James Crews looks at the circuitous path he took — from the high desert of Oregon to Saint Louis, Missouri to Bogota, Colombia — toward understanding the work of teaching and the importance of bringing mindfulness into the classroom.
I’ve worked in customer service for big-box stores, logged time in cubicles calming pissed-off customers both in person and on the phone. But after getting a taste of teaching English in grad school, I knew I’d found my calling. I’ve never been able to stand the water-cooler talk about last night’s episode of Mad Men, the endless meetings about seemingly inane rules or the chatter about who’s dating whom in the office. So when a small university in rural Oregon offered me a temporary job as a writing instructor, I thought nothing about moving hundreds of miles across the state into the high desert, bringing precious little with me but my blind enthusiasm and many boxes of books. Though academia certainly has its flaws—and is often filled, like any organization, with its share of supersize egos looking to be further inflated—the job seemed worth it for the chance to talk about the things each day that matter the most to me: language, literature and life.
Though the snow-capped Blue Mountains greeted me on my walk to campus in the mornings, I grew quickly disillusioned by my decision. I resented the slog through student papers, all of the reading I was assigning them (and thus myself)—things I was nowhere near qualified to teach (with my measly master’s degree): Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness. I had also neglected to take into account just how many of my own fears and attachments would follow me to this new place, would trail me into the classroom, leaving me with a widening sense of emptiness. There was a church on almost every corner of that tiny town, but I was naively proud of the fact that I’d never been a spiritual person. I’m ashamed to say I sometimes mocked my own students’ beliefs too. I remember scoffing at one Mormon student’s essay about the evils of coffee drinking (though I do still smile at that one). I was raised with no religion and was looking to keep it that way, but the work-filled nights, mostly free of outward entertainment and distraction, began to wear me down. It was clear that something big was missing from my life, and in order not to have to deal with it, I sought temporary relief. I had cable hooked up, joined Netflix, tried meeting other gay guys online, but the nearest “real” city was Boise, Idaho, a two-hour drive through mountains that were often impassable in winter (which lasts longer than I’d like to remember). I met a few men, went on some dates, but they were often closeted, interested only in sex and keeping their girlfriends in the dark about extracurricular activities. I knew I wasn’t quite that desperate and didn’t relish causing suffering for anybody else.
A spiritual friend of mine I like to call my Guru had encouraged me to try meditation ever since we went to college together. She suggested looking for a small monastery or retreat center nearby. She pointed out it might be a much healthier way to fill my time than hook-ups or the latest episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready to give up my habitual responses to loneliness and depression. Anxiety crowded my mind (and churned in my stomach) whenever I stepped into the classroom each morning, and then whenever I unlocked the door to my house at night. I lasted there less than a year, quit after the spring term was over. I packed up my few belongings and headed back home to the Midwest, crashing in the spare room of a friend’s condo just outside St. Louis. Once again, I thought I had escaped my fears.
I lived there rent-free for several months, applying for jobs and taking aimless walks through suburbia by day, and by night drinking or getting high with old college friends. It was not where I’d imagined myself a year earlier when I was handed a master’s degree, but the economy was spiraling toward recession, and part of me thought I deserved a break from all the stress I had felt as a teacher. What I wanted, of course, was a break from the pressures of reality.
The sudden vastness of the Midwestern landscape—the sounds of the interstate lulling me to sleep at night—and the wastefulness of that life finally got to me. I could no longer blame teaching for the anxiety that wasn’t going away. I couldn’t just chalk it up to having chosen the wrong profession anymore. I looked into joining the Peace Corps, moving back to Oregon, teaching English abroad, but I was living off my savings, afraid to make a move. One evening on the phone, my Guru cornered me with the kind of harsh words she had never spoken to me before. I’d been talking about how I thought I’d apply for unemployment and just hang out in my friend’s spare room for a few months more. “Listen,” she said to me, “I’ve been patient with you. But I can’t just stand by while you wait for the world to fix your problems. You think you’ve been put on this Earth to feel safe and cozy, but you’re wrong.” She told me if I didn’t find some way to give to the world, I’d never be happy. After a few days of self-righteous moping, I realized my Guru was right.
I started reading books about happiness. I thought that was all I wanted—contentment, relaxation, peace. I read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness. But things didn’t start to sink in until I got a hold of a copy of The Bhagavad Gita from the local library, which counseled: “Fulfill all your duties. Action is better than inaction,” and “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life.” That whole “selfless” bit really stuck with me. I decided to try meditation for the first time, and I still remember scrunching my legs into an awkward half-lotus on the floor of my friend’s condo, doing my best to sit silently and breathe while her two cats crawled all over my lap. I began sitting for a few minutes each day and was noticing the effects. I decided to quit smoking. I started drinking less, stopped smoking so much pot too because I saw how the drugs were robbing me of my clarity. But I knew I needed to go someplace free of temptation and distraction, someplace so far away I’d have no choice but to face the demons that kept following me everywhere. One day, while browsing last-minute deals, I bought a ticket for Bogotá, Colombia.
Armed with a tattered copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha and Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You Are (both lent to me by my Guru), I hefted my backpack of clothes and boarded the plane. I was using up a big chunk of my savings to take the trip, but for the first time in my life, I had full faith that the risk was worth it. I wanted to be volunteering somewhere, wanted to try my hand at teaching again someday, but I sensed that if I didn’t spend some solid time alone, really processing my fears, I’d never effectively be able to do that kind of difficult work.
