vulnerability

Mindfulness & Mathematics

Teaching as a Deep Learning Process By Richard Brady

mb38-Mindfulness1

During the June, 2004 Feet of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, a group of retreatants gathered to discuss ways of sharing mindfulness practice with young people. This prompted me to begin thinking freshly about my high school mathematics teaching.

My students learn new algebraic methods in a day and new topics in a month. At the same time, there is deeper learning in process that will continue for the rest of their lives. This learning is about things such as perseverance, taking risks, and communicating with others. Ultimately it is about understanding themselves and the world.

Returning home, I pondered how my Plum Village experience could help me grow as a teacher. An insight that grew out of a conversation with Sister Jina helped me answer this question. I stayed at Plum Village for two weeks after the retreat ended, after most of my friends had left and the full schedule gave way to lazy days. I began to feel lonely, so I made an appointment with Sister Jina to talk about this loneliness and my practice at Plum Village.

Environments

At Plum Village feelings such as loneliness are more accessible to me because my usual busyness doesn’t keep them at bay. Also, fellow retreatants exemplify how to be in touch with and share their emotions. The safety and trust I feel comes from the quality of mindful listening and responding that I receive in Dharma discussions and other interactions. I really feel heard there.

The Plum Village environment often provides the context for deep learning, learning that changes my understanding of myself or of some aspect of the world. This is a significant ingredient of the learning process. As an educator, I place a high value on the consequences of the thinking that goes on in my classes. Though thinking occurs at the level of mind consciousness, Thay tells us that the origins of most behavior are found in the store consciousness. So deep learning occurs as the result of changes in the store consciousness. Such change can come about when a great deal of thought is given to a particular issue, but direct absorption by the store consciousness is a much more economical process. In this kind of learning, environment is a key factor.

I ask myself, “How can I create an environment in my competitive, college preparatory math classes spacious and safe enough for all of us to be in touch with our feelings and deeper questions? What can I do to promote mindful speech and deep listening in my classroom? For example, how might it affect the classroom environment if we sat in a circle some of the time as we do in Plum Village for Dharma discussions?”

Relationships

During my appointment with Sister Jina, a special moment occurred when she remarked, “There’s one thing I don’t understand. You said that everyone you’re close to has left the Upper Hamlet. That’s not true.” I scratched my head and waited for her to continue. After a pause, Sr. Jina said, “You are still here.” I can’t describe how I felt at that moment, but I recognized that I had just received a teaching that would continue to work inside me. Like a Zen koan, it is something I can sit with, practice with, and let ripen until, over time, a transformation can occur. How does a teaching have the potential to set this deep learning process in motion?

Sister Jina continued. “As a young person I was blessed to always be close to myself. However, I wasn’t aware of this until a time came when I lost it. I eventually recovered this closeness, and I have treasured it ever since.” This sharing of Sister Jina’s connected us at the heart level, helping me to open and receive it more deeply. I wonder how in teaching I can become more aware of what students are touching in me and teach from that place?

When Thay gives a teaching, each person in attendance understands the teaching differently, depending on his or her experience of life and of mindfulness practice. Those same differences occur in my students. Since much of our class time is spent working cooperatively in small groups, I’ve borrowed an idea from Thay, who once gave us stickers that said, “I walk for you” to put in our shoes. I give my students stickers that say, “I learn for you” to put on their textbook covers. Each student was having a different experience of cooperative learning through the year, but each time they opened their books, they were invited to be aware of whatever their current understanding was.

mb38-Mindfulness2

At the end of a school year, a student told me that it had taken him the entire year to understand the meaning of that sticker. The unfolding of the unique learning experience of each of my students is fundamentally a mystery. How can I do a better job of honoring and supporting it?

Practices

After receiving a teaching, the process of learning continues. It’s up to the student to integrate it into his or her life, which may or may not happen. Last spring I advised an algebra student to slow down and do the math just to do the math, not to try to get it finished in order to go on to the next thing. Intellectually she understood what I was saying. She wanted to follow my advice, but her habit energy of rushing was very strong, so she kept doing her work in the same way. In retrospect I see that she needed a concrete way to focus her mind as she worked so that she could develop new habits, some kind of practice. Perhaps it would have helped her to move a pebble from one pile to another and breathe in and out three times before starting each new problem.

My new insight about practicing being close to myself brought to mind the practice of chanting to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. I began doing this chant when the monastics invited the retreatants to join them during the closing of the retreat. My experience was so powerful that tears came to my eyes. I began to understand that watering the seed of my compassion is a way for me to be close to myself.

The store consciousness provides the internal environment for deep learning. When a teaching connects with well-developed seeds in the store consciousness, as Sister Jina’s did for me, the learning process unfolds in an organic way. Much of my students’ internal environment is unknown not only to me but also to them. I wonder how I can support them knowing themselves better so they can learn to draw on their own wisdom.

Obstacles

At Plum Village I continued sitting and walking, and chanting to Avalokiteshvara. I was aware of being in touch with myself more deeply. I brought my chanting practice home and continued trying to do it. However, e-mail, phone calls, a curriculum writing project at school, chores, and relationships began to overwhelm me. After several days spent with my extended family, I completely lost touch with myself.

