Thursday, February 11, 2010

Going with the Flow, Screw the Flow

I was called into a meeting a few days ago at work to be held accountable for comments I made at another meeting the previous week.

To make a long story short, the adult basic education field, which ESL teachers are a part of, is experiencing a top-down "professionalization" effort and I'm resisting.

The specifics during the meeting the other day had to do with why I said I wouldn't do the continuing education hours that suddenly appeared on our plate from government agency X. And maybe you, too, are wondering. It's simple, really - it's another unfunded mandate that came from people who have no idea of it's impact on those of us actually doing the work. Sound familiar? I imagine it does, and I can also imagine plenty of folks out there saying "Oh, shut up - injustice is everywhere. Suck it up. Move on. Don't waste your energy. Go with the flow."

Go with the flow more. This is exactly what one of the directors at work told me I needed to do. It's an interesting statement, don't you think? There's buckets and buckets of commentaries on "not attaching" and "not grasping" in Buddhism. Endless energy is expended by teachers and dharma peers on these issues, pointing to us the struggles that occur when we cling to anything, even the truth.

I'll admit there is clinging to the truth going on when it comes to my workplace, and my current field's slide into standardization and faux accountability. I'll also admit that I'm absolutely fed up with people defending these changes, and suggesting that people like me, who disagree, need to shut up and go with the flow. Taoist teachers like Lao Tzu may have advocated doing exactly what I'm resisting, but it feels like nothing more than a hollow platitude designed to keep the sheep as sheep.

As far as I'm concerned, there's no liberation to be found in being a sheep - if you always follow along, you never learn a damned thing about who you are.

I also see, however, that the attachment present in my life about the injustice of the situation is probably keeping me in this workplace, when it's probably past time to move on. In an ideal Buddhist wonderland, I'd be fully able to dance with this situation, instead of the sloppy, awkward steps of reality. Sometimes free, something terribly stuck in the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance). Or maybe another ideal would be to just walk away, which many people in my life have suggested on a frequent basis.

One of the sticking points for me is that this isn't just any old job. I care deeply about adult education and feel that lifelong learning is not only of value, but should actually be at the core of our experience. And the people I work with, and that my colleagues work with, are at the margins of society, and often the last people to be given a chance in most areas of their lives. My students struggle with feeling inferior because of their struggles with English, as well as the fact that most of them had their education curtailed in their homelands by oppressive governments, warfare, and other conflicts. Other colleagues of mine work with people who grew up in the U.S., but failed to gain a high school diploma or any kind of post secondary education and are trapped in a cycle of poverty they want to break free from, but just can't quite break free from. These are the people politicians love to demonize as system welchers, as they hand out millions to corporation X, bank Y, and defense contractor Z. It's such a cosmic joke, I sometimes want to throw my hands up and say "fuck it, why bother!" But then I go to work the next day and look my stuents in the eyes, and "fuck it" just isn't in the cards.

I've been considering other options for doing this work outside of the beast of a system known as Adult Basic Education. I know it's possible to work on the outside, but I have some resistence to that as well. Why? Because it's a hell of a lot of work, and there's a distinct possibility that you'll end up broke and crawling back to some system in the future. I suppose that's not the worst thing in the world, but I feel tired, and want a break from the hard work.

Which is really the crux of the issue - wanting a break. I think we all want a break sometimes, and probably need it. I'm fully convinced that the way we are supposed to live in a capitalist society like the U.S. is killing most of us. It's inhumane. It's absolutely insane. And yet, the vast majority just "go with the flow" and view it as "common sense."

I can't do that. It's just too much to give up this life to "fit in" and "get along."

But I also know that the resistence I'm experiencing is both a teacher and a hinderance. What to do? What to do?

I sat in zazen last night during our Diamond Sutra class, with muck running around in my head, but no need to go anywhere, or do anything about the muck.

That's a good start - a way of going with the flow you might say. But there has to be a return to life, to the world of action, with that sitting. Otherwise, you're just fooling yourself, and slowling becoming a sheep of some sort. And don't be fooled by appearences - even serene monks can be sheep to the form of being a monk.


Theresa said...

I'm fairly sure Lao Tzu wouldn't have advocated the kind of going with the flow your director was pushing for. Perhaps more of a 'seeping into the low places' like water does. Things can get mucky then, as you say.

LuLu3156 said...

I am close with many people who work as teachers in the inner city public schools of New Orleans. A system, which in many respects is unsustainable as it currently is, given its dependence on teachers who work 10+ hour days for little pay and often give just about everything they have to their students.

