It's Been a Year
To draw a connection between anything and COVID this year would be not only to understate the actual issues of the world but would be to highlight what has now become a cliche. But even with this in mind, it is not a cliche or overstatement to declare that this year has been a year. Just yesterday, I gained word that at least one student in a former classroom attempted suicide in the past few months. Others have published novels. Others led protests for Palestine, BLM, Climate Justice. All of them have been through a roller coaster of emotion, experience, and life, despite their few years on Earth.
In the last year, I also changed schools, sometime right after the pandemic ended the first school year of its lifetime at the end of 2020. The first school I taught at was a challenging, urban charter school that attempted to put a majority of students of color through to a 4 year college and success. Against overwhelming odds, they accomplished this goal, but the work was exhausting, literally to the point of burnout. Indeed, many of my coworkers were former Teach For America candidates, a notoriously challenging teacher burnout program. Add to this the fact that the charter school quite literally was designed to be worked at for 4 years or less, and it adds to the potential stress. On top of all of this, of course, was the challenging student body. The kids were amazing, but, as an undergraduate professor used to say, they were those that, despite needing the most help, always asked for it in the hardest of ways. Emotionally taxing, this added to the pressures put on by the school district and from the incessantly long, arduous meetings that carried on for what seemed like years, almost none of which were particularly useful or productive.
Switching to this year, life and pedagogy could not be more dissimilar. Out in the suburbs of Redmond, one of the richest areas in the country, this year's school is a private school. Most students' parents work at Microsoft or nearby Google, T-Mobile or other hyper-competitive tech industries. The yearly tuition is a third of my salary. And many of the students are driven, already 2-3 grade levels ahead, despite the fact that I moved down into middle school for the year. On top of this, micromanaging is at a minimum, the school is an International baccalaureate program, and it is college prep and advanced, with tons of academic freedom and ability to create and manage new clubs and classes, quite to the contrary of the strict, rigid nature of the charter school.
And even though I have belabored the point, it is worth pointing out again. These two schools are in the same county. A key difference, of course, is that one of them has money, while the other does not. And this relates quite clearly to something about education that I have often said. Many kids--maybe even most students--really do want to do well. The difference these schools represent, though, is indicative of the divide that exists between those at the top and those at the bottom. And while the picture is immensely more complex than this black and white image, it is a simple reminder that sometimes our ZIP Code can determine so much about our lives.
So beyond COVID and virtual school and the various challenges of the year, this year has been quite the year for exploring and understanding and learning not only about the diverse inequities that exist in Washington state but also a year for exploring what it means to be a teacher and how to best serve students across the aisles. It has also been about wanting to transform society with education and pedagogy and the challenges and opportunities that presents us with. It’s definitely been a year.
"Sometimes, Working To Improve Yourself Is the Best Thing You Can Do For the World"
Though I cannot find the attribution, I remember an old saying from coaches and teachers alike from high school that went something like this: “The best thing you can do for the world is to work on and improve yourself.” The basic premise lies at the root of many world religions, self-help books, and the like, and it is an immensely valuable piece of knowledge, albeit limited. Although I stopped perceiving the world through a purely individualist perspective some years back, I never expected to have this very quote swing back around to me and hit me straight in the face. Indeed, it was more eye opening than I could have imagined.
It was mid-April of 2020 and we had been in quarantine for a month. Life as we knew it had come to a halting screech and I was teaching adolescents through a screen in a small room full of books in my house. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, schools and businesses across the world shuttered their doors to halt the spread of the disease and, at that point, the world was actually doing both terribly and well, with most of the world finally coming on-board with the project but while New York City ravaged with thousands dead daily. Early the pandemic, groups of thinkers innovated learning and business almost overnight. Famously, companies and individuals cranked out millions of masks in a week, ensuring every American could have one.
In the middle of these ongoing self-organizing entities, my friend Keith discovered one that branded itself as a “digital campfire where we cohere and dialogue at the knife’s edge of this moment.” The Stoa hosts the leading thinkers from across the world on near-daily episodes focusing on a variety of topics. Much like its cousin Rebel Wisdom, it seeks to help the world navigate this crisis, a meta-crisis as its followers would say. So after Keith had attended a few webinar sessions, he invited me to one, which I joined with some excitement. It was then that the famous adage came swinging into my face.
With flailing arms and boisterous vocals, Rhys Lindmark, author and blogger, was enthusiastically leading his viewers through an analysis of a possible post-capitalist world, one that didn’t decimate capitalism at the forefront but road the undulating waves of the slowly dying ideology on the way out.
Networkism. Bentoism. Coherent Pluralism. Lindmark's post-capitalism contends to take what we currently have at our disposal and serves us best and use that to launch us into the future. The most potent is a graph that he shared. Referred to as the Four Bentos, it depicts four quadrants that all align with self interest on the Y axis and time on the X axis. The bottom left, he said, is our normal, almost current state, which is a state focused on “Now Me” or selfish desires in the immediate. Directly above that is the Now Us category, followed by a Future Me on the bottom right and a Future Us on the upper right. The last category is the one to which a Post-Capitalism should be striving, Lindmark argues.
However, since the striking on the pandemic, Lindmark noted something that I had never conceived, at least not in years: could there be a world in which actions from the bottom left--the “Now Me” category--really did improve the world? I scoffed at first, almost laughing off the libertarian fantasy, until I thought about it for a moment. Rhys quickly elaborated: in this moment, he declared, doing just that will actually save the world, at least in the short-near term. Indeed, if you think about it he is exactly right. If I selfishly chose to go to the movies, I could spread COVID, but by selfishly choosing to stay home, I could save lives. Indeed, by doing nothing more than sitting on my couch and not interfering or participating in the “economy” I could save lives. In a weird juxtaposition that must certainly summarize 2020, the old saying came back to life.
After Rhys’ great webinar, I took the calling to heart, wondering just how I could focus on self-improvement in the pandemic. Although this is always something I am working on one way or another--through physical activity or through reading challenges, for example--I hadn’t constructed it quite that directly in my mind. To prevail in this time, I thought, I need more learning. After scouring the internet and convincing my partner to let me spend a little bit of money, I’d found it: college courses.
Two years ago I finished my master’s degree, but I have always felt mildly cheated out of a bachelor's degree with any rigor outside of my narrow field of study (which was rigorous and practical but narrow). Because of this, I have sought to continue learning, ideally within the emergent field of the environmental humanities. Luckily, Fort Hays State University, a public institution in Kansas, offers graduate courses for cheap. Beyond that, they were offering two environmentally themed graduate courses: Global Environmental History and Politics of the Environment. I had to sign on.
