Challenging attachment

This summer I’m working one-on-one with a student. Most of my work for the schools is with large groups of children; I supervise K-6th grade recess during the regular school year.

The school district assigned me to a student who has Doose Syndrome. She’s 10 years old and reading at a 1st grade level. She has difficulty speaking, remembering, and controlling her body. But she loves to dance!

Sometimes, I wonder how her parents deal with the knowledge that their child will never be independent. Who will care for their child when they’re gone? I’m a parent and wonder how I would handle it, but I don’t have to. Am I “lucky” or should I remember the “poor farmer’s horse story”? (read the story at this post)

My student does a great impression of Goofy, which makes us both laugh. She shares stories of her favorite things, like her purple bedroom. Today, we shot hoops during recess, and she made five baskets. She also recognized the word “little,” a word that was giving her so much trouble last week.

I’m going to miss her when summer school ends. Attachments hit with every new year. The cycle of beginnings and endings challenges me when it comes to kids.

During my first month this past school year, a sixth-grader was hit with a rock during recess. He had a head wound that was bleeding profusely. I held his head and tried to calm him; he was frightened he was going to die. I’ve never seen blood spurt out of a body; I was pretty shaken, too.

He was fine after they got him to the hospital. His friend had thrown the rock with no malice intended, but the police had to investigate, and both boys went through a few weeks of trauma. I got to know them pretty well during that time and throughout the remainder of the year, as we talked often at recess.

They’ll be gone when school starts this year, both at the junior high. I wonder how they’ll do. I’ll never know.

I spend two hours with 400-500 kids every day, and I always seem to have a few I get attached to. When school ends, it’s painful. I really can’t imagine how teachers, who have much more time getting to know particular ones, manage the cycle as these kids come and go.

These losses remind me I occupy a humble place in the world. I believe challenges to attachment are good for all of us, because they remind us.

Some days I appreciate the adventure. Other days, I’m just sad.

Let’s get philosophical

Non-doing (wuwei), non-knowing (wuzhi), non-desiring (wuyu). These are the keys to walking with Dao.

What a bunch of bullshit.

When I first read about Dao, I dismissed it as nonsense. Isn’t this “un-ness” what we think of as “chaos,” after all? Musn’t this worldview necessarily end in nihilism? At that time, I was firmly western in my view of life: ontological presence — the belief that there is an unchanging reality behind things — is the only thing that allows us to bring order from chaos. We do this through:

  • principles of action that create order in events (cosmologically as god, nationally as government, and in your everyday life as you yourself or maybe as your boss).
  • principles of reason that create order with regard to knowledge, meaning, and morality.

In Greek, the word for principle is arche. Having no controlling principles or rules for order is anarche. And as any rational adult will tell you, anarchy is destructive, lazy, and selfish. The clearest difference in my mind between western philosophy and western religion is that philosophy will acknowledge that reason creates these principles but religion tells us we merely discover them. In either case, reason and principles are what reveal reality. The West has relegated the aesthetic (emotion, sensation, intuition) to a subordinate role.

Daoism does quite the contrary.

I’m reflecting on Laozi and Zhuangzi in new ways thanks to an American philosopher who truly “speaks my language” (David L Hall). My academic background focused on Greek thought. My scholarly pursuits included reading and editing western philosophy. My personal reading focuses on post structuralism and feminist philosophy. So, when Laozi told me to quit using my reason, I was at a loss.

This is why, I suppose, many people seek out a “master.” I’m not interested in a temple or sage of the modern variety. Daoism, as it’s evolved over the centuries, has become a typical religious experience of humans trying to control everything. Through rituals, self-sacrifice, and occultism, modern Daoists:

  • game the universe by creating contracts with and paying off the gods
  • seek to mitigate death through secret, exotic formulas
  • seek to soften the blow of existential impotence with an internal war, of which they are both ally and enemy. (Asceticism is the favored choice, as a war of attrition.)

All of these approaches are ways to control what we can’t truly control. But we feel better trying and distracting ourselves, and many of us believe in an immortal parent who will care for us regardless.

The earliest Daoist authors (and like Jesus didn’t call himself Christian, these authors didn’t call themselves Daoists), are explicit about not doing any of these things. Non-being came from being, after all. We lose the Way when we act, when we know, when we desire.