During the retreat Thay told us that transformation comes about as the result of conditions that nurture the positive seeds in our store consciousness. It also comes about as the result of obstacles. Obstacles can become the basis for learning if we become aware of the misperceptions that have produced them. Obstacles are another ingredient of deep learning. Brother Pháp Tuê pointed out to me that when we feel stuck, there is an implication that this feeling is recurrent and that each time it seems as if it is the same feeling. However, actually the situation is constantly changing. We can see this if we look deeply, but we tend to avoid looking deeply because there is pain in the situation we don’t wish to face.

Being vs Doing

Through meditation and the support of friends who listened to my turmoil, I began to see what was happening. During my time in Plum Village, especially the last two weeks of quiet and solitude, I’d begun to get in touch with a young, tender part of myself, a flower nourished by my being-nature. Once home, all the old stimuli set my doing-nature in motion. My inner flower wilted. Losing this new experience of my being-nature was painful.

Looking deeply, I saw that my problems did not stem from all that I have to do but from my planning/reviewing habit of mind, a prominent characteristic I also see in my mother. When this part of my mind quieted down in Plum Village, I got in touch with the flower of my vulnerability. At home my planning and reviewing heritage shields me from these things. This defense mechanism is a part of me just as my vulnerability is. Embracing them both with great compassion is now my path of practice. I continue invoking Avalokiteshvara to water my seed of compassion so that it will be strong enough to hold both my vulnerability and my defenses.

When my students encounter obstacles, their first impulse is usually towards one of two extremes: they try to overcome them or they give up. The approach of welcoming obstacles, sitting with them, and seeing what gifts of understanding they have to offer is foreign to my students, yet it is one that could serve them well in life. I ask myself how I can do a better job of modeling this way of relating to difficulties in the classroom. I realize I can begin by curbing my impulses to diagnose and suggest remedies for students’ problems, and learn how to just be with the students and their problems.

I feel good about the direction my questions are taking me and look forward to practicing in the classroom. I’m aware that so much of my students’ lives are spent in ways that do not promote awareness. At best I can help them water their seeds of mindfulness for a brief time and trust that this will make a difference.

mb38-Mindfulness3Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a Dharma teacher with the Washington Mindfulness Community. He is a founding member of MiEN, the Mindfulness in Education Network.

Readers interested in MiEN and its listserv can get information on the MiEN Website www.mindfuled.org.

PDF of this article

Fierce Compassion

By Cheri Maples mb52-Fierce1

Cheri Maples received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and became a Dharma teacher on January 9, 2008 at Plum Village. Here is part of the Dharma talk she gave to the Sangha that day.

Since I was very young, I have had a passion for justice, which led to my work as a police officer and my work in other parts of the criminal justice system. However, I began working for social justice, not from a peaceful place, but from the place of an angry rebel. Looking back, I realize that fighting for social justice in various forms was one of the fuels I used to keep the unconscious habit seeds of anger burning strongly. As a result, the unskillful behaviors I engaged in created some harm in my personal and work relationships.

mb52-Fierce2

I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1991. That retreat started the beginning of the mindfulness journey I have been on ever since. I have lots of habit energy and karma to transform, so this lifelong journey, while not a speedy one, has been and will continue to be a journey characterized by constancy and right aspiration.

For me, the path of mindfulness continues to be about waking up to the mystery that is right here in the present moment. Although there continue to be painful experiences and cycles in my life, I get increasingly frequent and reassuring glimpses of my vastness and my interconnection with everybody and everything in the universe.

As my practice has progressed, I have begun to understand that working for peace and justice is a journey of gentle honesty and a process of learning how to be present so that every interaction with another person is an opportunity for authenticity and understanding.

I was such an unlikely candidate for this path that I consider finding my way to it nothing short of a miracle. Today, I would like to share with you some of the most important things I have internalized about Thay’s teachings.

Suffering as Compost

First, I have learned that our personal suffering is the richest compost of our practice.

I experienced much pain in my relationship to my parents as a child, in my relationship to my children as a parent, and in my other intimate relationships. I have learned how to use this pain to understand more about what it is to be human.

I now understand that blame has often been a barrier I erected not to take responsibility for my own emotions. As I learn more about how to understand and frame my own suffering, I continue to see my own preciousness and that of others. I have learned that imperfection is not a thing to be avoided or blamed on others and that the very things that make me feel so very unlovable, all those defects I tried so hard to hide, are precisely what I have to offer others.

I have learned to remind myself that I need to stop relating to what I would like to fix in myself and replace the seeds of project mentality with loving kindness and unconditional friendship with myself and others. It’s helpful to remember that what I am doing is unlocking a softness that is in me and letting it spread in order to soften the sharp edges of self-criticism and complaint.

The Path of True Redemption

Second, I have learned that the truth is many-sided and can be approached from multiple perspectives, and that it is important to develop a deep sense of openness.

