Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chopping Wood, Carrying Water

Doing hand washing slowly and carefully,
washing each finger, drying each finger.

Montessori education and Zen Buddhism have many parallels. One that I find particularly beautiful is the idea of caring for the present moment by doing ONE THING AT A TIME.

As adults, so many of our activities are carried out simply as a means to an end. When we cook, we are already tasting the food, we can't wait to put it on the table so that we can gobble it up. When we wash the dishes after dinner, we want to finish as fast as possible so that we can go back to the hot tea waiting on the table. With this attitude, we are constantly trying to get to the future as fast as possible without really absorbing the importance of the present moment. It is like we are almost not alive when we are rushing through our activity to reach something that is always a little out of our reach. Life becomes like a conveyor belt of moments all rushing past.

I watch the children in the classroom... A child of three years who is washing a table is not rushing through the process because he can't wait to get to the snack table, or because he can't wait to get the table clean and dry. Immersed in the present moment, the child is building himself in the process of carrying out the simplest activity. Concentration, attention to detail, sensory richness, motor awareness, patterns and sequences, these are all virtues that he discovers only in the present moment when he is carrying out his work doing one thing at a time.

In Buddhist retreats they ask the adult students to go back to that state. To give attention to every action, to give value to every activity through remaining present. In this way, the adult discovers the hidden qualities that lay under the surface of the mundane. It is very difficult for an adult. But the children in the classroom, they are masters of this. This is another example of how "the child is the father of the man"...

I am striving to simplify my actions. To take care of each moment in and out of the classroom. When I stop being concerned with an idea of productivity, I focus on the quality of the present moment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Conflict is Necessary

Ultimately, work in the classroom for me boils down to what kind of little characters is our environment forming. I get very troubled sometimes when there's days that a barrage of conflicts occur. Our "peace flower" is well worn and kind of shabby looking after just 6 months of use. For this reason, I pulled out ye-old "P.E.T" (Parent Effectiveness Training) yesterday and re-read the chapter on conflict to remind myself that conflict is a part of life and not necessarily an evil.

Experiencing conflict and learning how to cope with it early on will prepare the children for how to deal with it later in life. Provided the conflict gets resolved constructively... "This is the critical factor in any relationship," says the author Thomas Gordon, "how conflicts get resolved, not how many conflicts occur." I guess it's a great thing then, that we get those days with lots of conflict resolution practice in our environment.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Most Important Thing

The majority of significant conversations in my life tend to occur while I'm driving. After school today, Sayenne came along with me to run errands far and wide across the island. "What do you think is the most important thing?" she asked, and promptly self-answered, "Because what I think is...". (This way of running a mono-conversation I think she has learned from the master, myself.)

I thought about a really fantastic passage in the book " The Art of Presence " by Eckhart Tolle, which I am currently "audio-reading". If everything in the world was the color blue, he explained, then we wouldn't really know that we're looking at blue. There has to be an element with which to compare in order for us to understand a concept. In the same way, the world around us is absolutely impermanent. Everything we know is transient. What then is the element that doesn't change? The thing that allows us to understand impermanence?

It lies beneath the mind, he says. It is the presence that is always there, regardless of the mental noise that covers it.

I thought of this presence and of a fundamental connection to all living beings, including plants and animals. Of the thing that survives us after our mind is gone and we continue to transfer into different states of matter. The awareness that in the end is the only thing that matters. Sayenne called it "love", I didn't know what to call it.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Weekend: On Running.

Yesterday I ran my second ever 5K race. I have never been much of a runner, but running is a sport that fascinates me because of its egalitarian simplicity. You need no gear other than a good pair of knees. 5K is not really a big distance per say, but considering that a year ago I was out of breath after a 2 minute jog, I have come a long way. Although my running form perhaps looks more like a fast-walk, or a slow-jog, I enjoyed the race tremendously.

Both races that I've participated in, I've run with a mindset of basically maintaining an even (slow) speed throughout the course. I start in the back where no eager athlete will trample me, and gradually pass the large ladies in spandex, the little-bit-joggers, and some of the fast starters that run out of gas early on.

In both races so far I've managed to find my niche right alongside the 9-11 year olds. These little guys bust out running for about 300 meters, and then they walk, all of this while they chew gum or drink out of juice boxes, then they explode again. This is their rhythm of running. I pass them, and then they pass me, and so on until the course is finished.

The mentality of pacing oneself, of saving something for later, is a capacity exclusive of the adult world. It is safe and solid. There is something that is so beautiful though, in a child that is giving all of it's energy for the minute or so that it lasts, in a full fledged run.

When I was done and stood in the sidelines sweating and my calves throbbing to watch the real athletes, the runners, complete their 10 K at the finish line, they looked like the children that I had run with. There was something primal and wonderful about them expending all of their energy in simply going as fast as they can.

