A Practice Story: Being Present

Submitted by a Zen Student at Kannon Do

Monday I was in the art library finishing preparations for the class I had to teach on Tuesday night. It wasn’t going very well – the images I wanted to show couldn’t be made into slides, the key book I wanted to consult was checked out, and so on – and I was rather preoccupied, self-absorbed, my mind whirring about what I would do since “plan A” had not worked out. I heard a very soft voice at my side and looked up to see one of the students in my class.

Her presence startled me enough and her voice was quiet enough that I was really aware of having to jerk myself out of all the busy thoughts going on in my own head and turn my full attention to her, just to understand what she was saying. When I did, I was surprised at how clearly I understood her. And the understanding had not so much to do with mentally comprehending the words she was speaking. Those were a waterfall of apologies about having submitted her exam to me in a format over email that took forever to download and that ultimately wasn’t readable. What I did understand was that she was really frightened.

I think some of her fear was generally about being a student again and feeling unsure of herself at the graduate level. Perhaps there were other fears there that had nothing to do with the course. But I recognized that part of her fear I had instilled. When she was apologizing about the exam. she went on about how she felt particularly stupid for having screwed it up because I had said that I was a “hard grader” and she wanted to do well and didn’t want to annoy me and so forth. I realized that those few words I said in class – announcing that I was a hard grader – had frightened her, that “I” had frightened her. I spent a few minutes calming her down and reassuring her repeatedly that she hadn’t done anything wrong, that I wasn’t offended, that nothing in how she ever turned in anything would affect her grade , and that I was sure she would do just fine in the course, etc.

Three things really struck me about this encounter that seem to me to be related to meditation practice. First, in really being attentive to her, giving her my full attention, the understanding I had of what she was communicating was so little about the words she was saying. Yes, of course, the words she was speaking were important, but what seemed much more significant and what I felt I needed to address was the emotion there, the fear. It made me realize that so much of what, on a day to day basis, I consider to be “paying attention” is really no more than a translation of words heard. That’s not really being attentive in the large sense; it’s not being open to the whole person in front of you. To have that quality in any moment requires the greater openness that zazen gives.

Second, this encounter made me newly aware of how my actions – in this case, from a mixture of convenience, misguided pedagogy, and pride – really affects others. I had developed the habit of telling classes that I grade pretty sternly or showing them the grade distribution from former years. I did these things, frankly, in order to scare off students who were in the class because they considered history to be “easy” or “a gut”. My dramatics had a certain pragmatic utility: it caused some students who are looking for an easy course to drop out of mine, eliminating the nuisance of dealing with them, and the dean, later in the semester when evidence appeared that they aren’t up to the work. In addition, my early-warning tone reduced complaints when low grades were assigned.

I rationalized this scare tactic by assuring myself that if they were put on notice early, they would work harder, and that would be good for them. At the same time, I honestly know I was doing it because I wanted them to respect me. I believed that appearing tough would accomplish that. However, this student last Monday made me realize that I used my position of power to terrorize her. She was frightened and upset; I had done that to her. I felt awful, not only about the effect on her but about all the students over the years that I have probably done that to without realizing. Not a pretty realization about myself, but I hope by avowing it I can be a more compassionate teacher in the future.

Third, and more happily, I felt that these moments of really being attentive to my student not only made me aware of the suffering I had caused, but also afforded me an opportunity to undo some of it. Being able, open to see her fear gave me the opportunity to reassure her, to comfort her. I’m grateful for that opportunity and for the greater connectedness to her that I now feel. Those are great gifts.