Life lessons


We out here though

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center, and as always there was a pot of hot tea waiting for me when I went into the interview room to begin. Sunday mornings when I give interviews are hectic: I have to get up early enough to do my morning chores before I leave, so by the time I arrive at the Zen Center, I’ve already taken the beagle out and in, loaded the dishwasher, cleaned the kitchen litter box, and fed the cats. It feels good, in other words, to sit down to a hot pot of tea someone else prepared: a chance to play guest.

After the laughter

I usually take about three sips of tea before I ring the bell for the first interview. While everyone gets settled on their cushions in the main meditation room, I get settled on my cushion in the interview room, making sure I have everything I need close at hand: a clock so I can keep an eye on the time, and a box of tissues I can offer to anyone who comes in with a heavy heart. (Sometimes I think the most important job a senior Dharma teacher can do in consulting interviews is listen without judgement while calmly doling out tissues.) Once I’ve determined everything is in place, I pour a cup of tea and take approximately three sips, breathing in the tea’s aroma, feeling the heat of the cup in my hands, and savoring the warm flavor on my tongue. The Zen Center is a ritual-rich place, and these three sips of tea have taken on an almost magical meaning for me. Before I can ring the bell that says “I’m ready to listen to whatever question or issue you want to talk about,” I have to make myself present to a simple cup of tea.

Rest in paint

A lot of profound, powerful, and deeply humorous things happen in the interview room: all that consulting interviews are, after all, is a chance for two practitioners to sit down and talk face-to-face behind a closed door. But sometimes I feel like the most powerful moment for me personally is the moment or two before I ring the bell, when it’s just me holding a cup of tea in my hands, wondering what sort of questions will walk through the door.

Je suis XXVI

Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I spend a moment looking at the drawing of Kwan Seum Bosal, the bodhisattva of compassion, that hangs above the interview room mantel. In the guise of an eleven-headed goddess with a thousand hands and eyes, Kwan Seum Bosal looks like a harried mother with heads instead of eyes in the back of her head: ever watchful, and ever ready to lend a hand (or a tissue) when someone is suffering. Before I set my teacup down and ring the bell for the first interview, I silently invoke the spirit of Kwan Seum Bosal, whom I recognize as a representation of the compassion we all possess. Once I ring the bell for the first interview, I have no way of knowing what flavor of suffering will walk through the door. All I can hope for is that like Kwan Seum Bosal, I’ll find a way to be present in the face of whatever arises.

Teddy bears' interview

Last night, I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center: a chance for practitioners to have a one-on-one conversation with a senior teacher.

Teddy bears' interview

One of the best bits of advice I ever got about giving consulting interviews came from Zen Master Bon Haeng (aka Mark Houghton), who sat next to me the first time I gave a round of interviews. Consulting interviews, he explained, aren’t about answering questions; consulting interviews are about sharing an experience with the person sitting across from you.

I think of Zen Master Mark’s advice whenever I ring the interview room bell to signal the next person to come in and sit down. If consulting interviews were about answering questions, I’d have to worry about knowing enough to say the right thing. But since consulting interviews are about sharing an experience, I don’t have to know anything to give a good interview: I just have to show up, sit down, and be present for whatever arises.

Zen Master bear with Zen stick

These three guidelines–show up, sit down, and be present–are the same whether you sit in the teacher’s or the student’s seat: these three guidelines, in fact, apply to pretty much any face-to-face encounter. And as if to underscore that point, last night when I walked into interview room, I found it was already occupied by two plump teddy bears sharing a face-to-face experience that transcended human words.

Dwight Hall with turkeys

Today is my last day of teaching before Thanksgiving break, and at both Curry College yesterday and Framingham State today, it’s clear that many students and faculty alike have already headed home, either literally or figuratively. There are fewer cars in the parking lot, fewer students strolling outside, and an influx of emails from apologetic students explaining they won’t be in class because they’re leaving early to head home.

Turkey trio

On days like today, I remember something Zen Master Dae Kwang, who was born and raised in Nebraska, once said. Every Nebraskan farmer knows you can’t steer a horse that’s headed back to the barn. Once even the most obedient beast is intent on returning to his feed trough, there’s nothing either a carrot or stick can do to dissuade him.

On days like today, I realize both students and faculty alike are already headed (literally or figuratively) toward a barn called Thanksgiving, which offers troughs of tasty food, days without alarm clocks, and the hope (for faculty at least) of catching up with grading. If this morning’s class is any indication, my afternoon class will be small and we’ll end early. There’s no use wasting either a carrot or stick on a herd of obedient beasts whose minds are so obviously elsewhere.

