When I was 13, I had a biology teacher named Mr. Parker. As I recall, he was a ‘nice’ man – short and a bit shiny-bald on the top of his head. The students’ parents were very upset because Mr. Parker did not seem to be the ideal candidate for teaching Biology, as he had a Philosophy degree. The major concern was that the syllabus was not being covered, and the children were not properly prepared for their exams. I have a clear image of Mr. Parker standing at the front of the Biology lab, but zero recollection of anything pertaining to Biology which I learned in his class. I would guess that this is perfectly normal. As I cast my mind back to the other subjects which were inflicted upon me in such an unnatural way at this stage of my education, small details of content elude me. Instead I have clear images of the energy of my teachers and perhaps a handful of nuggets of wisdom which were seldom imparted by them intentionally. I remember Reverend Harold – slightly overweight and sweaty, with the collar of his self-righteous profession welded tightly around his neck. I remember students, drily or dramatically or somewhere in-between, reading the passages from the Bible, and being tested on their knowledge of the New Testament, and no attempt at all being made to light the flame of spiritual inspiration in any of them. I thought to myself, “what a pointless exercise”, but nevertheless, studied enough to regurgitate the required facts and attain the grades that were expected of me. I remember Mr. Jules, also a bit overweight, and sweaty (perhaps this would be the opportune moment to mention that I grew up in Barbados, and thus it was probably quite normal, and excusable, given the average temperature, and lack of air-conditioning in our classrooms, to be a bit sweaty). Mr. Jules was the chosen deliverer of the bowels of History. The ghosts of indigenous Indians and far away Europeans and Conquistadores came to life before our eyes, under the spell of his vivid storytelling. Added enjoyment was created by the fact that anyone sitting in the front row of class was perpetually engaged in a game of ‘dodge ball’ with the globules of saliva which collected at the corners of Mr. Jules’ lips, and were then fired onto the innocent student-subjects. Perhaps this was just his way of keeping us awake?
And on and on through the school week I was faced by the manifestos of my slow of speech Spanish teacher; the taut, slightly aggressive nature of Mrs. Wallis – the warden of English literature; the snaky, smug, meanness of Mr. Sirsaud, most revered teacher of Further Mathematics; and numerous others who have faded from memory with the passage of time. And I think that most of us remember our education in this way. In the moment there is the blind ambition to get a good grade, please our parents, our teachers and ourselves and move on to the next thing. And then the next, and the next, and the next…If we are lucky this habitual churning has been punctuated at one point or another with the knocking of truth at our door of ignore-ance. And if we are lucky, in that instant, time has stood still, and we have found ourselves opening the door to stare into the face of reality. It is no matter that we quickly shut the door back in order to return to the safety of our personal, familial, religious and cultural delusions. Once the door has been opened, it never closes completely again. There is always a little shaft of light penetrating around it’s edges, so that every time we walk by, we are reminded, even if not consciously, that the invitation is there for us to open the door again when we are ready.
The first time I remember being aware of the knock of the door, was while sitting in the apparently pointless Biology class of Mr. Parker. The context of the words is now lost to me, and is certainly irrelevant. The question that he uttered, or muttered, as he was not a proponent of perfect diction, was something along the lines of:
“How do you know that you are not dreaming right now?”
If one sits in the moment with the door open it is impossible to answer the question. I believe that most of my peers refused to open the door, or, if they did, they quickly slammed it shut without daring to take a peek on the other side, or to ask “Who is there?”.
I am a pretty vivid dreamer. Just this morning, I was forced to take a nap, as I had succumbed to the effects of eating some nut-butter which had taken up residence in my fridge for quite some time, and is now clearly unfit for consumption. It tasted fine, but my body reacted most violently in an effort to expel the unwanted invader. So, as one often finds, when one’s digestion is disturbed, one’s mind often runs amok in the sleeping dream-state. I found myself in all manner of fantastic situations, every one of which appeared to be ‘real’, but which poked, prodded, and propelled me into a semi-waking state, where I found my body experiencing sensations or emotions to match the perceived reality of the dream. Indeed, it is apparent through direct personal experience, as well as through the measurements obtained in scientific sleep labs, that the human body experiences the same physiological responses to a dream scenario as it would to the corresponding circumstance confronted in the waking state.