Here’s the thing:

An aesthetic perspective, as opposed to a rational or logical one, involves experiencing the world in a relatively unmediated fashion. Mediated experience requires one to grasp or comprehend the essence of a thing, while the unmediated aesthetic experience is simply had as lived experience. (Ames, Roger and David L. Hall. Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

The key to what Laozi means is to understand that reason defines and discriminates and makes permanent. The West assumes being is the true reality and life as we live it is the becoming part that obscures it; think of the forms of Plato, the god of Christianity.

No, says Daoism. Reality is becoming. Nonbeing arises from being and being from nonbeing. This yin-yang dynamic so often mentioned with regard to Dao is not about two principles, two competing poles, not about “there’s black because there’s white to balance,” but black is always becoming white and white is always becoming black. Yin-yang is process not presence.

Dichotomies may be created by language and reason, but reality is a dynamic equilibrium, transience. Being and nonbeing exist together in motion and as such, reality is a becoming. Becoming can only be intuited through lived experience; using reason and creating principles drives us further from Dao.

This is the “non-knowing.”

As a creative process, intuition allows for transience and change necessary to participating in a becoming universe. This aesthetic cosmology is comprised of self-creativity/self-actualization — the virtue or excellence specific to a thing, the de of Daode Jing (and perhaps the arete of Greek?). There is no one correct order. Each thing has its own. The universe is the sum of all orders, a homogeneous chaos.

I’ll write more on the mediation of experience. Or rather…not mediating…by knowing without universalizing, doing without coercing, and desiring without objectifying.

What’s a hedonist after all

My oldest sister experienced a midlife transformation. She had been a rather “wild” adolescent and politically liberal until she was about fifty. At that time she joined the Catholic Church, became highly involved in her parish’s activities, and then judgments rolled from her tongue with the sweet blindness of a person blessed with 2000 years of a patriarchal thumbs up.

She became estranged from my mother and me after a Facebook argument that turned personal, as they tend to do. I was blamed for escalating the argument. Perhaps I am to blame. I defended my mother who felt humiliated by my sister. That was about 10 years ago.

Today, I am the evil in the family. My sister warns her grown kids to avoid me because I am a “hedonist.” The word popped into my mind today due to a falling out between my niece and her mother. If my niece attended church and just stayed away from me, she wouldn’t be falling into ways that are “not of god.”

When I first heard the label applied to me, I was hurt. Summing up all I am in this one-dimensional word was disheartening. But today I laughed because, for a hedonist, I sure don’t have that much fun.

I assume my sister uses that label because she heard from someone at some time that I live a polyamorous bisexual lifestyle. I wonder what her imagination conjures up.

It can’t be the reality of self-discipline I apply to: what I eat, when I eat, how I push myself to exercise consistently, reading and reflection, meditative work, the committed relationships I develop, the limits I place on what I buy, the internal work I do to minimize my judgments, the time I set aside from personal pursuits for my kids, and the jobs I purposely choose to challenge me to grow as a moral entity and friend. Hell, I’m even looking at returning to pursue an MA. Where’s the “pleasure” in any of that?

I mean, it’s not like I’m a smoker who doesn’t quit, obese because I don’t control my desire for sugar, parroting arguments I find online because I haven’t made the effort to reflect on these moral ideas for myself, having lied and cheated on a partner, and in a marriage lacking in serious ways because I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to compromise. In other words, I’m not someone who treats god’s creation as shit because I can’t control my appetites for food, stimulants, physical comfort, and pride. Now that would be a hedonist.

The argument I have received from Christians when I point out their hypocrisy is that yes, we are all sinners, but that doesn’t mean you get a pass on your sin just because I sin, too. I see where they are coming from with that. Except that judging others’ sins is exactly what Jesus said we should not do. It’s the Church who would have you swimming in self-righteousness as you decide to speak for god. As if she needs the help.

Humans do a good job of corrupting a good message in pursuit of power and authority.

I will try to do more not-doing. I would like to spend less time reflecting on judgmental Christians. If the intersection with my niece didn’t present itself like it does, I would rarely think about my sister. So today, I’ll leave the nominal Christians to commit their Pelagian heresies in ignorance.

I care less about sin than stories. And my story today is, I sure wish I was a little more hedonistic.

Whose expectations?

This summer I have been working for the local school district one-on-one with a variety of special needs kids from 4-11 years old.

It’s not my “comfort zone.” I find working with groups of mainstreamed kids, managing recess or sports to be effortless. Sitting with a mostly nonverbal 4-year old who seldom acknowledges my presence, taps his hands, and hums for hours at a time is challenging. As I sat with him this morning, I reflected on my “comfort zone.”

