Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Questioner

I have been contemplating my next step career-wise for months now, maybe even longer. It's been nearly five years now at my current position, which is the longest I have stayed at any job. I love teaching. I love that moment when someone, or even an entire group, "gets it," or gains some clarity about something that they didn't experience in the past. I often feel like the learners in my classes do most of the work, and I'm just there to be a guide, or to give a push or two when necessary. In some ways, like a good zen teacher - not handing out a lot of answers, but able to hold a space for the truth of the moment to appear.

And yet, I find myself struggling more and more with the limitations of my work. The endless federal and state laws and directives. The funding issues of schools, which are slamming my workplace hard this year. The limitations of the classroom itself, an artificial construction that often makes learning into something a little too abstracted from the everyday lives of people. Standardized tests which don't measure out of the many ways in which we as people learn, nor get at the plethora of possible learnings and usages people might have while studying. I could go on, but you get the point.

What is it that I'm called to do now? I keep asking this question, but cannot get any sense of clarity about it. I have applied for other jobs over the past several months, but often without a whole lot of strong feeling that this is what is the next thing. I have thought about staying where I am as well, but I don't know how to do that in an awake, fully engaged way anymore. The creativity isn't much there anymore, nor is the desire to try and fight a system that does everything possible to force learners out the door and into jobs before they've learned enough to thrive in the U.S. - and which more and more pressures teachers into teaching "tests" in a similar way to the K-12 system post-No Child Left Behind. I don't feel valued as a creative, passionate person in this system (the Adult Basic Education system), and I don't feel my learners are valued as the intelligent, diligent, and caring people that they are.

I have often been a questioner. In fact, this was true even as a little child, and no amount of schooling and society propaganda was able to beat it out of me. Sometimes, I love it. There's such openness in questioning, and not assuming that you "know" everything, or that something is "common sense," or whatever else people use to solidify their experiences. Other times, though, I find being the questioner difficult, even really lonely. Questioning what is commonly held to be "true" isn't much of a friend-maker. There's a certain anxiety that appears when you place a question in front of a train that that everyone assumes is on the right track. What if four walls, desks, chairs, a white board, and a teacher in front of the room isn't the best way to work with people in the 21st century? What if we view mass education from the standpoint of it's origins as a tool of industrialization and nationalism? How does knowing that make us change or not change what we are doing today?

Maybe I should be in academia, but the same problems are there as well, maybe even more so, given how much many universities have given over to the college as stepping stone to employment approach, or the way in which university funding has become more and more tied to corporate sponsorship.

I keep coming back to Buddha's insistence not to just swallow his teachings, but to thoroughly investigate them in our lives. More and more, I feel this is what our entire life is about - stopping the urge to just believe any old story that's been passed down to us, or which we have come to believe because it made sense when we were children, or because some celebrity or the president, or whoever said it was true. To completely be open and to question everything (not in a small minded, doubtful way, but in a broadminded, wide open way)is so at odds with the way most of our world works, that it's amazing any of us are able to do it at all.

Frankly, it really can be a lonely place. You get a lot more negative feedback and outright dismissals, than you do positive feedback. It's a great place to practice not attaching to the "worldly winds" - praise and blame, gain and loss, fame and shame, happiness and despair. But also, for the same reason, an easy location of suffering when one falls into clinging to one or more of those "winds."

Here are some choice words from Suzuki Roshi, who is popping up everywhere lately due to it being the fiftieth aniversary of his arrival in San Fransciso from Japan.

"the way to understanding yourself is not by understanding yourself objectively or gathering information from various sources. If people say you are crazy - 'Ok, I am crazy!' If people say you are a bad student, maybe it is so. 'I am a bad student, but I am trying very hard.' That is enough. When you sit in that way, you accept yourself and accept everything together with yourself. When you are involved with various silly problems, you sit with the problems you have. This is you at that time. When you try to get out of your problems, this is already wrong practice."

When he says he's crazy or a bad student, here, I don't think there's any attachment to those assessments. The first one, he seems to affirm the statements being said without believing in them as representing who he is. And the second, he offers that maybe he IS a "bad student" without taking that on as a final judgement. Sometimes, I can ask a question I know might ruffle feathers and be right there with Suzuki. Other times, I'm caught by the desire to protect myself or defend my opinion, or some other thing before I even open my mouth.

None of which really does much to get me closer to "What is it that I'm called to do now?" Which makes me wonder if I'm provoked by my own question, and the possibilities it stirs up.


ZenDotStudio said...

great post Nathan. It feels like you've captured the essence of you in the post! You cover so much ground. What comes up for me when I read your post? I think authentic questions are good! That's how we go deeper. Yes lonely too, to question what seems accepted by most. Our gift and our curse come out of the same package, don't you think?

I suspect your next step will come out of this intense questioning. It is not easy and it can be painful but the way to go! I suspect something really creative and non mainstream is waiting out there for you! For me I always find the trick is having patience and the tenacity to stay on the horse for the ride.

Nathan said...

Hi Carole,

Thanks for the kind words. Yes, definitely both a gift and a curse.
But still, I feel like life would be so dull without digging into those questions. It's one of the things that drew me to zen, all of those wild questions in the koans and teachings.

I'm doing my best to stay on the horse for the ride. Sometimes, I'm sideways and getting mud kicked in my face, but the horse hasn't tossed me off completely yet!


Jennifer Campaniolo said...

Hi Nathan,

Thanks for your thoughtful post on my blog the other day. I guess I have a hard time getting "messy!"

Good post here. I think it's natural to question your position after five years. You seem like someone who wants to constantly be growing, and five years can seem like a long time in one place doing the same thing.

Yet, you have the tools of a great teacher, and it would be sad for your students to lose you. I'm sure you touch their lives in innumerable ways that you might not ever see. I don't mean to go all "It's a Wonderful Life" on you, but good teachers, teachers who question the system rather than clocking in and checking out, people who care about the process of teaching and their students quality of learning--are rare gems in the system. It's good to look around at certain points in your life and assess where you are and where you want to go. But sticking to something even if it's challenging can also be very rewarding.

Whatever you end up doing, your thoughtfulness and inquisitive nature will be an asset, not a liability.


Kris said...

"I find being the questioner difficult, even really lonely. Questioning what is commonly held to be "true" isn't much of a friend-maker. There's a certain anxiety that appears when you place a question in front of a train that everyone assumes is on the right track."

Whew! Great post! Certainly resonates... Questioning takes a lot of courage. Most of us live with eyes closed most of the time because it's too bewildering to live with them open. I like to think of practice as opening up, looking (questioning) without judgement. I have to ask, "Where do the questions come from?" For me there's usually some stickiness to them, prodding me to look more closely at the intention propelling them. We can choose a cozy life of sleep-walking or the raw, vivid life of questioning that always throws us back on ourselves... until (?) we just let go. Wide-eyed and fancy-free. Thank you, Nathan!

Sachin @ SepticPen said...

Nice post,

i was able to relate to it. Even i have a habit of questioning a lot... i personally think that's the first step towards understanding.

before i began my dharma journey , i often could never sleep in the night ... i used to wake up in the middle of the night just confused and questions kept cropping up .... but these days i have understood that paradoxes in our lives are there for a reason, when we learn to live with these paradoxes they do reveal to us something of immeasurable value....


A said...

Ah yes, I know these questions...I know them well. Not that I have any answers, mind you.... Just offering a bit of commiseration. :)

Peace to you and enjoy the search.