Teaching is a Spiritual Quest: Choices

In the East, the concept of karma originated as a way to explain the balance of give and take in the universe. In the West, though, I grew up hearing a much more simplified definition of karma as “good” or “bad.” Karma was a thing to be accumulated over the course of your life, and if you consistently performed “benevolent” actions, you would be accumulating “good karma”, which would supposedly manifest as some kind of reward in the future. Similarly, if you committed acts that most people would consider “morally wrong”, you were accumulating “bad karma”, which would set you up for some sort of future loss or punishment.

Given the U.S.’s history with Puritan values, it’s not surprising that the true definition of karma has been twisted into a question of wrong or right, black or white. In truth, karma just boils down to this simple definition: every action has a consequence. That’s it! There’s no judgment of “good” or “bad” attached to it. It’s as simple and as relevant as Newton’s Third Law of Motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction) or as the famous quote from the Bible, “as you sow, so shall you reap.” The choices we make will inevitably have consequences that ultimately come back to us, whether these consequences are immediate or not, so we may as well make conscious, positive choices.

This sounds a lot easier than it is. Why? Because humans have an all-too-common and rather unacknowledged tendency to be ruled by our reactions. We become conditioned by our repeated reactions to certain situations, and as a result, we believe these behaviors are natural and immutable. For example, we’ve come to use the theory of evolution as an excuse for our tribal or animalistic instincts, which are reflected in the way our neighborhoods are divided so blatantly by race and socioeconomic status, even today. These divisions have real implications for our public education system, because school districts are directly supported through the taxes taken from their residents’ salaries. It naturally follows, then, that poorer neighborhoods (with mostly families of color, often African American) can’t provide the financial resources needed to contribute to improving their public schools, whereas affluent neighborhoods (comprised mainly of affluent, white families) can allocate all of their resources to remain within their community, for their public or private schools, for other people who “look like them.”

Note that I’m not trying to demonize specific racial groups, but rather make the connection between primitive instincts to support only those who we identify as “like us” and the accompanying belief that it’s inherent to human nature to do this. I’ll argue here (and again and again on this blog) that what completely distinguishes us from our animal ancestors is our ability to make rational decisions–or “free will.” Humans, unlike animals, have the gift of self-awareness, which makes us aware of our own and others’ existence and the existence of the world in which we reside. It is out of this awareness that arise our creativity, imagination, and ability to evaluate the consequences of our actions. That awareness is our true nature, but we often prefer not to acknowledge our self-control and self-power, probably because it can be painful to hold ourselves responsible for our actions all the time.

An action can be physical, like choosing to hit someone who insulted you, or it can be subtle, like allowing an angry thought to arise and take over your mind. We often don’t think of thoughts as actions, but they are! We can choose to believe in our negative thoughts about specific people or life situations, or we can actively choose to alter our perception of people and circumstances, with introspection, into something more productive (read this post if you haven’t already). Out of our thoughts arise our corresponding emotions, and if we can manage our thoughts, we can manage our emotions.

In The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra describes choosing our emotions in the following way:

If I were to insult you, you would most likely make the choice of being offended. If I were to pay you a compliment, you would most likely make the choice of being pleased, or flattered. But think about it–it’s still a choice. I could offend you, and I could insult you, and you could make the choice of not being offended. I could pay you a compliment, and you could make the choice of not letting that flatter you either. In other words, most of us, even though we are infinite choice-makers, have become bundles of conditioned reflexes that are constantly being triggered by people and circumstances into predictable outcomes of behavior…and we forget that these are still choices that we are making in every moment of our existence.

In my own experience, I’ve found that through education we learn to examine ourselves and our choices. I’ve learned to rework even the subtlest of my judgments of individuals and groups differentiated by race, gender, or religious beliefs. All the incriminating “facts” we pick up and internalize throughout our lives, like studies that “prove” that employers are more likely to respect and hire tall men and attractive, skinny women, suddenly lose their weight when we realize that those prejudices can be changed by becoming aware that a tendency like that even exists. If I were a conscientious employer and I read that stat, I would at least begin to question whether I fell into that category, and if I did, perhaps make an effort to be more conscious of my hiring decisions. The moment you become aware of your decision-making patterns is the moment you become free of Reactivity’s control over you.

I only began to understand how much I thought of my education as a catalyst for critical thinking and self-evaluation, and how deeply I valued those skills, as a teacher. In fact, I quickly realized that my role as a “PE teacher” in the Tenderloin of San Francisco was not to teach physical education so much as it was to teach these kids how to make conscious choices. Countless times I heard my co-teacher, who I always admired for his persistence and self-confidence while teaching, telling kids to “do the right thing” and “make a GOOD choice” in their moments of unconsciousness. Whether that meant they needed to stop being disruptive while we were giving instructions, or whether that meant they needed to accept the consequences of breaking the rules of a game by walking the “blue line” in time out, he always sought to reach the goodness and wisdom inside each of them.

In my own teaching experiences, I could sometimes observe the exact moment in which some of my more emotional students were making the choice to be upset or angry, which was purely amazing. Will, for example, would push someone during a basketball game, get sent to the blue line for being unsafe, and walk willingly towards it, only to turn around and angrily scream that it wasn’t his fault, and that the other kid pushed him first. I doubt he was consciously aware of the thoughts in the split second that led to his anger, but I have no doubt that the thoughts were there. I also have no doubt that with maturity and good teaching, he would be able to elongate that moment enough to examine his thoughts and feelings with clarity before reacting emotionally.

My role as a teacher was to love my students through their moments of unconsciousness, but to encourage them to be aware of and reign in their negative reactions. Wisdom and experience have taught me that every action does indeed have a consequence, whether or not that consequence is immediate. I came to love all of my students this year, so I of course wanted to see them safe and happy, which meant that I had to show them (sometimes gently, sometimes harshly) when their actions were unacceptable.  Seeing as these were children who saw unconsciousness in the neighborhood every day (the Tenderloin is rife with drug addicts and violence), and probably had fairly unconscious role models to emulate, this required enormous patience and repetition. I’m still not sure if I’ve had the impact I intended. Nevertheless, it’s been eye-opening to view teaching this year as an opportunity to both teach and practice conscious choice-making.

However, making conscious decisions isn’t always straightforward. If I choose to ride my bike on the sidewalk (which is illegal) because I’m on a busy road and I’ll hold up traffic if I ride on the road, I have to understand that I might piss off some pedestrians or get a ticket (or I might safely make it to my destination without any complaints). I make this decision consciously by understanding all of the possible outcomes beforehand, willingly accepting responsibility for all of them, and making sure that I don’t hurt anyone in the process (i.e. hit a pedestrian). As you can see, making a conscious choice does not necessarily mean that all the possible outcomes are desirable, but rather, that I am aware and accepting of them.

So, in summary (TL;DR), how do you make conscious choices? By becoming aware of your reactions, assumptions, thoughts and emotions, and observing them without judgment. This is key because judgment will surely elicit some kind of strong emotional response within you, which is what makes people averse to looking within in the first place. This awareness creates a separation between you and your thoughts and reactions, which are not you. This distance results in the ability to choose the lens with which you interpret the world and situations within it, and it is empowering beyond measure.

What will you choose to do with this knowledge?