On October 13-15, about 200 students and 50 educators (don't hold me to those numbers) came to North Carolina for a three-day spiritual conference hosted by the SKS. Our goal was pretty much the same as always: help the students to define their own values, to talk about how to live by them, and to get serious about spiritual work. As always, we wanted the event to be intense, personal, and real, as opposed to superficial and intellectual.
Structurally, we separated the educators into an "educator's track." The students were broken into groups. Each group had roughly fifteen students, and one facilitatora speaker or experienced SKS person who knew what a good meeting should feel like, and could try to steer it in that direction, and hopefully provide some insight. I was a facilitator.
For weeks leading up to the conference, I was surprisingly nervous about my role. I say "surprisingly" because I've given talks, taught classes, and led meetings for years, and I generally approach them with a lot of confidence. But this was different. 200 students had given up three days and a fair amount of money to come to this conference, and I felt personally responsible for making sure that fifteen of them got their money's worth. They had to dig up real issues and come out with some sort of transformative experiencesomething they would remember and think about for a long time. I knew, intellectually, that this was something they had to do for themselves. But I still somehow felt it was up to me.
Kavita's advice beforehand was sound, but not incredibly helpful. To all fifteen of the facilitators she said "We picked you guys because we trust your instincts. You have to trust your instincts too. If you go completely off the agenda, that's OK. Do the right thing for the students." So I had a lot of freedom. And even though nobody said so, I also felt a lot of pressure.
The topic of discussion was an article called "The Cup of Trembling." The cup of trembling is the thing in your life that you don't want to face, but you know how you have to. Now, here's how these discussions usually work. A bunch of students get together with a topic like that, and they start answering the question "What is your cup of trembling?" The initial answers are cautious and somewhat superficial. Then one student surprises everyone by giving an answer that is real, authentic, deep, powerful. And everyone else says "Oh, so that's what we're supposed to be doing." Then the whole conversation goes a level deeper. The facilitator keeps people focused at that perfect balance point where it is personal enough to be real, but not so personal that it just becomes sob stories.
I knew all that, coming in. Then I met my group on the first day of the conference, and we talked for an hour or so, and it didn't happen.
Don't get me wrong, it isn't that we didn't talk. We did talk, and the students did tell stories, and they were about real issues. "My father died five years ago." "I'm the first person in my family to go to college." "I'm a Wiccan, and my parents didn't know." Every one of those is a real issue and a good topic. The students liked each other, they liked me, and I think most of them were having a good time.
But the energy wasn't there. They didn't know that, because they didn't know what we were shooting for. But I knew it. In some way I cannot describe, they were just not grappling with the issues that were really facing them. And I was not offering the kinds of insights that would get them there. My "insight well" was completely dry.
So, we met again, bright and early the second day. And it happened again. We talked as a whole group. We broke up into small groups of two or three. I directed them. I left them to explore on their own. I told my own stories to "go first" and model what we were trying to do. Nothing helped. Every meeting felt like the previous one.
Driving home at the end of the second day, I explained to my wife that my poor group just happened, by luck of the draw, to get stuck with the world's worst facilitator. There was only one more session, the next morning, and I knew it would go like the other ones had. The conversation would be pleasant. It would be interesting. And it would not give the students anything to chew on later, anything that would get stuck in their heads and make them think until they were sick of thinking about it. Anything that would help them change.
So we gathered the next morning and we started talking again. And then, pretty early on, one of the educators walked in. I had not seen her since the first day, when she left for the educator's track. She pulled up a chair, sat down, and interrupted whoever was speaking. "I just want you all to know," she said to the students, "That what is going on during this conference is terrible and wrong. If you have a feeling inside you that says ‘this is wrong' you should listen to it. You don't have to do a thing that Kenny tells you to do, or answer any of his questions. He has no business asking you these things in the first place."
When she finished that monologue, the air was electricyou could feel it on your skin. My voice, by contrast, was strangely calm. "Thank you," I said. "We have all heard what you have to say. Now, if you will kindly leave, we will finish what we're doing."
