Sunday, July 05, 2015

Naropa Master's Project 2013: Concluding observations

Brown Pelicans CC*BY Larry Johnson
March 17, 2013

My purpose is to tell a story about how we come to know ourselves in sharing that which we are with others. I don't think I'm going to convince anyone of anything if they need objective measures to be convinced….

My journals are filled with insights, connections, memories, and meaning-making. And it all seems to have roots in experiences that I had in connection with my students. In connection. That's where everything happened. In the space between and around and inside us, the mandala, the energetic space (Personal journal entry, March 17, 2013).

I had a lot of ideas about what I would do with the opportunity a Master's Project presents. I thought to study my participants’ experience. I thought to improve my teaching. I did neither. I found that every little thing about teaching Birding with Buddha collapsed into one big thing: What I wanted to know couldn't be measured, and is even difficult to discuss. But I know it now, and before I did not. The experience of conceiving, creating, modifying, and teaching the course was a vignette, a little dip into the flow of life within which I was able to experience and express harmoniously qualities in myself that I often think of as conflicting. Things came together so nicely. What a surprise.
Their experience
March 4, 2013

I remember during our first summer after an extraordinary experience with our first ‘presence of being circle,’ I went on a ‘presence walk’ around Boulder. Simply, it was an effort to be completely present with everyone and everything that I encountered on a walk down Pearl Street. I was, and it was incredible.

About the same time, I read something that Merton had written. I think it was a preface to an article we had to read, or something like that. Del Prete refers to the same passage like this:  "... in our ordinary, everyday selves, as he says in one celebrated passage, we ‘are all walking around shining like the sun’ (Merton, 1965c, p. 157)” (Miller & Nakagawa, 2005, p. 168). The full quote so closely described what I had experienced, and his experience was so similar to mine that it acted as a powerful confirmation for me that simply being present with experience was enough to completely change everything. He had this "epiphany" as he called it, after 17 years of being a Trapist Monk. Now, if that does not give you some confidence that it's ok if it takes a long time to get it... 
Here is the full quote from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: 
"I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun" (Merton, 1968, p. 157).
(Personal journal entry, March 4, 2013). 
I never could quite decide how to describe my study objectives. I kept changing them. Surprise! I didn’t want to study what I thought I wanted to study. I never could quite decide what to measure. Surprise again! I didn’t want to measure what I thought I wanted to measure. The trouble was that I didn’t really want to measure anything.

It took me a while to see that the way I planned to measure would negate the very thing I hoped to experience: not two.

“Whereas a Western analytical mode — the modes of Aristotelian or scholastic philosophy, for instance — presumes a distance or capacity to stand apart from what is being considered, to intuit being means to apprehend with one's whole self in a direct, experiential, concrete way (Merton, 1968d, pp. 26-27)” (Miller & Nakagawa, 2005, p. 172). As I came to realize the very day the classes began, if I stood apart from my students and measured their experience I could not have the experience that for me had become the point of the study: not to stand apart.

“Merton is concerned with developing a personal openness to a qualitative perception of reality, not simply knowing about and explaining in conceptual terms what someone else has experienced” (Miller & Nakagawa, 2005, p. 172). Me too.

The experience in community with my study participants in communion with nature in the garden during those four classes showed me the power of the practice of contemplative observation, taught contemplatively. The participants’ journals do not show this; rather I can confidently conclude that the practice is powerful because I have learned how to be open to a direct, qualitative perception of reality. I experienced it. So I know it.

Some of the things I might have supported with evidence from the participants’ journals I came to realize were not important. I can’t imagine why I thought they were. They understood the instructions; they fully engaged in each class’s activities; they shared their personal experiences; they were enthusiastic; the experiences affected them. I can read and reread their words.
They had experiences. I see that.

I felt, however, that what mattered in the classes, what made them special, what made the difference for them, were the connections among us and with nature that the practices nurtured, enabling all of us to listen to and learn from our inner teachers.

On the last day, we talked about the course. The participants confirmed with words what our experience together had already conveyed: They liked it. One person said that during the third class she got it, that this was another way to meditate. Another offered that the book was awesome, and another added that the joy I experienced contemplating nature as well as in teaching really came across in the book. He said, with a grin, that it was infectious. Several mentioned that they noticed birds more now, and that walks took longer because they stopped to listen to and watch birds. One person mentioned that the most important thing for her was that the course was experiential with all four classes completely devoted to experience.

All of this exceeded my wildest expectations for the students’ experiences. The participants received, appreciated, and enjoyed what I wanted to share with them. Yes, they got it. This was what I had hoped the book by itself might do, but realized midway through my planning for the project that it couldn’t. Their experiences confirmed for me that when I could not only share what I had written about contemplative observation (where I do stand apart), but also share contemplative observation personally, in a way that embodied it  – remaining mindful moment-to-moment as contemplative teacher, letting them have their own experiences, unconcerned about results – these together created the ground for a meaningful experience for all of us. I was sharing more than the practice. I was sharing my whole self: what I knew, my understanding of the teaching, and my creativity in bringing together the environmental elements that supported our practice, my perspective and clarity, along with my full presence – not to stand apart once our classes began.

