Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

*

It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

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11 responses

  1. What a nice, thought-provoking post. Thanks, Siobhan. I like how the meditation and exercise led you faster to a way to handle the students’ situations (or perhaps rather, the dynamic between you and the others). And, as often happens, I’m left contemplating how your experiences and frustrations as a teacher parallel my experiences as a parent.

  2. Siobhan, this is a brilliant study of the results of meditation. Please write a book of daily readings someday to help us find our way through meditation and finding peace!!
    We all have differing paths in reaching the same goal, which, in my understanding of this blog, would be to make decisions, handle problematic situations, and teach based on being righteous rather than self-righteous.
    Many of us have a lifetime of dysfunctional tools that have to be changed at the core. No easy task. Meditation is definitely one of the answers. Soul searching based on love for myself even with all my idiosyncrasies and ‘warts’ has been an answer for me, helping me achieve peace in the midst of conflict.

  3. This is a very appropriate post for Thanksgiving Day (in the USA) and a reminder that life is about people and relationships not things or goals.
    For what it’s worth, I think you handled both situations with grace after your revelation at the meditation session.

  4. It is wonderful that you got over your anger and frustration. I’m not so sure its as as wonderful that you then basically gave your students what they wanted but had not earned. Part of me envisions Yannick and Janet having a similar experience with yoga (or therapy or a mountaintop experience or prayer) such that they get comfortable with receiving the grades they have earned. That said, your advice to Yannick to take the issue up with the Dean of his program was great; the Dean may or may not go along with Yannick’s plan, but it’s a good idea that Yannick have to sell his newfound responsiblity to someone other than you. There’s a time beyond which repeating the same dynamic is not productive.

  5. As always, when I am frustrated with unreasonable, uncooperative students, I ask myself this question: “What do I want for them?” After I get over the anger and swearing, the deeper answer is something like this: “I want them to live a decent life.” That means I want them to be able to make a living, contribute as thinking citizens to building their society, be loving, compassionate parents and responsible, creative workers. The answer is rarely, “I want them learn how to properly indent dialogue or properly cite quotations or even properly express their ideas.” These things are all important to me and to the courses I teach, but they are just ways or steps to that longer, more important goal of living well. So, I give breaks, I give second chances because above all, I want them to succeed so they can live a decent life. If in the re-written paper or last chance at a test or assignment, if after extra help and tuition, there is no evidence that they have learned or improved, then they fail in that assignment. But Siobhan, like you I go to bed feeling I’ve not compromised my own values or denied them theirs.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. Teaching is often an isolating and frustrating career – we think we are the “only ones” and when students lash out at me, I often think I am unqualified, doing “it” wrong, etc. It is so meaningful to hear someone else struggling with similar circumstances and realizing that it is not easy, but it is worth it.

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