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!

10 Responses to “Wu-Wei in the Classroom”

  1. Diana Rico said

    What a great piece! Mirabai, I recently finished reading an anthology called “Moonrise: Women Leading from the Heart,” edited by Bioneers cofounder Nina Simons. What you’ve described here is very characteristic of a new form of leadership that is emerging from women–collaborative, empowering, humble, human…and tremendously effective. You can consider yourself at the forefront of a trend, my friend. 🙂 Thank you as always for your wise writing.

    • Mirabai said

      Yes, I feel that I am a small part of an emerging paradigm of collaborative leadership. Many people have been working in this way (mostly women, but also men) for many years, yet the model finally seems to be gathering enough momentum to be activated on a larger scale. Thanks for all you do to support these heart-centered ways and means.

  2. Doug in Traverse City said

    The man, who knows when enough is enough, will always have enough…..
    It’s funny; I just recently pulled out my copy of Jane English’s book, the Tao Te Ching. Like yours, it is one of my oldest possessions stemming back to the 70’s when I lived along the ocean in a small town in Alaska. The cold, mist shrouded mountains and dark sea were my constant companions as I lived in a small cabin with a wood burning stove and kerosene light. I read my copy of the Tao Te Ching and walked the shores leading to town each day with the wonderful photos from the book seemingly having arisen to the reality I lived in, the Northern Pacific with all its grey, soft tones.
    To me the essence of the book is nature, both physical and psychic. To be in a place like Alaska, or the southwest as you are, is to clearly feel nature’s presence just by stepping out your door…
    As I am an older student having gone back to school, I too have felt the need to catch up with what is happening in the world. I have friends who live off the grid and even in Alaska when I lived there without electricity or running water, it was not hard to check in with world events and news from time and realize there was, “nothing new under the sun.” The forms, like the ten thousand things that rise and fall, are always changing, but the deep calm below the churning waves, seldom does.
    The Tao has given rise to the 10,000 Google Apps, and nothing has changed. A baby, like all of life, has its own wisdom and needs no guidance from me. A part of youth knows it’s self and needs no parenting. And if I could just learn to trust, and have faith, all things would become known.
    I still believe it is important for me to stay abreast of the world and keep up (or remain engaged so to speak), but I also need to return to the quiet simplicity of the Tao Te Ching and know there is a powerful underlying intent that pervades all things. Like rooted seaweed being pulled in the currents of the ocean, this wisdom can be quite compelling and wonderful.
    When a child is allowed to be a child, a dog allowed to be a dog, youth allowed to be young, or a mother allowed to be a mother, the Tao knows itself and all things are well. May the 10,000 things give rise to the authentic self.
    Thanks Mirabai…

    • Mirabai said

      What a wondrous co-incidence, that we both read this version of the Tao Te Ching at a similar time under similar circumstances, living close to the wildness of the world. I love how you connect the teachings of the Tao with engaged awareness and return to simplicity.

  3. Bob Corbin said

    A copy of the Gai-Fu Feng/Jane English translation of the Tao Te Ching was given to me about 37 years ago by a friend of my son. It was my introduction to Taoism, to spirituality, to life. I read from it nearly everyday. Now more or less familiar with a half dozen or more translations, it is still my favorite. Thanks for reminding again how beautiful and true it is.

  4. Mirabai said

    Amazing! I have this feeling that book is branded on the hearts and minds of many companions on the path, linking us to one another at a deep, core level–much as BE HERE NOW did.

  5. Richard A. Mikovsky said

    Mirabai – Last month I too unpacked my Gai-Fu Feng/Jane English translation of the Tao and put it on my bookcase/shrine. I bought it in the early 70’s when I worked at a bookstore, and I’ve thought about it ever since. I now at least gaze upon it every day. Life has only recently and slowly just started changing for me spiritually, and I cannot be as eloquent as the others who speak here, but this cyberplace of yours is such a treasure. Thank you. I will be hanging around much now.

  6. Alba said

    Thank you, Mirabai, and all the engaged commenters for giving me food for thought and joy! Thank you all.

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