After a few email exchanges, I applied, and I was shocked to see that I was admitted two days later as a non-degree graduate student. I immediately enrolled in the two courses. A week or so later, I was frothing at the mouth for more, especially since I had wanted to sign up for another course. My plans for Colorado had been amended as well, so I knew I’d have more free time to study, so I took it upon myself to enroll in another course, though this time at the undergraduate level: History of Modern Philosophy. Since I still had California residency, I could apply and enroll in any California Community College course in the state, at 46 dollars per credit hour to boot. The opportunity was too good to pass up, so I was enrolled in 9 credit hours over the summer at two different institutions, even though 6 credit hours of graduate study is considered full-time and you’re “supposed to” enroll in two institutions and 9 credits simultaneously.
Well, I did it anyway, and I am immensely grateful. With all of my free time, the courses never really overwhelmed me, though I was kept quite busy and had to plan my time, especially in Colorado. However, I proved that I could overcome the obstacles and that I had sufficient reason and motivation for self improvement. Indeed, it turns out, as Rhys proclaimed: self-improvement was the best thing I could do for the world at this time. And as the pandemic rages on, I am wondering now how I can best help us get out of this mess, as it appears that the selfishness could only last so long. Well, I shall be returning to school in a few weeks, so that is one opportunity, though that is fairly limited.
Updates: Changes Headed This Way!
It has been some time since I have written here. It turns out that I have had this blog for two and a half months, and I have done very little writing here. The truth is, I have done much writing elsewhere, much communicating elsewhere, and much more reading and thinking elsewhere. Indeed, I have neglected this space. It was set up as a sort of last minute scramble toward the middle of quarantine. Now, many months in, I have neglected it, in the midst of finishing the school year, finding a new job, and beginning graduate and undergraduate courses this summer. However, as classes wrap up and as my journeys out in the West soon come to a close, I will have a brief time to revise this before the school year begins anew. During this time, I wish to add a bit more to this site, creating out of it the space I was originally intending: one of contemplation, one of exploration, and one of sheer joy and adventure, of sorts.
Because of this, expect to see some new material in the near future. Some types of material that may be headed this way may include some of the following:
1. Book Reviews: While I have been using Goodreads for about three years now, I have only posted a handful of reviews. I would also like to begin to seriously review some texts, and I think this space is appropriate for that. Even more appropriate is that I spent most of the summer already writing some of these.
2. Longform Thoughts: I have been writing a bit this summer, and I have many ideas stewing in my head, from philosophy to history and politics. All of that, of course, is taking place in the middle of a gigantic pandemic and economic recession the likes of which we haven't seen in some years. Much is flowing in my brain here, and some of this may be somewhat "academic" and others might just simple reflections (the more likely).
3. Life Updates, Events, etc: I have had quite a bit of interesting stuff happen over the last few months, and this might be a space to share it, with the intention of learning. This might be related to my friend's podcast, my journeys in Colorado, or more.
4. Whatever else I can think of!? I am basically excited to start writing again and add to this space.
Thanks again for joining me, and I hope to hear from you soon.
A New Blog Appears!
Or perhaps welcome back?
I have begun a new adventure, this time with Weebly, and I suppose the third time is really the charm here. For previous readers, you will notice I have re-posted all of my old articles, in addition to a brand new website, design, and online appearance. I tried to keep things simple and not too overburdening this time around, so I hope that holds up. For new readers, welcome to a place of ponderings! I have posted a number of blog posts, most of which are somewhat incoherent musings, about life, specifically the intersections of education, ecology, and social class, my passions. I hope this new adventure encourages me to write more as well, hopefully in the form of blog posts and not just journaling...
Thank you for joining me on this journey, and I look forward to connecting soon!
Throughout my graduate program, in seminar after seminar, we discussed, with gusto, pedagogy, teaching, learning, schooling, and all aspects of education both within schools and individual classrooms as well as macroscopically through lenses of power and oppression, in addition to sociologically and economically and, of course, politically. One of my favorite courses, titled Teaching, Learning, and Schooling, threw us headlong into our own beliefs, understandings, and ideologies regarding three distinct aspects of education that interconnect in nuanced ways but were broken apart and examined scrupulously. In fact, our final product was to produce a large, poster-sized visual, artistic representation of our views of the three subjects. Exemplars ranged from anthropomorphized tree-heads fusing together to pictorial representations of video games and the internet. Together we all wrestled with the strange interweaved connections and synthesized the information in our own way, through our own lens.
One day a few weeks into the semester, we were discussing learning. The course was designed so that we would spend a week or so delving into each of the three topics, and then after that practice synthesizing them, comparing them, drawing connections between them, and also staking the differences to better understand how we can approach our own philosophy of education. In this particular class, we were discussing a subject brand new to most students, at least in theoretical terms, where we were simply asked the question: “What are you teaching your students when you’re not actually teaching them?” With my outdoor education background, not to mention an immense passion for having read Paulo Freire a second time that summer, I struggled to hold in my responses. Relentlessly, I did manage to self-regulate, at least until the conversation was beginning. Somewhere along the line, I elaborate on how, even unconsciously, humans are always adapting to their environment, taking in new information, and attempting to piece together those dilapidated data with our current processors. The idea that we could be subconsciously consuming data and then utilizing it seemed novel to some. As the teacher facilitated the conversation, he eventually explained to the class that what we had described was academically known as the hidden curriculum.
The Hidden, sometimes called Invisible, Curriculum, is a name for the idea that, even though we do not plan every aspect of our learning experience for students, we are always teaching them something. When you begin to ponder this thought, it can be daunting. If students are learning even when I am not intentionally teaching them, can I as a teacher guarantee that every bit of information they devour is correct, is information that should be consumed, or is data or information that will add value to their lives in some way? The simple answer is of course not, but that is only half of the problem and the challenge.
In our graduate seminar, we focused closely on how the invisible curriculum hides closely behind the intended curriculum. We examined this through racial bias, gender discrimination, and the absence of social class. For those less familiar with this topic in education, we consider these curricula that fall “short” or that don’t explain the whole story, often because they are told through only one story, with one answer, which is the back of the book. To elaborate, this idea centers around the concept that there are hidden stories, hidden messages, and hidden learning that happens in the classroom. This isn’t an Illuminati vision, though, because this is not some cryptic message or even possibly some massively huge “big brother” information sink. Rather, it is both an unintended consequence of a limitation of time and resources or is simply from ignorance.
For example, in the history classroom, it can be easily identified. For most of the early education in US history, many figures didn’t make the books, literally. These ranged from prominent African American figures to Latino labor organizers to working-class folks of all skin colors, creeds, and geographic locations. Even after Howard Zinn’s groundbreaking book, A People’s History of the United States, some places have been slow to implement these important stories within their curriculum. This ignorance or rejection of these stories then teaches one of two lessons. First, it says to students that there is only one story, one version of history and it looks a certain way. In this case, that image is usually white, male, and heroic. Secondly, it dictates what is and is not important to learn within the classroom. For example, if a history teacher only focuses on wars, battles, and generals, it negates social movements, politics, and poverty, among numerous other topics, from the study of history. Once again, this negation or exemption may be intentional or not, but it is a critical aspect of education that needs to be considered when making decisions and teaching youth.
