Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nothing Takes You All the Way


Music alone, meditation alone, mirth alone won’t do it. Poetry, Pilates or politics can’t get you all the way there. Satie and Samba, Bach, Bird and Brown (James, that is), Chopin and Shakespeare will offer you comfort, challenge, fun, along the way, but the engine isn’t powerful enough on its own to take you to the end.

Not that there really is an end, except that elusive gold at the far side of the rainbow’s curve. But that day to day work of being a fully functioning and joyful and kind human being needs a thousand paths—or one path with a thousand details—to really do its work.

Today I leaned on the Buddhist side of my multiple paths to help shine up the gold of my students and give them a doorway into their own possibility. It’s January, after all, the month of two-faced Janus who can look back and forward at the same time, that god of gateways and doorways opening into a beckoning unknown. He’s the right one to petition in this first week back at school and a few tips from the Buddhist tradition can help children—and adults—give some direction to their hopes and dreams. Gift wrap them in a conscious intention offered in community ritual, at once private and witnessed by fellow seekers, which is all of us.

The short story is kids from 5 to 11 years old sitting in a straight line in Japanese seiza (I call it kneel sitting) position, their back straight, the hands on their knees, their eyes focused down and following their breath as they feel the immense and necessary inner power of stillness. Then one by one rises to sit between two gongs, one large and one small. They ring the large one to send behind them all their regrets from the previous year and then the small one to send forward their hopes and resolutions. These are kept private in their mind as they ring, but I let them know they’re welcome to share either with me at any time, especially if I can help them in some way.

The ring must be firm and clear—not so soft as to vibrate their wish back short of the mark, but not so hard the all vibrations are scattered and the wish dissolves in all directions. They then step through a doorway I set up and sit down behind one of the bells laid out in a circle. Discipline and silence reign throughout—no one is allowed to touch the bell until I give the signal after the last child had passed through the doorway. Deferred gratification is a needed practice for their growing-toward-genuine-adult selves.

Once again, I can’t help but be struck that no newspaper will consider witnessing this class and sending the story around the media circuits. But why not? It is a wonder to behold the different capacities of 5 year olds and 10 year olds and the way they are so clearly hungry for simple little ritual forms like these. It’s a wonder to sit in silence with 12-15 children of all ages and watch how they sit between the gongs, see their minds working, observe precisely how they strike the gong and listen time and time again to those two beautiful tones frame the welcome silence. At the end, we pick up our bells and roar forth an exuberant “Happy New Year!!!” while ringing them and they’re back in the comfort of kid-land. Most kids don’t need to be taught how to whoop and holler, but to sit still, listen attentively, feel their breathing, this is a discipline adults can and should offer—and indeed, with the growing popularity of the mindfulness movement, it is making its way into the curriculum.

But of course, it’s just one tool in a large toolbox. For me, I like to throw in some West African drumming and dancing, some Mother Goose and Shakespeare, some basketball and hiking, some jokes and serious talks about social justice, great films and funny TV shows, some cooking and cleaning, jazz, jazz and yet more jazz, games, games and yet more games and so on. Not one of them alone will create that elusive ideal person wholly in their body, wholly open in their heart, wholly awake in their mind. But they all help. Step by step, day by day, minute by minute, building the citizen of tomorrow armed with disciplined skills and habits, clear vision given muscle through practice and the constant presence of fun and pleasure in every step. 

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