Living in Layers – Part 9 – Courage, Compassion, and Intellect

Increasing the permeability of our layered existence is not an easy, comfortable, or painless experience. As Maxine Greene, a spirited and gritty scholar of education, has discussed in working with the promotion of greater understandings among students in multiracial and multiethnic classrooms, the experiences and processes have to be messy. It takes courage to open up to others and to confront one’s own and others’ ideas. Our current debates between evolution and creationism, between pro- and anti-abortion groups, between war or peace in the Middle East and elsewhere, on immigration and immigrants, and in numerous other issues are all based on an unwillingness to understand the other and to allow other perspectives to exist. We continually try to legislate belief as a way of solidifying our worlds. However, to truly understand others, we need to have the courage to open up and see our connectedness to others. Such opening up to others is the basis of compassion – a willingness to share our human condition. This process does not involve the notion of pity, which is a hierarchical process of looking down upon others. Pity also implies a disconnect and unwillingness to relate directly to others. We can remain in the safety of our layered fortress, peering over the walls from above at the situations of others. On the other hand, compassion is opening our hearts and connecting with the pain and pleasures of others. In Buddhism, the basic sitting meditation posture is symbolic of how we can approach our worlds. Whether sitting in a chair or on a cushion, the hands rest on the legs leaving the chest and abdomen open, representing openness to whatever we confront. The back is straight, representing both dignity and courage to be open. The eyes remain open so that we do not resort to falling back into the safety of our self-constructed worlds, remain open and connected to the world around us. In our everyday activities, when we confront awkward or uncomfortable situations, we tend to withdraw, tense up, and lose our connections to the earth, self, and other. In high school, a friend on mine would double his walking speed every time we approached an attractive girl. The adolescent hormonal combination of attraction and fear (as awkwardness) resulted in an increase in speed. While he was speeding up, I was quietly retreating into self-consciousness. Walking through desolate areas of the city, we tighten up and go on high alert when we hear someone walking behind us or see someone approaching. When I walk down the street with my 90-pound Doberman Pinscher, people cross the street to avoid us. Little do they know that this Dobie is a sweetheart who loves people. Or, maybe they are avoiding me….

The notion of “spin,” as discussed in Blog 6 of this series, relates to self-generating and self-maintaining systems, Where “spin” or cycles provide the mechanisms for survival. In the human body or any other organism, the cycles of respiration, circulation, repair, and so forth operate interactively to maintain the physical well-being of the whole. However, the cycles of psychological (where we spin our own version of reality), social, and political spin address illusory ideals of well-being. The Buddhist practice of meditation focuses on awareness of the breathing cycle, because it provides a basic ground in our physical nature and has no association with any notions of identity. At the same time, the practice involves some method for gently noticing and labeling thoughts as they arise, then returning to awareness of breathing. Over time, the labeling process begins to break the spin cycle and to relate more directly to ourselves and to our worlds. In such a practice, one is confronted by oneself in all of its beauty and ugliness. Just sitting and being aware of one’s breathing seems rather silly, but the onslaught of thoughts, like watching endless one-star movies, can become overwhelming to the point of physical pain and discomfort. However, the point is to make friends with oneself and to develop a sense of humor. As Pema Chödrön (an American Buddhist nun) says, the most difficult person to feel compassionate towards is usually oneself. All of our automated psychological strategies are used to avoid contact with our basic qualities or to criticize and push away or indulge in superficial notions of our identities.

Courage and compassion are unifying binaries. In order to be compassionate, we must have courage. Having courage does not mean we do not experience fear, awkwardness, or discomfort, but that we are willing to experience and not be swayed by these feelings. A friend of mine was walking down a city street toward a meditation center, when she was grabbed by a man, who started dragging her across the street. She immediately started doing a Buddhist practice that works on being courageously compassionate through a process of taking on the emotional states of others and giving back feelings of joy and comfort. Whatever came from her mouth at this point, resulted in the man dropping her and running off. Doing this practice (called tonglen or giving and taking) is no guarantee of avoiding dire consequences, but it can change the way we relate to others.

We also need to develop the intellect, As with compassion, developing the intellect requires courage. Learning and sharpening our intellectual abilities requires opening to further possibilities, to critically examining the assumptions and biases that underlie our thinking and actions. Mustering up our courage to be compassionate and to sharpen our intellectual abilities is necessary in order to create equitable and effective holarchic communities at all levels of society, as well as to create saner relations among all people.