For me, I move beyond even the curriculum when I consider the invisible curriculum, though, and I believe it is imperative that all teachers do the same, though in different ways. The impact of the invisible curriculum on our society is too great to otherwise ignore it.
In the classroom, this develops differently for each course that I teach. Working with male students, for example, I often wonder not only whether many of them have positive male role models in their lives, but I consider who is their chief influences for positive masculinity. If we are to solve issues of gender equity in the country, we have a duty to educate young men to not only treat young women with respect and dignity and allow spaces for them to prosper, but we must also teach young men to respect each other, to engage in healthy conflict nonviolently, to express emotions, and more. In this way, as a teacher I have a tremendous opportunity to present this version of masculinity for them, to teach them, even if it is only through passive interactions with me, rather than structured material. Likewise, if we are to solve issues of the climate crisis, we must show students, modeling for them through our own beliefs and actions, the appropriate steps one could take to make changes. Language, of course, is another avenue for immense learning. Teachers model academically language in their classes consistently and many students learn just simply by being exposed to it, as many have a home life where that type of academic argumentative language simply doesn’t exist. I know that I didn’t.
Moving beyond classrooms and schools and into the broader world, we must consider the invisible curriculum not only in our own fields and within informal education but also online and in other spaces where learning happens. By raising the invisible curriculum to the surface, in an intentional, critical, but humble way, we can begin to identify aspects of our curriculum and learning that are lacking, some of which do our children and society a disservice.
For this reason, I believe that it is imperative that teachers ask this question of their own classrooms, of their own demeanor, and of their own ideologies of the world: What am I teaching my students when I’m not teaching them? There are many answers to our challenges, but we can start by asking good questions.
Teachers As Working Class
Debates abound in sociology amongst scholars attempting to distill the essence of class. Claims range from an inappreciable denial state to bombastic claiming that every individual other than a CEO of a Fortune 500 company can be considered working class simply based on the fact that they do not own the largest means of production. While I do not believe that a universal definition exists, I do contend that defining the terms of class in the US is an extremely useful way to promote justice, to analyze social problems, and to simply view the world.
In this way, I think it is imperative for teachers to consider their position in the class system of the United States. When we begin to think of teachers’ roles in the lives of their students, it becomes critical to ponder the role they play in class politics and in power in society if we are to create a more equitable and just world--a goal I assert we strive toward.
Though I will not ascribe to a particular sociologist, economist, or philosopher, my perspectives are deeply rooted in Marxist critiques of economics and politics and closely aligned with many modern progressive thinkers. To this end, a useful definition of class for teachers to initially approach the subject relates to positions of power. Beyond identity, these positions relate to the ownership of the means of production, which in the 21st century drastically differ from Marx’s Prussia and London. When we examine the world through power, we will notice that teachers are, indeed, much closer to many of their students than to a bourgeoisie owning class, even if they are highly educated and owners of a slightly large piece of the economic pie themselves.
When we think traditionally about the ownership of the means of production we conjure images of foreman, of bosses, of elite CEOs wearing business suits and cruing along in a third yacht. While this image certainly holds true, we can nuance this image tremendously. Property, at least in the form of real estate, land, or equity made from those, is a tremendous asset and has been historical, though significantly less today for use in agriculture compared to other historical periods. Nevertheless, ownership of landed estates and the associated wealth demands a type of owning class. Surely there are numerous teachers, especially in smaller towns across America, that step into this category that we would traditionally associate with a middle class. This pervasive myth of middle-class politics, though, clouds our vision.
In reality, when compared on a larger scale, we can begin to see the dissolution of the middle class, especially when dwarfed dynamically by the immense wealth of the upper echelons. Truly, power is held in wealth, generational wealth, but also in political purchasing power, monopolistic business power, and the continued upward concentration of true power in the form of capital. The gulf continues to widen and we begin to glance teachers solidly huddled on one side.
Where our story complicates, though, is in this Bardo, this inner state between the working-class--those who work for wages and sell their labor--and an owning class that consistently distances itself, form workers, either physically or ontologically. For if a working-class is any individual or group of individuals that sell their labor for wages to be spent on goods and services, teachers unquestionably fall into the former. The creation of a middle class that separates itself from others that also sell their labor, either by becoming marginally wealthier, owning their own small businesses, or simply obtaining a small fortune is an interesting phenomenon, as it is clear that, even though they may obtain some level of privilege and distance from the lower classes, they tend to, holistically at least, rely directly upon the owners of the means of production for their existence. The difference being, of course, that their entire existence is not wholly dependent on it, as they have a measure of power and authority not granted to the average wage earner. In this way, they can begin to distance themselves culturally from the lower classes, establishing what, to them, is declared a separate state, even though, ironically, they are still closer in measure to the working class. This divide, though, has a tremendous impact, not only because many teachers consider themselves in this special unit but because the very practice of imagining this unit is horizontal hostility.
For example, if there exists a class apart from the working-class that is not a true owning class, their begins to perpetuate a myth that they must somehow be severed from either class, a unique specimen separate and distant from either class, generally innocent, well-to-do, honorable. This tends to further be exacerbated in recent politics because many who fall into this category--a new educated upper-middle-class elite that includes everything from professors and doctors to nonprofit managers with masters degrees in social justice-related work--find themselves at direct odds with the working-class, preferring instead to be distinct, rather than acknowledge solidarity, choosing instead apathy or silent applause for class comrades. On the flip side, many of these folks are also the most well-meaning, critical comrades for workers because they acknowledge themselves as workers, even if they know they have important privileges.
Regarding privilege, there can be no denying that this cohort, whether truly apart from the working-class or not, does have access, both economically and politically, to a world that many working-class folks do not, especially the growing class of working poor. In a world where the division continues sliding further, grasping for these advantages has become a dog fight. Teaching as a profession occupies a void somewhere in the middle of this challenge. Not only do teachers possess educational privilege and at least in some places a more marginally secure position and benefits, but they also rest on a shaky foundation.
Teachers find themselves in this middle in a different way, too. Given such immense powers in the impact of the lives of young people, teachers posses both class and cultural capital that many students need to succeed. They are the ultimate gatekeepers, though they are not the sole gatekeeper, of course. This is critical for class consciousness and for building class solidarity. In acknowledging this power, teachers can begin to connect with their students across class lines. Indeed, teachers may be the best-equipped profession to hold this middle ground of class solidarity. And it is certainly a tedious balance.
As has been proven across educational research, teachers and schools perpetuate a middle class (usually white) culture that can be harmful to students' own identities, values, and traditions. Though this should not be viewed as simplistically as either good or bad, it is essential to dissect this a little more. What I mean is that teachers are gatekeepers in the sense that they stand at the threshold: a middle way, a space between the solidarity of the working-class--of which they are truly a part--and that of higher educational and economic privilege, at least as society currently exists. If teachers can acknowledge this, they can build solidarity across classes.
