A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us — Franz Kafka
Claire Needell Hollander, an English literature teacher in the New York Public Schools, starts her New York Times opinion column today (4/22/12) with this powerful Kafka analogy. She concludes with the following:
We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them
I resonate so deeply with her words. In school, I was one of the lucky ones. My hometown had great, well-financed public schools with deeply inspiring teachers who taught out of love–and therefore taught love–and used great literature, art and science to bring home this perspective. They never said it–they did not have to–but the end game of their teaching was not to have us know what was taught, but to feel it, be moved by it and to live it.
Perhaps this great good fortune led to another. When I first encountered the full spectrum of world spiritual wisdom traditions, I knew that many of them would infuse my life. Effortlessly, with real enthusiasm, I found myself diving into study and meditation practice. I noted that most of those around me were somewhat bemused and/or amazed by my strong resolve. For many of them, meditation seemed to be a very difficult thing to do with very little to show for it. I could not really explain it to myself, at that time.
Now, as I start teaching mindfulness, the question becomes more pronounced, as I noted in my first post in this blog. What is it that drives some of us to the effort of daily practice, study and low/no material reward? If I don’t have this resolved for myself, what good am I as a teacher? I find myself gratefully coming back to a powerful observation from John Peacock, a relatively obscure Professor of Buddhist Studies at Oxford, who graced a teachers retreat I attended last fall. John was asked, after all his years of study, serious practice and teaching, what was the most important thing he would suggest to us as emerging teachers. Without missing a beat, he stated “before anything else, start with metta (the lovingkindness practices)”. Yes! So simple, and so profound. The classic approach to introductory Vipassana/mindfulness practice is to work though the Four Foundations: contemplation of the body, emotions, consciousness and mental objects (e.g. anger). This approach is time tested over centuries for developing skilled meditation practice. Not unlike the current obsession with measuring teaching effectiveness via test scores, those who follow this discipline can and do achieve great meditation test scores. Mindfulness meditation practice is subject to a lot of academic research these days. The research suggests that heart rates and blood pressure can be reduced significantly, that concentration improves, that depression is reduced, and that deep, satisfying sleep arrives naturally as a few sample results, among many, from following a meditative practice. These are all great outcomes, but, is they what we live for? Are they the juice that that makes life sweet?
Serious mindfulness practice would suggest that the “test scores” are merely effects–shadows on the wall. There is a rich, sweet wordless mystery that lights us up beyond our scores. As John Peacock observed so beautifully–it is lovingkindness. Engaging lovingkindness, our heart space, first for ourselves and then by natural extension to all those around us, we embody this sweet mystery. The discipline of the the Four Foundations ceases to be the end game–but instead the ax to the too often frozen sea within us.
May all beings be at peace.
May all beings be safe.
May all know lovingkindess
Here’s a link to Claire Needell Hollander’s column. It is well worth your time: