“We cannot simply think of our survival; each new generation is responsible to ensure the survival of the seventh generation. The prophecy given to us, tells us that what we do today will affect the seventh generation and because of this we must bear in mind our responsibility to them today and always.”-indigenous proverb
Last weeks bombing in Boston touched me deeply. I spent the following day crying many tears for those who suffer in such atrocious experiences, as well as those who suffer so deeply they would act with such disregard toward life. The week was spent with many hours of contemplation on the subject and the conclusion I have made is that like so many things, this is a symptom of something bigger, a symptom of a need for something more than the lives young people face today.
My friend Ned teaches at the Vista Grande High School here in Taos. Ned is not only a teacher, he is an excellent writer, he writes poetry and prose, and has been recently posting blogs that relate his experience as a teacher at V.G.H.S. (Check it out at teachpoet.com) They too, have touched me deeply this week. He writes about the problems facing students and teachers today in the United States in the atmosphere of standardized testing, a failing job market, an ecosystem in dismay, ever present violence, the false glamor of gang culture and the cult of celebrity, in a world of ever increasing access to information. He speaks of students who, from various backgrounds are apathetic and obstinate, to say the least. He questions their sense of purpose, and a system that is leaving something wanting.
It spurs me to rethink my own experience, which is not too different from the ones he describes in his posts. I too was labeled a statistic, from a broken home. I was more interested in getting high than doing the homework, and I couldn’t see the correlation of what I was being taught, to how it would relate to me in the world out there. I went into high school as an honor student, I graduated with a C average, somewhere along the way it wasn’t cool to care about school anymore.
While in high school, I had no interest in reading. I would rarely read the books assigned to me, and I became adept in garnering information from my more disciplined class mates. Every once in a while, one of my parents would have a reason to look over my homework routine, resulting from poor grades, punishments, or teachers concerns. Under the watchful eye, I would drudge my way through my reading assignments, as well as my other homework, that I had no interest in. Truthfully, as I think of it now, I rarely ever did homework, and it is a wonder that I even passed my final two years of math classes, much less school. Senior year math class is my biggest quandary. I never took the tests on time, and always claimed I did not know the answers because I was intimidated by math and therefore had “test block”. It is amazing this worked.
April, senior year of high school, I was living up to the label I had been given, ditching school for 4:20, annual pot smoking day, and the Columbine massacre occurred. That night, I couldn’t help thinking that, the smart kids at that school, had been ditching that day like me. That incident opened a conversation about guns and mental health and the safety of our children and the efficacy of our schools to foster an environment of learning and co creating that is positive for all who attend, this conversation continues, we don’t have answers yet. For me the incident also echoed something I already knew, public high school in America was no where near an environment that fostered anything other than confusion, misunderstanding, crushed spirit, and hate.
What was I going to do with my life after high school? I like many others my age, had grandiose ideas of the reality awaiting me. I was going to be an actress. I wanted to go to an acting school, and get famous. I was accepted to an acting school in New York. I went to New Mexico State University instead…Someone convinced me it would be better to get a degree, that the real world required me to have a real job…I stayed for one semester, the experience left something wanting. Everyone around me was on drugs. Everyone around me was playing mental games with each other. No one was honest, no one was vulnerable. My acting professor was sleeping with another student, and telling me it was a really big sea, and I was a little fish…Was this as good as it was going to get? I missed home.
Despite the ugliness of the violence and drug culture I grew up in, the poverty and the ignorance, there was at least honesty about it, vulnerability in it. I longed for connection on a level deeper than surface. My best friends mother insisted that I start substitute teaching at her preschool. What a gift that was. I returned to the hopefulness of youth. I returned to the openness and the vulnerability. I saw so clearly how capable we all are, and I wished there was more I could do for these children as they grew older in a world that would tell them to become hard and afraid and careless. It was important to me to never be the cause of a lifelong hurt for any of them, and from the effort I gave in the preschool, I saw reward in all of my relationships.
It wasn’t until after graduating from high school that I began to learn about the world, and my role in it. All the standardized testing, did not educate me in mindful awareness, social sensitivity and caring, or values to build a life of meaning on. My public education was just a way to keep me and all the other children, off the streets, and in the mind factory of brainwashed automatons. Intertwined in my story of factory brainwashing, were teachers who impacted me, I still hear their voices today. One of them called me an asshole for wasting my talents, she was right. I’ll never forget how she, in her caring, surprised me. First that she cared, second that she flung profanities at me, and third, she was right. I never wanted to be the asshole who wasted her talents again. By this time it was the end of my senior year, I couldn’t go back, I could only go forward. I bet Ned is like that teacher, a breath of fresh air in a world of people who want you to just sit there, be quiet, don’t question, and do the homework, it’s on the test.
As I reflect on my apathy, my laziness, and my cop-outs, I am grateful I found a way to turn my perspective on learning around. How did I do it? Sometimes I still ponder the answer to that question. One of the answers is my love of reading. Through reading, I found my way into the delight of wordplay, via the wisdom of my mother. After some incident where I probably claimed boredom (she did not have T.V.), she handed me a copy of Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins. I had read before, even finished To Kill a Mockingbird as well as Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, however I had never really enjoyed reading. Jitterbug Perfume was just, so good. Perhaps it was the elements of sex and mischievousness, so nicely timed with my adolescent experiences. Or it could have been the long and epic story, or the tales of scent and it’s profound power. Whatever it was, after reading that book, I was hooked on books. These days, I wouldn’t call myself a voracious reader, however I do read regularly, and I do not limit my reading to one style or era, or just to books. I love classics, and science fiction, I love spiritual books and memoirs, I read poetry and plays, I read magazines and blogs, I read the boxes on the table, if I am curious about something I will look it up on the internet and read as much as I can stand. Somehow that adventure into the world of Pan and Tom Robbins’ imagination unearthed a true and beautiful understanding, words can open worlds.
In my early twenties I heard that the modern American, with a high school diploma or equivalent, had a vocabulary of five thousand words. This statistic was followed by another. The average street person in the sixteenth century, beggar, vendor, defiantly not educated, had a vocabulary in the range of twenty five thousand words. I was astonished. It then became known to me that our national media conglomerates feed to us, the public, their materials, at an eighth grade reading level. I became insulted, and then my shame turned into defiance. It became my personal task, to learn as many words as possible, for the rest of my life. If I didn’t know a word, I would look it up. As I write this, I recall that the only classes I enjoyed by the end of high school were Drama, French, Art, and surprisingly Etymology. Words became the key to my undying love of learning.
The thing about words is this. Humans have the capacity to express the way they feel about the animate world they are relating with, for centuries we have been refining this ability. Humans have yet to master this skill, bombings, wars, shootings, and walls being built between countries, continue to reveal our inefficiencies in communicating with one another. Why would we demean the work of our ancestors and all of humanity because its easier to say it sucked, than to say I did not enjoy the experience for this, that, and the other reason, it made me feel…? I feel that speaking in slang, as my generation and younger generations do, demeans the power with which we can express ourselves, demeans our intelligence, and demeans humanity as a whole. Hip Hop language, new words, simple words, stupid words like “sucked” to describe our feelings, inhibits our ability to communicate clearly, effectively, and with love.
The conversation that Ned opened in his blog, is intrinsically connected to the conversation about terror and school shootings and spirituality and our personal and collective stories, as well as the history of our past and the blessings of our futures.
The education system and standardized testing, the insufficient resources and exhausted complacent staff. Apathetic students from marginalized backgrounds as well as good students who have no sense of security awaiting them in the real world to come. Drop out rates and gun violence in schools at an increasing rate, across all social and economic backgrounds. These are all symptoms of a larger dysfunction at the center of our collective social agreement. Something is left wanting in the process of educating our youths. Something is left wanting in the fulfillment of the adults carrying the weight of society and commerce. Something is left wanting in regard to our needs being met socially as well as our needs being met economically. Something is left wanting in the media we are fed, that is trite and base and without value, yet fed to us in excessive quantity. Something is left wanting as we become so easily connected through the internet, and yet distanced through it’s online socializing. Something is left wanting as the list goes on….What is it we are yearning for? We as a collective, lack a sense of purpose. The only collective purpose that seems to be gathering momentum, is action for the sake of doing it, no matter the action or its consequences. We want to participate, we want to connect, we want to feel like our actions have importance, like each of us, singularly, matters. Yet, the confines of the society almost every American grows up in (or immigrates to) says, conform, conform, conform.
April marks Spring Challenge time at Shree Yoga Taos, twenty classes in thirty days. This is a hard commitment to fulfill, and I am diligently working my way to the goal. Yoga has been the most spectacular tool in my personal growth, and has also, in its beautiful way, supported my desire to never stop learning. Class yesterday, as often can be the case, was themed very appropriately. Liz began the class with a very nicely posed question. “Do any of you ever experience doubt?” I had to laugh as I felt she offered us such kindness and respect, when the question assumed that we were doubtless, and confident. Liz then shared a teaching of Carlos Pomeda on the positive qualities of doubt.
“The best student is the one with doubt. There are three types of students, those with ignorance, those with knowledge, and those with doubt. The students who are with only ignorance or only knowledge will get nothing from the texts and study of yoga, for they are already full. It is with doubt that the conflict between knowledge and ignorance can take place, and in this conflict, or friction, learning takes place. One does not need to be afraid of uncertainty, for from uncertainty is the exploration of what is true.”
To ask the question, is this as good as it gets? To ask, am I nothing more than a statistic? To ask, can I live a life of value and meaning? These questions reflect doubt. Doubt is defined as uncertainty, to consider questionable or unlikely, to hesitate to believe. Doubt begins the process of self awareness. Doubt is the opposite of what children are taught in the machine of our social grooming. Doubt can lead to curious exploration.
Ned teaches exploration based curriculum, I commend him. He expressed in his writings, his discontent that in this explorational curriculum he may be getting his students engaged and excited about learning, however on some level it does not truly prepare them for the world ahead. A world of unhappy, unsatisfied adults, held in the social arms of dishonesty, greed, low moral standards, and mediocrity. Will there be true satisfaction in the lives they go on to make, those of them who can break the legacy of the histories of their mothers and fathers?
As long as we as a society and individuals continue to participate in the “do what your told paradigm”, with out real knowledge of values and morals that are not warped and embedded in dogma and religion, we will continue to perpetuate our forward moving momentum that aims to meet the needs of the past. Until we as a race of humans, can collectively agree to act in the spirit of good will toward all human kind, toward all things mindful of the needs of our future, we will continue this circumincessent missing of the needs, of those who will be the future. This is a large order to fill, is it possible? The ideas and questions most definitely pose doubt…If anything, it is a hard task to undertake, for it requires each and every living person to mind their manners, listen to their hearts, be more loving and courageous and open and vulnerable, to be in community without discriminating, to communicate and compromise, to think for themselves and know their own authentic truths, to hold good boundaries, and love with wisdom.
In school, I told myself math was hard. Math is still hard, however now I have the conviction and the willingness to try when it is necessary. I’m not signing up for any math classes yet, but who knows, someday I might. One thing I do know, the rebellious kids, the ones who want to do it their way, the ones who doubt, have something to be encouraged and not feared. If they get the right attention, the potential they have to see something differently, to creatively approach an old problem, to recreate the world they live in, is unlimited. This rebelliousness, the act of thinking for yourself, is truly what each of us can foster, in the youth, in one another, and in ourselves. As we pursue our own voices, our own beliefs, the answers to our questions of doubt, we can find our way deeply into the well of our authentic nature, our Atman (true self), and into the heart of Brahman (the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world; conscious eternal energy), where nothing is left wanting.
Like Ned, I too am a teacher, and I too hope that what I teach has value for the lives of my students outside the environment of the classroom. I often hope that the opportunities for growth do not get missed in the guise of the yoga, the inherent ideas of dogma, the suspicious nature of humans, and the conflict of religious/non-religious thought, can all be an impediment to the most fundamental of the teachings….We can each of us be liberated from the confines of the limitations we place on the unconditional nature of our hearts capacity to love and be loved…the confines are the barriers of fear, shame, guilt, anger, resentment, insecurity, doubt, and excessive ego that our magnificent brains label our life experience to be…without curiosity, without a desire to know and be free, we will continue to be confined to these limitations…as the questions lead to answers, we live with more purpose, our thoughts and actions have more value, our hearts are opened to the bounty of beauty in all things, and even in the face of loss, nothing will be left wanting, for all will be full.
As for those who live on the edge of society, whose ideas of good and bad are loose, whose mental abilities are ill, whose lives are desperate, every ounce of love we share without suspicion, can truly save lives.
“The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” -Steve Biko
Love Always, in all ways, for giving,