Monday, August 20, 2018

A Misuse Of Imagination

When I first started teaching, I spent a lot of time worrying, not about anything in particular, or rather, about everything in particular. It's in the nature of inexperience to be nervous, so when I look back on the things over which I fretted I can be gentle with myself, but I can also see that my concerns reduced me as a teacher. For instance, I was infected with the common disease of catastrophic thinking, which lead me to spend far too much time and energy fixing phony hazards. But it wasn't just that, my brain was constantly abuzz with nonsense, like my young man's concerns about dancing about and singing silly songs in front of a room full of young women who were certain to think me a fool, or over what color shirt to wear for the first day of school, or if I'd prepared the right balance of large and fine motor activities. You name it, I stewed over it.

My brain can still get overwhelmed with stupid crap, of course, but not so much once the kids have arrived at school. Indeed, I'm now a seasoned teacher, having done this for years, having spent time with all sorts of kids and their parents in all sorts of situations. I know I can handle it. I may fret in the moments before the school doors open, but my mind is generally quite calm once there are children on the premises. There are still ups and downs, challenges, and even emergencies, but I've found that I'm at my best when I'm simply in the moment, reacting, rather than worrying.

A while back, I mentioned that I'd taken inspiration from conversations between Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. 

Several times in the videos the Dalai Lama mentions the spiritual importance of maintaining a calm mind, a basic tenet of Buddhism. I know this is true from the long view of my experience as a teacher, but I'm only now striving to apply it to the rest of life, even when it's natural to be uncertain. As Mark Twain wrote, "Those of you inclined to worry have the largest selection in history." I reckon one could trace that sentiment back through Shakespeare, Plato, and Abraham. There is always something to worry about and it's in the nature of worry to consume every spare part of our consciousness. It's well and good to admonish a modern human to "have a calm mind," but quite another thing to do it.

For the past decade or so, I've taken part in the Feast of the Winter Solstice, an event hosted by our very own Fremont Arts Council. We are responsible for the infamous Summer Solstice Parade and a variety of other "pagan holiday" events throughout the year, but this is the one I've always enjoyed the most. Maybe it's the great metaphorical event I’ve written about: we have survived the longest night and now celebrate the return of the sun. Maybe it's the familiarity of old friends. Maybe it's the art. Maybe its the food and drink. Whatever the case, I always find myself as fully aware as I've ever been. Conversation is easy, dancing just happens, every greeting is an embrace. Our worries are all behind us.

"Worry is a misuse of imagination," as my friend Lars said to me at the feast (a quote that comes originally from the author Dan Zadra), and it's true. It's the fabrication of dystopias, horrible fantasy worlds that come to replace the real world, which is now, which is, as every great philosopher agrees, the only certainty. When the first child crosses my threshold she brings with her the reality of this moment and I owe it to her, to you, and to myself, to be fully aware and awake. It's a space in which worry doesn't exist. And that, for me, is what it means to have a calm mind.

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