To make it worse, at the end of the day they face the difficult question of what is it all for? "What are we teaching these students? What type of game are we telling them they have to play only to be judged by a single scholastic test at the end of the day." Teachers are left wondering if they are compromising their beliefs by going with the flow.

So I just wanted to say you are not alone. And you do the best you can even if in the end you are defeated. And then you stand up again.

NellaLou said...

And yet, the vast majority just "go with the flow" and view it as "common sense."

Going with the flow and common sense are diametric opposites on my scale. The former involves no critical thought whatsoever. It is a blind faith in "the system" whatever that system may be.

The "go along to get along" is an abdication of both personal and social responsibility and ethics. It is to be desensitized to the larger context, to interdependence. It is without wisdom or even the possibility of developing wisdom and it is without compassion. Compassion requires a halt in mindless activity to recognize and engage with our context.

But then, you know, some people find this viewpoint rather extreme.

spldbch said...

There's always something to be said for standing up for what you believe in!

Nathan said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

LuLu - I've been following the changes to the New Orleans school system following Katrina and have been pained greatly by what's been going on. The teachers there are in a tougher bind than I am in some ways.

Nella Lou,

I'm right there with you, and don't think your comments are extreme. But we aren't in the majority I'd have to guess.

ZenDotStudio said...

Nathan I feel tired and worn out just reading about your situation! My heart goes out to you. And I agree that we don't want to lie down and be a Zen doormat. And the sickness and dysfunction in many large "systems" makes them pretty hard to work with.

But I guess I wonder is there a way to approach it that is helpful both to you and the situation? I have no idea what that might be.

It think of interactions with my daughter when she was a teenager, resistance simply bred more resistance on the other side.

Your koan continues.

John said...

Oy! I've been in this situation as a special education teacher. While continuing ed. credits were never an issue with me. There were several issues that popped up where it is necessary to take a stand and simply say "no. this isn't acceptable".

Now I am in a management role and those that don't go with the flow are a valuable part of my team. I rely on that honest appraisal of what decisions that I make or those that are "passed down from on high". It gives me an opportunity to make judgements that actually help my employees rather than just fostering a "Well, thats what my boss wants me to do" mentality.

This isn't to say that there aren't people who truly insist on resisting every possible change.

Good Luck Brother!


Anonymous said...


I've been in New Orleans' R.S.D for three years now.

I have a tough time wrapping my head around the injustice. I went to bed at 7:30 last last night and woke up early to do data analysis.

I don't want to be a sheep, but I fear the flow is more of flood and half the time I'm half-dead, floating along, never knowing when my head is under or above.

What's more unsettling is I can write the above and not feel horrible. With 7 + hours a day In the classroom, there's not enough time to plan, so feeling is a little out of the question.

And then, every once and a while, I crash- I might miss 3 or 4 days of work, because I literally can't move. What's worse is I'll feel guilty about it. But then I jump right back into 12 hour days with this "save the kids" attitude and sometimes I wonder what I'm saving them for- this cannibalistic capitalist culture?

Do I really want them to work like I work?

Nathan said...


Collectively, the teachers at my work have tried everything we can think of. We've accepted other changes we didn't want for the sake of keeping the school's budget in line. We've resisted others, as I am now with the CEU issue. We've made plans to try and buffer the changes that were coming, only to have those plans tossed out or forgotten by leadership when the next "crisis" appeared. We've agreed to work together, sometimes even partnering in classes, to help each other avoid burnout.

I, personally, have stayed quiet at times when I wanted to argue. And I've also tried to be more of a team player on certain issues, even if I wasn't so keen on the change that was being proposed. I've even agreed with leadership many times about the difficulties of being a non-profit in a bad economy because I know that even a successful team would have a hard time right now.

In the end, it feels like taking a few buckets of water out of porous, sinking ship.

Flying Pig,

I'm pretty good at being a "thorn" or "spunky" or whatever adjective might apply, but I have plenty of days like you describe, just barely making it through and mostly running on sheep-like mode.

One thing I learned awhile back, from some fellow co-workers who were refugees themselves, is that you can't "save" your students. This fits well, I think, with Buddhist teachings. And yes, even though we Zen folks, for example, vow to "Save all beings," it looks completely different in practice than what we regularly think of as saving. (Note: I prefer the translation "liberate" to "save.")

Bows to you Flying Pig for trying to hang in there. Ultimately, you might leave, but it's worth making an effort in my view, which is why I didn't just ship when things first got difficult.

Personally, I think we need new education models, which value the whole person, and which aren't focused on developing good little workers and consumers for this beast of the economy we have.

Kyle said...

