The following is adapted from the forthcoming book Teaching With Bravery, Meditation and Heart Advice for Teachers written by our dear friend Noel McLellan. For more: Teaching With Bravery.
Teaching with Bravery: Basic Goodness & Education.
Over lunch, three ninth graders were discussing a hypothetical.
If you could live in any time and meet any one person who has ever lived, whom would you choose to meet? Emma answered quickly, “The Buddha.” Dave thought a moment, then smiled and said, “Louis Armstrong.” William was pensive, but then said softly, “I’d like to meet my mother.”
Perhaps like me you find each of these answers surprising and touching in different ways, and you can probably identify with each of them on some level.
We all have a longing to know something profound and compassionate, something creative and beautiful, and above all, something authentic in our lives.
There is tenderness in this longing. It has a hint of delight, but also of sadness.
Longing is the heart pulling—wishing to reconnect. We would like to come home to something we know, but do not feel is complete and present in our lives now. If we didn’t know it somewhere within us, we wouldn’t long for it. We long because we have a heart.
This kind of longing is very different from the wants and cravings that run through our heads on the daily. Our minds constantly generate all kinds of desires for things outside of ourselves. We imagine and project that the next thing—the next cup of coffee, the next lover, the next app, the next affirmation, the next job well done, will be the one that satisfies us, but the wanting goes on and on. It ebbs and flows, but is ultimately insatiable.
This wanting is really a proxy for the deeper longing we feel, which is to feel content within our own being. We would like to be at home in our lives.
It’s like hearing the echo of our own humanity. Deep down we know ourselves to be full, not broken. We know ourselves to be alive, not numb. Yet somehow, wandering the roads of life, we have become disconnected from something fundamental. Our wish to return to it pulses within us.
In the Shambhala tradition, that fundamental aliveness is known as basic goodness.
It is the natural, innate wisdom of all people. It’s called basic goodness because it is the base, the foundation of our experience. In spite of all our confusion, it is the undaunted core of our humanity. Teachers often have an intuitive sense of this natural goodness. We can see it manifest in our students in the moments when their light shines through, expressive and unobstructed. In a student’s simple, unplanned smile or in a child’s spontaneous stroke of yellow paint, we see little hints of their unadorned humanity. When a shy student raises her hand, just before we call on her, we might see a flash of that simple tenderness.
Our appreciation of those moments shows our own basic goodness coming through. There is a spark of total joy when we release our own agenda and open to others. When we hear, see or touch our world, feeling its textures directly, we taste our own hearts in a moment. We are reconnecting with the primal openness that is the base of our humanity.
It is completely non-conceptual, and cannot be fully described with words. It’s also completely ordinary—the simple feeling of life in each moment.
The sudden coolness of a glass of ice water on a summer day, the whiteness of a cloud, the swatch of red color we see where the billboard paper is torn away—each moment of our life contains a fullness, a freshness. You can see this experience in the face of a young child when he looks at his world, seeing a flower or a tree, perhaps for the very first time. We may no longer experience the world in that fresh and pure way, yet the capacity is still within us. We could call it the innocence principal. Whether we are young or old, it is our nature as human beings.
Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala tradition, wrote a treatise on how to educate a prince or princess—someone who would grow up to be a brave, compassionate, skillful, and joyous leader.
The treatise states that the prince’s education should occur in an environment free of jealousy and competition, and that those who raise the prince should not think in terms of raising a child in the conventional sense. Rather, they should take the attitude that they are educating the sky. Then the prince will begin to have inquisitiveness toward the world, developing wonder about the details and processes of things.
The image of educating the sky is a poetic gesture toward the principle of trust in human nature. Rather than seeing ourselves, or our students, as stupid to begin with, but with potential to become educated, we regard the human being as fundamentally whole. Educating as though we were teaching the sky means working with students in a way that supports and encourages their innate wisdom, rather than guiding them away from it.
The vision of basic goodness represents a deep turning from the themes of self-loathing and inadequacy that run through our culture. It represents putting humanity first, ahead of outcomes, policies, money, and theory.
Recently, my friend Nikki told me a story of her experience as a nurse. She does home-care with children who are dependent on life-sustaining apparatus and who can’t communicate. Nikki said that it was clear to her that although the children were unresponsive, they were aware. She began to practice speaking to them and relating to them directly.
It felt essential to her to put their humanity first.
Many of the other nurses, she said, assumed the children were unaware, and would only relate to the machines—checking their settings, making adjustments, and then checking their smartphones before leaving. The response of the parents to Nikki’s way of being with their children was dramatic. They called her an angel, and felt incredible gratitude to her for honoring their children as human beings.
Before we are teachers, we are human beings.
Before we are students or parents, successes or failures, we are human beings.
Simple as this truth may be, the symptoms in our culture indicate that as a society we’ve lost track of it. We have underestimated and downgraded what it means to be human. Now is the time to restore humanity to the center of our lives, our schools, and our culture.
To begin we can take the attitude that every student is an heir of the royal family of human dignity. Each child possesses a mind and a heart that is brilliant like the sun, profound like the ocean, and delicate like a drop of rain. Rather than beginning from the perspective of a problem to be remedied, we can take a brave leap into the view that human beings are fundamentally good. We all have challenges and shortcomings, but our basic being is unblemished.
Young people naturally lack perspective, experience, and knowledge. They also suffer from the confusion of growing up and from experiencing unkindness in their lives.
Knowing the essential goodness of our students allows us to honor their experience in its full context, and education can be a process in which our inner humanity blossoms, rather than one in which it is gradually forgotten.