I was told that my goal with Gage was first, to keep him from crying. He’s frightened of change, of people, of noise. His pattern for the past week has been: when his mother drops him off, he begins to cry. When kids around him shout or cry or make too much noise, he cries. When he’s pulled away from what he wants to do, he cries.

So today I sat with him on a rocking bench. We just sat and rocked.

After 20 minutes I got a book and read the words and made comments about what I saw in it. Then I put it back. Then he got up and returned with a toy that plays music with each winding. We listened to “row, row, row your boat” for another 20 minutes.

Then I got up and found a bag with ten plastic balls. I took them out one at a time and threw them into a box in front of us. I had fun aiming for the box. Most made it, some didn’t. I got up and collected them, counting each as I picked it up and put it in a bag. Then I repeated the throwing, gathering, and counting. Gage started counting ahead of me, finishing the numbers to ten. I had been told he only repeated words back.

I sat down and offered him a ball, and he threw it. Not into the box but across the floor. He’s a good thrower. I took turns giving him one colored ball and throwing one myself. I preferred to aim for the box. He preferred to toss it at the wall. We threw balls and counted them.

Later, we went outside for a fire drill. I talked about the trees and touched different things talking about how they felt. He touched some of them, too. We watched ants rushing across the sidewalk. We saw birds above us. We played on the playground for so long a teacher came out to be sure we were ok.

We were ok.

When I got home, I realized I was sweaty and had to change. I had been more tense than I realized. But it wasn’t Gage who made me tense.

This was my first day with Gage and he was used to another teacher. I wasn’t sure whether the day Gage and I spent together was “good” or “bad.” I mean, was I expected to “teach” him something, to get him to engage with other kids, to make sure he got to expected places on time? Because we sure didn’t come inside, join group time, or have a snack when we were scheduled to.

I still don’t know if I failed expectations. But I think Gage and I had a good day. We shared time together, played some, got fresh air and sunshine, and he even looked me in the eyes when he left.

In fact, it was a very good day for me because Gage taught me something that has me feeling liberated this afternoon. He taught me that the challenge I’ve been feeling — the sense that I’m not in my “comfort zone” when working with special needs students — is more about the staff, not the student.

When managing groups of mainstreamed kids, I can get them to follow expectations, so it feels easy. When working with special needs kids, I can’t get them to meet the same kind of expectations, so I feel like I’m failing in my job. That makes me self-conscious and even worried about performance. Once I recognized that, I laughed at myself.

Today, I decided I wanted to get to know Gage and have a good day. In approaching it that way, I did get to know this boy who loves music, has good rhythm, a bit of wit, and a lot of self determination. We even got a little counting and lots of physical activity in.

And he never cried.

 

We create the path as we walk it

Running into Daoist elitists is always a bit surreal. But I feel in good company. Zhuangzi was suspicious of “sages,” too.

I’m reading a book about the globalization of Daoism and trying not to be disheartened by the bickering. Political battles are not of interest to me. But I am enjoying the authors’ analysis contrasting East and West:

American spiritual seekers can be said to begin their quest and practice within a framework of “ontological individualism,” in which spirituality consists in discovering, nurturing, and expressing one’s own “deep self”; Daoist cultivation, on the other hand, is based on a process of “cosmological attunement” in which spirituality consists in the harmonization of the dynamic structure and forces of the body/mind with the corresponding dynamic structure and forces of society and of the cosmos. (Palmer, David A.; Siegler, Elijah. Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.)

Certainly, the culture that evolved Daoism matters. Certainly, cultural appropriation is an act we can examine in the same way we examine privilege: it’s not something we can avoid doing (or having), but recognizing our standpoint gives greater context and respect for others.

But that’s not really my interest today. I’m mulling over “identity.”

A fixed identity (West) vs a process of aligning identity (East) is very meaningful to me. As one who has lived as, and loved others, living in the margins of society, I’ve witnessed the fierce struggle for rights and protections, a struggle that requires of the socially nonconforming to state and defend a permanent and one-dimensional identity:  “I was born gay…I didn’t CHOOSE it…” or “I AM trans…I ALWAYS have been this gender inside…”

The cultural shift that brought equal marriage to the US was won with the idea that sexual attraction is not a choice. This was the mantra of the movement for over three decades. Now, the young people coming out as transgender are being forced to use the same argument. I say “forced” because why should it matter whether they “can’t help it” or they “choose to”?