Because teachers are integral to the middle ground of class, they are working-class. Teacher's proximity, both physically and ontologically, to their students, holding, in some form, the ability to shape their lives, places them intimately close with the working class. Teachers' salaries, job security, and prestige also rest upon (literally) the shoulders, arms, and legs of working people, whose labor upholds school funding and functioning around the country, private and charter schools not withheld. In addition, nearly all the students that teachers teach in a classroom will have some connection to the working-class, whether in their communities, as workers themselves, or from their parents. Finally, many teachers also come from working-class backgrounds--like me--and have found a way to step into the fictional middle-class but have not forgotten at least aspects of their roots. This is not only something they can share with their students but is a privilege they can use to reshape society.
Within all of these interconnections of teachers intimately connecting to the working class, whether by standing in the threshold, partnering with students, or coming from working-class backgrounds themselves, we can see most clearly the urgent need for teachers to understand class consciousness and begin the work of discovering solidarity with students, with communities, and, indeed, the larger working-class. So even if we do not consider teachers truly “working-class,” it is evident that they are so clearly connected with the working-class that solidarity is imperative. In fact, I hold that teachers, when they examine closely the economic and political story they are enmeshed in, will discover their place as leaders that shape the minds of future union organizers, future solidarity activists, future young people striving for social and environmental justice and equity in our world--and as members of the working-class.
Reader's note: This is the text version of a podcast episode that I am featured in, which can be found here: https://afutureonwaxenwings.podbean.com/e/e1-without-nature-a-meditation-by-ethan-smith/ . My friend and intellectual, Keith Runyan, is the host of the podcast, called A Future On Waxen Wings, which explores various aspects of the future, from environmental challenges and existential risk to post-future narratives and much more. I had the privilege to write a short essay for the podcast, so please give it a listen or read the transcript of it below.
Last week a friend of mine posted a spectacular image of Yosemite Valley on social media with a tagline proclaiming its awesome glory. Without argument, Yosemite Valley is one of the most majestic places on the planet, which is why I spent just under two years living and working in the valley surrounded by massive granite slabs, majestic waterfalls, and Giant Sequoias. However, seeing the image shared this way on social media made me think, and I struggled erasing the humans and the human constructed paths, roads, stores, and shops that I knew were present in the image that hid just beneath the magical veneer of the precisely timed photograph. And this got me thinking about a concept prevalent in our culture.
By repressing these “uglier” parts of the picture or by literally hiding them within the frame, we construct a version of reality that exists as a double truth. And this image is but one microscopic example of this common phenomenon. One of these truths proclaims pristine nature, devoid of humans, crafted by the hands of God and Mother Nature. The other peels back the wallpaper to reveal a more complex, interesting, realistic, perhaps uncanny story of the world. It is this story that I want to interrogate more closely.
To approach this story, I want to provoke a question: does Yosemite Valley remain pristine nature if we know there are people below the tree line? What about when we learn that a 5-star hotel exists in the background where the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama have spent the night beneath Yosemite Falls? If not, why might it suddenly go from “nature” to “not nature?” Furthermore, why would the image be beautiful only if the human is absent and the thing called nature is present? Is there a reason why the addition of human constructed aspects of the environment would change our understanding of that environment, especially the aesthetics? Numerous answers might exist to these questions, but a consistent one relies upon the idea of a separation of humans and nature.
Putting the medium aside, it is clear that the orientation of this image of Yosemite clearly presents us with a beautiful spectacle, but it is also one laden with value, even if we do not at first notice it. But it is, in a small way, indicative of a larger idea. By demarcating the line between human and everything else in terms of an object that we call nature, we then, perhaps inadvertently, assign a value to each. Of course this story often goes along the lines of humans being are at best ambivalent but more likely prone to sin or a downfall, often tainted, but occasionally redeemable, and sometimes noble. Nature, then, is often, at worst, a little scary, but mostly pure, virgin, innocent and of course full of beauty. This removal of humans from the image and the subsequent uplifting of the sublimity of the natural world has been studied extensively in aesthetics and art history and literature. Despite it being a common, it is indicative of a larger cultural idea of the separation of humans from the natural world. When examined closely, though, the idea begins to dissolve slowly and a new world is discovered beyond it.
In fact, as we continue, we will begin to call this idea of a separation of humans and nature the myth of nature. Because, as we will discover, the concept of “nature”--at least as it is presented in modern Western Culture since at least the Romantics--never really quite existed as we though it did. Only now in our age of vast information has this become strikingly apparent--and important. Let’s dive a little deeper into the myth of nature.
Perhaps the most significant upheaval of the Anthropocene is the elimination of the concept of nature. Among others, Bill McKibben declared the end of nature in 1989 which he stated was the moment in Earth’s history when nothing could escape the grasp of humanity because we had shaped the world so vastly that we had even put a layer of nuclear material in the fossil record. Ironically, this position simply restates and repaints the nature and human divide on a different canvas; however, within it lies a truth about the idea of nature and the anthropocene, though different from McKibben’s original intention, and it is one we want to dissect.
If humans evolved from a common primate ancestor, it is hard to claim that we were ever separate from the world. The problem for keeping the word nature is deciding at which point humans became distinct enough of an entity that one can draw a line between them and the environments and biomes in which they arose. It wasn’t as if humans simply appeared one day from the material world, completely cut off from the rest of matter. Of course, we can certainly argue that there are certain ways in which humans are separate, especially from other mammals, but this separation is related to degree, composition and style, not a complete severing, unless you follow religious doctrines and interpretations. The ways in which humans are separate from the rest of the world has been discussed throughout time in philosophy and theology and literature and they form the very basis of the humanities.
We can further complicate the myth by examining discoveries in the last half century in microbiology and chemistry, which have continually shown how humans not only exist within complex systems but are themselves complex systems. In this way, one can imagine a tiny bit of “nature” existing simultaneously inside each of us, at least when nature is viewed as something other. In fact, though, it is not really a tiny bit of “nature” at all but rather something that is simultaneously us and not us. One example is stomach bacteria, our microbiome. Can a human really exist without their complete stomach biome, all of those small bacterium living and reproducing, contributing to the larger stomach and organs? Probably not, at least not well. But is stomach bacteria at all “human?” Kind of, but not exactly; however, it is certainly a piece of a large and complex system that we call human. We could continue this logical thought for many parts of the system that we can human, eventually it might lead us to a profound and challenging question: at what point, then, does our human self “end” and nature “begin?” Putting aside reductionism as a solution for now, let’s examine the separation.