In our schools, as we continue to specify learning standards and utilize more high-stakes tests, we continue to “dumb down” the curricula and our children. Teachers teach to the tests in processes that create fragmented and irrelevant learning. Children are bored and see no point to school learning. And, with higher standards and more testing, there is no time for creativity, for learning how to think critically, for teaching systems thinking, or for developing compassionate inquiry communities in classrooms. Our times are incredibly complex. We need to know how to evaluate information and the claims being made by politicians, experts, news commentators, and advertisers. When school curricula seem irrelevant to children and teachers teach to tests, the attitudes engendered are ones of “going through the motions.” Children complete the drudgery of homework and classroom tasks with little or no curiosity. There is no enjoyment for learning. Nothing sparks the imagination. While children tend to be naturally critical, very little in the curricula of schooling works at sharpening their critical thinking skills. The content of learning is presented as solid and unchanging, even though the vast majority of knowledge is tentative and ever-changing. As in science, we justify claims with evidence and logic. However, we can prove nothing, but we can disprove knowledge claims. Poetry and the arts, explore our realities from multiple perspectives, often by juxtapositioning “ideas” and perspectives. Like the sciences, there is a desire to understand the reality of how our world works. But none of these approaches find their way into classrooms. Science is treated as if it were dead, like dissecting an earthworm. Poetry and the arts, if they are dealt with at all, are also treated as if they were dead, lifeless, and with no intellectual and creative inquisitiveness.

My oldest son, when we lived in Canada, took two philosophy courses in high school. Although he had a driving passion for pursuing a career in computers, he loved these courses. They were not only relevant, but gave him the tools to evaluate his experiences. He’s become a great mediator, critical thinker, and discussant of issues. In the United States, philosophy is rarely taught in our elementary, middle, and high schools. Yet, they offer ways to examine the multitude of issues we confront in our everyday experiences. From interpersonal issues to those of national and global importance, we could use philosophy as a door to learning in all subject areas – writing, reading, mathematics, science, social studies, the arts, and music.

The written word implies a sense of the static and permanent. What is written is their for as long as a copy exists. However, there is another problem with the written word, one with which many writers contend: the transmission of meaning and context. In contrast, the oral traditions of tribal peoples and Eastern cultures pass down knowledge orally as a sort of cultural transmission. James Wilson, a British historian of Native America, relates a Papago origination story that exposes a very different view of knowledge and literacy:

A Tohono O’odham (Papago) story describes how, long ago, the hero I’itoi brought the victims of a giant killer-eagle back to life. Those who had been dead longest and were most decayed and pallid, he turned into white people. Because they had been dead so long that they had forgotten everything they once knew, I’itoi gave them the power of writing to help them record and remember. Clearly, from a Tohono O’odham point of view, literacy is a kind of crutch: far from being an emblem of cultural superiority, it is evidence that Europeans are lost, ignorant and detached from a knowledge of themselves.

~From pages xxvii-xxviii in: Wilson, J. (1998). The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Within the oral traditions, there is a sense that communication and knowledge are more than just words. When knowledge is transmitted orally, the communication includes the physical and social context, intonations and rhythms, body language and a variety of sensory experiences, and a meeting of minds in a synergetic relationship. The written word is just the written word. Effective writers can paint contextual images and spark the imagination, but much of the potentiality of meaning is missing. In Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, early Christianity, and a variety of indigenous belief systems, knowledge in its fullest extent has been transmitted from person to person. In the transmission process, the “teacher” had the ability to evaluate his or her students’ understandings as a sort of cultural or religious gatekeeper or feedback loop. When the written word took over the role of transmitting such understandings, the gatekeeping was lost. The door to personal interpretation and misinterpretation was left wide open. As a result, much of the original meaning and intent was lost. Fundamentalists in all literary belief systems could adhere to the written word and make interpretations based on idiosyncratic beliefs. Throughout time, humans have used metaphor as a powerful means of transmitting meaning, but such transmission was in context. When the words are taken literally, the context is lost or replaced with a different context. The original meaning vanishes like a bird in the sky.

In schooling, the teacher has the potential to communicate much more than what is contained in the written word. A touch on the shoulder, a smile, joining a group of students working on the floor, laughing at a child’s joke, and the impromptu comments and jokes can do much more for children’s learning than any book. The increasingly common attempts to mandate scripted teaching, where curricular materials state exactly what teachers are to say in a specified order, use a narrow view of “transmitting” knowledge devoid of meaning, while negating a higher order of knowledge “transmission.” The recent push towards distance, web-based learning seems to be based on the same assumptions that the written word is the penultimate in learning. And, such approaches are not at all good.

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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