"I'm not leaving," she replied. And she sat there, and she glared at me, almost daring me to continue. This was the one moment where I absolutely did not know what to do. More than anything, I wanted her to get out and leave us alone. But there was just no way to make it happen. If we got up and left, she would follow. There was no choice except to keep going, with her right there glaring.
So, I kept doing the same thing we had been doing before. But nothing was the same. Suddenly, no student wanted to say anything superficial. Why not? It wasn't because they would feel embarrassed in front of her. It was just that, with the room so charged, anything superficial would have just sounded silly. So they got real. We went around the room, in a frantic rush, everyone desperately saying what was really on his mind. And with each speaker, I or someone else in the room offered insights, deepened the conversation effortlessly. We were all tense. We were all nervous. And we were all, for that brief time, intensely real.
As we left the room, one girl stopped me in the stairwell. She had barely spoken through the entire conference, even during the last intense session. Now we had met for the last time, and we were on our way to the end of the conference. And she grabbed my arm, summoned all her courage, and asked me point blank "Do you think I have any chance at getting anywhere? I mean, with this spiritual stuff?" And suddenly, for the first time, I knew that the whole conference had worked.
There isn't really more of an ending to the story than that. In the final whole-conference session, students got up and talked about the weekend. Two of the students from my group spoke, and they both had very positive things to say. I don't think that our angry educator stuck around to hear all the students describing their wonderful, moving experiences. It probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.
But there is a great irony in her story. What she really objected to, in the final analysis, was that the conference got personal. It wasn't just about ideas, it was about people's lives and their deepest issues, and she considered that profoundly inappropriate. Yet it was her presence that made my last session get so vividly personal, instead of just being a dialogue about ideas. She created, in my little group, exactly the intensity that she was so afraid of.
There is an irony in my story too. Because I didn't come to Inward Bound to have a spiritual experienceI came to help students. I wasn't looking for personal confrontation in my own life. I thought about that a lot, that day. I thought about it a lot over the next days and weeks. For some reason, I just can't get the whole thing out of my head.
I have, what I consider, a strange connection/relation to to you. I cannot yet systematize it to say "under these circumstances it's like this this and that, but on the other hand, over here, it's like so and so and so." All I can say to date is that there are so many times when I feel like I line up so well with your views on things and then you go and do and say things that seem totally out of whack for the rest of it all. This is not a bad thing, just... unnerving almost with how surprising it is. When I first started spending a lot of time around Walker, I had a similar experience: Walker did lots of things that appeared to me to be completely crazy and doomed to failure, but then somehow, for him, it always turned out to be exactly the right thing. And I learned that Walker and I shared so many of the same core values even if we somehow managed to interpret a lot of them differently in practice, I came to believe that he was universally doing what he was doing for reasons that I almost always agreed with myself, even if that wasn't quite the way I wanted to do itit was mostly superficial differences. When I try to see the way you do things in such a light, I feel that either it is not quite the same, perhaps some much more siginificant fundamental differences in values/goals (compared to the differences between Walker and me, for example), or else I just don't know you well enough to be able to judge adequately. I do know that as I read through your articles I find so so so much in common with views I have expressed over and over again to so many people, and never heard many, if any, that genuinely agreed with me. And yet, even as you, obviously independently, agree with these things I have said before, there are some occasional points you make, and some very noticeable experiences I have had with you in person in SKS, where I find our approaches/perspectives diverge greatly. For some reason this still surprises me. I do not find it troubling, just odd enough to warrant investigation for some reason. I am curious why/how such differences come to pass: where the divergence arisesit helps me understand myself better, as well as you, and others, if I can eventually notice these clearly subtler contrasts I must have that I cannot easily identify. Ultimately however, when I practice this exercise of imagining that you are doing exactly the right thing for you and while it looks... different to me sometimes, and I might even think it's a bad idea, and on the odd day, will feel it necessary to explicitly disagree with youI have yet to find myself openly at odds with you trying to stop you from something, but in hypothetical world, this too should be a part of the visionI find myself much more at ease with the world. When I first started doing vipassana and on retreat the monks would emphasis doing metta ("loving-kindness", just in case) chants in the morning, I really connected with it somehow, and found metta to really have a significant effect on my mind/spirit and even body, noticeably, when I would intentionally express metta for those with whom I had some beef. It always calms me, it always helps me feel better, for my own sake, and of course eases some aspect of the tension/whatever I have with the person/situation inspiring the metta to begin with. This collection of differences I note between you and me, and likewise with Walker, and certainly with others though I might have much greater difficulty recognizing the similarities that are much more obvious with people like you and Walker, is something similar to metta, but perhaps more generalized: rather than pre-emptively (or after the fact of frustration) wishing good things for others, instead: simply assume outright that the things going on for those around me are already good things, no matter what I think of it, or challenges it creates for me (and that in fact, the arising challenges are themselves good things for me as well), or even whatever the consequences turn out to be. I live in a beautiful, fundamentally good world, and all the bumps along the way are leading somewhere worthwhile, somehow. I expect the more people choose to perceive things in that way, the better everything will get, that much faster.