When asked to conjure images of nature, people often state the obvious: trees, animals, mountains. Surely these things do exist in a way that is different from humans, at least in their emergent forms and to our senses. For example, the collection of matter that is me is obviously not the same thing to our eyes, as say, a palm tree, even if at our most basic level we are collections of atoms. So it certainly makes sense for humans to create words and images that separate us from palm trees and things like toasters and mountain ranges. However, romantic thought has taught us that these entities collectively exist as something called “nature”--and that thing is always over “there” and away from us, while we, the humans, exist “here” in subjectivity. But ontologically speaking, is there something always over “there” that is nature and something “here” that is me? The answer to that question is much more complex than it seems at first.
Philosopher Timothy Morton, who has written extensively on the topic of ecology without nature, coherently demonstrates part of this point with a thought experiment that I will paraphrase here because it brings to light many of the flaws of our idea of nature. He asks us to think of a meadow. In the meadow exist all of the normal pieces of a meadow: small critters, leaves, dirt, fungi, maybe a few bones lying around, meadow-y things. If we remove one grass blade from the meadow, is the object that we are now staring at still a meadow? It seems logical that we would conclude that it is still very meadow-y. So, if we continue this thought experiment, what happens if we remove two blades? Seventy? A thousand? Certainly there must exist a point if we continued the experiment where we would be left with one blade of grass or one mouse, which most certainly do not exist as a meadow but rather a blade of grass or a mouse. These are very different from the thing we started with and called a meadow. The puzzle of determining the end of the meadow is replicated closely in the idea of nature. Because we can’t seem to grasp the “end” of the meadow firmly, we are stuck in a double bind within the meaning of the word and concept of meadow. If dissected, we discover that the singular meadow is actually comprised of numerous things that we collectively lump together and call a meadow but only together do they exist as a meadow, not as parts but only as a whole. Our current conception of nature works similarly. Is nature not just a stand-in, catch-all phrase for the myriad deer, mountains, skunks, banana slugs, and forested paths of our lives, a kind of false holism? At what point are those entities--which are usually composed of multiple other entities, or lumps, themselves--no longer nature? What about those things “closer” to us, such as roads, vehicles, dogs, or nuclear waste? Would we call even the aesthetically displeasing--even scary and most certainly ugly, evil stuff--nature? After all, they’re certainly not human...Furthermore, because we assign value to nature, it inherently complicates the idea. It is here when we begin to realize the holes in our concept of nature and that it is, indeed, a slippery slope, one with immense cultural force that we are still struggling to grasp
This inescapable human/nature twist is similar to McKibben’s idea of the end of nature; however, the further we travel, the more we realize that many ideas of nature never really quite existed as we thought they did, nor perhaps, did the separation of humans from it either. Indeed, at a certain point we even can begin to question what is human, as we have already lost grip on nature, but that is for another time. In a truly ecological world, we must confront these strange double-binds by going further with our knowledge, which eventually forces us to toss out old ways of knowing and challenges us to reconsider the very myths that build our foundational relationship with nearly every aspect of the world. I call them myths because, in a sense, they are true, but only partially so. They are also myths because they are collectively believed by people as in this transmission they have an impact on our world. In this way, they are almost self-fulfilling prophecies--that is, until we deconstruct them.
Because, as Historian Yuval Noah Harrari contends, myths and collective stories shape both our internal and external worlds in a variety of means. Internally, they shape our values, morals, and judgements about people, places, and ideas. Externally, they shape the very physical structures that make up our lives. Taken a step further, we can even see how massively large and distributed ideas, such as religion and capitalism, physically affect the world in the very material substances that make them up, such as churches, semi-trucks, canals, and skyscrapers, amongst other things. This effect of the myth on the physical and mental worlds also exists in the idea of nature and effects everything, from how we nurture wildlife, to where we designate wilderness zones, to the places we recreate, to the places we deposit nuclear waste because, as it turns out, “away” doesn’t really exist either. In an ecological age, this is why questioning myths about our thinking is critical. By interrogating these myths--even if they are “true” in a certain sense--we discover a world much more complex--and beautiful--than previously thought. As Timothy Morton warns us, this might be both dark and depressing at first as we fall down the rabbit holes, but it will also be strangely uplifting and liberating.
Besides, what would a worldview without this concept of nature look like?
Religions of the world share many commonalities, but one stands stark amongst the others to me: the belief in eternity, especially the gift of eternal life after (usually) suffering in the human flesh. Without a doubt, world religions got something right, especially Buddhism, when they claim that all life is suffering. At least, in some regards this is mostly true, though of course, some of us suffer more than others. Eternity, though, nonetheless, is potent idea that permeates the world today, just as it has throughout time; today it is an especially formidable political and personal force, one that is shaping our world in many of the same ways as nostalgia. Often, it even pairs itself with nostalgia.
In my early years of growing up, my family didn’t have much to say about religion, and I was often somewhat shameful of our apparent “un-religiousness” of sorts. That is, until my mom became a born again Christian around my fifth grade year. Perhaps it was after seeing the deaths of my best friend’s brother and grandma only days apart, or it is possible that her friends had a much greater influence on her. Either way, she clearly yearned for something deeper in life and found that in religion. Much to my chagrin, she drug both my brother and me along, in addition to attempting, and ultimately failing, at coaxing my dad.
The first year or so were quite fine, and I really might have even had a small bit of interest in religion, though not nearly as evangelically as the other members. This factor only grew worse and more complicated, ultimately becoming the crux of disappointment in my mom and I’s relationship, which took some years apart to mend. Overall, though, it not only turned me off to organized religion, it jaded me for viewing Christianity positively, even to this day.
What it did for my mom, though, was interesting, and I could see its personal effect not only in those members in our congregation but in others around my area as well, though many of them were practicing Catholics and so had a different way of going about the specifics. Regardless, though, the evangelical zeal present in school, public, and other spaces was present. Anyone who was not Christian was looked down upon, usually quietly, though occasionally vocally. This peer pressure rubbed me the wrong way more than once and essentially forced my free thinking brain out of the religious conversation for a number of years while I read and discovered other ideas of the world, from animism to Buddhism to ultimately atheism.
A recurring theme present in the lives of the most religious people I have interacted with, though, is the unshakeable belief in the afterlife, an eternity, one resplendent, vivid, and beyond glorious. Filled with jewels, mansions, and worldly desires in an otherworldly place, the eternity sought by my fellow townsfolk seemed one of bliss, peace, and harmonious community, reuniting with lost loved ones and indulging in the greatness of life. For them, I was happy, but in the years since, I have also noticed a slightly different viewpoint of this ideological worldview, particularly regarding work, regarding empathy, and involving advocating for oneself.
Regarding the political and personal implications of eternity as a social force, I am much less interested in changing people’s minds than in understanding them, especially in pointing out those parts of their behaviour or ideology that prove the most problematic. Within eternity as an ideological force, I find a couple.
