“Don’t expect a standing ovation.” It’s hard to think of a more fitting piece of advice for teachers, but it doesn’t come from a graduate school of education or a veteran colleague. Instead, it comes from the seventh-century Buddhist sage Atisha.
While they are by no means a panacea, I have found that many Buddhist teachings are helpful in my journey to understand my experiences as a teacher, feel more at ease, and meet professional challenges with compassion.
The Four Noble Truths—the core teachings of Buddhism—are especially relevant to the challenges that educators encounter, and teachers can glean wisdom from them no matter their spiritual belief system. We’ll review the Truths below, then explore their implications for the classroom.
The 4 Noble Truths
1. There is suffering and dissatisfaction in the world: We can think of suffering on two levels: physical suffering, such as bodily pain or discomfort, and psychological suffering (sometimes born out of physical suffering), such as frustration or disappointment.
For example, last week, a couple of my students argued about a basketball game during class at a volume that was physically unpleasant for the rest of us in the room. In addition to the classroom voice levels, I was frustrated that several additional students took sides in the argument, which did not meet my expectations for engaging in the science lesson. This scenario therefore fostered the physical and psychological suffering described, requiring me to grapple with the First Noble Truth.
2. Attachment is the cause of suffering: Becoming attached to what we want to happen, versus accepting what is actually happening, causes suffering. Whether it be our expectations for student engagement in a science lesson, as above, or our vision of a more just educational system, when our expectations aren’t met by reality, we feel frustrated.
From a Buddhist perspective, attachment is fueled by mistaken views that reality is permanent and can offer enduring happiness. I feel vicarious joy when my students are excited to learn, but, like everything, their excitement is temporary. Clinging to it is a recipe for my disappointment.
3. When we let go, there is a break from suffering: We all have moments of peace when we feel content with the way things are. We may even embrace change.
Instead of being frazzled by unexpected events (like an evacuation that interrupts the middle of a lesson or a petition that students create arguing for the allowance of snacks in class), we can instead strive to develop equanimity in the face of change.
How, you might ask?
4. There is an end to suffering through the Eightfold Path: The Buddhist approach to ending suffering is called the Eightfold Path. Mindfulness—arguably the most important part of the Path—can help us cultivate an embodied knowledge of the Four Noble Truths explored above.
This is because mindfulness helps us know and reduce suffering. Defined as awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, mindfulness practice helps us know our own and others’ pain.
As I was scrambling to set up materials and get photocopies a couple of days ago, I noticed a tightness in my chest and all the thoughts about what I had to do for the next day. This self-awareness, this noticing, represents mindfulness in action.
With this insight, I then thought to myself, “This is a moment of suffering.” The thought didn’t make everything better, but it did help me release a bit of tension and turn more of my attention toward my students, which helped me teach better. Corroborating my experiences, research on the CARE program for educators has found that mindfulness practices benefit both teachers and students.
Knowing, Investigating, and Releasing Clinging
I recently found myself waking up between 3 and 4 a.m., in part because of teaching-related thoughts. After several days of battling this pattern, I thought, “I’m so sick of this! I need more sleep!”
Then mindfulness kicked in. I noticed the quietness of the room contrasted by the tension in my body. After I brought my attention to my breath, I realized that by clinging to the idea that I needed seven to eight hours of sleep each night, I was causing myself suffering.
In a dharma (Buddhist teaching) talk, Larry Rosenberg, founder and guiding teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, said that with mindfulness, “you can see what’s causing [suffering]. You’re wanting something to be a certain way, and it isn’t.” Once I realized the cause of my suffering, I changed my narrative of the situation to “Yes, this sucks, but when I actually notice the sensations in my body and remember some of the good things in my life, it’s not so bad.”
We can apply a similar approach to our relationship with school. In a refreshingly frank book called Planning to Stay, author Jess Cleeves discusses how education is designed to exploit teachers. Rather than fueling our frustration with that system, Cleeves writes, “We don’t have to be angry and hurt that the system doesn’t give a hoot about us. We can simply acknowledge that it doesn’t” (p. 30).
This acknowledgment doesn’t mean that we should give up on the system: As Rev. angel Kyodo williams writes, “Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters.” Instead, mindfulness helps us recognize our challenges, the inner and outer causes of our turmoil, and then move forward to act wisely in pursuit of the learning environments, relationships, and systems that we envision.