Friday, December 26, 2008

Few Words: Much Work

“The inner life of the teacher”, it’s a forbidding subject; but would anyone own up to having no inner life, teacher or not? After all, the moment you wake up in the morning, whether the reaction is “Urrgh!” or “Wow!” “Let’s get going!” or “Hmmmmm! – Just a few minutes longer” (subject to temperament & habit) one’s inner life wakes up too. So what’s all this about inner life & inner work & why do words entangle & confuse something that starts by being common or mundane?

Not just any set of thoughts & not just random & reactive mental scribblings, we’re talking here of something we chose to do as part of our “profession”, something that brings form & discipline into what is otherwise chaotic & undertaken in order to help children. Not just for my sake, but for them.

A short story: A man asked Rudolf Steiner how he might prepare himself to meditate. Steiner gave him a short sentence containing a mental picture to think about to the exclusion of everything else for five minutes each day. Meeting the man again Steiner asked how him how he had got on. “Useless!” the man replied, “Every time I try to do what you said, my thoughts begin to buzz. I have so many loose ends & nothing knits together. I had to give up because I was making no progress”. “But you have made wonderful progress,” was the reply, “You now know what your thoughts are really like!”

People talk a great deal about “non-verbal” signals & “body language” as though these things could be simply adapted to one’s will. The way the thoughts (& especially those that are also felt) we carry with us all day influence those around us is little considered or heeded, but shouldn’t we have more control of these than, for example, of the habit of touching your nose when feeling uneasy? In fact, if you want to do something about the habit, don’t you need to think about it first (“seeing” the problem being the starting point, & where does the “seeing” take place)? Perhaps it is useful to remember that the reality of what we think is one of the first principles Steiner sets out in “How to Attain Knowledge of Higher Worlds”.

To meditate, contemplate, ponder, reflect, cogitate, pray or truly think: there are plenty of words & they’re easily tangled, but the doing is what makes the difference. The doing in this case is unseen; & what is unseen is easiest forgotten. The first of what are often called (wrongly – because of one of the contexts in which they were given) “the six subsidiary exercises” is that concerned with gaining better control of thinking. Whisper it softly, but teachers of young children need to have clearer thoughts than those working with teenagers! A beautiful piece of sewing is an indication of precise thoughts!

Focussing on an everyday object for five minutes, one can attempt to exclude the extraneous drift of will-o’-wisp thoughts. Like the man in the story, the interesting discovery is how difficult it is to do when you set yourself to do it. A similar approach can be adapted to picturing the newborn child, the child taking her first steps, or making her first outwardly meaningful utterance, tying her own shoelaces for the first time. You might find a fascinating to-&-fro between the way in which a vital apprehension of these things brings life & meaning to what Steiner has to say about child development & this can be experienced as enriching the developmental pictures one builds. But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t tried it, do it: then we shall each have something unique & valuable to speak about.

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