important rituals was doing the Hokey Pokey very loudly before each performance. Instead of me deciding on all the stage action, as much as possible I had the actors improvise stage action during rehearsal. And, on the first school day after the show was over, we always had a check-in session, to discuss people’s feelings, reflect on how the show went, put audience feedback in perspective, and say farewell to what was hopefully a great experience.

 

The cultural and personal expectations, as well as the sheer effort required by a performance, made drama the most difficult class I ever taught.  It also provided the most amazing highlights.