Sunday, April 10, 2011
Hey there, NIP,
I’ve had a lot on my mind lately. It’s probably due to not writing last month and letting the ideas pile up like firewood outside a winter cabin, so I’ll try and get more letters written when opportune moments allow me to do so. This letter in particular has been on the back burner for some months, actually. In my previous letter I mentioned the C.F.A.s (Cultural Friday Activities) that I do with my students, and today’s letter thematically deals with an idea expressed in a William Stafford poem called “The Way It Is” that I read to my students a couple of months ago. If you’re not familiar with Stafford, he was a contemporary U.S. poet from Kansas who had a keen ability to vivify life’s most mundane moments and details with a beauty all their own. In a word, he could transcend the ordinary and bear witness to the sacred that undergirds all life. For those of you who haven’t read or know the poem, here it is:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you can do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
So what’s the thread, then? Only you can answer that, NIP. One of the powers of poetry is that it’s open to interpretation. When I read it to my students, however, I gave them my idea (well, it’s hardly mine; I think this is the common interpretation that many would give it): the thread is what defines us. We don’t always know where it’s going, but we can feel its tug on our lives. It is the meaning that we have given life and what we relentlessly pursue in the hopes of transforming our lives in some positive or beneficial way. This thread may take us down paths that others may find strange or incongruous to our cultural context (lines 3-5), but it is ultimately about shaping our reality with significance.
There’s something else here, too. If we were to take a step back and reflect on the fact that everyone is (hopefully) doing this in his or her own way, then surely there must be paths of intersection. We are all following our own threads, leading our own lives. But this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Each day the people with whom we interact are following their own threads, but our lives are somehow changed and altered through this transaction. Our threads comingle and become interwoven. In essence, the lives we touch become part of a broader work, a tapestry in which we are all an integral part.
This idea, though, is not without consequence. It has made me realize that self-reliance is largely a myth, one that our society still espouses as being of utmost importance. To an extent I still agree. I think it is important to be self-reliant mentally. We are ultimately the product of our thoughts, words, and actions; hopefully we cultivate and use this mental self-reliance in order to make the best choices in our lives while building the most beneficial worldview. So it is important to be self-reliant in some sense, but perhaps more important is to see the larger picture of interdependence that is woven within our global tapestry of individual threads. Just about anything you engage with, NIP, whether it is purchasing a coffee, reading a book, cooking a meal, even seeing this letter on your computer screen is contingent upon innumerable other people. In the first example alone, someone grew and harvested the coffee, another person drove it on a truck, another packed it in a warehouse, another flew export flights to destination, and I’m sure tens and perhaps even hundreds of more such moves involving other people in order to make your coffee experience possible. Taken in this light, it is easy to see how truly interdependent we are as a human family.
By recognizing that we need each other to do just about anything, I think we remain grounded. We become aware of the needs of others in a way that perhaps we weren’t in tune with before. This realization, coupled with a precept such as the golden rule, begs us to consider each other’s “threads.” How can we help others achieve their dreams? It is safe to assume that we are all trying to better ourselves in some way or another, so why not help each other along the way? Surely we are better served acting in unison rather than individually. The more I think about the fundamental changes I’ve experienced in the last few years, the more I have to admit they are all part of a holistic process with no discernible seam. While I may have been the initiator in regard to instituting change, the metamorphosis would have been impossible without the help of countless others. Whether it’s my wife, my family, my friends, my coworkers, my students, they have all contributed in their own ways—whether consciously or not—to my transformation. It is only now, after a couple of years, that I am even beginning to realize this. The sooner we realize this in our own lives, the sooner we see the threads all around us.
Take some time to really ponder what it is that moves you at your core, NIP. While it probably isn’t one emotion or idea specifically, deep down inside each of us there is an intuition. Something that is beyond definition or expression. It just is. And that is what drives you, what drives us all. If we are true to ourselves, we listen to this intuition and let it guide us. It will take us where we need to go. Trust in it and follow your thread. Perhaps even more importantly, know that your thread is constantly intersecting with the threads of others. We are all in this life together. The more we acknowledge this fact, the easier it is to see the beautiful tapestry we are all weaving as one.
Keep following your thread, NIP.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
How have you been, NIP?
