Written by Kathi Köllermann
When I first started to work as a high school teacher at a German Gymnasium eight years ago I tried very hard to do a good job. After my first year I felt quite exhausted. Even though I had been successful and could see that the profession could be rewarding at times there was a sense of pressure and excessive demand that brought about some discomfort.
It was then when I first came to Plum Village and met the practice. I learnt to sit, to come back to myself and to listen deeply to myself and others. I started to join the local Sangha and tried to attend retreats several times a year.
Gradually I came to recognise some of my negative feelings connected with the job as stemming from my childhood. For example I recognised a feeling of loneliness whenever I had a lot of desk work to do such as marking papers. As a mother of three daughters who took up a new profession when I was still very young, our mother had been very busy and demanded self-dependance of us, especially in matters of school. Being the youngest I felt left alone and developed a distaste of desk work. I also became aware of a strong habit energy of blaming in my family that had lead to feelings of guilt and deficiency. Gradually I learned to take care of my sad feelings and transformation took place. I realised that these experiences were in part of collective nature and I found that the more I could be compassionate and accepting with myself the more I could understand and accept others.
Not only did I miraculously manage to heal the relationships in my family but over the years the practice has made my life as a teacher much easier and more joyful. When I can do my job out of love and listen to my students and colleagues I find what I searched when I chose this occupation: meaning. I still feel the unhealthy patterns in our school system today, the need to be perfect, the need to succeed, the fear of failure, and the sense of it being to much. I`ve seen students and colleagues who couldn`t go on and parents who blame out of fear. But today I have an answer. I have learnt to relax, to be true to my limits, and to enjoy my work by way of accepting myself and others. Sometimes I forget but I can go back when I realise it. This enables me to support others who struggle, to encourage my students and to appreciate the efforts of those around me. I have also experienced that the practice protects me. When I manage to cultivate compassion, conflicts are less probable to escalate and don`t worry me as much.
Inspired by these experiences on a more personal level the wish and the opportunity to share the practice came quite naturally. In the beginning I was a bit hesitant to tell people that I go meditate in a Buddhist monastery in summer vacation. But with the wholesome effects my self-confidence grew and I started to share freely with those who were interested. When asked, I simply mentioned that I found it quite beneficial for my work. Surprisingly enough, I never heard a single judgmental remark but many questions such as: “That sounds very interesting. Please tell me more about it sometimes.” Or: “Oh, maybe I should do something like this as well.”
Moreover I heard Thay speak about Sangha building a lot and this had planted the dream of a school Sangha in my heart. I decided to water this seed but not to push anything. I felt that if I give it time and space some day it would sprout. In the book shop in Plum Village I had found the book “Keeping the Peace” by Thay which had resulted from a retreat for police officers and public servants in the US. In this book Thay outlines a strategy for bringing the practice to those we professionally serve that convinced me deeply. He says that it`s crucial that we first begin to practice ourselves and then build a Sangha of co-workers who practice together before we pass the practice on to those we work for.
So I started to give books by Thay to interested colleagues and to invite them to accompany me to the meetings of our local Sangha or even to a retreat. Some of them did come and one day I found myself in a retreat for teachers with four of my colleagues at the EIAB (European Institute for Applied Buddhism in Waldbröl, Germany). It was a wonderful experience and inspired a deep sense of trust and companionship. The members of our little school Sangha meet and practice together in the local Sangha regularly but we also organise special meetings once in a while where we sit, share and speak about creative ways to support each others practice in school. Here are some of the pracices we have tried out:
- We created cards with different practices (such as breathing, walking, smiling, eating, listening, speaking lovingly etc.) and displayed a different one each day on one of our desks.
- Everyone designed a number of small cards with inspiring quotes which we collected in a container that we keep on the window sill in the staff room. If one needs some extra Dharma support we can pick one for our pocket or we give one to a friend and so on. The container attracts the attention of other colleagues who also can be invited to serve themselves.
- We introduced a second body system in order to circulate supportive energy among us. In the morning you might find a flower in your inbox, later in the day a warm hand on your shoulder or a cup of tea on your desk. Once in a while we shift order. It`s one of our favourite practices!
- Together with one of my Sangha colleagues I defined one hallway as our walking meditation path. It really transformed my work with the class that has its room in that hallway.
- At the end of a school year we have an activity week. Several of us have offered mindfulness related activities which we found much easier to do with the support of each other.
- We share our good experiences with the practice in the classroom such as breathing, listening, smiling, walking. It`s so inspiring to hear how others apply the practice.
I think any teacher can do the same because I believe that in any school there are some teachers who would enjoy practicing together and supporting each other as brothers and sisters on the path. We just have to be skillful and patient in order to find out who they are. Besides, you are not alone. Next year I will start at a new school and I am very curious about how long it will take until I have found some co-practitioners!
I would like to add one last thing about sharing the practice with the students. I have always found it more important that they can benefit from my practice than teaching them formal practices or teaching them Dharma content. But of course this can be very beneficial for students, too! And I did do it as well whenever there was an opportunity to make it optional for them such as in activity week or as an elective course for seniors. Obviously I believe in mindfulness in school but I feel a little hesitant about making it another compulsory subject. A slight underlying resistance against the obligatory is the quite natural reaction of quite a number of students against the ubiquitous force in our schools. So for one thing it might ruin the taste of the practice for them. But moreover the opposition of some might prevent a safe space for those who really want to try. It seems desirable to transmit the practice to young people on a large scale but I think this is a point to keep in mind.
(Maybe in my next school I`ll try to create a quiet room with silent breaks open to everyone.)