First, when eternity numbs people, it is potent--and dangerous. What I mean by numbing is what happens often back home and it involves people accepting their fate and succumbing to the obedient authority of eternity, as if it were a monarch. To clarify further, sometimes folks put aside their suffering, placing it deep inside, and avoid any interaction with difficult feelings, challenging conversations, or downright abuse, and the particular people I am talking about do this under the cover of eternal grace. They internalize negativity and brush it off with the belief that, well, at least some day they will no longer suffer. While this can be a tremendous tool to use on occasion, especially if we are facing abnormally difficult challenges--the death of a loved one, a lost job--it proves to be much less effective for the here and now, and even the long term, than one would believe. In my small community where I grew up, this phenomenon is rampant. So rampant, in fact, that it permeates society, so deeply that no matter where you turn you can find it, like a viscous residue.
I saw it in both the young and old, in both men and women though in different ways. Often it took the form of asceticism, though it was far less noble than most people wanted to admit, especially because most hated every second of it. However, low self-esteem and lack of self-advocacy only made it worse. Perhaps this trio creates and positive feedback loop. Also, it is possible that such actions, in a society that values obedience, loyalty, and honor higher than most other attributes, are portrayed as the highest regard, even though it is proven that, after a certain point, they are ultimately counterproductive.
Secondly, when this ideology permeates the culture of an area, it has obvious political implications. One among many is apathy, which creates a culture of hostility toward those in power, not to mention a complete lack of knowledge regarding issues. In addition to apathy, long-term planning is often cast aside for more short-term solutions or at least solutions that don’t necessarily address the entire issue, such as a band-aid type of solution. Generally these are related to the lack of ability to see beyond the single human-life timescale that we erect. Unfortunately, for ecology and politics in the 21st century, we desperately need longer timescale praxis.
Third, while I do find a belief in a higher power and with that eternity, I am more skeptical regarding putting certain ideas, goals, or values aside for use in some eternal land instead of using them in the world we are given together as well. I don’t feel as though it always has to be viewed as an either/or, especially in the case of Christianity when interpretation is constantly shifting. This is true especially for valuing self-advocacy, empathy, and work. For example, instead of viewing the dreadful long hours of work as something one must suffer through and that that is acceptable because some day there will be eternal rest, we could instead advocate for healthier work environments, shorter work days, and more reasonable pay for our work so that we can also enjoy the life we are given on earth, even if we expect something better later.
In my simplistic view it is moreso the culture that an excessive belief in eternity creates--especially a culture that puts off anything positive of the now for a small hope for the later--rather than the belief itself. Either way, thinking about a belief in eternity as a social and political force is something that is misjudged in the current political atmosphere.
Note to reader: This is a long, rambling post from a previous NaNoWriMo attempt. I split it into two parts for clarity sake.
For the past three years, I have been challenging myself with reading goals. It sounds kind of silly admitting it aloud because I have always been an avid learner, though more of a reluctant reader, at least when it comes to dedicating myself to an entire book. In this way, the challenge has forced me to slow down, to absorb information more intentionally and to think more critically about ideas that I encounter, in addition to a pursuit of following through, of finishing a project once started.
Recently in this journey, I have been reading Strangers in Their Own Land, a fantastic book that attempts to climb what the author eloquently calls the “empathy wall” between her liberal enclave in Berkley, California and that of the center of the Tea Party: Louisiana. As an avid reader of social class and a member of the working class myself, I put off reading this book for at least two years, as I was extremely skeptical of the basic premise. Working class people in flyover country did not need some liberal professor coming in to “enlighten” them or “save” them, I thought. Certainly, I have discovered that my assumptions of the book were quite wrong.
Though I will elaborate on the book in another post (or two, or five….), there are many themes present in it that I have thought about obsessively since way before indulging in this particular book. What I truly enjoy about this book is that is succinctly captures many of the thoughts that I have been stewing over for at least three years. Two of those thoughts form an interrelated theme, one that I have only recently begun cracking open, though only to discover more layers below.
Nostalgia is a word with myriad meanings, but they all focus on the concept of an idealized past, one that is longed for in a loving way, full of memories of a greater-than-now time, innocent and often full of wonder, or at least love and warmth. The study of nostalgia as a political force has gained a little ground in recent years as sociologists, historians, political scientists, and even psychologists discover its power for influencing the world. Growing up in the Heartland in the midst of conservative politics, I can clearly attest to the power of nostalgia as an immense political force, and it is something that Hochshild hints at in her book, but it is something I feel deserves even more attention, as it forms not only a foundational piece of the current administration, but is in itself a pillar of an entire generation, if not ideological worldview. And it is one that spans the entire political spectrum, too.
Our current president has used nostalgia as the premier message for his campaign, with a promise to make American great again, as if there were a glory day to which we must return. Much in the same way that I have read about and discussed in the past few years regarding the idea of a pristine nature, we can clearly see that this idea doesn’t really quite exist, at least not in the way many supporters think it does. However, within it are truths that are important to acknowledge because not only do they help us understand this longing, but they are also powerful tools for moving forward in our society.
For me personally, the chief problem with nostalgia as such a critical junction in one’s ideology is its ephemerality. The truest constant of the universe is change. Research shows that liberals and conservatives incorporate different values of change into their own moral roots, and though this is not the entire moral story, it certainly has a measurable impact. If it did not, there would be little resonance for our current president’s message. However, despite its powerful pull and drive, we need to also acknowledge the ecological and scientific fact of the universe in which we live: change is a constant. We can either embrace it, or resist it to little avail. Besides, upon closer inspection, the idealized past that we long for probably never really quite existed as we thought it did. However, there may be aspects of it that did, which is why we study history. Union membership, for example, is one aspect of someone’s social class and upbringing that could influence their childhood idea of work and life that has simply withered itself away, for many reasons. However, if we look at what those numbers of union workers achieved, we might reconsider some of our current strategies within our movements.
Too many liberals and other progressives, though, focus on fighting the aspects of nostalgia that are obviously detrimental: the longing for a “whiter” world, the “return” of women to their “place,” and the diminishing of rights of many minorities, especially including LGBT folks. These are certainly real issues, and they must be taken extremely seriously, especially within the current administration. Though while we simultaneously fight to uphold these newly won rights, we should also ask the harder question: why is nostalgia such a powerful personal and political force?
Of all the morals, values, and ideologies shaping politics today, nostalgia plays not only a silent role, but a powerful one. It’s place within politics is relatively unexamined, at least when considering the reasons why it is such a powerful force, rather than just simply how. But a cogent analysis requires a little of both.
There are innumerable impacts of nostalgia on personal and political discourse, and here I will discuss a few that I have seen most resonantly in my experience and research.
Changing demographics has not only been an underlying force within politics in many obvious ways--increasing ethnic diversity, raising tension amongst social groups, and newer types of immigrants arriving to the country--but it has always changed the world in another, often less obvious way: regarding age. Baby boomers will soon be replaced as the dominant group, and with them, the dominant ideology of the current world. Without a doubt, this large demographic shift has shaped politics in modes both seen and unpredictable. I believe nostalgia is one of those shifts in the cosmos.
