I’m Not Blocked. I’m Obsessively Diverted.

What does it mean to be “blocked”?  Is it possible for a “block” to be a diversion, a new inspiration, a productive distraction?  Or is it just laziness?

Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.

  1. I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years.  I use the term “working on” loosely.  I go through periods of productivity.  Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel.  Then my energy wanes.  I get bored.  I lose focus.  I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep.  At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened.  The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it.  I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it.  I feel like I have to finish it.  Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it.  Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
  2. For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner.  I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice.  For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all.  When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead.  I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat.  (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
  3. For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked.  So I’m writing about being blocked.

There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular.  One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing.  Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally.  I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.

I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time.  We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do.  We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis.  They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.

I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy.  We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.

This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things.  First of all, I’m planning my wedding.  Planning a wedding is a big and complex job.  It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress.  However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job.  I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun.  It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.

This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right.  Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss.  About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face.  My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup.  It didn’t look that hard.  I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow.  So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror.  I liked what I saw.  The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult.  And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup.  Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet.  I was OBSESSED.

I had never given a damn about makeup before.  What happened?  Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?

The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it.  If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter.  I had far better things to do with my time.  And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn.  This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind.  It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.

And fun is really the point here.  I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me.  Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher.  And meditation certainly isn’t fun.  And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.

So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow.  And it’s been a lot of fun.

But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions.  Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading).  Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time.  Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too.  My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back.  There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.

This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is.  I’m not going to go to cosmetology school.  But new interests are great fuel for writing.  One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup.  And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good.  They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn.  We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others.  But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly?  Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them?  Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun.  If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class.  How do we do this?

Image by Christine Weddle

Literature and the Meaningful Life

Here’s a little something I found in my inbox this morning.

What makes for a meaningful life? I consider each day, not just the life as a whole. I look at four ingredients. First, was it a day of virtue? I’m talking about …avoiding harmful behavior of body, speech, and mind; devoting ourselves to wholesome behavior and to qualities like awareness and compassion. Second, I’d like to feel happy rather than miserable. The realized beings I’ve known exemplify extraordinary states of well-being, and it shows in their demeanor, their way of dealing with adversity, with life, with other people. And third, pursuit of the truth—seeking to understand the nature of life, of reality, of interpersonal relationships, or the nature of mind.

But you could do all that sitting quietly in a room. None of us exists in isolation, however, so there is a fourth ingredient: a meaningful life must also answer the question, “What have I brought to the world?” If I can look at a day and see that virtue, happiness, truth, and living an altruistic life are prominent elements, I can say, “You know, I’m a happy camper.” Pursuing happiness does not depend on my checkbook, or the behavior of my spouse, or my job, or my salary. I can live a meaningful life even if I only have ten minutes left.

-B. Alan Wallace from “What Is True Happiness” (Tricycle, Fall 2005)

The fourth ingredient is the one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  It’s the one that keeps me from quitting my job.

My personal life is pretty small: I have a wonderful fiancé, loving parents, good friends, a couple of cute and snuggly cats.  Very few people depend on me, and those who do depend on me for very little – the possible exception is The Fiancé, but even he could get along just fine without me if he had to.  Oh, and the cats – they’re people too – but their needs are simple.

If it’s true that “a meaningful life must also answer the question, ‘What have I brought to the world?’,” then my job as a teacher is the part of my life that answers that question the best.  Every day, when I walk into the classroom or meet with a student in my office, I have the opportunity to bring something to the world.  What I bring, and whether it helps anyone, is another question, but at least I am given that chance.

The question I posed yesterday – why should we teach literature? – is a similar question to the one Wallace raises, at least in the context of my job.  What am I bringing to the world when I coerce my students into reading books they don’t want to read and thinking about them in ways they don’t feel are useful?  Am I helping them?  Am I helping the world?

I think maybe I am, but I have to keep asking myself the question.

Image by Melodi T

The New Semester: 10 Resolutions

Classes start again in less than two weeks.  (Primary, secondary and university teachers who are already back at work, I know what you’re thinking: “Shut up.”  Believe me, I know how good I’ve got it.)

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  However, one theme that presents itself frequently in my Buddhist meditation practice and my yoga classes is that of “setting an intention.”  Why am I doing this?  What do I want from it?  Where will I place my effort?

So before the kicks to the head begin, I thought I’d “set some intentions” for the semester.  What am I going to focus on when the going gets rough?

1. I will work hard.

Teachers will look at #1 and say, “Like you’ll have a choice.”  Fair enough.  However, one of my greatest struggles is that I resist work and resent it.  What will happen if I decide that I want to work hard?  What if I look at every stack of papers and every test that needs to be prepared and I think, “Here’s another chance to work hard, just like I wanted”?