This is my Day Twenty-Five contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Buddha and houseplant

Last night I went to evening practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, even though I still haven’t fully recovered my voice from the cold-turned-bronchitis I’ve been fighting all month. My voice is mostly better when I’m simply talking…but chanting was a whole other story, with my voice squeaking, croaking, or falling silence whenever the melody varied from the middle-monotone. It will take a while before my vocal cords are back in shape for either chanting or singing, but in the meantime, it was good to squeak by with roomful of other practitioners who filled in the melodic gaps when my voice wasn’t able to rise to the occasion.

This is my Day Twenty-Four contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Student art projects

My classes at Framingham State are two hours long, so I give students a ten minute break halfway through class. While my students typically use this time to text, check Facebook, or otherwise fiddle with their phones, I use this time to walk the hallways of May Hall: a chance to stretch my legs and clear my head before teaching the second half of class.

Leaf collages

My favorite place in May Hall is the top floor, where the art studios are located. While art students diligently sketch, sculpt, and piece together projects in those studio classrooms, I walk the hallway and admire the finished projects on display: ceramic and papier-mâché sculptures, mobiles constructed from wire and paper, and colorful collages created from fallen leaves.

This is my Day Nineteen contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Scooby and Groucho

Today is Veteran’s Day, so I have a rare weekday off. My ideal schedule would be to teach on campus a couple days a week while spending the other days working from home, grading and prepping for classes, but at the moment I teach somewhere five days a week. This means I direly miss the grading days I used to have when I had a lighter teaching schedule: days when I could sleep in, catch up with housework, and grade papers in a leisurely fashion, never changing out of sweatpants if I didn’t feel like it.

Snowflake lounges

Although I’ve done it for several semesters now, teaching five days a week still feels alien to me. Folks who work nine-to-five jobs have to show up for work five days a week, but they get their weekends off and aren’t necessarily required to give presentations every day. (Indeed, the number of weekday Facebook posts shared by my nine-to-five friends suggests they have quite a bit of downtime while sitting in their office cubes.) Perhaps because I’m a closet introvert, teaching five days a week is tiring: a constant drain. It feels like I constantly have to stay “on” as I perform in front of a class, without enough time to regenerate my game face.

Rocco in window

Truth be told, I didn’t become an English major because I wanted to spend lots of time standing in front of classrooms of often-indifferent undergraduates talking about commas and apostrophes; I became an English major because I like to spend time alone reading and writing. At this point of the semester, I feel starved for unstructured quiet time, even if all I’m doing with that time is grading papers. Grading, after all, is where I meet my students’ work individually, and it’s where I feel like I can make the most difference, apart from the group dynamic of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s a constant effort to keep my students entertained, awake, and engaged. The real work in a writing class, however, happens in the quiet space between an individual student and her or his writing, and that’s what you encounter when you read your students’ work.

Groucho

So this morning I slept in, and I’ve been spending the day grading papers in sweatpants, catching up with housework, and otherwise enjoying a day when I don’t have to stand in front of a classroom and talk. It feels like something I’ve been sorely missing.

This is my Day Eleven contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Film the police

I’m back teaching today after having cancelled several days’ classes due to sickness last week. My lungs are still phlegmy and my voice is still froggy, but I’m slowly getting my energy back. There was a point last week when I didn’t know whether I had either the energy or the motivation to draw another breath, so after hitting that sort of rock-bottom, anything better is a vast improvement.

Black tags

While I was sick, I didn’t get much done in the way of paper-grading: I barely had enough energy to cough, do a middling-job with household chores, and drag my tired body to the classes I did hold. At this point of the semester, I’m usually feeling completely overwhelmed with grading, but this semester, being sick has shifted my priorities. I’m more behind with paper-grading than ever: I was falling behind when I got sick, and getting sick made me fall even further behind. Normally, this would be a source of unending stress: I hate being behind. But this term, I’m recalibrating my own expectations, having learned (or been reminded) that I can do only so much work before my body says “Enough.”

Somes

By this point in a typical semester, I’d be a slave to my to-do list, marshalling out an impossible list of tasks for each day in a vain attempt to catch up, then growing increasingly discouraged as I inevitably fail to check off each day’s ambitious goals. Today, I updated my daily to-do lists so that each day includes the generic list item “Read papers.” The item doesn’t say how many papers I need to read each day: it just says I need to spend some time doing it. Even such a subtle shift in to-do list nomenclature feels incredibly freeing. Compared to, say, lying in bed coughing, sitting and quietly reading papers sounds almost relaxing, at least when you have the energy to do it.

Graffiti wall

I’m learning, in other words, that what I dislike about paper-grading isn’t the actual reading and commenting on papers: it’s my obsessive fixation on the bottom of the paper pile. When I focus on how many more papers I have to read, I grow tired and anxious, eager for the work to be done. But when I focus on the top of the current paper pile—the paper I’m currently reading, and possibly the one immediately after that—reading papers isn’t too onerous a chore. You just sit there and read papers until you’re tired, and then you do something else: a lesson only being sick can teach you.

This is my Day Ten contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

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