While reading through them inspired the above reaction primarily, I really do like the actual content of your articles. I particularly appreciated your Safety one because it is a huge deal to me, especially when I was a kid myself and I had to live through watching all the cool playgrounds get turned into rubble because they were "too dangerous". As if I ever wanted a life in a bubble in exchange for survival. But, please, won't someone think of the mothers and the terrible suffering they will go through if their beloved babies die from some freak accident that they could have prevented if only all sharp objects and tall places were removed from the world entirely? I also found your Inward Bound article notable (I had no idea you had such an interruption, nor that your group had such difficulty opening up) and your article about Teachers and Students regarding your relationship with Augie and your own development as a leader/teacher. I think you personally will likely always have a hard time reaching people on an emotional level as you seem to be far more interested, and internally motivated by, the system itself (a very intellectual process) of transformation and "reaching people," not to mention the more intellectual aspects of the investigation itself (you are the one comparing it to chess after allwhich you are well suited to do, but is never going to reach everyone, for sure). That said, I personally imagine that a higher percentage than in the normal american collegiate population will be showing up to SKS with a similar interest/style to yours and thus, while they might still be a minority, there'll be enough of them that your efforts are far from wasted. Different styles for different people. Plus, in defense of your Seattle group, pushing your comfort zone is never going to work great the first time around. You had to explore widely to make the experience as powerful as possible for youself, and people don't (and shouldn't) stick around forever to wait while you get your bearings. There are many times when I feel guilty about the "damage" I [feel that I?] have inflicted on others because they had the "misfortune" of being present while I was learning something myself, with them as guinea pigs, but then it seems as though if I really feel bad about it, I should just make sure to do better next time and accept that you have to learn somewhere. As per your Safety article, if the goal really was to "do no harm" we'd never make any omelettes (inevitably, by necessity, "breaking a few eggs"). I fully believe the world is better off for our honest "mistakes" in the pursuit of doing better. (I often repeat one of Dave Gold's SKS classics: "It's OK to make mistakes, so long as you don't know they're mistakes when you make them.") I still struggle with the memories of those times even with my attempts at self encouragement, but I think I'm worse than most with feelings of self rebuke. I hope you struggle less than I, I imagine parenting would make such situations be/appear more common ("if only..." type moments).