2. I will not count the days until the end of the semester.

I need to stop wishing my life away.  I need to see my work life for what it is: the place where I learn and grow more than I do anywhere else.

3. I will approach my students as people, not problems.

Registration is in progress, and today I checked my student lists, which are about half complete.  So far, two familiar names caused my heart to sink a little.

Am I going to walk in anticipating difficulties?  Or am I going to walk in with the attitude that these students are complex, evolving beings who are bound to surprise me in one way or another?  If I can truly be present with my students, I can help them more and they, in turn, can teach me something.

4. I will meditate.  Every morning, if possible.

Meditation keeps me grounded and sane. It gives me perspective and helps me to stop working myself into a lather.  I have an early schedule this semester – my classes often begin at 8 a.m. – and I prefer to meditate in the mornings, so it will be tricky.  But even 10 minutes a day makes a big difference, so I need to work it in somehow.

5. I will take care of my body.

Exercise is the first thing to go when I get busy.  I love my yoga classes, but I often skip them when there are too many other things on my plate.  I also love to ski and to jog, and doing these things makes me feel better about everything.  Besides, I’m getting married in September, and I’d like shopping for a dress to be something other than a continuous pounding of my self-esteem.  So I need to exercise, if not every day (that might be asking too much), then at least as regularly as I can manage.

6. I will not forget about my friends.

I find it very difficult, during the semester, to maintain a social life outside of work.  I’m too stressed to enjoy parties, and even scheduling coffee or dinner feels like a chore rather than a break.  I need to change my perspective on this.  My obligations to my work community are important, but so are my connections to my larger community. Spending time with friends gives me distance from whatever’s going on at work.

7. I will find enjoyment in even difficult or tedious tasks.

There are things about teaching that I hate.  It is possible to hate them less by taking joy in small or big things.

I hate grading essays, but I do like playing with different coloured pens, Post-Its, rubber stamps and other stationery bits.  I also enjoy methodical tasks like grading MLA formatting, where I don’t need to think, but can just turn on some fun music and check things off a checklist.

I hate dealing with conflict.  However, a conflict with a student is an opportunity to examine myself more closely and learn something.  If I’m stressed about dealing with a difficult person, I often reconnect with my meditation practice, do more exercise, write more blog posts, and generally invest in activities that help me work through the problem.  Difficult people can be seen as “enemies” or as “gurus.” If I can stop fighting the problem and instead sink into it fully and be curious about it, I can actually take some pleasure in the process.

8. I will take care of my environment.

My offices, both at work and at home, need to be cleaned and reorganized.  My apartment also needs to be thoroughly scrubbed – I’m actually considering hiring someone to do this.  I detest cleaning, but I also detest living in grubby conditions.  I need to set the world around me in order.  It helps me feel better.

9. I will be grateful.

I have a great job and a great life. I need to actively remind myself of that, again and again.

I recently made a half-hearted attempt at a “gratitude journal.”  Every evening, I made a list of ten things (or more) that had happened that day that I was grateful for.  It was never difficult to come up with ten things; my list often extended to twenty items and beyond, and doing it made me feel great.

Last night, The Fiancé and I watched a segment of Dan Gilbert’s “This Emotional Life” in which he presents some of the techniques of “positive psychology.”  Taking time each day to note down things that went well is one practice that positive psychology teaches.  So it’s not just me – there’s some scientific backing for this.  One way or another, it improves my outlook.

10. I will set an intention every morning.

There are going to be problems.  Teaching is hard, and teaching well is especially hard, because it involves real engagement with real people, and real people are challenging.  There will be days when my stomach will be knotted with dread from the moment I wake up.  Setting an intention for the day – What do I want to learn?  How will I set that learning in motion? – can untie that knot and allow it to blossom into useful energy.

In the evening I can then examine my intention and how it shaped my day.  If I carried it out in some way, I can feel glad; if I avoided it altogether, I can feel glad that I have the insight to recognize that.  Buddhists call this daily activity of setting and examining intentions “one at the beginning, one at the end.”

I need to post this list up somewhere, and add to it.  A fifteen-week semester equals seventy-five school days.  If I can engage in each day with mindfulness, curiosity and effort, instead of just allowing the days to happen to me, I may be able to love what I do all the time.

Even when I feel like punching someone.  Which is bound to happen.

