Meet Merritt, a passage meditator living in Avon Lake, Ohio. Merritt shares how her practice of the eight points, specifically slowing down, has helped her handful difficult conversations .
“Thanks, again, Laura, for letting me know. Although I am her principal, I honestly had no idea she had decided to retire. It certainly will be a big change for our school when we return in the fall.” I hung up the phone, ending the unexpected conversation with our school district’s Director of Human Resources. It was 4:15 pm on the last day of the school year, and I looked out the window to see bright sunshine and a nearly vacant parking lot.
Stepping out of my office, I was startled to see the retiring teacher standing at the reception desk with her laptop computer in hand. “I came to return this in person,” she explained. “May I come in?”
“Of course,” I agreed. “I’ve just heard the big news.” As I turned to re-enter my office, I had time for a few silent rounds of my mantram.
She handed over the computer and situated herself uncomfortably in the chair across my desk. “I’m going to talk to you like a Dutch uncle,” she began. I wasn’t familiar with the concept of a Dutch uncle, but I guessed that the honest feedback I had been requesting for several years was about to be forthcoming…
I guessed right. We spent about 45 minutes together in my office, more one-on-one time than we’d spent together all year. She had collected her thoughts to present me with several knife-edged points of advice about how I could be better at my job, without any compliments or affirmations to coat the pill.
When it was over, she left the room (no hug, no handshake, not even a little wave goodbye), I sat down and gazed at the small photo of Easwaran tucked at the corner of my desk where only I can see him. I opened my heart and alternately whispered “thank you,” and “Om namah Shivaya” (I bow to the Lord within) for a minute or two, with tears welling up in my eyes. I noticed the notebook of passages I keep in my office for afternoon meditation, and felt humbled by the gift of detachment I had experienced during the conversation, as well as the surge of joy that was following--in spite of the content of the conversation--that was undoubtedly the fruit of my meditation practice.
Of all the things she said, the one that really hit home was that the teachers in our school (including her, up to this point) are not going to say things to me if they anticipate I will disagree. She explained that they might subtly share a suggestion, but would not challenge my way of approaching an issue. As a leader who deliberately attempts to be collaborative, this was quite disappointing to hear. It also sparked my thinking that I must find a way to really hear what teachers are saying; to sense the strength of their feeling even if they don’t convey it in an obvious way.
While all of the eight points work harmoniously together to support us in any situation, this felt like a job for Point #3: Slowing Down. If I can slow down my pace of work, slow down my mind while listening to teachers, and slow down my eyes and ears while observing situations, I just might have a shot at better understanding the teachers, subsequently opening the honest dialogue I believe is essential for a healthy school.
Slowing down is an elusive point for me. I’ve been rewarded on the surface of life for being able to do things quickly and accomplishing many things, both large and small. Perhaps this can be partially attributed to the Army recruiting TV ad from my childhood, “We do more before 9 am than most people do all day...Be all that you can be…” Or maybe it is related to being the oldest child in a single parent household, or maybe it is simply my karma. Probably some combination of all those things, right? I’m relieved Easwaran deemphasizes finding the “why” to questions like these, focusing, instead, on the work of making our lives a work of art.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux vividly described the deeply ingrained compulsion to achieve with a few lines from That Wondrous Star: “When the waves of pride or ambition batter your soul, of slander or jealousy, anger or lust...” The episode with the retiring teacher was a tsunami on my ego, the part of my being that had been rewarded for achievement. I can’t imagine a better prompt for reflection and planful action.
Even before this interaction, bolstered by years of spiritual practice (including the invaluable influence of satsang with other meditators and reading Easwaran and other mystics), I had already been experimenting with a few strategies for slowing down, for example:
- Driving slower, limiting myself to 5 miles over the posted speed limit -- no matter what the circumstance.
- Consciously not pursuing new opportunities in order to have more free time to “allow good things to come in” (as a fellow Cleveland satsang member suggested).
- Reducing the number of trips to the grocery store, facing down my irrational fear of running out of certain items I like (such as Greek yogurt -- mmmm!).
- Bypassing self-checkout lanes and not scheming for the fastest line at the store, choosing instead to have a brief interaction with whichever clerk I end up with.
- Trying not to interrupt others, and pausing to let others speak first, even if it means shutting my mouth mid-comment and gesturing for the other person to “go on.”
- Accepting gracefully a moderate (trampoline-induced) knee injury, respecting my (apparently temporary) reduced physical capacity.
The goal of all this is, of course, to reduce my ego to zero so that I may be a better servant of the Lord, living calmly, patiently, and joyfully, (not only as a school principal, but also in other areas of my life). Emphasizing this as my goal (rather than prior goals of gaining power/prestige at work, being physically fit for the sake of appearance, or earning accolades for scholarly pursuits), is helping me to slow down by taking on less. I am learning to pass up activities that are not directly aligned with my goal. I have full faith that any effort I make toward discrimination in my choices (that is, how much to do and at what speed I do it) is progress on this path.
I am encouraged by early results of experiments in slowing down, with less agitation in situations that used to get under my skin, increased energy for relationships, work and recreation, and an optimistic feeling that the little victories are bellwethers for future freedom from deep-seated conditioning. It feels good to have a “spiritual-level plan” for appreciating the teachers’ perspectives, even as I continue to build those relationships using mainstream leadership strategies. I also have begun to write my mantram for the teachers in my school, specifically to help me gain new vigilance with listening to them and perceiving their true thoughts and feelings.
According to Wikipedia, a Dutch uncle is an informal term for a person who issues frank, harsh, or severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage, or admonish someone. The retiring teacher’s use of the term was perfectly accurate. I’m not sure how Dutch nieces and nephews usually feel when this happens, but I am grateful that (at least from my point of view) I was able to listen actively, did not feel the need to defend myself, and still felt like I had something to offer in the field of education when it was over. I attribute this to passage meditation, the allied disciplines and Sri Easwaran’s grace. The concept of Slowing Down earns a special gold star in this particular challenge, because it is the strategy that allowed me to see the space between my thoughts, enabling me to remain secure, disconnecting my real self from the comments offered by the outgoing veteran educator.
Fortified by the constant gentle, insightful, considerate guidance of Sri Easwaran, passage meditators are well-prepared to withstand occasional interactions with the “Dutch uncles” of the world. The equanimity I felt in the moments with the retiring teacher has given me even more determination to work on slowing down, for the greater good of all.