Monday, October 30, 2006

Yoga and how to be a student

Okay, now here’s the thing that I have to say about learning and it’s really quite simple. Be a student all your life. Always learn something, anything. Why? Well, at the very obvious level, they tell us that learning is exercise for the brain, keeps your brain cells limbered up and in shape and your outlook towards life fresh and energetic. While that’s true, there is actually much more than that to this learning thing. Because apart from the subject that you will learn – be that growing mushrooms or anthropology – you learn other things, almost all of which have nothing to do with how to make that fungus multiply by the million or how old “Lucy” the Hominid is. And today, I, hopefully the eternal student, share a few of those lessons with you today …..

Learning to trust
“You can't shake hands with a clenched fist”. Indira Gandhi

I am one of the few people in my yoga class still struggling with the halasana (plough pose). And there are two things stopping me. One is fear – I’m petrified that once i get into the final position, flat on the floor with my body flipped backwards like a sleeping comma, i won’t be able to come back. Ridiculous and totally unfounded, but that is what fear is. The second is that whenever my yogacharya comes to egg me on, (he also has a good laugh while doing this!) and say, “Nothing is going to happen to you. Come on, just do it”, i don’t really believe him. because if i did, I’d flip myself into that dratted halasana, fear or no fear.
So, the thing is, nothing in life is possible without trusting someone. Your business associate, your spouse, the person who made your pressure cooker, the bus driver taking you to work, the man in the car at the traffic light waiting for you to cross, your doctor, your hairdresser, even your parents. And if you are parachutist, then the factory worker who fixed the ripcord on your parachute. Like it or not, you have to trust that they won’t let you down. And without trust, some of the most dangerous and high pressure jobs in the world would not be possible – like fire fighting and exploring the Artic….and being a parent!
And the place that you learn to trust is in the classroom. Becoming a student is like when a child puts its hand into its parent’s to cross the street. What the child is telling the parent is, “I trust you completely to take me across.” Which is exactly the contract that you make with your teacher. That you trust him/her to teach you to the best of his/her ability, with your best interest at heart. Not an easy thing – trust. It requires courage, asking you to surrender, to relinquish control. Children trust easily because they have no fear well, not yet anyway. It becomes more difficult to trust as we grow older and the crust of cynicism and fear hardens and gets in the way. Which is why it is so important to always go back to class – so that you can reconnect with the frightening idea of crossing the road by placing your hand in someone else’s….

Learning Humility
"To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” Confucius
This lesson is easy because it’s a very simple equation – the more you learn, the more you discover how little you know. The greatest scholars and gyanis are the ones who’ve realised this and have never stopped learning and see themselves as perennial students. Because the more they know, the more they know how little they know. Which means that they always constantly swim in the consciousness that for every ocean it may seem they’ve crossed and conquered, there are a million more and then a million more. That humbles you like nothing else because you realize that the termite is a more sophisticated ------ than you and the average bacteria a better diplomat. And you only get this when you are learning.
There is a corollary to this humility business. Which is that you learn to respect all knowledge – with no exceptions. So the more you learn, you figure that knowing how to knead chapati dough is as much knowledge as knowing how to crack the human genetic code. The more you learn, the more you realise that there is a place, a purpose and a need for the potter and the philosopher, the sweeper and the priest, the underwear salesman and the astronaut. And none of them are lesser or greater, they just are. Is a maggot lesser or greater than a butterfly. But most importantly, you realise that there is always someone who can teach you a thing or two. Always.

Learning to learn
"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." ALBERT EINSTEIN

A visitor who was full of expectations was unimpressed by the commonplace words the Master addressed to him.
"I came here in quest of a Master," he said to a disciple. "All I find is a human being no different from the others."
Said the disciple, "The Master is a shoemaker with an infinite supply of leather. But he does the cutting and stitching in accordance with the dimension of your foot." ZEN STORY

This is actually perhaps the most important lesson in life. Remember the cliché – you can take a horse to the water but you can’t drink for it? Well, what it means is that after a point, in everything including the classroom, each one of us are on our own, walking down the road on which no one can accompany us. Parents, spouse, children, friends, teacher – no one. Because the final act of swallowing the water has to done by the horse. You can tell it what throat muscles to use, describe the technique of swallowing, encourage and demonstrate, even stick the horse’s head in the water. But after that, the horse is on it’s own. With just perseverance and practice as its only companions. And that’s true for anything that you are learning - bicycling, tying your shoe laces, painting the sunset.
Now, a good teacher knows that. So after a point he/she stops teaching and patiently waits for the horse to figure out the rest of it. But most students don’t, getting angry and feeling let down when this happens, blaming the teacher for not “teaching” any further. Because independence is a very difficult lesson to learn. It’s so much easier to hop around on crutches, leaning on this, blaming that and passing the buck to another or…. your teacher. But if you keep learning, you figure out why the teacher let go and why you are now on your own. There comes a moment when in a flash you realize that this is the only way you will really learn – by yourself, on your own. With your teacher only a guide, a compass, a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a beacon to lead you back when you’re lost. Getting to the destination is your baby.
So, sign up for those guitar lessons today. And as you do, think of your teacher as a gardener. And all that the gardener does - and can do - is to prepare the right conditions for the seed. (Which, by the way, is you.) Orchestrating water, air, sunlight, soil and manure to come together in the right proportions in which the seed is sown. After that, it’s the seed’s responsibility to sprout and grow. Whichever way it chooses.

"There is no transference of secrets from master to disciple.
Teaching is not difficult, listening is not difficult either,
but what is truly difficult is to become conscious
of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own." Kenneth R. Beittel in Zen and the Art of Pottery