Working with the homeless I sit on floors, steps, stoops and folding chairs. At a Quaker First-Day School I sit on short, small chairs with my knees higher than my hips, or outside on the ground. Sitting around is very conducive to the spirit of teaching.
One afternoon I had a meeting with a very confused man named Paul to talk about his art. He lives a fairly marginal life, and is not used to much interaction. His eyes and thoughts dart around in distraction, so conversation is often difficult. I was there to teach him to see reality a bit more clearly. We sat on the steps of a food project, and another homeless person walked by. I had seen this person around Berkeley for years and been frightened: by the huge size, unbearable odor, fierce face, often lacerated with strange and probably self-inflicted wounds, and the impossibility of determining any sex. Size ten boots; enormous, bare calves; unshaven legs; large, rough gestures all suggest a man. Yet the occult rings on every finger and delicate features, even when habitually contracted into a grimace, speak of a woman. The clothes further confound any effort to see who this person is. He/she wears a torn skirt, and wraps three to four blankets around his/her body with more fabric draped around his/her head and face. He/she does not want to be known and hides signs not only of sex but even of humanity.
When I asked Paul about this person, he said, “People need to look beyond their own fear when they see someone like that. They need to ask, ‘What are the special adaptations this man is making to keep the misery down, to keep down his rage and sense of powerlessness, to make a space for himself and find peace?'” Clearly Paul was a teacher. He taught me to see with compassion, and to look deeply beyond appearances, with my heart. As I looked with appreciation at my companion/teacher, he saw me seeing him. And he calmed down, became steady. He looked me straight in the face, because he knew I was there, and I wanted something from him. His voice became stronger and deeper. My being there let him be there; my receiving his wisdom let him acquire some measure of self-esteem.
Real teaching is like that. It exists in the context of a relationship. Two people who let themselves share a moment together, both exchange realities, give and receive a lesson and are changed. When I allow myself to be truly present, the student becomes like my breath, a point of contact with reality. Here I discover who I am and in the discovery have a chance to shift how I see things and the world I create by that seeing. Teaching is a relationship where each side has a moment-to-moment chance to set new paths of conditioning in motion.
My second example.
One Sunday last summer I took a group of children from a Quaker meeting on a nature walk. Each child was to find one item, plant, creature, rock, draw it, and then voice its point of view. Their comments contained profound teachings. For instance, Shiela, a twelve-year old, said as her flower, “I am small, and I get stepped on. But then I fall apart in the ground and become fertilizer. And then I become another flower.” A very succinct dharma talk!
Most inspiring for me was the experience of Forrest, a seven-year old. When he showed me his drawing of a carefully observed flower, I praised it and asked if he could look again and find one more thing to draw. He looked and found a brown petal. I said, “Wonderful! But I think you might discover something else. Can you look again?” Then he saw a bug on the stem and became very excited at all he might have overlooked on this unusual treasure hunt. The bug woke me up too: I realized I was not seeing the obvious, and I began to pay attention to my own perceptions as well as to his process. For twenty minutes, a very long time for such a young boy, Forrest drew with minimal encouragement to look again each time he thought he had finished. Each time he came back I gave myself the task of noting one of his qualities of attention. His innocent intensity and pleasure became my guides to observe his body, eyes, fingers, and the atmosphere around his excitement. In this process of observation, I recovered my own mindfulness. I too opened to the morning and discovered the vivid reality that is always available when we look beyond our routine expectations. By the end of this class his drawing was highly detailed and personal. The flower was used up from seeing. Our eyes met and we connected in a sense of completeness in that moment. I gave him a technique and a safe environment to explore, and he taught me all about looking.
As with the homeless man, I was one of two people in the moment letting something new arise for each of us. Teaching is the creation of a circle of safety bounded by attention in which something new arises, something new that surprises those in the circle. The surprise is the teaching.
In the gift moment
only two hands in exchange.