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:


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?

in which I do not become a Unitarian after all

(Check out Part One and Part Two of this story.)

So two weeks before Christmas, I once again eschewed the Sunday sleep-in, put on my best blue sweater and black jacket, and metroed down to the Unitarian church, this time alone. My nervousness about being there without The Boyfriend Buffer was balanced by my greater familiarity with what I was getting into: I knew how many blocks to walk from the metro; I knew someone would be standing outside the church to greet me; I knew that someone would stop me before I entered the chapel and ask me to make myself a name tag.

The chapel guardian was a different woman from last week, although she was also brisk, friendly, and middle-aged. When I slapped the sticker reading “Siobhan” onto my lapel, she handed me a songbook and said, “Now, Siobhan, you take the best seat in the house. And if someone’s sitting in it, you tell them I said it’s yours.”

I laughed. Really laughed – she was funny. In fact, she reminded me of someone. I couldn’t think of whom, until I entered the chapel and sat down.

Before I worked at my current college, I taught at several different CEGEPs around Montreal. They had different atmospheres, different cultures; each student body and staff body had its own personality.

I chose my college for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with the sense of support and belonging I felt as soon as I walked through the doors. And that sense of support and belonging started with Kevin, the man behind the desk at the print shop.

When you teach college, the print shop is often the first place you go when you arrive at work. You go to make copies or, more often than not, to pick up copies for that day’s classes. This necessitates interacting with the print shop people.

I had worked in colleges where the print shop people were downright mean. They yelled at you if you asked for more paper. They inspected your requisition slips with raised eyebrows, tore them up, and barked instructions about how to fill them out properly. They sighed a lot. I never really questioned all this. I supposed that working at the print shop was an unpleasant and underpaid job, that teachers were generally idiots when it came to print shop protocol, and that print shop people had to put up with a lot of garbage and had every right to be mean.

Then I met Kevin. The first time I walked into Kevin’s print shop, he shook my hand, introduced himself, and asked my name. He placed the requisition slip in front of me, asked me if I knew how to fill it out, and stood with me while I asked questions about the various checkboxes. When I asked if there was any possible way for the order to be filled in less than 24 hours, he said, “We’ll do our best. Drop by before we close at five. Nice to meet you, Siobhan. Good luck here at the college.”

Every time I walked into the print shop after that, Kevin greeted me by name and asked how I was doing. Not only that, but as I stood at the copier or filled out my requests, Kevin greeted every single person who walked into the shop, by name, and asked how they were doing. I work at a big college, the second biggest in Montreal; there are only two print shops, so approximately half the teachers in the college saw Kevin on a daily basis, and the others probably all came in occasionally. He knew all their names, and asked how they were doing, every day.

Not only that, but my initial assessment of a print shop job was correct. People are idiots. They fill out their slips wrong, they make unreasonable requests that are impossible to fulfill, they break photocopiers, they walk in out of the cold with their coffee spilled down their coat and their hair sticking up and are just dying for a fight. Not only that, but the print shop is also the mail room, and print shop employees have to deal with students. Students wander in wanting to drop off papers for teachers, but they don’t know their teachers’ names. They try to use the staff photocopiers. They break photocopiers. They mutter monosyllables and refuse to look you in the eye.

And yet I never saw Kevin lose patience with anyone. He looked up section numbers on the computer to find teacher names for confused students. He soothed rattled employees when the ancient copiers jammed. He said, “No problem.” A lot. And no matter how wound up you were when you walked into that print shop, after a couple of minutes with Kevin, you felt like the world wasn’t such a bad place.

Kevin retired a couple of years ago, and people around the college cried. (I did.) But he created a sort of culture in the print shop that has been sustained. The employees who are still there, or who came in when he left, are perpetuating the same attitude. They smile at you and say hello. They bend the rules if they possibly can to get you your stuff when you need it. And there’s a section on the print shop counter called “Kevin’s Corner,” where the staff paste the jokes and cartoons that Kevin emails them on a regular basis.