Friday, January 23, 2009


In the mornings at school I like to walk around the garden with children as they arrive and notice changes in the environment. Maybe a spider's web that disappeared without a trace, a baby tomato come to life, a bud that has finally opened, a leaf that was a midnight snack for someone. We look at our watermelons, which we are all clueless as to how to identify ripeness, "I think they are bigger", maybe one of the children will say.

The changes in nature vary in scale, some occur in the blink of an eye, and some take seasons. I think the same thing happens with the children in the classroom, they are also in a constant state of transformation. Six months ago, they were all different children to me, that's for sure. Some have undergone several dramatic metamorphoses, and others are simply maturing slowly, almost imperceptively.

I must be changing as well. Perhaps at a slower rate, since they are growing physically and I am growing mostly in age.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Journey is the Destination.

Today a little boy flooded our bathroom and classroom for the second time. In the midst of the newly formed land and water forms that were the shelves, tables and chairs in the room, I did the breathing meditation that I've been trying to practice daily (inspired by the book "The Art of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh. When the water was dried up (with plenty of help from the children) and they were busy doing yoga in the room next door, I sat in the observation chair and reflected on the "bad day". I didn't feel angry or frustrated. Honestly I didn't feel like the day had really been that much of a fiasco. I reflected on the nature of my work in the classroom with children. Is there an ultimate goal? Is there an image of what the work in the classroom should look like? Is there something that the children are supposed to be like at the end of 3 years with us? Is there a destination point? If I think in these terms, then I realize I quickly cease to enjoy my work, I buckle under the pressure.

To be able to remain calm and present throughout the fluctuations of the day, the fluctuations of the weeks, of the months, the changes that the dynamic enviroment goes through every day I think is the true nature of work like mine. To not take the challenging days too seriously, nor to take the great productive days to be measures of what should be happening all the time. It helps me that I think our environment is beautiful, that there is sunshine and a breeze that travels all day through our classroom, that when the day is finished I enjoy being alone in our school and garden.

Now I will drag my office chair out under the Tamarind tree and do my office work there, in the company of the birds.

For example, I am about to drag my office chair out under the Tamarind tree to do parent emails.

Below, the master at what he does best. Helping people to chill out:

Driving Meditation
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

When we do walking meditation, the point is not to get somewhere, but rather to practice, using walking as the object of our attention. Even when we do have to get somewhere and must drive to do so, there is an opportunity for practice. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen master and poet, has written a number of gathas, or brief verses, for enhancing our mindfulness during everyday activities, even driving a car.

Before starting the car,
I know where I am going.
The car and I are one.
If the car goes fast, I go fast.

If we are mindful when we start our car, we will know how to use it properly. When we are driving, we tend to think of arriving, and we sacrifice the journey for the sake of the arrival. But life is to be found in the present moment, not in the future. In fact, we may suffer more after we arrive at our destination. If we have to talk of a destination, what about our final destination, the graveyard? We do not want to go in the direction of death; we want to go in the direction of life. But where is life? Life can be found only in the present moment. Therefore, each mile we drive, each step we take, has to bring us into the present moment. This is the practice of mindfulness.

When we see a red light or a stop sign, we can smile at it and thank it, because it is a bodhisattva helping us return to the present moment. The red light is a bell of mindfulness. We may have thought of it as an enemy, preventing us from achieving our goal. But now we know the red light is our friend, helping us resist rushing and calling us to return to the present moment where we can meet with life, joy and peace. Even if you are not the driver, you can help everyone in the car if you breathe and smile.

A number of years ago, I went to Canada to lead a retreat, and a friend took me across the city of Montreal. I noticed that everytime a car stopped in front of me, I saw the sentence, "Je me souviens" ("I remember"), on the license plate. I did not know what they wanted to remember, perhaps their French-speaking origin, but it gave me an idea. I told my friend, "I have a present for all of you here. Every time you see a car stop in front of you with the line 'Je me souviens,' you can see it as a bell of mindfulness helping you remember to breathe and smile. And you will have plenty of opportunities to breathe and smile while driving in Montreal."

My friend was delighted! He liked it so much that he shared the practice with more than 200 people in the retreat. Later, when he came to visit me in France, he told me that Paris was not a good place to practice driving, as there were no signs "Je me souviens." I told him that he could practice with red lights and stop signs. After he left Plum Village and went back to Montreal, he wrote me a beautiful letter: "Thay, practicing in Paris was very easy. Not only did I practice with red lights and stop signs, but every time a car stopped in front of me, I saw the eyes of the Buddha blinking at me. I had to smile at those blinking eyes."

The next time you are caught in traffic, don't fight. It is useless to fight. If you sit back and smile to yourself, you will enjoy the present moment and make everyone in the car happy. The Buddha is there, because the Buddha can always be found in the present moment. Practicing meditation is to return to the present moment in order to encounter the flower, the blue sky, the child, the brilliant red light.

Taken from Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living (1990) by Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax Press, Berkeley, California.