On a more specific note, I observed a comment you included in the Inward Bound article: "help the students to define their own values, to talk about how to live by them, and to get serious about spiritual work." I have been wondering about this lately, if the goal of SKS is / should be (but the difference between these two verbs in this context is pretty much the whole point) to encourage students on a "spiritual path" towards "enlightenment" (quite likely legitimately entitled "spiritual") or "self discovery" (potentially a kind of a confusing and misleading and possibly even counter productive redefinition of "spiritual") or just a simple process of investigating "what really matters to me?" (or something like that, with no reference to "enlightenment" or any of those other "spiritual" things that frequently come up in SKS meetings). A small few of the current NCSU SKSers have been running a book club over the summer and from the sounds of it (I haven't attended), have a hard time making their conversations "spiritual" which leads me to wonder: why does it have to be "spiritual"? But then, perhaps that really is what Augie wantsas per the classic Augie story of Rose and the students who wanted to learn kung fu, it's not just whatever anyone wants, it's what the organizers want, it really is someone's group, and they do get to pick. But then, in reading that quote from your article, the sequence doesn't really follow for me: connecting "own values" and "how to live by them" I get, but then "serious about spiritual work" sounds so ridiculously tacked on, as if that was the same thing, and while I can see how you could define it that way, that is in no way the conventional definition to my mind, and I think a hard leap to make for your average student (as one might deduce from the IB responses, like your educator's knight in shining armor moment). So, which one is it, or perhaps rather, how could the overlap between them be better presented? When I listened to Augie's talk at UNC (or Duke, can't remember) at the beginning of fall 2007, I made copious notes on the way (and how I might have done things differently) that Augie started at what I would consider the end of a really good talk that would actually make that connection between "if it's really important to you, then why aren't you doing it with all your heart" to "and that's a spiritual search for enlightenment, ultimately/in some fashion." (For me personally, I find the "follow your values" and "that ultimately is / will lead you to the quest for enlightenment" to be true only in the most extreme sense, and the far more superficial/conventional versions of "what is important to you? & go do it" are actually at least as important, if not significantly more important, even if only in collection, to the allegorical "pearl of great price" of "seek ye first the kingdom of heaven" / "enlightenment", and certainly in the beginning it seems necessary to start with the superficial stuff before even appreciating the value of the probably "more advanced" quest for enlightenmentand even in the times when I'm inclined to think that maybe enlightenment/whatever is more important than everything else combined, because "what good is all the rest if you don't have an "absolute" foundation from which to appreciate existence/experience itself?", I still seriously doubt that your average first time SKS visitor is going to come even remotely close to that attitude, and will surely be scared off by a too early assertion of that inequality as raw fact.) The last book club meeting of the summer is going to be on a book one of the students is really interested in: "The Communist Manifesto"because she joined SKS in part to help her figure out her political views. Is that a misuse/abuse of the SKS environment? Is it supposed to be about how to get hardcore about getting enlightened? Or is getting all hardcore about "getting enlightened" just a common theme because of the background/history of the people running SKS? Or perhaps just a recommended solution but not necessarily the focus? Or is it's presence there at all pure coincidence, a leftover from when the SKS started off as a group about getting enlightened Richard Rose style and now it's become something else and should perhaps evolve a bit more explicitly? I have no solid opinion on any of this, but it did make me start to wonder. Is this a group that "should" (or is a different verb more appropriate in this situation?) meet the needs of students, or the wishes of the founders, or are those the same things? Anyways, it was controversial/questionably interpretable on many levels and it got me thinking, which I suspect was part of your goal for the site, even if it wasn't quite intended to be thinking about that specific topic.
Ultimately, I read them all. Good stuff, as per your usual. I am glad that these are now out there in the universe. When the day comes and I have my own site up and running, I will be referencing and linking to these of yours as well. I imagine you will now continue adding to them, at infrequent moments, so hopefully I will remember to come back and check every now and then.
It seems like you're struggling (among many other things) with the connection between "rigorously finding your own values and then honestly living by them" and "spiritual work." You're right when you say that to me, they are one and the same thing. I would say that if you really think your highest value in life is "make money" then you just haven't thought about it enough. If you think about it hard enough and really try to live by it, you're going to end up somewhere spiritual.
That sounds awfully abstract: let me make it more concrete by talking about your question about the NC State girl. If she really focuses the meetings very narrowly on political topics, I would say that's a worthwhile goal but it is not SKS. But it's quite possible that she will view those topics in a broader context, asking many of the questions you're asking in your email: what is it that makes one person believe in communism and another in capitalism, one vote for Democrats and another for Republicans? What is it about me that draws me to these political beliefs and not those? And if I really believe in these political values, why doesn't my life line up with them? Pretty soon you've got a great spiritual conversation going.
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