I realized, as I was sitting there in the Unitarian chapel thinking about Kevin, that we were already well into the service. The announcements about “Please stay behind after the service for coffee” had already been made. The congregation was standing for the first song. And I stood too, and looked around, and thought, What am I looking for here, exactly?

As I’ve explained in earlier posts, my attraction to Unitarian Universalism was partly based in a sense of connection with its philosophy, and partly based in a desire to belong to a community. As I stood there singing – another song about “freedom,” in a key that didn’t quite sit right for me – I thought, What kind of community was I hoping to find here?

I’ve been looking for a bunch of like-minded people who value individuality, who believe in social justice, who want to work hard to make the world a better place, who want to support one another in their personal, professional and spiritual growth.

But, I thought, I already have that community. Those are the people I work with.

My college, and my department in particular, have a reputation. Our students may not always be high-achieving or even bright or even fluent in English; our buildings may be falling down; we may not have any money or any fancy A/V equipment. Some of our programs may be limited in scope, and we may have to work two or three to a very small office. But there is a culture of support, growth, and absolute dedication to our students’ and our teachers’ learning. We know each other. As a department, we often socialize together outside the college. We like each other – although of course, as in any community, some of us are difficult. And we have a common mission: to make the world a better place, one student – and teacher – at a time.

This revelation hit me like a thunderbolt.

I looked around again. There was no doubt in my mind that this chapel was full of good, conscientious, thoughtful, intelligent people. Given world enough and time, I would perhaps like to hang around with these people, and get to know them, and bring them into my world. But in a few weeks I would be going back to work after a much-needed hiatus, and there was a whole community waiting for me there that required my full attention and energy.

I didn’t stay for coffee after the service that day. I thanked the minister and, in particular, the chapel guardian as I left. And on my way home in the metro, I took out the book I was reading – A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism – and made the following note on the flyleaf:

After all, if we love our work and find it meaningful, how is it different from worship?

in which I become a Unitarian: part two

(for Part One of this continuing saga, please go here.)

On a Sunday morning, The Boyfriend and I took the metro to Vendome, to attend Montreal’s only Unitarian church. We underestimated the travel time, which is unlike us, and arrived in time for the service by the skin of our teeth. We were greeted outside the church by a friendly usher (just like WalMart! I thought), and at the door of the chapel itself by an elderly woman brandishing songbooks with programs tucked inside. “Are you new?” she asked.

“Yes,” we replied. “We’re visitors.”

“Visitors!” she cried. “And where are you visiting from?”


She looked puzzled by this, and then laughed. “I see. Welcome.” She directed us to a table covered with sticky labels and Crayola markers. “Please make yourselves some nametags.” Looking around, we noticed that everyone was wearing cords around their necks with nametags attached.

As we scribbled our names on sticky labels, The Boyfriend whispered, “I was thinking we could just hide in the back of the room and watch the service happen, but I’m getting the feeling there’s not a lot of anonymity here.”

Now, The Boyfriend and I are, superficially, quite different. On the outside, he strikes people as gregarious and extroverted. He’s extremely funny, extremely concerned about others, and, although he is prone to explosions of caustic rage when strangers on the street walk into him or talk on their cell phones while driving or otherwise behave like idiots, he’s generally really, really nice to people. I, on the other hand, tend to be withdrawn and uncomfortable, unless I’m around people I know well (and sometimes even then) or in a clearly defined role where I’m in charge of the situation (in front of a classroom, for example. And sometimes even then.)

Fundamentally, though, when it comes to social interaction, we’re not really that different. We are, at the core, terrified of strangers, terrified of small talk, and terrified of unfamiliar situations where we can’t mentally prepare ourselves for everything that will happen. It takes us days to work ourselves up to going to a party, even though we often have a good time once we’re there. And here we were, taking it upon ourselves to go to a church (an activity neither of us feels we have a handle on) that we’d never been to before (danger! danger!) where, we discovered, perfect strangers were going to TALK to us (let the hyperventilation begin).

