How Meditation Changed My Teaching
It was an evening class in spring, a literature class held in the geology classroom. Rocks sat immobile in glass cases. Students sat at small tables, equally immobile. This was supposed to be my fun class: “Banned Books,” for literature majors. I had hoped to teach such a class for ten years. But what was wrong with these students? They weren’t gazing up at me with starlight in their eyes. They weren’t bursting into cheerfully contentious discussion. On this particular night, they didn’t even have their copies of Lolita open. I reread a passage out loud, trying to infuse the room with the energy that Nabokov deserved. That I deserved! I was working so hard, offering up heavy questions on a silver platter at 9pm on a Tuesday night, while my students stared at the floor, their phones, the clock.
My heart sank as I looked out at them. If you’re a teacher, you know this feeling: the sensation of a dark spirit traveling through the heart and hitting the gut. Failure. What I loved I could not make real for them. Then blame and anger, because how dare they reject me, when I was trying so hard to engage them? Beneath that, a current of fear and dread, because what else could you count on as a teacher except more rejection?
I was a good teacher. I cared about my students and did my best for them. I consistently got good reviews. There was nothing “wrong” with my teaching, or so I thought. But I knew something was wrong with me. I was so full of stress and anxiety that I’d begun to experience mysterious health problems that doctors could not name. In the classroom, I could shift from optimism to despair as quickly as a student could check an unread text. The smallest thing could pull me off balance. In response, I became desperate, sweaty, reaching into my bag of teacher’s tricks to pull out something, anything, to regain control. The harder I worked, it felt like the more I failed.
One afternoon in May, at the end of that semester, I downloaded the Headspace app. I sat outside in the warm sun before my evening class and began to meditate. The pain from my mystery ailments was acute. I was not sleeping well at night. It so happened that the mindfulness bandwagon was passing through my cultural sphere, and halfheartedly, I jumped on.
Four years later, I was standing in the rain outside a zendo in Los Gatos, California, where I had spent eight hours meditating, with brief breaks in between. I couldn’t say exactly why meditation “worked” for me. But I do know that without meditation, I might not have been able to stick with teaching, or I might have stuck with it in a bad way, grinding through each semester to get to the end.
Meditation did not change me as a teacher. It changed me, which in turn changed everything about how I saw myself in relationship to my students. When I think back at myself trying to teach Lolita to a group of reluctant learners, I cringe at how I had made the story about myself. I had wanted my students to act in a way that affirmed my own abilities, and when they did not act that way, I used my “teaching methods” to try to force it. If I’ve learned anything from meditation, it’s that people resist being controlled. Students perceive our attempts to get them to do what we want them to do, and they resist, often by disengaging or shutting down. Meditation taught me to release my grip, to stop trying to control the outcome of every situation, to let things be. The relief that comes from this letting go is like a held breath finally released.
Meditation taught me the benefit of the pause, the magic that comes when I “observe the upset,” as Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen. Before, when I was upset by my students’ behavior, the upset would own me, and I would immediately react in the mode of damage control. But now I take a long breath and try to notice what I’m feeling and why. Often I don’t even have to do anything. Whatever I do, or don’t do, will come from the wisdom of the pause. And the calmer I am—on the inside, not just the outside—the more my students respect and respond to me.
If I had to go back to the classroom where I was teaching Lolita, I would have allowed the students to have their own responses. I would have asked them why they felt as they did and talked to them about it, without judging. If I had wanted to offer my own enthusiasm for Nabokov, I would have done it in a spirit of “Hey, this excites me and I want to share it with you,” rather than in the spirit of “Why can’t you see that this is great?” I would have been open to scrapping the book entirely, if that’s what my students really wanted to do. Education cannot be coerced. It requires that both parties, teacher and student, have open minds and hearts—and that they listen to and learn from each other.
Meditation showed me that the mood I bring into the classroom matters more than the lesson. If I’m tense and anxious and closed, my students “hear” that more than they hear any words I say. But if I’m open, maybe even open enough to say “Wow, I’m feeling anxious today, how about you?” then my students can be open, too.
Perhaps meditation is, most of all, about paying attention. Whenever we bring our attention back to our breath, we have a moment where we notice, “Oh, I was getting lost in that thought.” Attention, over and over again, strengthens our awareness. Beck writes that “Attention is the cutting, burning sword.” I like to think of it as the sword that cuts through all of the bullshit in human interaction, and just allows us to see each other, accept each other, and accept ourselves. When my students know that I care about them just as they are, and that they are OK just as they are, they are somehow freed up to do better work, to grow and improve. When they hear me say that I have made a mistake, they can feel safe to make mistakes themselves, and that’s when the greatest learning happens. We can all just be humans together, doing the best we can do at that given time.
If I could give any piece of advice to a new teacher, or to a struggling one, I would say that five minutes of conscious breathing in your car before teaching a class might be the best thing you could do. Instead of running off copies or tweaking the lesson plan, breathe. Ever since I started meditating, my mysterious health problems disappeared. I still struggle with stress and insomnia, but I am happier and more grounded. I walk into the classroom more like a tree than a hummingbird. There’s a long way for me to go. But at least I’m on a path, and I’m breathing.