Image by Chutiporn Chaitachawong

Arrows Into Blossoms

I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is perhaps the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the basic precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, almost obliquely, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she brings up a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  Most of us know that when the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  In discussing this part of the Buddha’s story, Chodron says

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  It’s also a state of mind that I am profoundly interested in, and one that I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t seem to calm my irritated feelings about this, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I am expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t seem to shake it.

It is possible to see any difficult situation in our lives as an attack from Mara.  We are under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there is another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can therefore be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  At first, I was less than satisfied with the images I found; none of them captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could even hold a pencil steady I would try to draw or paint it myself, but that isn’t possible.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.

trusting our intentions

connectingI haven’t had much time recently for blogging, or thinking about blogging, but I came across a quote this evening that sums up where my head is at these days, in the classroom and in the world.

Remember that you don’t have to like or admire someone to feel compassion for that person. All you have to do is to wish for that person to be happy. The more you can develop this attitude toward people you KNOW have misbehaved, the more you’ll be able to trust your intentions in any situation. -Thanissaro Bhikku

Image by Eastop

how I saved my teaching career part 7: meditate!

The penultimate post in my series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” appeared on School Gate this morning.  In this post, I describe how learning to meditate made me a better teacher.

Who Are Your Gurus?

This week has been an exercise in detachment.

I’ve been grading very long and sometimes very difficult final papers, and in a moment of hair-tearing frustration, wrote the post 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment. When it went up here and, especially, on my Open Salon blog, there was an outpouring of hilarity, with a spattering of negative comments (“Huh? Who cares if a paper is double-spaced?”).

It all died down within a couple of days, but then, when I included the post in this week’s Carnival of Education, it went viral on StumbleUpon. It received almost 4,000 hits – twice as many as my whole blog has ever received in one day – and comments began pouring in. Many of them weren’t nice. In fact, some of them were truly vitriolic, mostly from students (presumably) who had taken the “you” in the title personally, and decided to respond in kind.

It was a bit of a shock. This blog has always felt like a safe and protected space – the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. My OpenSalon blog has been more lively, and sometimes contentious, but the commenters have almost always been respectful and articulate.

This was my first experience with trolls. It was rattling, but I was prepared – I’d read about trolls, and read trolls on other people’s blogs, and my minimal experience with them on OpenSalon meant that I knew that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them.

Now, not all the negative comments came from trolls, although it might have at first appeared so. One of the early, incensed responses is from Xannax. It’s pretty over-the-top. But some other commenters take her, gently and not-so-gently, to task, and Xannax responds by writing,

“I have to confess I ranted without really thinking there was room for constructive criticism, so let me apologize for the tone and explain what I meant.”

What follows is a discussion in which Xannax blows my mind. She carefully reads and responds to other people’s comments. She asks questions in order to understand their positions (and, by extension, mine, although I just sat back and watched it all happen.) And, in the end, she writes,

“Ok. I am convinced… I guess I was a bit arrogant trying to tell you how to teach without having any kind of field experience. I will keep what you said in mind when I’ll confront my first students…Thanks”

Yes, Xannax is going to be a teacher. And if this exchange is any indication, she is going to be a fine one. If she can model this kind of communication – modifying our first, impulsive reactions by listening respectfully and with curiosity – for her students, then they are going to learn a LOT just by watching her.

I, in the meantime, learned a lot by watching myself. A few years ago, the enraged, hate-filled responses to this post would have crushed me. I would have lost my will to blog, perhaps permanently. I feel much more even-keeled about it all now, much like I feel more even-keeled in the classroom.

When RateMyTeacher first appeared online, and I read my first negative comment (which was much less diplomatic than anything I’d ever read on a course evaluation), it really messed me up. Now, years later, I still read comments on RateMyTeacher – mine and others’ – and I don’t like getting critical ones, but I think about them, especially if they hit close to home. Sometimes they lead to important discoveries.

For example, years ago, there was a comment about how I was “very intelligent” but “not very pleasant.” That one really got to me. It stayed on my mind for weeks. And it was one of my first clues that maybe I was getting burnt out, and it set in motion a whole series of steps in which I tried to deal with that.

In Buddhism, the people who trigger negative emotions for us – like difficult peers, belligerent students, or blog trolls – are often called “enemies”, but they are also referred to as “gurus.” We can learn from the people who cause us pain, if we are able to detach, and examine our emotions instead of acting them out and escalating the situation.

I think Xannax’s exchange with other commenters was an example of this. It’s also the way I try to deal with my anger, frustration and hurt feelings in the classroom: thinking of my most irritating students as “gurus” has brought me peace during some very difficult times.

As a teacher (if you are one), what have you learned from the students who have caused you the most trouble? What about as a blogger (if you are one) or in your life in general – have your enemies been your gurus?