And it was all my idea, which meant that I felt I had a certain amount of agency in the situation, whereas he was jumping feet-first into this waking nightmare to support me in my creative and spiritual endeavours. This is because he is The World’s Best Boyfriend.

So we made our nametags and slipped into the chapel. The Boyfriend’s first comment was, “Either there’s no kneeling here, or the kneeling is really hardcore.” There were no pews, only straight-backed chairs, placed in rows so snug that it was difficult to squeeze past people’s knees, much less kneel. The room was big and airy, with a high ceiling and some stained glass in the windows; at the front was a small stage with a podium, a piano, and an altar decorated with candles. We took seats off to the side and near the back, right on the aisle so that we could feel less trapped.

The bilingual service began with announcements, including a welcome to visitors and newcomers. “Please join us after the service for coffee and conversation in the room next door,” said the welcomer. “If you are new, please use a green mug so we will know to come and welcome you. And everybody, please wear your nametags.”

My first, visceral response to this announcement was a spasm of panic. Really? A coffee party? But as the announcements finished and one of the congregation’s children came forward to light the chalice to begin the service, I thought: Well, what are you here for?

I was there to research ways that a community can help support, nurture and guide us through terrible difficulty. I was doing this research, in part, because I was writing a novel about a young boy who passes through terrible emotion struggles and difficult circumstances because he finds sanctuary in his church.

But I was also looking for something like this for myself. I felt this level of community was missing in my life. And how, really, was I to begin building such a community if I wasn’t willing to have coffee with these people?

One look at The Boyfriend’s face, though, and I knew it wouldn’t be happening this Sunday. I couldn’t do it to him. He wasn’t looking for what I was looking for – he has strong, deep roots in several places that I don’t, and doesn’t feel the same profound loneliness I do. If I asked him to stay, he’d stay, but it would be agony. I knew then that I was going to have to come back the following week on my own.

We stayed through the service. We sang songs from the songbook – songs that seemed to use the word “freedom” a lot. We listened to a sermon about the French/English divide in Montreal – a strange topic, I thought, coming from the apparently American minister, a topic that felt oddly outdated.

(The minister explained that she had just, at the urging of the congregation, finished reading Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes, a novel about the historical clash between Anglophone and Francophone society in Quebec. Many Canadians read this book when they’re very young, and although it’s a seminal Canadian novel, it also leads to a lot of very simplistic discussions of Franco/Anglo cultural and class conflict.)

There was a fire drill after the sermon, and as we stood in the cold parking lot, no doubt looking lost, one of the older parishioners greeted us, asked where we were from, and asked what we thought of the service and the sermon. She explained that she was one of the group of Francophones who had asked the minister to speak on this topic, that the discussion of bilingual issues within the church was ongoing and sometimes contentious.

Ah, I thought. Right. “Community” includes this, also.

When we were allowed back inside, many people seemed to be going straight to the coatroom, so we did the same. “You don’t want to stay for coffee?” The Boyfriend asked. When I said no, the relief on his face was palpable. “Are you sure?”

The service was concluding inside. We waited by the chapel door for the singing of the final hymn, for the recession of the minister, and expressed our thanks to her before we slipped out the door.

Outside, as we walked, I asked The Boyfriend, “So what did you think about all that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think it’s for me. They seem like good people trying to do good things, but I kept looking around, wondering, ‘Why are all these people here in this room together? What, exactly, is this meeting about?’ I couldn’t figure it out. I can’t get a handle on what Unitarianism is.”

I nodded. “I think the idea of community is somewhere at the bottom of it all. Coming together to support one another’s spiritual growth.”

“Sure. And that’s an awesome thing to do. But it doesn’t really speak to me. How about you?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know yet. I think I need to explore it a bit more.”

He bit his lip. “Does this mean we’re coming back next week?”

I giggled and kissed his cheek. “No, baby. It means I’ll be coming back next week. You have more than fulfilled your Perfect Boyfriend requirements for now.”

(Next post: I return alone to the Unitarian church, and the importance of all this for my life as an educator is finally revealed.)