Thursday, January 24, 2013

Just Noticing

I don't talk much here about my day job, but I make my living in the oddest way. I teach graduate students to read medieval languages, especially medieval Latin.

The habits of mind you need to master a dead language are complex and painfully slow to acquire. My students are generally extremely bright and accomplished. Most of them are perfectionists who don't take well to not getting it right on the first go. There's always a danger that their frustration at what they haven't yet learned will demoralize them. Think about what it's like for an adult with fully formed, sophisticated musical tastes, just starting piano lessons for the first time. You want to play Bach fugues, but you're stuck with fingering exercises that you still haven't mastered.

Yesterday afternoon, I experienced one of those flashes that teachers pray to have more often: an insight into what specifically was going on for one of my students who just wasn't getting it as we worked through some material. It was clear to me in the moment that she was overshooting the simplest and most obvious solutions because she was looking for more complex options, then getting tangled in trying to make sense of what didn't need to be so difficult in the first place. Faced with translation of a common word, she'd combed the dictionary for its less obvious meanings, then mistranslated the rest of the sentence in order to make it conform to her choice.

After the class was over, I decided to share with her what I'd noticed, but I hesitated, because I wasn't sure the observation would necessarily do her much good. It's one thing to be aware of a habit of mind, and quite another to translate that knowledge into a new way of proceeding: if that weren't so, most of the therapists on the planet, and at least half the teachers, would be out of a job. As soon as I remarked on what I'd noticed, she not only confirmed that she'd been aware of it herself, but that the experience of overshooting the mark--of looking for an answer more complicated than it needs to be--was an issue as well in other aspects of her studies. I heard the note of frustration in the admission, and I feared that in pointing out to her what I'd seen, maybe I'd simply given her grounds for an extra layer of self-castigation.

And then, weirdly, in the middle of a narrowly academic conversation, I found myself talking about mindfulness practice: encouraging my student just to notice when she finds herself  devising a more complicated answer than the problem requires; not to take it as a a reason to blame herself for getting it wrong again, but instead to see it as a "win" when she becomes aware of it, because with that recognition comes also  the possibility of choosing to do otherwise. As we continued the conversation, I grew painfully aware of how easy it is, in my own life, to treat self-awareness not as grounds for compassion towards myself, but as fuel for yet another cycle of self-recrimination--for what Pema Chödrön calls the "subtle aggression" we indulge in against ourselves, in our often relentless drive for improvement.

I thought as well of how little such self-recrimination actually helps us to improve, most of the time: energy we could put into gently guiding ourselves toward something different in the future goes instead into the dubious pleasure of rehearsing what we've gotten wrong, how we've screwed up. Instead of moving on, we just dig ourselves, as Julian of Norwich would put it, deeper into the ditch. (In a few weeks, a good slice of the piety of Lent will offer its yearly opportunity to wallow in a penitence that doesn't actually change much of anything--except to raise the world's general misery quotient.)

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more the exchange with my student seemed like a small, vivid example of a choice we're continuously confronted with: whether to stand outside ourselves as taskmasters fixated on our every flaw, or to make friends with ourselves, and with our mistakes, and to look forward, not back; to balance the wisdom of self-awareness with the compassion of self-acceptance.

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