When examined on a personal level, age begets nostalgia, at least longing of a certain type. It is common when people reach certain ages to reflect upon their lives, reaching for the importance of their hard work, their community, their familial connections, and the general time that they have left. Upon reflection, one easily slips into nostalgia, in the form of hyperbolic stories or a longing for something no longer present, whether a fit mind and body or a loved one long since passed. As the largest generation in American history reaches this point in their lives, then, it is not pushing the envelope too far to claim that nostalgia would play a critical role in their everyday lives and that this may or may not bleed into their political worlds.
If we stop to consider the immense changes even in the last two decades in the lives of many boomers and older generations, we can simply gawk at how radical the world has become interconnected, faster, and more globalized in the matter of just one person’s 12 years of schooling. These changes have wrought other shifts in society as well, many of which are positive. However, many of these very changes also create an immovable shift as they collide headlong with the ideologies present in many previous generations. Some of these are moldable, others are not.
While the baby boomer generation will slowly leave us, their resistance to change may shift, but it is also likely that their longing for a past will also increase. In this way, and in others, we must ask ourselves what aspects of the past are best to remember. Surely any of us would love for any other person to want to remember life well, but the definition of a life lived well may differ between folks.
Within this difference, though, we find the more complex and nuanced factors influenced by the force of nostalgia in both personal and professional life.
Some of the shifts toward nostalgia are certainly guided by principles that many would renounce. In the US for example, there exists a small minority who long for some of these aspects of society, whether they be a return to a time when women and blacks and LGBT folks were reserved as second class citizens or at least to a time when those issues weren’t discussed in the ways they currently are being debated. At its deepest root, some of these folks may have genuine concerns, though I personally believe they are misguided in their solutions and overall conclusions. However, within some of these more radical viewpoints exist parcels of other, more common, beliefs.
One such belief relies upon the idea of tradition. As society increasingly becomes secular, scientific, and technologically based on a globalized system, traditions of all sorts are diminished, as new ones are consistently developed and refined. When one is in shock of these new changes--especially when they challenge the very foundations of one’s identity or morality--it is easy to side into a nostalgic state of mind, sometimes for good reason. It is important to note, though, that this slide away from tradition can affect both sides of politics, or at least issues that are associated with both sides. For example, while science undermines Judeo-Christian religion, technologies that exploit indigenous land breakdown tribal networks and governments. Though seen as divergent on the political spectrum, these issues are actually intimately tied and both sides participate in a form of nostalgia to lift these issues up, whether that be through a return to “traditional” Christian “family” values or the empowering of indigenous people to take back their homelands. In this way, nostalgia is practiced across the political divide.
Butting heads with tradition isn’t something that humans haven’t overcome in the past, as the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution clearly point out. However, the complete overhaul of traditional systems across the board is certainly something coming from nearly every academic field, from Quantum Theory to Philosophy to Ecology. Similar to Newton’s second law, it may not be too farfetched to consider an equal and opposite reaction from those still clinging to tradition in the face of a massive wave of global integration. In fact, many World Systems Theorists posit many events of the last half century in this regard, from terrorism against US and Western “values” to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Burma. As new ideologies replace tradition there may be increased violence, hatred, and bigotry. Avoiding these will require compromise and empathy from all sides, I think.
Similarly, the left and the right use this nostalgia to refer to similar time periods, though often for very different reasons. For example, one idea of many libertarians is a return to simpler times, a time when people worked with their hands and could do many of the jobs needed in everyday life. This idea of simpler times can be seen across the spectrum but is especially prevalent in rural society that is increasingly becoming poorer, left out of the conversation, and is traditionally Christian and conservative. A very similar issue can be seen advocated on the left, though: the return to a pristine nature. Within the environmental movement, a return to the Pleistocene world of bountiful beauty and wildness is implicit and explicit within the discourse of the movement, though, once again, it spans the political spectrum. Both of these concepts are clearly half-truths: true in certain regards but not in their entirety.
There is another important point often acknowledged that both of these examples point directly toward: an idealized past. Many commentators contend that a certain past existed, and it is our duty to return to that past, especially because our current state has us “drifting away.” Historians are always quick to point out, however, that often our ideas of the past are often overzealous and unrealistic in their simplicity, even naive. However, even with this in mind, we must consider that not only do these logical details matter little, as nostalgia is a feeling and not necessarily a logical thought, it is also true that some aspects of the past not only were positive but may, indeed, be worth longing for, as they have slipped away from our societal grasp and other, less pleasant phenomena, have filled the void.
To begin, we can examine union membership. In the post-war period of US history, union membership soared and with it, a standard of living that become not only the basis for the mythical American Dream but also some sense of upward mobility and stability. Along with union membership, policies across the board favored the worker, but not necessarily at the expense of the owner. However, they did force corporations and bosses to become incredibly thoughtful about the ways they did business. This form of quasi-Keynesian economics succeeded for nearly 30 years before coming to a halt during the oil embargo crisis in the mid and late 1970s. During this time period, a new consensus emerged and union membership declined. Simultaneously following a half decade of membership collapse, business regulations also crumbled after the very successful early 1970s. Along with this, corporate taxes declined, automation increased, and offshoring thrived. The time of globalization emerged, to the detriment of many blue collar, unionized manufacturing and other jobs, which forced the entire economy to change, despite few supports from above. In this way, union membership declined throughout the years and with it, many of its benefits, including negotiating higher wages, worker benefits, and a general kinship amongst workers. As one can see, this positive benefit of looking nostalgically at the world could be to our benefit, and it is certainly something important to note.
Along with union membership, upward mobility has seen a recent decline in the US, along with a lack of belief in the myth of the promised American Dream. It is easy to turn toward nostalgia when the past certainly looked and actually existed, at least in certain ways, in a way that was more stable, with careers that helped someone get by.
Beyond just economic reasons, though, other factors are influencing an increased turn toward nostalgia, too. Some of these are cultural, such as beliefs in a time of more freedom, less PC conflict, or just simply a return to innocence and childhood, the golden years. With these in mind, it is important to realize that there are innumerable reasons why nostalgia influences politics and the personal today. In the end, it is critical to accept that while some aspects of nostalgia may be rooted in false notions, they are always in a sense “true” insofar as they evoke true, valid emotions, even when those emotions may be based on a false belief, or at best a half-correct belief, what I will call a half-truth or a double-truth. Despite this, understanding nostalgia as a political entity begins with thinking the why, not just the how.