Mr. Parker’s comment had sown in me the seed of questioning regarding what is real versus unreal, and to what extent I played a part in determining my reality, and my experience of perceived reality. I gently closed the door…
Perhaps around the same time, I found myself blessed with the most kind, gentle friend, who had come into my life in the guise of my Art teacher. Mrs. Gayle was from India. Somehow, she had met her Barbadian husband and relocated to his tiny island home in the Caribbean. I still remember the way her knowing smile raised the corners of her mouth; how her eyes seemed to twinkle with the knowledge of a secret which could not be spoken; and how her head tilted gently from side to side as she spoke. Mrs. Gayle guided me through at least six years of the study of Art. She helped me find my way through the maze of our Art History text book, the size and weight of which, made it suitable to be used as a doorstop somewhere in the castle of my imagination. She supported me through my headstrong determination to produce a most abstract series of work for my final year portfolio, and when it was struck down by a ‘C’ grade from the examiners in England, she stood by me, as I picked myself up out of a pool of disappointment, and embarked on the task of creating a second portfolio. This one was going to tick the boxes of the examination board, so that I could realise my ambition of an ‘A’ grade. The reality of artistic subjectivity was of no concern here. Even in the subjective subject of Art, after fourteen years of formal eduction, the goal was just top grades. I decided to make trees the subject of my portfolio, and over many months sat in blissful contemplation of the beauty of trees – from the infinite details of weathered bark; to the metamorphosis of tree-stump into waterfall or cloud; to the beauty of a decomposing trunk lying in a swamp. I completed the portfolio and slid the ‘A’ grade into my pocket, but this was not the crowning glory of my time spent with Mrs. Gayle. One day the words,
“everything is an illusion”
fell onto my ears and penetrated into the recesses of my mind. There was that momentary suspension of time, in the silence of which, one is able to discern the gentle knocking of the most patient of house guests. I stood in front of the door, unable to move. The instant lasted an eternity. As a parting gift, Mrs. Gayle bestowed upon me a little pack of cards, containing the words of wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda – A Hindu yogi who brought yoga and Eastern philosophy to the spiritual desert of America. As he began writing his most famous book, “Autobiography of a Yogi”, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and it was more apparent than ever that the time was ripe for a change in spiritual perspective worldwide. My Art teacher guru’s words, and gift had caused my life train to switch tracks, and set in motion an adventure which is still unfolding today. Through small and large acts of serendipity and synchronicity, texts exploring Eastern spirituality fell into my lap, and I began reading them enthusiastically, as if attempting to satiate the hunger of a lifetime. I felt as if my education were only now beginning, and there was a fiery inspiration lighting my way.
And so over the past twenty years I have travelled, studied, and read; sat at the feet of a few masters known and at the shoulders of many masters unknown. I have found inspiration in the tremendous beauty of nature, the awesomeness of the everyday, and in the silent no-thing-ness of my internal world. But for all of my explorations and searching, the one lesson that I keep learning is ‘seek not and ye shall find’. The peculiar thing about Grace is, no matter how much devotion and practice you have under your belt, it will only come a calling when you are not standing at the door waiting for the door bell to ring. The house guest never knocks when you have the house completely tidy and you are sitting, showered and primped, with every hair in place, with dinner ready and the children sound asleep. He catches you, always, in your unguarded moment. Just as the dog has peed on the floor; just as you tip toe away from the child’s room and she wakes, shouting that she is thirsty or needs to go to the bathroom; just as your mother calls with news of some trivial tragedy of the world that she absolutely must share with you. Then the rap of wise knuckles against wood falls upon your ears and jolts you back into the moment. Then you have a choice to open the door and let the truth fall upon the chaos of your life, or pretend you did not hear it. That is the lesson I have learned – always be ready for the gentle knocking of truth, and know how to discern it above and below the noise of the quotidian.
And this is the lesson that, above all, I want to share with my children. And perhaps this more than anything is the reason why I have taken their education off the grid. My desire is to create a little more space in their lives, a little more quiet, so that they can recognise the knock when it comes. I want to replace the rushing with sitting; the shouting with whispers; the pressure with presence; the knowledge with knowing; the fight or flight with freedom; the mundane with the memorable; the cramming with creativity; the constriction of the daily schedule with an ease and flow; the alarm clocks with duvets and well worn soft toys; the school run with bike rides and dog walks; the competition with cooperation; the uniforms with any clothing they wish; the casting of time as an enemy, with an alternative perspective – time is yours to dive into, and speed up or slow down as you wish; the indoctrination into the herd, which is advertised as essential socialisation, with a confidence in their sense of individuality, and a innate awareness of the unique gifts that they have to shower on the world.
I teach yoga and mindfulness to a little circle of homeschoolers. One day one of my students was confiding in me after he had an argument with his mom. I listened attentively and enveloped him with silent loving kindness as he spoke. When he was finished his story, I asked, “What is the opposite of mom?”. He paused, and perhaps wondered if it were a trick question, before responding, “Dad?”.
“Breath”, I said. He smiled. It was the first time I had seen him smile all morning, as the weight of the interaction with his mother had hung over his head since he walked through the door.
“And what is the opposite of sister?”. He had a younger sister, and, as loving as they often appeared in public, I was certain that behind closed doors, she knew how to push his every button.
The smile grew. “Breath…”
“And what is the opposite of math?”, I asked, as I cast my eyes down on the workbooks on the table in front of him. The cloud was gone and pristine blue sky reigned over his head once more. His eyes were twinkling now. “Breath….”. He exhaled. Now the day could begin again.
And this lesson is part of that of knock recognition. The more we sit in the breath, the more we familiarize ourselves with the space and the silence, the better able we are to conduct our lives as normal, yet retain the ability to stop in an instant, as soon as the knock sounds. The better able we are to allow time to unravel, to turn our backs away from the dinner on the stove, the pee on the floor, the mother’s voice miraculously vibrating out of the telephone as she sits thousands of miles away on the other side of the planet. The better able we are to steady our hand and reach for the door, and open it slowly, gently and allow the truth to shine into our lives. The funny thing is that, the more familiar you get with the gentle knocking of truth, you begin to realize that there is no one outside the door. The knocking is coming from inside. Your house guest is already inside your home. Inside of you.
I do not know why I was able to pause and receive the words of Mr. Parker, and Mrs. Gayle and allow them to shift my life course, but I am eternally grateful to them for their direction, whether consciously or unconsciously delivered. So, I will close by saying thank you to every one of my teachers – past, present and future. And as I gingerly take on the role of being a teacher, whether facilitating my students’ exploration of Physics, philosophy or frolic, I will hold true to my wish that they each develop the capacity to discern that gentle knocking, to pause and open the door, and to find their own way to their inner truth.