But it does matter to many people. If a gay man marries a woman, he was never really gay but only confused. If a trans youth detransitions or desists years later, they were never really trans but a victim of social contagion or seeking attention. To be authentic, those expressing their trans experience are expected to tell stories of gender confusion that start before speech, show a consistent nonconforming gender expression throughout childhood, and use keywords like “disgust” for their current bodies.

As my trans son expresses his identity, I won’t demand that he “has always” or “will always.” Maybe one day he will stop being a man, or maybe he will always be a man. It doesn’t matter. It’s his story. Identity is a process. Aligning our personal stories with our intimate sense of spirit is an ever-changing experience.

We create the path as we walk it.

 

Let’s complicate things

There’s a panhandler on a corner in my town.

Many times I’ve driven by feeling pity for him because he was homeless, wore shabby clothes, and had few options in life. But one day when I drove by, I was coming home from a job I hated, stressed about bills and loved ones I was worried about, and the thought came to me, what a damn lucky guy.

This panhandler didn’t have the worries I had. He didn’t have a house payment, a schedule to juggle, and other people to care for. And he had a job after all — a good one, because he was sitting on the corner for only a few hours a week. At least he was getting some sun and rest. Maybe he was a liar, playing on people’s pity and his life was not as his sign suggested.

That moment was my first stumbling awareness of Tao.

The pity I’d felt had been an extension of my Self into a space it had no business being. The envy I felt on another day was equally inappropriate. I’d been judging his life by my own, making assumptions and creating a dichotomy where only plurality exists.

Judgment always depends on where you stand.

I value owning a car: how sad you waste money on taxis or time getting places when you could travel quickly in comfort. My dad, who never drove, had the opposite view: how sad you waste money and time on that machine when you could get fitter using pedal power.

Oh, I doubt I’m challenging your nimble mind with my mundane examples! You understand how pluralism works. Maybe you even know what standpoint theory is.

So how do you feel when I ask whether you:

  • have gay friends?
  • would use a nongendered bathroom?
  • would be friends with a couple who has a nonmonogamous marriage?

Did you feel yourself tense and your mind dart for a moral line-in-the-sand?

Let’s complicate it.

  • What do you think about a parent who chooses assisted suicide?
  • What do you think about a neighbor who becomes a sex worker?
  • What do you think about a friend who pays for an abortion?

Now we have more context to consider when judging “right” and “wrong”. But are these examples different in principle from the former examples? Are you required to be part of the choices any of these people make? Yet you may try to limit their choices directly by confronting them or indirectly by voting for laws that control them.

And still, are the values you hold even your own?

This is the point Laozi makes. The values we uphold in our moral dichotomies are not our own. They belong to our culture — cultivated by many different entities from retailers to religion. When we reinforce them through thought and action, social conventions and laws, we’ve trapped ourselves and we’ve trapped each other. We are very far from walking with Tao.

Tao isn’t found in the “superficial order imposed by positive and negative opinions, the good/bad, yes/no moralizing that denies fear and ignores mystery.” (Tao Te Ching: LeGuin).

You may know the wonderful allegory about the farmer and the horse. I think of this often, like when I drop some coins in the panhandler’s cup and wonder about whose life is “good” or when I’m attacked by people who call themselves “good” Christians.

A poor farmer’s horse ran off into the country of the barbarians. All his neighbors offered their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” After a few months the horse returned with a barbarian horse of excellent stock. All his neighbors offered their congratulations, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t a disaster?” The two horses bred, and the family became rich in fine horses. The farmer’s son spent much of his time riding them; one day he fell off and broke his hipbone. All his neighbors offered the farmer their condolences, but his father said, “How do you know that this isn’t good fortune?” Another year passed, and the barbarians invaded the frontier. All the able-bodied young men were conscripted, and nine-tenths of them died in the war. Thus good fortune can be disaster and vice versa. Who can tell how events will be transformed? (Mitchell, Stephen. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version Perennial Classics. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.)

Your story, maybe my story

I have zero interest in changing you.

I don’t want such responsibility nor do I need such validation. Not even from those closest to me. Not even from my family.

I write my thoughts because it’s the best way for me to think. My fingers know things that my mind doesn’t. Creating stories and images is the tao that guides me to Dao.

When in a class setting or in my work, my goal is to share my stories so others know variety. There are many equally good stories. That doesn’t mean anyone needs to change.

Take from my ideas what feeds you. Shrug off what doesn’t. If you have questions, terrific! If you have stories to share, even better! If you think I should change, why do you read a blog about Dao?