Saturday, July 25, 2009

where the rubber meets the road

Over the last two years, I’ve been meeting three times a year with a group of twelve people, focusing on some of the deeper aspects of practice and teaching. This group, like most of the groups I’ve worked with, has presented me with a consistent challenge: passivity. (For more on passivity, click here.)

Role-playing is a good tool to develop people’s capacity and to put them in touch with their internal material. It’s challenging. It’s revealing. And, yes, it can be frightening, but to be present in fear is a good way to build capacity.

With this group, when I asked for volunteers for a role-play, there was always an awkward silence. Sometimes one or two people would reluctantly step forward, but usually, I ended up picking a couple of people. The air was thick with resistance and discomfort. Once into the exercise, people usually appreciated how helpful it was, but the passivity continued.

At our meeting in June this year, however, something happened that made all the difference.

After lunch one day, when we met for our afternoon session, I again asked for a couple of volunteers. Instead of the awkward silence, every hand shot up! It took me a moment to adjust. This was a completely different situation — or was it?

In one sense, nothing had changed: I still had to pick a couple of people for the exercise. In another sense, everything had changed: I could now focus on picking people who would benefit most from the exercise or who could demonstrate the points I was trying to convey. I no longer had to be concerned about pushing people against their will.

What had happened? Apparently, over lunch, the group had decided that they were fed up with my constant pushing and organized a conspiracy. Everyone had agreed to step forward whenever I asked for volunteers.

The shift in energy was dramatic. The air almost sparkled with the energy of engagement. Most important, we were all able to work at a much deeper level.

The same dynamic applies in other settings. Two or three times a month, I lead Sutra Sessions, at Against the Stream and Insight LA here in Los Angeles. More than the meditation period, the Q&A that follows is where the real learning takes place. The few people who pose questions are not being passive. They are presenting their questions, challenges, or insights, and inviting a response. We go back and forth until they are clear in their experience. The interaction is two-way, not one-way, and this two-way interaction is crucial if one is to deepen practice and make it a way of life.

Most teaching situations are one-way interactions. A person listens to a talk, reads a book, or plays a podcast or other recording. However beneficial a person may feel the talk or the book is, the flow is one-way and it is difficult to say what, if anything, has actually been learnt.

In the two-way interaction, both teacher and student find out very quickly what they know. Does the student stand in his or her own experience and give expression to their understanding? Does the teacher respond to the student without concern for position, identity, status, role or other forms of protection? Is there a meeting of minds? And what happens then?

This two-way interaction is challenging for both parties. Neither one knows where things are going to go. It can be uncomfortable, even frightening, but when minds meet, understanding arises, and with it, a subtle joy. This is where the rubber meets the road — where our practice comes alive and active in our lives.


Leslie Ellestad said...

I have recently realized how challenging it is to tell if what I am picking up is coming from inside or outside.

Today my husband and I got into a familiar dynamic. I made a comment which was lighthearted("Isn't it funny that the longer we live in retirement the less our children will inherit.") I experienced his response as exasperation with me and my way of thinking-a manifestation of my internal script "not enough". He became defensive and angry. Normally I would focus on the anger I was experiencing coming from him and withdraw. I was able to sit through this and not withdraw. He was able to express his frustration with my interpretation of him as exasperated with me and we went on to share a session of meditation together.

My point here is that it didn't really matter where the negativity was arising-me or him or a little bit of both. We still move out of it by experiencing it and releasing it.

So what changed is this group dynamic to allow for things to open up??

I have experienced a lot of growth through engaging in the intimate relationship with my teacher that Ken describes. I am very grateful for the risks my teacher has been willing to take to help me see more clearly.

Anonymous said...

later the same day... my husband acknowledges an internal state of agitation! I'm feeling pretty good.

Anonymous said...

“I no longer had to be concerned about pushing people against their will.”

This is an amazing statement coming from a teacher. What kind of teacher would push people against their will? It has led me to thinking about what a teacher does or doesn’t do. How does a teacher lead people successfully?

Pushing is one aspect of aggressive male energy. As a woman, it is not surprising to me that ‘the air was thick with resistance and discomfort”.
What you describe is a seminar setting. In the give and take setting of a seminar, is this ‘pushing’ appropriate? Is there is an assumption, an implicit contract, of something having been asked for and not imposed? Another side of this would be the non-seminar setting - if not asked for and therefore imposed, the same energy can be more easily seen to be very inappropriate, ill-advised and at the very least inconsiderate. But energy is energy. Does the setting, the implicit contract, change the energy? Is context everything – or just an excuse? I am asking the question because I don’t know the answer.

And even though in the situation you describe, the dynamic shifted, the method by which this came about may be, ultimately, not successful, relying as it did on the first energy being one of pushing people against their will. Someday, somewhere, this same energy and dynamic may re-appear, perhaps with different conditions, and present a very unfavorable result.

I think teachers had better think long and hard about pushing people against their will. It does not seem very skillful in the long run. Even if, now, the temporary results look positive.

Anonymous said...