I apologize for having spent the last month in silence, so to speak. Something struck a profound chord in me at the end of February during one of the YTT weekends. It was a quote by Swami Kripalu, one of the well-known teachers who introduced yoga to the West. It reads, “Before you speak, consider whether your words will be an improvement upon silence.” Anyone who knows me personally could see why that would stop me in my tracks. I have the propensity from time to time to be an incessant windbag, believe me. So the last six weeks or so have been an exploration of this idea; I wanted to be more mindful of when I talk, what I say, and how I say it. It’s not easy as it requires something I have yet to cultivate—being mindful of my own thoughts all the time. But I’m working on it. Here’s what I’ve learned so far…
To many of us, silence has the potential to be terrifying. We don’t like it and our response (whether cultured or instinctual, I cannot say) to it is to banish it with noise of our own making. Whether we talk or turn on a television or any other noise producing stimulus doesn’t matter—we’re trying to mask the silence. This is a particularly interesting phenomenon to observe in my students. Every day there is a brief “bell work” assignment on the board, a review question for them to complete in their notebooks. Perhaps 10% of them sit quietly and do this; the others do too, but while chatting with their neighbors. About a week or so after the weekend I heard the quote, I wrote it up on my whiteboard for the “Quote-of-the-Week” and then proceeded to watch their reactions; not much changed. That Friday, however, I pointed the quote out to them and our “Cultural Friday Activity”—a moment when we step outside the purview of geography and broaden our understanding with a poem, song, article, whatever—was to sit in sustained silence for five minutes. Most of them felt awkward at first, but as they settled into their breathing and got comfortable in their seats a hush settled over us like a blanket of snow. I get goosebumps recalling it now, as I think that was one of the best shared moments I’ve had with all of my students this year. Before we observed the silence, I asked them to relax, stop thinking (as much as they could), and really focus on the silence. I wanted them to just stop all the craziness in their minds and take stock of what was in the here and now of that moment. What’s always right here in every moment should we choose to see and hear it—potential.
When I told them the time was up, many of them were hesitant to talk. By the time five minutes had passed, they had transitioned from feeling awkward to a sense of ease. I think what is so unnerving about silence initially is that it isn’t silence at all. Most of the time there are plenty of other auditory stimuli filling the void. But the act of listening intently, almost as if trying to penetrate the real silence that is beneath those noises brings us a grounding experience. Focusing solely on the silence allows us to get out of our heads by quieting our minds. And considering our minds are precisely the source of our pains—and joys—it is best to give them a break once a while by engrossing them in stillness. The stillness that follows the silence (or is perhaps part of it) allows us in many ways to simply be. To appreciate life for what it is. To revel in the breeze that brings the scent of blooming milkweed and the sounds of songbirds. That entire day with my students, in fact, I kept my vigil trained on the tree outside, twisting in the wind. The sunshine tickled the twigs and danced on the verdant, budding leaves while I kept listening for the wind. I couldn’t detect the slightest whisper in the silence, but in that space and time I felt as if everything in life was pure. It was then that I intuitively knew that only our thoughts have the power to sully this purity.
This is perhaps why my students didn’t want to talk. They felt it too. To destroy the silence we had created would be to make the world profane again. Each of them perhaps had found the solace they sought. There is something sagacious about silence. It teaches us every time we tune into it. It begins with our submission to our surroundings, listening intently to discover the “satya” or personal truth that lay beneath the rubble of our everyday mental chatter. The very act of listening in some way seems to consecrate the world, to imbue it with a precarious inviolability as paradoxical as that may sound. What is made manifest in so doing is miraculous. It’s an ineffable, ephemeral connection with being. Though it may be tenuous, there’s something sustaining and substantial about it. When my students and I finally broke the bond with silence we felt changed. A little more at ease with ourselves, with each other. There was a calm that stayed with us for a few minutes after and when chatter resumed it was lower in volume and lighter in tone. For lack of a better explanation, the silence seemed to be healing. It was a salve to the day’s stresses and wounds, most of which had been mentally afflicted by others or ourselves. Getting in touch with the ground of being, the essence of life and its very pulse and breath, we were able to let go a lot of our anxiety and inhibition. By doing so we allowed ourselves to grow just a little bit, to learn from the wisdom within the sacredness of silence.
If you get the chance, NIP, make some time for exploring the silence in your life. Even if it is only for five minutes each day, try to really listen to what’s going on in your world. Our culture offers an endless sea of anesthetizing distractions that tug our focus in every which way but within. The answers you seek and the healing we all need begins by communing each day with silence. Today my meditation consisted of sitting just outside the backdoor of my porch in the shade, closing my eyes, and listening to the world around me. It was comforting to be still, take a moment, and enjoy the fact that I am alive. That I am breathing. That I have a wonderful wife. An excellent family. Meaningful relationships with friends. A great group of students. And a whole other lot of blessings that came and went in my mind as I tried my best to discern the satya of the sacred silence beneath the sounds of the outside world. Silence, like darkness, is sometimes feared unnecessarily. It is only the complement to sound, the other half of the dynamic—and unfortunately the one we tune into way too much. Take some time to get to know silence, NIP; I’m sure you’ll come to find it quite comforting.
Shhhh. The cicadas are calling…
Keep listening, NIP.