The Sound of Silence

One of the things I love about my yoga class at Durham Yoga Company is that there actually is a spiritual component. It’s not heavy, but it’s there–Mira, the teacher, shares her own spiritual wonderings and wanderings and is very knowledgeable about Buddhism, Sanskrit, and more. She encourages us to reflect on our practice, our lives, being better people–in my book all good things. She’s also an incredible teacher of yoga who has clearly put a lot of effort and time into becoming a talented instructor.

There are also so many wonderful people that come to the class–“a full Durham”–to borrow a phrase my parents coined when they lived here. About a week ago, Mira had two friends visiting and she mentioned, off-hand, that they had recently finished a three-year silent meditation retreat.

A three-year. Silent. Meditation. Retreat.

For someone who often has to be reminded to use her inside voice, this blew my mind. How could one commit to three years of silence? Especially undertaking that with a partner–the first thing I thought of was how hard it would be not to compare notes as the experience went on. Also, what do you do all day, besides meditate? I am sure it varies from place to place, but I did a little research to get an idea.

This description from Spirit Rock was the best that I could find, especially when it came to the daily routine:

The daily rhythm of a retreat usually involves alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation, eating and work meditations, as well as interviews, Dharma talks and rest periods. The first sitting usually begins at about 6 a.m., and a typical day includes seven sitting and six walking periods of 45 minutes apiece. Each morning the teachers offer continuing meditation instructions for the day. The whole retreat is a succession of mindfulness training, breathing practices, deep awareness of the body and environment, meditations on the nature of feelings, and awareness of mind and the laws that govern it. These are the same fundamental teachings of insight meditation offered in the traditional Buddhist monasteries of Asia.

To me, it sounds incredibly difficult. In an interview with Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works–A True Story (let’s work on that title length, Dan!), he states that on his week-long silent retreat, this was all “just as horrible as you think it sounds.” But then he talks about reaching a point of euphoria. His description reminded me of a runner’s high–you are slogging through all of the work of paying attention to your thoughts, patiently, somewhat painfully, and then finally the moment hits where it stops being work?

Is a three year retreat then the equivalent of an ultra-marathon? Could you do it?

P.S. Some talks from the three-year retreat at Diamond Mountain. I guess there are breaks in the silence, sometimes!

Five Ideas for Teaching East Asian Religions

Whew! My classes have made it through our unit on East Asian Religions, taught half by my student teacher and half by myself. Hopefully they saw past the shifting teaching styles and gained some understanding of Confucanism, Daoism, and Shinto. Here are some ideas I thought worked well:

1) Is Confucianism a Religion or a Philosophy? This was a discussion led by my student teacher that linked back to our conversations earlier in the year about what it means to really be a religion. She used excerpts from a Useless Tree blog post that responded to this article by Peter Berger, as well as another short excerpt from Prothero’s Book, God Is Not One. While I think the readings themselves can be challenging for students, I enjoyed how they got students to re-evaluate the question of what is a religion. While Useless Tree notes that “there is little, if any, concern for cosmological origins or after lives” in Confucianism, I would challenge my students (and Useless Tree) to consider whether spirituality must be confined to questions of our beginnings and endings. Like Prothero, it seems to me there is some sense in a spirituality that aids in the “individual transformation” (his words) that is the mark of our living experience. On the heels of learning about Buddhism, which, depending on the branch, can be similarly removed from deities and the cosmos, and as we prepare for diving into the religions deriving from the Middle East, this conversation was particularly useful as a means for discussing what it means to be a religion and to stretch our original definitions even further.

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What’s going on?! A brief run-down of the last few weeks

Photo by Nikolas Wall

It’s not what it looks like. Photo by Nikolas Wall

It’s been kind of a long week. Or two, actually. It started for me last week, with the non-indictment in Ferguson. While not entirely surprised, I was, and continue to be, pretty broken-hearted about the situation. As I shared with my students, to watch images of protesting and anger and to know that so many people don’t feel safe in this country, protected by the police, or served by its government, makes me incredibly sad. That the experience of life (and justice) in this nation for blacks is so different from my own experience isn’t news to me, but last week’s events were a stinging reminder.

The non-indictment led to a heartfelt and thoughtful discussion in my first period class the next day. School teachers (and maybe journalists) are the only people I know who have to read about the news and formulate a response and a way to discuss it with thirty teenagers before 7:30 that morning. Our talk was good, heartfelt and honest, but given the subject matter it was not particularly happy.

