I have been a music teacher (band and elementary “general” music as it is called in the United States) for 37 years. As careers go, for me, it has had the usual assortment of satisfying and frustrating moments that other teachers seem to experience as well. There have also been some truly exhilarating times and experiences when it really all seemed very worthwhile.
In 2008, there were ten web broadcast episodes with Oprah and Eckhart Tolle that discussed his book, “A New Earth.” For me, these programs contained very provoking, life changing concepts. Watching these episodes created a whole new sense of how I looked at teaching, my personal situation, and life in general. Of course, for those familiar with Eckhart’s work, you would not say that we “have a life,” but rather “are life.” So I am only recounting my personal life situation here to set the context for my reason for writing this piece.
Since I became connected with the Eckhart Tolle community through Eckhart’s teaching materials, the “ETTV” community, and most importantly, my own personal deep connection with Geli, who is one of the two founding members of this blog, everything is changing on the surface level of my life now. This sweeping set of changes includes my daily life situation and role, which is being a teacher in a public school band program in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
So for this article, I would like to write about what the effects are in this process of becoming conscious in my teaching situation, as well as my everyday ordinary life. As part of this process, I have asked myself the question, “Why would I want to aspire to teach consciously?” It is a good question I think, and there is some wisdom in the concept that the answer is in the question itself, and so I think this question is one that is worth studying.
There is something that this article is not intending to accomplish however. It will not be about how being more present might help improve teaching “results.” There are many articles researching how improving student test scores can be accomplished, and this piece will in no way take sides on which of these methods are best for such purposes. I do not mean to imply that developing techniques to increase student performance are right or wrong in any way. I am simply looking at the teaching experience from a different angle here, which is that I intend to bring an alert presence into the ordinary classroom setting, and to see if it is possible to do this in a way that remains true to the stated and understood objectives of the class. And while this is happening, I want to see if it is also possible to bring something new and vital into the activities that take place on a certain fundamental level that might be considered “spiritual” in the sense that authors like Eckhart Tolle and John Welwood describe.
Ultimately, “conscious teaching” is about finding “myself” again, and I mean “myself” not as a separate person, but rather as the life process that is happening in “me” and “everyone else.” Teaching consciously comes from being in touch with the source of Being underneath it all, and letting it come through me in its own way. In my teaching career, much of what I have done has always seemed to be about “me” and the results I accomplished, e.g., what my students achieved at a band festival, the concerts and programs, etc. In other words, it was as if schools and educational programs have been like businesses producing a product in which the student (the customer) acquired various abilities and skills that could be measured. Think of the current collective insanity in the American educational system brought about by such widespread initiatives like G. W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” mandate, and you will see this business model put into practice. (I have always said, “You cannot legislate intelligence,” but the legislators never seem to “get it.”)
So on one hand, there are the expectations of the educational system and the people who decide what needs to be taught, learned and ultimately accomplished (measured), and now, on the other hand, I am suggesting looking at the possibility of doing this in a conscious and non-reactive manner. Reconciling these two notions is what I will describe and explore, especially as I have been experiencing them in my ordinary day to day teaching situation.
How would I describe the process of conscious teaching? It seems that to teach in a conscious state of presence means that first, in the present moment, I am not trying to do anything, or accomplish anything, in particular, and secondly, that there is a complete and total sense of being fully with what is, and then from there, feeling from within what to do next.
In other words, with every situation, I begin by surrendering to what is first. Why? Because it IS what is. The action needed consequentially then arises from being aligned with what is. Therefore, whatever it is that needs to happen on the form level now has the space around it to take place.
So let’s say our band is going to set out to work on a piece of music. First, I announce the name of the piece we will play, and hold up the director’s copy so they can also process the direction I gave to them in a visual. I have found that students will then immediately begin trying to play passages, sometimes very challenging ones from it, and “warm up” to be ready for the full group playing that is about to come.
When it is time to actually begin playing together, I give a visual hand/arm signal, and the room soon becomes quiet. Then I just feel the silence for a short space of “clock time,” as well as the life energy within myself and the room. It is THIS silence, this space that will contain the sounds of the music about to be produced. Sometimes a smile comes to me, and I let the students “know” that this is a friendly, yet challenging task that we are preparing to undertake.
