Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Rotten Floorboards of Identity

In the old version of Dogen's commentary to the precepts our sangha used to chant was the following line attached to the seven precept (Not elevating oneself above others) - "when the dharma body is manifested, there is not even a single square inch of earth upon which to stand." I've always gravitated to this line for some reason, even in the earliest days of my practice. Why? I don't entirely know, but this image of "not even a single square inch of earth" has always been a felt thing for me. It trips up all the talk and naming that we do because it points to the life beyond names and naming.

Yesterday, I resigned my position on the board of directors of the ESL school I helped start five and a half years. It was a very difficult decision that came after several nights of fitful sleep that kept pointing me in that direction. Today, I walked into my workplace - another ESL school - and watched a few more floorboards crack in half. At least three of us (out of a staff of 12) are considering leaving soon. We spent part of the morning arguing about standardized tests, and then during the afternoon gave those very same exams to our learners. The school has no functioning strategic plan, a board of directors led by people who are still living out the "good old days," dysfunctional executive leadership, and is struggling to bring in enough money to keep up with the needs of the place. Even though I haven't left yet, my days are most likely very numbered there.

I have been an ESL teacher for the better part of the last 11 years. Many people know me primarily as a guy who is passionate about adult education and immigrants, so much so that he has been willing to volunteer hundreds of hours over the years to "the cause." But now, here I am, in the middle of this identity disappearing. It might even be on it's deathbed, for all I know.

I've watched the reactions to my resignation from the first school. Confusion. Shock. Lots of questions. It's so obvious living in the middle of all this how strongly we attach to identities, both our own and those we impose on others. I deliberately chose the word "impose" because that's often exactly what is being done.

We so want to peg each other down, and then when the other person fails to fit the image we have, we do all kinds of things to either try and make them get back in the box, or to get them out, out, out of our lives.

But let's face it - there's never been a single square inch of earth upon which to stand. Every last attempt to label someone, to know someone completely through and through using words, is a rotten board. That doesn't mean that we toss out labels all together - no, that would be silly, and rather sad. However, as long as you, or I, believe that we have someone else, or even ourselves, totally pegged as a zen student, or mother, or teacher, or jackass, or liar, or absolute saint - as long as we believe these labels, we're living in a house built of rotten boards soon to crack, split, and crumble.

I'm getting the sense that a lot of the grief I'm experiencing right now, as well as a lot of the stress, is tied directly to the back and forth between letting the labels dissolve and rushing back to shore them up somehow. Sticking with this mess is not easy at all; parts of my body are riddled with pain right now. However, I'm taking this as a place to experiment with Dogen's line, to do my best to be in that place of groundlessness, without knowing at all where I am.


NellaLou said...

This comment is for your last post and this one.

One thing I have found is that often comments are based on what readers think has been written by some version of someone they think the writer is rather than on what is actually present in the post.

This is a labeling issue. If a reader believes a blogger is a certain "type" then all posts are read with that filter.

In answering such comments one attempts to grapple with not only the re-explanation of the original content but an attempted dismantling of the mis-perception. It can be quite arduous.

Over time people build up an image of another with whatever information is available along with a good helping of personal interpretation as to what that information means to them as mortar. The result is a simulacrum. Here is a philosophical description of that from the Wikipedia

Where Plato saw two steps of reproduction — faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum) — Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality, (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.

This kind of reality representation and misrepresentation is exaggerated on the internet but is also very much present in real life as well as your post demonstrates.

People are surprised by your choice. It does not fit with the image they have built up of you.

There is much talk about authenticity. Sometimes in looking deeply at these situations it is surprising how rarely an authentic representation or connection is present.

Something I am going to think more about (and probably make a blog post about too).

Thanks for these posts.

spldbch said...

The problem isn't the label; the problem occurs when you identify with the label (or the role). And yet, so many of us define ourselves by the roles we play. Our jobs, our livelihoods, are also integral to our identities. One of the first questions we ask upon meeting a person is, "What do you do for a living?"

You say that you're passionate about your job. I bet that when you're working you are completely present -- this is the greatest gift you can give your students.

I always enjoy your posts as well as your comments to my posts. Thank you!

hazel colditz said...

labeling, categories, boxes, compartmentalization....they are just words which we humans give life to! i believe it is innate how we identify "wrong" or "right" yada yada yada. i am so not a writer...i think in fragments thus my words reveal this...it is why i love to read other blogs/writers. you have great words of wisdom! thanks for sharing and revealing "the rotten floorboards of identity" WHAT A GREAT TITLE!!