I’m involved in an initiative here at the University of Southern California to encourage the use of contemplative and meditative techniques in teaching and learning, in all kinds of classrooms. The last gathering of our Contemplative Pedagogy Faculty Interest Group was led by James Collins, assistant professor of classics. He introduced us to theater games which he employs with students to get them to go deeper in contemplating philosophical questions. One of the warm-up “improv” exercises was for us dignified professor-types to wander around an elegant old room in Doheny Library and point at things and call them by any names but the ones we’d usually give them. As we aimlessly milled about the room, someone would point at a chair and call it an orange. Someone else would point at a book and call it a rhinoceros. After a few minutes we got into the rhythm of it and all sorts of seemingly nonsense names rolled easily off our tongues at the objects in the room.
And we get paid to do this? – you might ask….
Yes, a pretty silly exercise. But one that awakened us, or re-awakened us, to the fact that much of learning requires unlearning. In physics, students must unlearn the idea that an object is uniformly solid, and then they can learn that most of what looks solid is actually empty space: the entire cosmos started out as a dense point the size, perhaps, of a golf ball. If we can loosen up and pretend that a book is a rhinoceros, perhaps we’ll be ready to unlearn the assumption that humans are fundamentally superior to all other creatures, and begin to comprehend that the genes of mice are 99% the same as those of humans.
The Belgian surrealist painter Magritte became famous for his painting of a pipe with words below it, in French, reading: “This is not a pipe”. His was a visual reminder that our names and definitions of things are very often, if not always, opinions. We’re entitled to our opinions, but we equate them with reality at our peril.
This morning I had a long conversation with the mother of an adult son whom she believed was in an emotional crisis. She wanted my advice about how she could intervene to help her son. It became clear in the course of the conversation that the mother was the one in crisis. Yes, the adult child had emotional issues. But the mother was the wrong messenger for the message. The mother was too tangled up in her son’s emotional history to be useful as a change-agent. The mother was devastated by her son’s anger toward her. I suggested to the mother that her job was to give love and attention, and not advice. “It’s a hard spiritual discipline to let go of our diagnoses of our kids and our opinions about what they should do,” I said. “Our kids know when we are harboring any kind judgment of them in our hearts – they are telepathic for these sorts of things. We have to release them, so we can be fully present and compassionate.”
When I do an accounting of the costs and benefits of the opinions I’ve held and shared with people over my lifetime, it’s clear that I could have functioned very well without at least 90% of them, and the world around me would have been none the worse for their absence. Lately I’ve been challenging myself to see how few opinions I can hold. I find this to be an extremely challenging discipline. I love having opinions and I enjoy expressing them with vigor. In my job, I’m asked to expound on serious matters. But it’s better for me to lighten up, not weigh in. As a preacher, as a pastor, as a professor, as a writer, my greatest contribution is to ask questions, pose viewpoints, and encourage people to think and feel for themselves. To put my ego and my opinions off to the side, so that people can see farther and understand more deeply. In teaching, I put brackets around my opinions by making the “time-out” gesture with my hands, to cue my students to turn on their critical attention and not receive my opinions as facts.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus repeatedly asked his disciples (Mark 8:29). They would answer, but, mysteriously, he would immediately instruct them to keep their answers secret from others. What if Jesus was posing a sort of Zen koan to his disciples, to get them past their opinions and ponder Jesus’ true nature, and their own? What if he asked them to keep their answers secret, so that others would have ponder the question for themselves?
The mother I spoke with today said something very sad, but also familiar to many parents. She said her son told her “you don’t know who I am”. That hurt the mother’s heart. We all want to be known, not as the object of somebody else’s definitions, but as the essence of who we are. Jesus wanted his disciples, his best friends, to know that he wasn’t just a personality named Jesus. Not just the son of Joseph and son of Mary. Nor was he just the Messiah, as the people of Israel came to define the person who would save them from foreign dominion. He was more than the names given him by others. He wanted his disciples to know him, all the way down to the sole of his soul. His question may have been a contemplative pedagogical tool to get his disciples beyond evaluations and declarations that get in the way of fuller comprehension.
How can you and I un-name the world so that we can know it better?
PUBLICATION DATE: 3/22/13, St Johann Press —
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HITCHHIKING TO ALASKA: The Way of Soulful Service
by Jim Burklo
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
“Having a higher goal than our immediate intentions serves us in building a better world. Knowing we are hitchhiking to Alaska gets us to Seattle quicker, and with a better attitude. It delivers us to the holy compassion at the heart of service.”
“I have discovered that the skills required for me to be aware of the states of my own mind and body are also essential in listening and responding sensitively to other people. I may not be a success in fixing all the problems of the people I aim to serve, any more than I can solve all my own. But in the process of trying, I can have loving, caring, soul-satisfying relationships. To attend to others lovingly, to accept them as they are, to be present with them fully – this enables me to be more useful to them. It leads me out of selfishness and into the heart of the divine.”
“No matter how good our government policies might be, no matter how strong a “social safety net” we weave – and in America we’ve got a lot of weaving yet to do – there will be times when love must trump the rules. Being of service leads us to take graceful action above and beyond the written and unwritten rules by which our society functions. And we trust that our acts of grace will lead by example, pressing for change in the system.”
“We don’t have all the answers. It’s not always clear how best to help, and sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re helping more than we’re hurting. But it sometimes it is in areas of moral murkiness that our presence is needed most.”
“We often think of service taking the form of practical aid to others in times of need. But usually what is needed most is our presence: showing up, body and soul, and fully attending to the other.”
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California