A friend recently advised me to “decelerate on the approach and accelerate on the turn”. In my case, it was due to high speeds meeting a dangerously winding road and deceleration was presented as a means of invisibly gathering the energy to release perfectly into the turn...
That said, there comes a time when acceleration is the only way to stay on the road and one must break meditative silence to allow the inner dialogue out. It is the only way to fully engage our hearts, and requires honesty, faith and courage… an active pursuit of freedom.
Hafiz has written a poem called simply “Warrior” that encourages us unambiguously in the direction of public interaction, or dialogue:
The warriors tame
The beasts in their pasts
So that the night's hoofs
Can no longer break the jeweled vision
In the heart

The intelligent and the brave
Open every closet in the future and evict
All the mind’s ghosts who have the bad habit
Of barfing everywhere

For a long time the Universe
Has been germinating in your spin

But only a Pir [a saint] has the talent,
The courage to slay
The past-giant, the future anxieties.

The warrior
Wisely sits in a circle
With other men
Gathering the strength to unmask
Sits, giving,
Like a great illumined planet on
Earth .

It is so hard to find the qualities of a true warrior within ourselves, yet these are the qualities that will ultimately set us free. There is so much natural inertia that, I think, a teacher is indispensable in providing the required push (an invitation, really), to which of course we remain free to respond, or not.


Anonymous said...

The 11th line of the poem is supposed to read "spine" not spin...


franca said...

Speaking as one of the unwilling participants in this story, in response to the person who questions "pushing people against their will", I don't think there are any hard and fast rules that can be applied. Your comments, contrasted with Ken's description on the situation, outline the paradox inherent in the responsibility of the teacher to draw the student's attention to their patterned material when it's getting in the way of their waking up. In my experience this can definitely include pushing. The pushing is not against the student's will, but against the student's patterns. Quite a distinction.

Do teachers screw up and push students inappropriately? Sometimes. Do students sometimes let the pushing increase the passivity instead of challenging it, or simply leave in response to pushing? For sure. Is it possible for the teacher-student relationship to produce conditions for awakening without any pushing at all? I don't think so.

On a personal note, I'll add that in this story Ken is referring a group that has been working intensively with one another, and with him, for many years. The dynamics that led to the weird behaviour around volunteering were and are extremely complex. I can say that I experienced that particular set of events as very positive, both in terms of how it felt and in terms of what I learned. I am pretty sure all of my cohorts would agree.

Ellen Fishman said...

Interesting that this post was similar to our discussion at our meditation meeting this week. Some of the members felt that challenging oneself through meditation is the only way to move forward. That non-practice, passivity, is a just another form of lip service to the work.

Others including myself had different viewpoints.
The individuals that were at meditation were like most groups, at different capability levels and at various commitment levels.
My viewpoint was, we need to appreciate the continuum
that exists within a group and leave individuals to plod along in their way.

Then came this post and the comments that followed.

As a teacher who has been around for "oh so many years", I recognize
how the act of challenging students can sound like you are pushing against their will. However Discomfort is a major part of the learning process. It is misconception that learning is "FUN" all the time. What I have observed is that when I challenge my students they have to "engage".
Only through engagement, think of yourself learning to tie your shoelaces, is knowledge able to be turned into something usable.

On the other hand, resistance as Ken saw can be so strong that nothing happens. As a master teacher, Ken is able to reflect on that because he goes to the source of resistance, the individual.
"This two-way interaction is challenging for both parties. Neither one knows where things are going to go. It can be uncomfortable, even frightening, but when minds meet, understanding arises, and with it, a subtle joy. This is where the rubber meets the road — where our practice comes alive and active in our lives."

As to the group who, "Apparently, over lunch, the group had decided that they were fed up with my constant pushing and organized a conspiracy. Everyone had agreed to step forward whenever I asked for volunteers." they came back for process for the last two years. It was only through the strength of the group that they could energize themselves = synergy. My classes are at their best when they form communities that help each other. In this case this was they did.

Hard as it was one of the greatest gifts I ever received was when someone said after hearing my story, “Well Ellen sounds like you have a lot of work to do.” And I did and I still do.
Thanks Ken for the thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the lovely post and poem.

I am particularly interested in what you mention about 'invitation' having been thinking about that in these terms: male energy seems to push, female energy seems to invite. The skillfulness of course depends upon the situation acknowledging that every human being has both energies. I could list the various combinations but it seems tedious in light of your insightful post.

claudia said...

As another member of the "unwilling twelve" I have a few additional comments. One aspect of our group decision to volunteer in mass was the amount of time and energy that was being spent on the process of choosing people to participate in the exercises. Ken was being so extremely careful and considerate in his choices so as not to "push" anyone inappropriately that it was consuming a great deal of our time. When all of us volunteered he was able to make the choices based upon other criteria. As a result the process became quite rapid.

It was essentially our way of saying we are here to learn and willing to face our own emotional material in the process. Many of us had already come to this place on our own. It is one thing to deal with your material one-on-one with a teacher or alone on your cushion. It is quite another thing to do it in front of a group of peers. The depth of experience is deeply magnified in that environment and all of us have benefitted from it.

During these exercises the support and energy of our group allows each of us to stretch and move in ways that are new and often frightening. This has only been possible through the compassionate urging, inviting, and yes, "pushing" of Ken. It is what an effective master teacher does.