I see multiple doors to the Dharma around me every day and understand that different people enter through different doors. To me, any door that helps people lead a more ethical and compassionate life is a legitimate Dharma door. My challenge as a Dharma teacher is to find and invite people through the Dharma doors that they can relate to by translating Thay’s teachings into a language they can understand. Of course, a major focus of mine will be bringing Thay’s teachings to those who work in the criminal justice system because I understand not only their language and fears, but also the injustices committed when people abuse the trust and state authority bestowed upon them.

I hope I can help people to understand the difference between fear and faith, between doing the right thing and righteousness, between action and compulsion. I hope I can help them internalize Thay’s teaching that when we stop seeing ourselves solely as victims or oppressors, we can develop a sense of forgiveness for ourselves and others that leads to true redemption. And, in finding their way, I hope I can encourage people to think enough of themselves to claim the right to question what is offered, to investigate what they are being told, to trust their own experiences, and allow others to do the same.

In finding my own middle way between action and compulsion, I try to remind myself that although my spiritual practice requires me to take action, it should not be one more thing to judge myself about or be compulsive about. In every major step along my own path, first in receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, then in receiving the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and now being made a Dharma teacher, I have gone through what I call an “I’m not worthy crisis.” When I really get scared that I am not worthy, my partner will say to me, “Do you trust Thay?” I say, “Of course. I trust Thay with all my heart.” She says, ”Then, trust him not to make a mistake. Get out of the way and let the Buddha be the Dharma teacher.”

I do trust that the process of becoming a Dharma teacher will work in a similar manner as the process of receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. The trainings and the possibilities contained within the trainings work on me as I work on them. As my understanding and practice deepens, old habit seeds and energies are transformed as new seeds get watered by living up to the possibilities of the path.

So I have decided that the purpose of being a Dharma teacher is no different than the purpose of any student on the path. The purpose is not to do it right but to reside in the joy and possibilities provided by the opportunity to commit more deeply to the Dharma and reap the bountiful harvest that this possibility offers.

In finding my way between fear and faith, I have learned that faith is about discovering the existence of an ultimate dimension and learning to live with heart. Discovering fearlessness comes from working with the softness of the human heart and letting the world tickle your heart with the wonders of the present moment and your relationships with others. It comes from being willing to open up, touching your own vulnerability, and having the courage to share your heart with others. This is the path to the authentic relationships that are the litmus test of spirituality.

In discovering the difference between doing the right thing and righteousness, I have learned that dogma and righteousness are subtle forms of violence. In contrast, faith enables us to meet life with a sense of curiosity rather than a definition of reality.

One of Thay’s greatest gifts to me was the teaching that if we truly understand our interconnection with others, we can all find a victim and an oppressor within ourselves. I can look back and find painful examples of my own mistakes and unintentional abuses of power. Likewise, I can find painful examples of my own victimization. When we learn to acknowledge and make friends with these parts of ourselves, it enables us not to become one or the other.

mb52-Fierce3

As long as we see ourselves solely as victims, our anger will fuel a dangerous sense of entitlement that can be just as destructive as the oppressor’s abuse of power. When I see all the ways that I have been a perpetrator and a victim, I can relax. I can hold more paradoxes, more dichotomies. I can also let go of my guilt about the past and understand that redemption lies in the correction of the course of my mistakes. I can continually begin anew by taking the opportunity the present moment puts in front of me to make a different choice.

mb52-Fierce4

An Unwavering Commitment to Non-Violence

Third, I have deeply internalized Thay’s teaching that it is impossible to end violence with violence.

I believe this is the biggest challenge and the most important lesson for all those working in the criminal justice system. Working to provide public safety means working for peace and justice, and requires an unwavering personal commitment to non-violence in our own lives and in our environments and systems. This requires a personal aspiration not to contribute to violence or aggression in any form. If the personal is indeed political, the most radical political act of all is to learn how to live in more harmony with everyone and everything.

When we understand our interdependence deeply, we understand that when we care for ourselves, we care for others; and when we care for others, we care for ourselves. This understanding enables us to effectively work for peace in ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Unfortunately, I work in a criminal justice system based on the premise that punishment of the perpetrator will heal the victim and rehabilitate the perpetrator. Of course, people insistent on punishing each other usually become allied in making each other suffer more.

I have observed that it is not the wrongdoer’s repentance that creates forgiveness, but the victim’s forgiveness that creates repentance. This is where forgiveness enters the realm of spirit and paradox. Because it becomes a mysterious gift offered to one who does not necessarily merit it, it becomes the essence of compassion itself.

In conclusion, my own path has taught me how important it is to be present to my own life, to trust myself and help others to do the same, to allow my heart to be torn open in love rather than protected in fear. I have learned to keep asking myself if what I am doing is making me kinder, more understanding, and more loving.

Cheri Maples, True Jewel, worked in the criminal justice profession for twenty-five years; she is also a licensed attorney and clinical social worker, and co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Justice. Cheri practices with SnowFlower Sangha in Madison, Wisconsin.

PDF of this article