Signs of Growth

I’ll let you in on a little secret, which is not so little and probably not so secret to anyone who knows me well.

I’m impatient. Really, really impatient. Typically, I mask my impatience with an equal or greater persistence, so to external appearances it might seem I’m incredibly patient. Really, though, I just find it difficult to let go or give up.

Beneath the surface, my inability to let things follow their own timetable causes frequent frustration. Take my current life leap, for instance. I’ve been in Austin five months now—long enough to have fallen into a routine, to have sung a few choir concerts and become relatively familiar with the people and rhythms of the Austin Zen Center and Clearview Sudbury School.

Yet my Sudbury nonprofit, CASE—the thing I moved here to focus on—continues to develop slowly, if more steadily than before. I haven’t yet learned how to balance my desire to grow CASE with my desires to stay involved with a local Sudbury school, to sing, to meditate, and—oh, yeah—to figure out how to make enough money to get by. I feel as though I’m neglecting CASE, yet I struggle to decide where and how much to pull back on the other things that matter to me.

Meanwhile, Austin does not yet feel like home. I consciously chose this city because it offers the things I liked to do in metro Denver in much closer proximity to each other, and because the climate, vegetation, and topography more closely resemble the Midwest on which I imprinted my first thirty years. But I keenly miss my Colorado school and choir families; I remain bound by these connections developed over more than a decade. I wonder if I should have left, whether that might in fact be the better place for me to make a home.

So I can’t say I’m better off than I was a year ago at this time, restless and stagnant as I then felt.  This despite the fact that I’ve been meditating almost daily for nearly a year, after several years of merely dabbling. With rare exceptions, I’ve been visiting the Zen center five days a week since I arrived in Austin last June—hours and hours of sitting, but what do I have to show for it? Perhaps my practice has kept things from being even harder, but I can’t say I feel any closer to equanimity, much less enlightenment.

Well, here is where the irony enters the picture, for what I’m currently experiencing is something I regularly explain to people as a truth of Sudbury schooling: these things take time, and we have to trust that growth is occurring even when there are no obvious signs of it.

Conventional education teases us with many alleged signs of progress—above all, grades: frequent assessments, usually numerical and supposedly objective, of how well someone’s doing. But anyone with any experience with living, growing things knows that growth is anything but steady and linear. We’ve all experienced and witnessed growth spurts, which, in a sense, are defined by the long periods in between, when it seems there is no growth at all.

It’s not as though Sudbury schools shun evaluation altogether; with us, though, it’s more logical and organic. Aside from the scrutiny of the diploma process, people’s arguments in everyday conversations and committees either convince others or they don’t. Their choices are sometimes judged in JC. People who want to use certain things at school must be certified—that is, demonstrate that they can use those things responsibly. And when they ask for instruction, students are certainly given feedback on their performance.

Still, we Sudbury types avoid global or generalized evaluations of how students are doing. We trust that, given freedom in a respectful community, people will naturally gravitate toward exactly what they need to be doing. Self-direction, self-regulation, and self-evaluation are some of our most basic values.

The consequence of this approach is that parents and other concerned parties generally receive less feedback than they’re accustomed with conventional schooling. For weeks, months, or even years, there can be little indication that a student is making progress, or that they’re even doing anything productive or worthwhile.

This is why trust is such a cornerstone of the Sudbury model. One of the best explanations I’ve ever seen of the paradigm shift occurring in education, and the reason it’s so critical, was given by Sir Ken Robinson at his 2010 TED talk (and which I can’t recommend highly enough). As Sir Ken says, we need to replace industrial schools with more of an agricultural model. The days of standardized processing of children as raw materials are over—at least, they should be over; their usefulness is at an end.

Human beings are designed by nature to learn—that is to say, to grow—but you can’t expect any form of growth to follow a steady or identical process in each living thing. The best you can do is foster the conditions of growth as best you understand them, then trust that the processes of nature will take care of themselves. Growth will occur, living things will mature, even if for painfully long periods of time no evidence of growth is discernible.

Now, of course, comes that awkward moment when I have to follow my own advice, and/or take refuge in handy quotes like Rilke’s advice to “live the questions.” Five months is scarcely a blip in the great grand scheme of things; I know this. Yet the older I get, the less inclined I am to allow things the time they need to run their course.

One step at a time, though. Just as we ask Sudbury parents and students to trust the process even in the absence of regular reassurances, I have to learn to trust myself. I must continue cultivating the mindfulness that will reconnect me to my intuition. I have to be where I am, remain open to all possibilities, then summon the honesty and courage to accept what my heart tells me is true.

Hmm…sounds like I might be growing after all.

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet



Filed under My Quest

2 responses to “Signs of Growth

  1. I love the book by Rilke. Best advice for any artist. You need to change “know” to “now” I think. Nice post.

    • Thanks for catching that, Kim. Even though I seem to be a verbal exhibitionist, it’s scary putting myself out there to this degree. It helps knowing I have a supportive audience.

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