Lessons From Buddhism Part 1
On a random Thursday (or maybe it was a Tuesday) in my 11th grade American Literature class, the teacher invited a speaker to join us for the day. As he entered the classroom, I could see a glistening shaved head and he wore a brown robe. Throughout our units of literature, we interspersed a variety of perspectives in the humanities, from philosophy to world religions. Today’s class focused on the latter. Earlier in the semester, our teacher had brought a much younger man studying to be a Rabbi to speak about Judaism. Today’s speaker was a Buddhist Monk. I had never met a Buddhist (nor had I previously knowingly met a Jewish Person either), and I was fascinated by the religion. It felt, in our tiny, secluded, sterilized community, like a brief journey to another place.
In class, the monk directed each of us in a short meditation exercise. As the awkward 16 year old that I was, I can’t recall particularly engaging well or witnessing anything profound. But the simple exposure to the new idea was enough for me, and I found it fascinating, even if my colleagues all believed it to be weird. Though I would not engage in such a practice for over a decade, the tiny seedling planted in my brain grew into a mighty oak. Not only did I late take up the practice, but I based my life around the curiosity of learning about new places and new people. Other events that year also fed into the transformation, as have events since, but when I took up meditation practice this fall, I had a found, nostalgic remembrance of that class.
Diligently searching for a teacher job, this summer became more stressful than I originally intended. Whenever my search turned unfruitful after some time, I knew I would need some personal changes in my life to motivate myself. The first was rejoining a climbing gym nearby, which was much-needed motivation and practice. The second was a search for a new practice, one part religion, one part meditation. Living in Seattle, numerous places exist that offer meditation. Likewise, numerous temples, monasteries, and abbeys also exist in large quantities, from all creeds and religions. Because of this, options were nearly overwhelming. Early in the search, though, I stumbled upon a monastery closer to my house, the Buddha Jewel Monastery.
Hesitant at first, I missed the deadline for signing up. Luckily, though, I emailed the crew after the first week and joined soon after in the third week. The class ends tomorrow, and it has been quite the journey.
Buddha Jewel Monastery has a unique setup. It’s housed in a former church that consists of a large meditation hall, a small entry area, and numerous small and medium-sized classrooms, in addition to a large dining hall in the basement. The building is recognizable from the nearby vicinity by its large stained-glass triangular outside, which sparkles in the morning and illuminates the nearby street at night. While in the high ceiling of the meditation hall near sunset, one can see tremendous glistening orbs dancing along the wall. The setting for the meditation is tremendous.
Helping students establish the skills, meditation practice at Buddha Jewel is intentionally designed with three levels, and I am currently finishing level one. Within level one, students are guided through most steps of the practice, from each routine into the next. Routines and rituals are practiced daily and carried out with great intention. This is perhaps the most unexpected introduction part of me, as I was not expecting it. However, I have grown to enjoy many of them, sometimes chanting sutras in my brain on the way to school or bowing before a nonexistent Buddha statue before practicing some meditation on my own. As a person who normally thrives without rituals, it has been tremendous to finally incorporate some aspects of rituals that I somewhat enjoy in my life. I used to do this with sports often, and it has been an aspect missing from my life in the last decade.
Growing up in a Christian household, I could never have imagined my mother allowing me to practice Buddhism instead of Christianity on a Sunday morning. Because of this, my announcing of joining the class took her partly by surprise, though she is much more open-minded than she once was. In fact, she has been quite open to the basic idea, though she is still a devout Christian, and I am sure longs for my soul to be saved by Christ. With this in mind, it has been interesting learning a new practice and almost wanting to “become” a Buddhist after having been raised in a truly conservative area where nearly everyone was devoted Catholics. The religion never really stuck for me, and I feel no less happy for abandoning it in my twenties. Although I have been enjoying it tremendously, I would almost not even consider the Buddhism that I practice to truly be a religion in the sense that it does not guarantee me enlightenment, heaven, or some other goal. Though despite that, I also take the practice seriously.
When being compared to Christianity, though, I have discovered profound differences. Some of these explain everything from my personal distaste of Christian doctrine to my uncovering of a closeted Buddha mindset. For example, many of the principles within the practices of Buddhism are not only scientifically sound but fit closely within ontologies in which I study and believe, as well as ideologies. Ecological ideas are closely related to Buddhism, for example, and many are more closely related to that religion that, say, Christianity. Stewardship of the Earth is about as close as many Christians get. Unfortunately because of dogma, many of the conservative Christians in the US barely even get that far. Its as though politics blinds the true lense of religion. But I suppose a religion that only preaches obedience might do that to someone who already has a hard time changing anything--especially beliefs.
Numerous other facets of Buddhism are not only inspiring and enlightening (pun intended) but also fascinating. One such example is Zen practice. The branch of Buddhism that I have been practicing is related to Chan Buddhism, known as Zen Buddhism in the US. though the world Zen has been appropriated to have various meanings, the particular mode of Zen Buddhism that I practice features simplicity and mindfulness at the center.
Within the practice of meditation, I have discovered, mindfulness in Zen practice is vastly different from my original ideas about it. To begin with, the goal of mindfulness in Zen practice is quite different from my original conception. Without many contexts, one may often get confused about the difference between mindfulness and mind-fullness. Though often confused, these two ideas are not necessarily related or similar. Mindfulness, I have discovered, is the intentional practice of using one’s own mind to tactfully identify thoughts, letting them rise and then fall, while simultaneously allowing yourself to drift back to a stage without thoughts or distractions. The theory goes that if you can accomplish this task enough times and with enough awareness, you can become enlightened. In this way, mindfulness is like awareness; it is extremely difficult, requires tremendous effort on behalf of the practitioner, and can even be frustrating. The more I have practiced in the Zen way, though, the better I have gotten at it, at least when I am meditating.
Whenever I started some meditation practices years ago during Silent Meeting at Farm & Wilderness camps, I had a certain idea of what a particular goal of meditation could be. There I would meditate using a particular story in my mind: the water cycle. Imagining my thoughts as a droplet of water, I would visualize a place that I knew well--in this case the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont--and I would imagine a single drop of water falling from the sky, rolling into a river, then traversing the rapids, stirring into Lake Champlain, and then eventually finding its way to the ocean. Once at the ocean, I would imagine it evaporating, condensing, and then finding its way back. This meditation practice was extremely relaxing and fulfilling, and it was useful practice for the amount of time we spent at silent meeting. Sadly, it never became a full-time practice.
When I started meditating again this year, I quickly found myself drifting from this practice, and I have not used it at all in the past 5 or 6 weeks. Though it is an extremely relaxing practice, I have found focusing on thoughts coming and going to be a better practice, attempting to focus as closely as possible on the Buddha Mind, the state without thoughts. Though I fail often, I can generally succeed for at least a few minutes at a time. In our practice, we meditate for about 35-40 minutes, followed by a walking meditation that takes about 10 minutes. This format is ritualistic but helpful.
Overall, my journey with Buddhism is only just beginning. I am hoping to take the Level 2 class next semester. There is much to look forward to in the practice, and I know that if I can keep with the momentum that I will discover even more next semester.
About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.