@Nathan - I have to say I love this quote "if you always follow along, you never learn a damned thing about who you are."

Excellent thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Hi nathan -- thanks for your comments on my blog. It's lovely to find another kindred spirit. This here site looks rich and awesome; thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with all of us.

As an organizer and anti-capitalist (totally feeling your thoughts on the systemic problem of capitalist culture), I've been thinking A LOT lately about how resistance fits in with the dharma. You can read some of my friends' and my thoughts here, but for this thread I just want to offer an excerpt of a memoir I'm reading right now: Jan Willis' Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey. After graduating college in 1969, Willis faced a difficult choice between joining the Black Panther Party and going to Nepal to study Buddhism. (She encapsulates this dilemma with the cute phrase, "A 'Piece' or Peace?" A few years later, still haunted by questions of resistance versus pacifism, she asks His Holiness the Dalai Lama his thoughts on the issue of repression.

"Yes, Your Holiness," my impatience made me push, "but what if you think you have looked at all the alternatives--with clarity--and you find that your only course of action is to be on that line along with others, facing those policemen or those guardsmen, then what?"

"Again," he said, "patience is most important. But if you are certain that there is no other alternative, if you are clear and certain about this, then what you must do is this: First, you must think lovingly and kindly about the policeman. If you think or call him a pig, then you must let him shoot you! But if you can wish him well, and pray for his future happy rebirth, then of course, you stop him from harming the others. You stop him by any means necessary." We were relieved and amazed.

What I take from this is the idea that resistance is important and useful, but it must come from a solid internal foundation. No matter how great the need of others is, like the students in your class, it doesn't mean that WE are necessarily in a position to act with clarity and patience to improve the situation. Need and suffering will persist, whether we are physically present or not. Maybe the best choice is to walk away, in order to devote more time to strengthening our own core. (I ran away to a retail job, and then to a meditation center in Spain, for just such purposes. :)

So maybe it's not a question of whether to resist, but how to resist? Can we cultivate enough patience, depth, calm, and clear-sightedness in ourselves first, and then spill forth that energetic compassion in whatever situations arise? Once we have built a strong foundation of love and wisdom, then we are in the best position to resist. And whether or not we DO have a strong foundation is a question we must ultimately answer for ourselves.

Again, thanks to you and all the other commenters for a great discussion. It's good to know that so many others are facing similar struggles -- and facing them with courage and insight, even if we don't have all the answers.

Nathan said...


Thank you for the thoughtful message. First off, I love Jan Willis' memoir and remember that pivot point well.

I think it's absolutely true that we have to develop a solid internal foundation. This is part of the reason I stepped away from the anti-war movement about 5 years ago. It seemed like a lot unchecked anger and ill will, without a whole lot of thought about what a peaceful world looks like, or how we might go about achieving it.

As for this job, I think in the end, I'll walk away - maybe very soon even. It's true that, no matter what, there will still be plenty of oppression and suffering to go around within that system, even if I'm able to make some sort of impact. And I'm tired, exhausted really, which doesn't bode well for long term work. I'm also not in much of a position to be more than a howling wolf, which sometimes has it's plusses, but mostly means I'm ignored or just irritate people.

"Can we cultivate enough patience, depth, calm, and clear-sightedness in ourselves first, and then spill forth that energetic compassion in whatever situations arise?" I sometimes struggle with this question because I feel like some people use it as an excuse to remain hidden, remain in safe territory, claiming to be inadequate somehow. For me, if I can do something small in the short term, slide a turning phrase in or do something that could plant a seed, I'm going to do it. However, at the same time, I've been learning to hold back more, to watch and listen more, and develop some of that patience and calm necessary to deal with bigger issues.

One way or another, though, a break from being in the middle of a system like ABE is going to be essential to both my sanity and my ability to develop that stronger, more flexible foundation.


Anonymous said...

Mm, I totally feel you on the using-patience-as-an-excuse-to-stay-hidden thing. It's a problem I see in many conflict-avoidant folks, and one of the reasons that the people I MOST admire aren't the eloquent verbosity artists or the wise silent types, but the ones who seem to know when to hold their tongues and when to unleash them. I guess for me, since I most often fall on the side of confrontation (or, more precisely, a feeling that I need to try to fix everything, right every wrong, etc.), then being aware of that tendency, patience and holding back is something I realize I need to practice, in order to return to a more balanced place. It sounds like you might be in a similar position these days.

I wish you the best of luck, whatever you decide to do, however your days progress.

And I'm nearing the end of the Jan Willis! Any other good recommendations you could pass on?

I appreciate the bows, but I'm more of a hug person so

((hugs)) :)