My nephew gave me a beautiful blank book for Christmas. It has a hard cover with an elaborate Celtic design and a delicate brass closure. The paper is ivory-colored and the lines are generous. It’s a little temple of a journal, and I look forward to bowing down at the inner altar there.

Nick is a substance abuse counselor. He came by this work honestly: he was an addict. Like so many of us who have descended to the depths of darkness and been liquefied like caterpillars in the cocoon, the only thing that made sense to Nick after his miraculous recovery was to be of service. This is why I, as a bereaved mother, sit with other mothers. This is why Nick, at 21, is an increasingly sought-after youth speaker in his area.

Confession (don’t tell Nick): I don’t journal anymore. Since I’ve become a published author, my lifelong writing practice has fallen away. Where I used to fill a notebook every couple of months, now it takes me a couple of years. Most of my entries consist of dreams I don’t want to forget. But that’s about to change. Nick gave me a beacon for Christmas, and I’m going to follow its light back home to myself and start writing for me again.

Writing has saved my life. As a tormented teenager, convinced that no one understood me or ever would, writing was the way I came to understand myself. My journal was the vehicle for navigating the inner and outer worlds. Writing was not only a psychological exercise, not only a hearth around which I told myself stories, it became a place of prayer, a holy inner sanctum, and I knelt there to praise my Beloved. When Jenny died, I wrote my way through the fire. I observed and recorded the vast array of feelings and epiphanies, and I reached out for her in the pages of my journal, conversing with her, listening for her voice.

Did I ever tell you that I know Natalie Goldberg? Not only know her, but adore her. Natalie has been my big sister ever since I met her in 1973 when I was twelve and she was only twice-twelve. Natalie was hired as the English teacher at the little hippie free school I attended in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Sitting around the wood fire with a circle of a dozen preteens in the hand-made Hogan that served as our classroom, Natalie, who was involved with Zen, developed something she began to call “writing practice.” This led to her groundbreaking book, Writing Down the Bones, and to the many books that flowed from Natalie’s revolutionary blending of writing and spiritual practice. I was her earliest and most eager disciple, and we have maintained a close connection ever since. Natalie has been one of the most important mentors of my life.

I remember when I first started doing serious spiritual practice. I was around fifteen and was studying with a rather unskillful self-proclaimed Sufi teacher. He seemed to disdain my writing practice as too worldly, and so I tried to abandon the relationship I had built with myself through writing, and I closed my notebook. For a time. But I could not stay away. I found excuses to return to my journal: recording exercises he gave me so I could practice them on my own, and then reporting to myself on the results of my spiritual experiments. But poetry crept into my efforts to compose objective accounts. Passion infused my discipline. Pain ransomed my captive heart. I slowly sneaked home and entered through the back door. The charlatan guru never even noticed.

Have I abandoned myself again, this time in a more subtle, insidious way? Has my professional path become an excuse for betraying the sacred inner dialog that happens thorough journaling? Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. I think I’m going to open Nick’s beautiful blank book and introduce myself to myself again. How about you?

Happy New Year. Welcome home.

Here is an excerpt from an email I recently received from a student who attended one of my Beautiful Wound workshops a few years ago, in which she thanks me for introducing her to writing practice:

It [writing] has been a key to my healing. I have always journaled but this writing is different. It is more an observation of the world around me. The natural world, the nature of life…I am finding my spiritual path through this avenue and my God has become so big and so real. Not the God in the box so neatly tied with string that I had tried to accept in the past. (Babs Cashion)

Wu-Wei in the Classroom

December 8, 2011

Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching says,

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

This is from the Stephen Mitchell translation. Another beautiful version of the Tao Te Ching was re-released last month by Vintage (Random House). Four decades ago, my dear friend and editor, Toinette Lippe, took a chance on an obscure project blending a fresh translation of the ancient Chinese text by Gia-Fu Feng with stark and luminous photographs by Jane English, and the resulting book sold over a million copies and continues to sell more than any other translation. The new fortieth anniversary edition is stunning.

I was first gifted with a copy of the Feng & English translation when I was sixteen, living on my own in a tree-house in the redwoods of Mendocino. I read and re-read that book a hundred times by the light of a kerosene lantern, until the words of the Tao were imprinted on my heart. I was thrilled a few years ago when my stepdaughter, Kali, asked if she could have my copy. I told her it was my oldest possession, and she promised to cherish it. Little did I dream that the editor of that book, who opened the floodgates to spiritual publishing in the 1970’s, would become my editor for GOD OF LOVE (to be released in April 2012).

The Fall semester at UNM-Taos, where I teach philosophy and religious studies, is almost over. This year, I took it upon myself to offer a critical thinking course. It’s a core requirement at main campus, so, being the entire philosophy department here in Taos, I felt I owed it to the community to make the class available here. Of course, I emphasize critical thinking in everything I teach, but I had avoided that particular course. Why? Because I’m not that good at it.

A formal course in critical thinking is essentially a logic class. And while I consider myself to be a deep thinker, a creative thinker, a subtle thinker, I have never been a rigorous analytical thinker. For me, ideas have always been works of art. I appreciate the aesthetics of ideas, and am a little shaky on the formal structure of reasoning.

But my main weakness is in the area of popular culture. I grew up without television, and have not had TV throughout my adult life. I get my news from NPR. I have no idea what the hottest product trends are or which politicians have most recently cheated on their wives. The critical thinking class is predicated on the ability to analyze what’s going on in the mainstream. I still spend my evening reading sacred texts by candlelight! Can you think of a worse fit?

I did this to myself last year, too. I felt this obligation to teach a basic ethics course. The topics were all the hot-button issues like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and genetic manipulation. This required that I be well-informed about the latest political debates on these subjects. I tried to stay one step ahead of my students, but often fell two steps behind, which was obvious to everyone.

Teaching these two classes has been extremely humbling and very educational for me. For one thing, I remembered something I thought I had learned decades ago: my strongest teaching happens in the realm of joy, when I can romp through the subject matter I love—the mystical teachings at the heart of all the world’s wisdom ways, for instance—rather than try to pour myself into a box in which I do not belong and try to conform.

But even more important was the reminder that “The Master doesn’t talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, “Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!” When I am not in complete control of my material, it forces me to back off a little and let the students lead. By empowering them, I find that they inevitably dig into their own resources and stand up shining. They teach each other. And in doing so, they build community. I am given the grace to bear witness to this community-building. It feels like watching peace on earth unfolding before my eyes.

Twenty years ago, I co-founded Chamisa Mesa High School—an alternative school for gifted teenagers who did not fit in the mainstream. We empowered the students to govern themselves, and we guided them with a light touch. What resulted from this experiment was a circle of kids who loved each other deeply, protected each other passionately, and governed themselves peacefully.

It has never been in my nature to be an authority figure. But I have often been blessed—both in the academic classroom and in spiritual retreats—with experience of witnessing my students turn to each other, draw one another out, and mutually support the gifts that emerge.

Maybe I learned my lesson this semester: I don’t need to be all things to all people. I can’t be. I will return to teaching the courses that bring me the most joy–World Religions, Eastern Religions, multi-cultural Philosophy 101, Existentialism—and offer my students the very best of what I have to share. But I will take with me the reminder to lead with a light touch, so that those who follow me are really following themselves, and following the Tao.

As it says in verse 17 of the Lippe, Feng & English translation: When actions are performed without unnecessary talk, people say, We did it!