Teaching Freedom with Limits

The Vietnamese monk and master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “It is an illusion that we are free…”

Koan: A statement, a saying, an act or gesture that can bring to an understanding of the truth. Also, a tool used to educate a disciple.

In my early morning sleep, I had this dream. I had arrived ten minutes late to my lecture and found two students entwined on a chair. They were in love. One had a shaven head, torn denim jeans and scruff. Their posture didn’t alarm me, but I had to think quickly how to untangle them. I knew that if I mishandled the situation, they would not engage fully in the lesson. With a light but firm voice, I told one to get off, and I gestured to a nearby chair. I said, setting limits defines you, gives you character and identity. It does not mean you do not love or that you are not free; it simply reveals who you are and how you express your individuality. Let me show you, I said.

I walked to the front of the room and found a large, piece of white construction paper and a pair of scissors. By this point, the young man had moved to his own chair and was listening intently. I held the construction paper up for everyone to see. This paper is blank and free of any writing or drawing, I said. It is completely open to possibility. It is beautiful, yes, to look at a blank sheet of paper like this, like a canvas with infinite, creative potential? Now, let us see what happens.

With the scissors, I began to cut into the paper. Slowly and with great care and precision, I carved out a figure of a man, with long arms and legs and broad shoulders. When I was done, I held up the cutout for the whole room to see. He too is beautiful, isn’t he? A unique and curious character has been born, and he is looking for a name to call himself. You see what I have done here? Without the limits I have imposed upon this blank sheet, carving out form with precise snips, this bold, young man would not exist. He would remain invisible and unnoticed.

It is right to experience freedom without limits in meditation. That is why the practice is essential. In the real world, however, in the material world, we define ourselves, and make our mark. In other words, we learn we are ‘cut out’ to give meaning and definition to human existence. Invisibility is good, yes, and so is partaking with others. Setting limits and applying discipline help us share spaces and adapt to social situations. When we do it mindfully, with consciousness, we are not losing freedom, or authenticity. We are still very much beautiful and simple, like that open canvas. We are just sharing it with others. In this way, we can learn from them. In this way, we discover happiness.

In order to explore this concept of Freedom with Limits further, I encourage you to try this activity with a small, professional learning community.

Shared Freedom Activity
Purpose: To explore the notion of freedom with limits; to increase awareness of how we adapt ourselves in group situations
Overview: A group of three people simultaneously cut out an image of themselves onto one piece of paper
  1. You will need a large piece of construction paper, scissors for each person, a timer and a group of three people
    • Sit comfortably in a circle, close enough for each person to hold the paper
  2. Have someone volunteer to be the timekeeper, and go over the instructions
    • Each person will cut out a full-length image of themselves, working at the same time
    • Do not let the cut-outs fall out of the paper. In other words, there should be one whole paper design holding the figures in place at the end
  3. Before starting, take a few minutes to contemplate the intention of the activity: Shared Freedom. Set the timer for 3 min
    • An intention directs your attention and energy to an outcome. The outcome is typically a disposition, virtue or state of being
    • Sometimes, we connect an intention to a particular problem we want to solve, such as how to resolve a conflict with a student, boss or colleague. An intention of this nature would take the form of a statement such as “By contemplating shared freedom, I can learn how to work more effectively with my team.”
  4. Each person picks up the scissors at the same time and starts cutting. Set the timer for 10 min.
  5. After the timer goes off, reflect individually in writing, or discuss with the group the following questions:
    • How did it feel to engage in this activity?
    • What challenges did you encounter?
    • How did you negotiate with each other?
    • How did the end product turn out?
    • What did you learn about the nature of freedom with limits?

*A portion of this post, as well as the format, was adapted from my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities, Routledge, April, 2019.

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References

Deshimaru, T. (1996) Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru, Hohm Press, p. 317

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Four Layers of Consciousness, The Lions Roar, Dec. 26, 2018 https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-layers-of-consciousness/

Learning from Mistakes When Stakes Are High

kid-taking-a-test21When my son was three and we had just furnished our first house, he took a marker and drew pictures on our new Mexican console. I remember walking into the living room and feeling the rise of heat behind my ears. He was so small and innocent but all I could see were the black marks and the price tag of the furniture piece. I grabbed his hand, yelled a few words and demanded that he scrub the console with me. We scrubbed together for a half hour until it was clean. To this day I regret the severity of my reaction. I have often wondered what damage I might have inflicted on his young psyche and his ability to take risks and learn from mistakes. Seventeen years later with my son in college, I read a lot of articles written for teachers about learning from failure and building a culture of resilience amongst students. In my experience this is a tricky and nuanced topic especially when we consider the social and emotional dynamics of living in an inequitably society.