My experience
March 6, 2013
I felt that [the second] class went well. … I enjoyed the class a lot and feel that I am on the right track with my personal practice – contemplative teaching. This is from my journal:
 It's not so much about making Birding with Buddha better or conveying the practice really. It's about practicing what I've been learning, to embody presence, compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy, equanimity, generosity, patience, discipline, joyful effort, meditation and prajna -- the brahmaviharas and the paramitas. As Aurobindo says, you can't teach anything -- just be present. As Merton says, we are all walking around shining like the sun. As Buber says, the relationship is what teaches. As the Quakers say, show others the light of their own wisdom. Yes, we are all walking around shining like the sun. See that, enjoy that, celebrate that, in word, in expression, in emotion, in presence, in restraint from judgment.
 (Threaded discussion forum, Master’s Project 2, March 6, 2013).
And to think that, for quite a while after I began to intuit what it was about the way our Naropa instructors taught us that made it so different, I despaired of ever being able to embody certain of those qualities myself. I just didn’t think I could discipline my judgmental tendencies, which I knew was an essential element of the practice. In fact, I was completely mystified about how anyone could do this in a situation where your job was to teach. I could see that it could be done. I could do it on a walk through the neighborhood, though that was unintentional. My instructors did it all the time! But that I could do it while teaching? No. I didn’t really think I could.

And I didn’t even think I should.
March 19, 2013 
I have not been very honest with myself about this up to this point. I am crushing myself with the judgment that I have nothing really to offer anyone, that I know nothing worthwhile and that I shouldn't be teaching on these subjects. I feel it like a weight on my shoulders, a very heavy weight (Personal journal entry, March 19, 2013).
It takes a lot of courage to teach something that you don’t know a lot about. Ironically, the only way for me to learn this particular subject was to actually jump in and do it. It was teaching itself, contemplative teaching.  This study and the insights I experienced as the classes began made it possible for me to let go of my deeply ingrained ideas about what a teacher did, and my expectations and ideas about what the study was really about.

And so this one particular aspect of contemplative teaching became the point of the study for me personally. But it was possible for me to embrace the collapse of everything I thought I would do to this one single-minded focus on restraint from judgment at least in part because I had already worked more than three years to create and improve the written materials for Birding with Buddha. 

Translating those to the book form allowed me to share all of that outside the class time, so that I could turn the classes themselves fully to experience – for the students and for me. And I could relax with seeing ‘that we are all Buddhas, that we are all perfect ultimately’ (see Supra, p. 14). The mere act of connecting in this way – being fully present, seeing clearly where we were and where we were going, relating from my center of basic goodness to each student’s basic goodness, finding the spacious center in feelings that might come up in the course of our interactions, allowing the separation between observer and observed to dissolve – connecting in that way suspends the judging mind that I had up until this point believed teaching required: judging students’ progress and feeling that I should offer corrective advice, suggestions or comments.

I experienced that I could transform my critical, opinionated, and authoritarian aspects into clarity, sharp insights, and a calming sense of perspective (Rockwell, 2012, pp. 57–58). Whereas the former energies tend always to bolster the sense I have that I am separate from those I interact with, the latter quite harmoniously complement the qualities I was learning to embody in being with my students, qualities that blend us together and into the space around us: deep listening, speaking from the heart, trusting my intuition and connecting fully in the present moment. There were no tensions or conflicts among these energies, or any of the others that creating and carrying out the course engaged.

Much of what happened energetically took place during the conversations we had after each observation, but the discussion during the last class about the course in general led to a really special insight.
March 20, 2013 
I sensed something, I felt something, and I was paying attention to that. It touched me. I made sense of it and put words on it later...
 I saw a barrage of images of my early teachers, the ones whom I remember vividly, and it touched me deeply to recognize that they were all people who loved me, my great grandparents, my grandparents, my mother. I recognized again, remembered again, that teaching is associated with love for me as a student, and as I recognized my inner teacher, I associated teaching others with expressing love for them.
 I felt that love yesterday when I was talking with my students about teaching the BwB class. I was touched that they enjoyed it and thought I should offer it again.
 … teaching is love. The connection between teacher and student is love. (Personal journal entry, March 20, 2013).
The qualities I learned from my Naropa teachers are becoming part of me.

I observed earlier that Birding with Buddha was not just about birding (see Supra, p. 22). Well, contemplative teaching is not just about teaching either. I tend to “drop into teacher mode” an awful lot, so it seems that everything I have learned here applies all the time – to the day-to-day, to all the moments. I saw that clearly the magical night when Aurobindo took me dancing at the Broken Spoke. Contemplative practice is about every moment, not just teaching moments.

And what about contemplative observation? If contemplative teaching is not just about teaching, is contemplative observation not just about observation? Are these qualities simply a way to be, like maybe, I am?
  • I am present
  • I see through relative world imperfections to ultimate mind (my own and others')
  • I am aware of and rely on space and spaciousness to renew and refresh my connection to the present moment
  • I slow down
  • I integrate intellectual inquiry with experiences that deepen non-conceptual understanding, so I can develop wisdom, and heart knowing, prajna

Ah. Yes. That is it.

Next step

On the spot—or as a daily practice—we can reaffirm our intention to keep the door open to all sentient beings for the rest of our life. That’s the training of the spiritual warrior, the training of cultivating courage and empathy, the training of cultivating love (Chodron, 2012, Chapter 6, Beyond our comfort zone).

There is this: Commit to stay with the practice for the rest of my life.

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