Ages and what feels like lifetimes ago, I was a teacher at at public elementary school in Austin, Texas. I spent my days with a group of children with special needs teaching what was then called “Life Skills.” A lot of the teaching was in basic interpersonal relationships: how to greet one another in the morning, how to be “nice,” how to fry an egg and wash the dishes, even how to get to the toilet in time (and what to do if you didn’t). It was gritty, challenging work, often heart-wrenching and not as adventurous as some the jobs I’d dreamed of having in college.
Thing is, those kids changed my life. At least once a day I would crouch down, hands on a wheel-chair, look into a child’s eyes and see, really see at an experiential, unconscious and pre-verbal level, that she or he and I were no different from one another at a soul or spirit level. I’ve come to see that we are all basically learning the same thing: healthy self expression, interpersonal relationships and how to manage day to day existence. Some of us just like to make it more intellectually complicated than others (and there is nothing wrong with that).
Life Skills Lessons: Back To The Basics
*Right Effort (healthy self-expression)
The kids in Life Skills really had to put so much effort into what they were doing, even the sometimes simple stuff, and especially when formulating words and sentences. What that meant was that there was so much heart in what they did when there was conscious effort behind it.
Using It Now: In the brief human encounters sprinkled throughout your day, formulate real and conscious presence. This isn’t a bland brand of being nice for the sake of common courtesy. This is an effortful pause (and yet it happens in an instant) characterized by curiosity and inquisitiveness. I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and airports are such great places to smile and slow down against the move-move-move mindset. In airports, there are so many brief interactions, each an opportunity to meet another human being at the soul level. It’s a wonderful place to practice. And if you’re thinking I stand there pissing everybody off behind me: it doesn’t have to involve an exchange of phone numbers and a life-long friendship. Just an internal pause and a breath that acknowledges the depth of possibility in the present moment.
*Looking/Seeing (interpersonal relationships)
In Life Skills, we spent a lot of time practicing the art of empathy: insight into one another’s experience. It wasn’t easy. The kids always wanted to rush in on top of one another to express themselves, and often times in reality the room was often a cacophony of sounds and chatter and pounding of small plastic toys against surfaces. But creating a pause for being with someone else’s reality had an unmistakably calming effect on the whole room.
Using It Now: notice the difference between looking and seeing. Looking has the quality of a self in it. You. Looking at the world. Instead, seeing involves an open spaciousness that accepts what is without interjecting self, or anything else on top of it. Drop any ideas of what is going on. Cultivate seeing. This amps up the creative potential and freshness in your relationships.
*Singing songs and dancing (day to day existence)
Dancing was wildly popular, even among the kids who were wheelchair-bound. Singing was harder to get going, but throw in some noise-makers (rattles, drums) and you had yourself a party.
Using It Now: Tune in to a pop, rock, or hip hop station and have a solo dance party. Let your body move without trying to make it look a certain way. Sing at the top of your lungs in the shower or in the car. There are energetic openings in the soft palate that are affected by really belting it out. If you find yourself listening to pop music and you’re like me, you may have to push aside an stuffy sub-personality offering imaginary mocking comments from your “cool” punk friends (admitted recent guilty pleasure: “Brave” by Sara Bareilles) . Check in to see if you are struggling with an initial self-consciousness (hence the importance of the “solo” part, in the beginning).
Cultivating unselfconsciousness, along with the tools of kindness and listening, can transform the way that we move in the public sphere. I promise you there was not a lot of self-consciousness in the Life Skills classroom. Which is ultra refreshing. I am still trying to match those children’s capacity for spontaneous, selfless and intuitive expression of the life force.