My parents and my husbands’ parents, for example, were a lot less tolerant of mistakes. For them it was a sign of their time but also a mindset correlated to adversity and fear of scarcity. No one can argue that it is significantly harder to embrace a mistake when we’ve only got one chance, or one item that cannot be replaced. Our parents grew up with one Sunday outfit. Stain it or soil it was a big mistake. The money that came in needed to stretch as far as possible to cover basic needs. If an item broke, or it was lost— that was it. We’d have to do without. There were swift consequences when we failed at an assigned task. Sometimes a slap or a punishment accompanied the pain of failure as a reminder to do better next time. We understood the high stakes of human shortcoming.

Things are better now. We try to be more compassionate, loving, easy-going with our children. But like the incident with the console, it is easy to fall into the trap of anger and fear. As a parent and educator, I feel like the stakes are high. What will we do if our children make a mistake we cannot fix? As members of a flailing middle class, we live with the fear of falling into poverty. Daily life is filled with anxiety and attention to detail. There are so many precarious factors such as rising housing costs, accessing good schools, job stability and healthcare— we find ourselves saying things like, be careful and don’t get hurt because we can’t afford medical bills. Don’t flunk that test because we can’t afford to borrow more for tuition. Don’t forget, don’t do this, be vigilant …. or else.

I think a lot about the literature on learning from failure and building resiliency in kids. I love the idea and the thinking is certainly in line with what we know about teaching and learning but it feels disconnected and out of touch with the reality teachers, students and families face every day. Such as high stakes standardized testing. Or school admission and application requirements. What is the real cost associated with academic failure in society? This weekend, I read about the recent outrage of parents from an Upper West Side public school when they were told about the city’s integration plan requiring that they reserve a quarter of its seats to “low-performing” students. Parents protested loudly. They believe such a plan will diminish their own children’s chances of getting accepted to the city’s most desired schools. Is their fear justifiable or are they bad, intolerant people? The issues involved are hard to unpack especially when we are beholden to a system that is driven by high-stakes testing, evaluations and inequitable funding. How is it possible for any of us to embrace failure or be tolerant of anything less than perfection and ‘high performing’ in an environment such as this?

My son just called to inform me that water spilled on his costly laptop damaging the motherboard. I would be lying if I told you my reaction was compassionate. After I hang up the phone I sit quiet and sullen. How is it possible that after all my education, mindfulness and meditation practice that I can still fall into the trap of madness?

I pick up the phone with resolve and I shower him with words of wisdom, encouragement and love. I tell him “it is just a computer.”

I am doing my best under the circumstances but I know I am part of the whole. We can do better with practice. We can plant the seeds for a new generation driven by love and tolerance for human frailty.

Ash Wednesday School Shooting

Repentance: A radical change in mindset and heart, a promise to do better, surrender, a confession filled with remorse

griefIn every school or education organization there must be people you can trust. In spite of bureaucracy, complacency, high-stakes political frenzy, we must guarantee a safe space, a place where anyone can find the rhythm and pulse of our collective humanity. Maybe it’s a kind eye, a warm embrace, a second chance or a genuine asking. Or maybe it’s a quiet individual who finds clever ways to make things fair, who listens to truth, who reminds us of the right-minded pathway.

When a tragic incident occurs such as the Ash Wednesday school shooting in Broward County, Florida I think about all the inside people who were perhaps too busy, preoccupied or turned the other way. How could a teenage child be so lost and unfound, so unseen? How could there be such a wide open, emptiness of space for such violence to occur when schools are so micromanaged, organized and contained? What are we looking at in our schools if so many children are lost, lonely and afraid, left to slip away in the fury of desperation, hate and insurmountable shame?

There is something to be said about the loss of humanity inside our schools and education organizations. There is something to be said about our stubborn blindness. This is yet another cry out for change, a desperate plea for us to reconcile with ourselves, our true purpose in education and our moral obligation to design schools that are responsive and sensitive to the inner lives of children and adults.

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There is this mirror between the world and me.

Standing upright I hold it one foot away.

It is this distance that reveals, or rather—

Conceals the sadness and the shame.

It is this distance that keeps me from feeling pain.