Of course, my thinking, analytical mind will be needed to clarify and “rehearse” the issues that arise in terms of musical playing. I always try to make sure they get to play enough music before stopping to discuss the performance, otherwise we quickly get very focused on the slight imperfections that are happening, and miss the big picture of the musical expression itself. A sense of balance is needed to maintain contact with the musical energy, and not turn our practice into a tedious correction and drill session.
The words that I say when working with the students are less important than speaking truthfully from the heart. That does not mean that I will engage in a flowery, sugary, candy coated discourse of what is, but rather convey a deep interest of seeing the truth of everything that comes up and needs that are to be addressed. Students need facts about how they are doing, both individually and as a group, and then they can proceed to develop the skills needed to play their instruments and the pieces we have. But it is best to avoid “stories” about how they are doing. When the music begins to “take shape” as the students become better at playing it, a certain feeling arises that is unmistakable. Allowing them to sense this is more important than saying much about it, except to point carefully to what is growing as they make progress.
So, when teaching, the mind is still used and needed in a logical way, but there is also a sense of empathy (“loving kindness”) that is needed as well. Students must understand that the “tough” facts are the best thing that I can show them as their teacher, but it is necessary for a sense of understanding and compassion when this takes place. Facts are enabling. When we know where we are, we know where we can go next.
How we will perform when we are present is ultimately unknown. What will happen when we are present is also unknown. There is a need to remain alert to what is. One of the great challenges to the teacher who wishes to remain conscious through the process of teaching is to watch the activity of the mind very closely, and by using the power of awareness, perhaps it is possible to stay in touch with the inner state, the inner sense of aliveness while everything is going on.
Of course, this is not easy. Sometimes, the music flows through me and I lose my sense of my teaching role that I am in. A wonderful space opens and suddenly, there is the simple sense that the mind is no longer thinking, and yet everything is still happening with a high level of alertness. However, the mind still returns to take over and interpret what is happening, and create the plan of action much of the time. Even as the band is playing, it is easy to drop back into, and get “lost in thought.” The challenge is to find the balance and reconcile these two states of mind. But it is also important to remember that when I realize that I have returned to the ordinary mode of mental activity, the very seeing of that is itself a return to a conscious sensing of what is.
Throughout my life and career before I had read the teaching of Eckhart Tolle, I found that the “dropping out of thought into an alert presence” mode usually only took place at the times when I was playing (performing) music myself, e.g., on the flute, which is my personally learned instrument. At these times, there would come a sense that the music was simply playing itself through me. I was there to hold and blow the air through the flute while this happened, but otherwise I would just “watch” and feel it. There were also times when I was teaching some lessons with students where the life energy in the music they were doing would “take over.” At these times, it seemed that what I was teaching would just “teach itself” and I would only be there as the observer.
A truly wonderful thing about teaching instrumental music is that the subject matter is already something that is not verbal. Because of this, it is normal that the teaching process and activity that takes place is one without many words being spoken or even thought and it all seems very natural on the ordinary observed level of the situation. So for me, being a band teacher is a very wonderful fit for having a career activity that works so well with the potential of the application of spiritual experience and practice.
To finish this article, I would like to also offer and summarize some simple steps that I find helpful, and perhaps if someone is a teacher who would like to experiment with this, they could adapt any of these ideas to their classroom and subject if they would like. I would certainly love to hear from other teachers if something like this is happening for you.
- Encourage the students to sense the silence in the room before beginning a group activity. In the band class, I ask them to see how the music will be in this space, and feel it before we place the sounds in it.
- When possible, just look, and watch inside for even a few seconds before responding to a student or situation.
- Remind yourself to feel the alive quality within, and then watch this quality when interacting with students and the music being played.
- Speak truthfully, factually, and convey the sense of compassion for their efforts and attempts.
I have no answer to the “meaning” of what conscious teaching is, or how to be conscious all the time when in the classroom. For me, this is an ongoing process of discovery. Teaching is actually a function that I do for certain spaces and times in my life situation. Of course, performing this function is something that comes and goes rather immediately I would say, and it is important not to carry “too much” of this function into other events when it is no longer needed or appropriate. I suppose that could be the subject for another article…
Many thanks to Geli for helping me look at these things in my life in our ongoing examination of the things that are part of the life process and the finding the fullness of life qualities in everything that we do.