What was happy, though, was my 3rd period World Religions class and the moment you see captured above. I mentioned this in my last post, but Reverend WonGong So came to visit our class and delivered an awesome presentation on Won Buddhism. The best part, though, was when she got 36 kids to stand up and led them through walking and moving meditations. My favorite times teaching are when you can get students to completely abandon their teenage self-consciousness and fully embrace a goofy learning moment. (And you can see that they did! They were doing arm circles in that picture, not heiling Hitler, which unfortunately it kind of looks like).

Fortunately, last Tuesday was followed by a relaxed and wonderful visit home with family. Coming back this week to little annoyances (unruly kids, progress reports), and more examples of the troubling state of race relations in our country (the Eric Garner non-indictment and the story about Lennon Lacy in Bladenboro, NC) have been a bit of a let down, but hopefully there are some good things coming up. Next week, World Religions goes to the Sikh gurdwara, and I think we’re making progress in APUSH. I’ve got some projects in the work for the blog, as well. Stay tuned, and thanks for putting up with my emotions this week!

Question, because I am curious: How have you dealt with the Brown and the Garner cases in your classrooms?

Reading Recommendations

I’m sure, like me, most of you are looking forward to a few days of break from school and work. I am always excited for these moments where I have a little space and time to pick up a new book, or just to start my Christmas gift-ing. If you are looking for something to read in these next few days, might I suggest:

Next, my students recently turned in book review or book covers on a reading of their choice that related to something we’d cover in our World Religions class. I am always fascinated by the choices they make. Below are some of the new picks this year (that came highly recommended by my kids):

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Some of the book covers turned in.

  • Irresistable Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne
  • Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
  • Greater than You Think by Thomas D. Williams
  • My Jesus Year by Benyamin Cohen
  • Annexed by Sharon Dogar
  • Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler
  • My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer
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Thoughtful gifts from our speaker today.

Finally, today we had guest speaker in class, the Rev. WongGon So from the Won-Buddhism meditation temple in Chapel Hill, NC. She was so wonderful and lively–her overview of the Won Buddhist beliefs was thoughtful but easy for students to grasp and her fearlessness with the students forced them to get involved–like a practiced teacher she called on individuals to read and share and walked them through various meditation practices. Her review of the Fourfold Graces and an effort to cultivate gratitude felt especially timely as we approach the Thanksgiving break. The Won interpretation of Buddhism was interesting and new to me, and if you are interested I encourage you to learn more about it here.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone!

Lost in the Supermarket

A few years ago I came across an article about Noah Levine, a so-called Dharma punk. The article made the assertion that punk music was a natural fit for Buddhism, from the anti-establishment and anti-materialistic ethos to the lack of attachment to physical well-being shown in the mosh pit. Intrigued, I asked around and came up with some ideas for songs that were clean enough to bring into the classroom but rocking enough to catch the kids’ attention. I liked the idea of challenging them to think about Buddhism not simply as a quiet, meditative, path, but as a set of understandings that could emerge in any “scene.” The title of this post comes from one of the Clash songs that I like to play for them–a contemplation of life in the dissatisfying ‘burbs and our material world. Translating the universal truths that Siddhartha taught to punk rock rebels helps set the stage for later conversations about Buddhism “in the world”–and the rebellions for justice led by monks in Tibet, Burma, Vietnam, and elsewhere (great, old CNN video on Buddhist activists here).

The thing is, so few of my students are punks these days that, while they were interested in the article and music in sort of an anthropological way, they didn’t really connect to the spirit. As a result, this year I did some crowd-sourcing via Facebook and added to my list of tunes. Just where else do we see Buddhist themes emerging in pop culture today? Both my dad and sister recommended Gone Going’ by Jack Johnson and the Black Eyed Peas. I started class off with that one, and to my surprise one of my students immediately began singing along. (Apparently my dad and sister are much more with it than I am. I had never heard the song before). Listening to the lyrics, the students were able to make connections to suffering, impermanence, and “no-soul,” and the fact that the first one was such a hit let me get away with playing some more, less well-known tunes.

I love this activity because it gives us a way to talk about some of the more challenging concepts, using the song lyrics as guideposts to test our definitions or understandings of anitya, anatma, and dukkha against. It also lends itself to fun extra credit: right now students are working on picking out their own songs to share with the class that similarly represent Buddhist values. I’ll share those with you soon!