The longer I teach the less I “do.” For me learning to teach has been a gradually process of letting go of my need to be the active agent in the room. Which is not to say that I’ve gotten lazy or even that I do less. Rather it’s been a process of increasing my ability to support students by observing their learning journey from an open space within myself.
The greatest obstacle to learning that I notice in my classroom and in myself is perfectionism. I’m struggling with it right now as I chastise myself for getting ‘out of the flow’ with writing and notice how my thoughts aren’t turning themselves into paragraphs with the ease they did back in June when I was sitting down to write regularly. The thought of walking away from the computer, doing something else, anything else, becomes very seductive. I don’t even need anyone in the room in order to create a competition in which I always perceive myself as the loser; comparing my current self to a remembered self is enough to activate my inner perfectionist. (Cue sepia tones and violin music.)
I was well aware of my perfectionistic tendencies but they have been taking a backseat for a while. However, last weekend I signed myself up for four days of Buddhist training, Shambhala levels III and IV, four days ‘on the cushion,’ getting to know myself anew, finding out what was really going on in the unexamined parts of my psyche, with a slight suspicion that my subconscious had sneakily resumed it’s role as backseat driver of my life while I was busy with other things.
As I sat in the beautiful shrine room where the calming white painted walls and wooden floors are decked with colorful banners, flowers and sacred pictures my gaze rested on the point where the skirting boards meet the floor. The brick walls feature a protruding column, perhaps the site of a former fireplace, now a bump in the flow of the wall where the skirting board has been re-directed at a ninety degree angle for a foot or so. My attention came to focus on the end of the skirting board as it faced me. Surely, it was sticking out an inch or so into the room? How untidy I thought. I delved off into a whole fantasy where, armed with a saw and some white paint I could ‘fix’ the messiness and restore the room to ‘perfect.’ The longing to do so became almost unbearable.
Suddenly I realized that this was familiar. This desire for ‘perfection,’ manifesting as a need to control the world was a symptom of an underlying anxiety, my profound fear of change. Intellectually I knew the truth of impermanence, I’d been reading Buddhist texts for long enough to assimilate that knowledge, but suddenly, on the cushion I found myself face to face with a desire to control, to perfect and basically to escape death by doing something, anything. I breathed out; I sat with the fear of that monumental truth and suddenly the skirting board faded back into the background. Sitting down again after lunch I realized that in fact it was not out of alignment after all.
Coming back to teaching at the end of the four days I could see perfectionism flourishing, largely unchecked in the school system where the illusion of the ‘right answer’ rules the day. The children I especially noticed falling victim to its clutches and shutting down from opportunities to learn were those who I know have faced massive challenges in their short lives, loss of a parent for example. I find myself wondering how I can help those children bring awareness and acceptance to the fact that we cannot control life and death – and realizing that perhaps it is they who are teaching me.