A “good” lesson?

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a couple of lectures by Ven. Robina Courtin, a Brisbane-born Buddhist nun. While some may have the image of a Buddhist nun as serene, peaceful, perhaps a little mild, Ven. Robina has seen and done it all. She became a Buddhist at 30 after pursuing Catholicism, radical political activism, drugs, women’s rights, black people’s rights, lesbianism – you name it. Her life as a Buddhist nun has included 15 years of working with prisoners on death row in LA’s toughest prisons, including Mexican gangsters, drug dealers, and murderers. She’s a tough lady.

One of the many issues she discussed over the evenings was attachment. The Buddhist understanding is not the Western concept of closeness or connection, but that attachment prompts us to exaggerate the qualities we perceive in a person or object. She described attachment like a junkie, which is only satisfied if it gets what it wants. A metaphor she used is of ordering chocolate cake at a cafe. If we are then told that the chocolate cake has run out, we can choose to shrug our shoulders and enjoy the carrot cake instead, or we can become annoyed and act up, because we really wanted that chocolate cake. The latter is attachment at work. Ven. Robina described our travels through daily life in the same way – if the traffic is good, the lights are green, the boss is nice, the weather was pleasant, our colleagues were friendly, we had a “good” day. As soon as the opposite happens, we start to take it personally, and react with impatience, doomsday brooding, fear,  anxiety etc, and start responding with aversion – wanting desperately to avoid the things that aren’t pleasant to us, which are also exaggerated in our minds.

It made me think about how we define a “good” lesson. If we are in a good mood, the teacher is nice, we play well, and receive positive feedback, the experience tends to be filed as a “good” lesson.  Yet, sometimes the most valuable lessons are not as pleasant. I recall one particular lesson working with Edna Golandsky in overcoming a collapse in my left thumb, which refused to feel connected to the forearm. She threw absolutely everything she knew at the problem. After fifty minutes of trying everything without success, I was in very low spirits, catastrophizing was well under way. If Edna Golandsky couldn’t help me, who could? I was doomed to always having fatigue in my left hand, and never being able to play as well as I wanted. Of course, being Edna, she kept changing tack and persevering to solve the problem, and I was able to play my left thumb without collapsing for the first time ten minutes later. 

Was it a good lesson? It certainly wasn’t an easy experience, and I was emotionally exhausted by the end. I can say for certain however, although it was difficult, this lesson was one of the best I have ever had. The lesson, which I still have on video, is my own personal lecture on every single aspect that can go wrong in playing the thumb, and an astounding example of insightful, profound, and creative pedagogy. 

Of course it is crucial to have positive experiences in learning, we would not have the motivation to continue without these. Yet, learning also requires tenacity, and things do not always go our way the first time. Sometimes, there are many steps, and there may be detours instead of a straight line of progress. Yet the process is a whole lot smoother for all involved if we can monitor our very human tendency to load our experiences through attachment and aversion. Instead, we can do our best to stay present to the process, and watch our common tendency to exaggerate our reactions.

Check out Ven. Robina’s Australian teaching dates in September if you are interested in seeing this extraordinary teacher. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to attend.  http://www.robinacourtin.com/schedule.php

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