On the cold tile floor of the hostel room I rented for a month, I folded a wool blanket in the approximate shape of a zafu and sat each morning and evening without fail. I sat through rain battering my one window, stray dogs howling down the moon, the banging and sawing of the woodworking shop right next to my room. I was finally, really meditating—but it didn’t feel like it yet. I kept flashing back to those classrooms, that isolated town, and I felt again the heat that had flooded my face whenever those thirty tired faces stared back at me, waiting for me to say something meaningful, tell them what to do. Waiting for me to give them the answers I couldn’t even find for myself. Each inhale and exhale was undoing the knots and lumps I’d carried with me, bound up in stomach, it seemed, for years. I recalled the bullies in elementary school, my failed relationships, my father’s sudden death at 43 just a few years before. I had not felt grief for that loss, or for any other. I had not felt responsible for the suffering I’d caused others. I saw just how well I’d trained myself not to feel anything in order to “keep the peace.” It was no wonder I had little capacity to deal with any new pain or discomfort that arose: There wasn’t any room left in my heart, mind, or body to process it. I was working so hard to keep it all bottled up, there was no energy left for the real work I wanted to do.
After a few weeks of crouching on that blanket, following my breath and labeling each anguished thought simply thinking, I saw how much space my mind had been craving, how much silence I had denied myself in spite of knowing that I’m an introvert, I really needed it. There was something about placing myself in a situation I couldn’t escape from (alone in a hostel in a foreign country) and the imposed discomfort of meditation that helped me at last gain some perspective. It dawned on me that I’d done nothing wrong as a teacher except to cloud my own awareness, to tell myself the story that I was a “bad” and “unqualified” professor—to label my own students “good” or “bad.” I had failed to see the clarity that any calling or profession requires of us, and I saw how much I had been bringing my “self” with me into the classroom each morning—all my baggage, my fears, my ego. Teaching, and perhaps any human interaction, is most effective when we allow others to fill the spaces between us, when we listen generously to what they have to say and to what our own bodies and minds have to tell us in that moment. I lost sight of my intentions, why I had wanted to teach literature and writing in the first place, as I held onto the mistaken belief that the students expected me to have all the right answers when they only needed someone calm and—dare I say it?—loving to guide them toward understanding.
Some of those self-defeating thoughts that made me leave a profession I loved slowly began to dissolve with practice. As I wandered the streets of Bogotá, struggling with my almost-nonexistent Spanish—unable to read maps, menus or street signs—I also became more humble. I felt as my students must have felt—bewildered by custom and discourse. I had to make peace with the fact that every time I opened my mouth, I would make a mistake, and after a while, could even occasionally laugh with the shopkeepers who cracked up whenever I uttered so much as an Hola. I began to uncover moments during my stint as a teacher when compassion and instinct had come together and allowed me to take a risk—as when I’d decided to switch the theme of a course to Apocalyptic Literature to get my resistant students reading. I remembered one freshman who said he hadn’t opened a book since junior high—until my class. Another student had meekly asked if she could turn in paintings for her final project and wowed me with her renditions of a cold, empty, end-times landscape. I especially remember joking with the best writer in my class that she belonged at Harvard; I later heard that she switched her major to English and planned to make a life of studying literature. Even in the midst of the suffering I was creating for myself at that time, there were gaps when my better mind took over and helped me offer my students some space in which to grow.
Most of my childhood and young adulthood was about training my mind to find only the negatives in the world, to see things only in terms of how they supported or threatened my comfort—what I thought then meant happiness. The countercultural message of teachers like Pema Chödrön, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Charlotte Joko Beck and the daily discomfort of meditation practice, have worked to slowly reverse that early training. And now that I am teaching English to college students once more, I’ve come to see my classrooms as an in-the-moment experiment in compassion and awareness, not just of their behavior, but also of my own. I pause often and speak slowly. I laugh more easily at myself. And as cheesy as it sounds, I send out lovingkindness in the hallway before stepping into class each time. During discussions, I listen and wait, and when I do have to speak, I try to speak with the intention of ventilating things, never pointing out what I perceive as a student’s faults and trying not to beat myself up for a “bad” class. Being in a classroom is a lot like being in an office, except that all the interaction and stress are condensed into one shorter, pressure-cooker-like slice of time. Of course, teaching is also akin to the work of meditation since its quality (for me, at least) is defined by the generosity of silence and space we allow to arise.
Nowadays, having faced down a few of my demons, having come to terms with constant failure and imperfection in all walks of life, I push past the doubt that threatens to take over. I think often of Hesse’s Siddhartha, which made such an impression on me back in Colombia; he writes, “But what a path it has been! I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew.” It seems counterintuitive, but we must hold onto “beginner’s mind,” no matter our profession. I believe meditators are especially well-suited as teachers because each time we sit on the cushion, it’s like standing at the blackboard—we’re right back at square one.
James Crews is the author of The Book of What Stays, a collection of poetry published by the University of Nebraska Press. In his free time, James writes for basalt magazine, which he co-edits and regularly contributes to the (London) Times Literary Supplement. He has worked as a salesman of bespoke wallpaper, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and an English teacher in rural Oregon. He is now living and teaching in Lincoln, Nebraska where he’s working on a PhD.