Thursday, 19 May 2016

Anybody out there?

Well, I'm still here. Don't know if you are. I haven't said a dickybird since December.

Recently I was down to four hours teaching a week and what I earned in April and May will just about cover the June rent and a few standing orders. CVs sent to other establishments have gone unacknowledged. (Bastards.) If you know anyone who's thinking of going into English Language Teaching, beg them to reconsider. The unpredictability and lack of career structure in ELT were what attracted me back in the eighties and nineties, but now they are a source of persistent anxiety and it's wearing me down. My blood pressure has hit some alarming spikes lately. On the brighter side, blood tests revealed last week that I have the liver and kidneys of a hero, and a mean prostate. The anxiety grinds on, though: all day my stomach feels like a washing machine full of tennis balls.

In the short term, things are looking good. The other week we learned that 141 students from the Middle Kingdom are arriving mid-June, and thus the predicted fifteen hour working week for June - July is whacked up to 25. We have a frantically busy summer ahead of us with a record number of students. Even so, I can't look beyond September. All sorts of possible courses have been suggested but until they are approved and have enough participants to be viable, we know not if dearth or foison follow. This is a pain in the balls.


Periods of anxiety are not uncommon for me and although they usually have a real-world cause, while they last my perception of reality gets rather skewed. At three o'clock last Thursday, when I was gloomily convinced I had wasted everybody's time for four hours, several students came up to me to tell me how useful the day's session had been. It was as if they had shaken me awake. I'd spent something like eight hours preparing four hours' worth of teaching and had no reason to denigrate my efforts, but was doing so anyway. Three years ago, when my mind had soured and curdled, colleagues were complaining (not to me) that I had become distant and uncommunicative, whereas it seemed to me that everybody around me was pestering me to death and I wanted them to leave me the fuck alone. And yesterday a young Saudi lady gave a perfectly acceptable presentation and then had a meltdown in feedback because she was convinced she'd made a complete balls of it. (That isn't quite how she put it, of course.) I spent ten minutes restoring her self-confidence, and told her of my own experience last week of thinking a good day's teaching had been an ignominious flop. She left smiling - I could see her lips through her tear-soaked niqab.


In order to clear such mental smoke, I do two or three fifteen-minute sittings of zazen each day and attended a Buddhist meditation class on Friday evenings until the course ended. Carrying the peace of meditation into the rest of the day is quite a challenge but you feel more positive if you accept it. You need to watch your emotions with a kind of detached interest. 'There's fear / boredom / irritation again', you observe, then you let them pass by like clouds, as they will quickly do so long as you don't spin a narrative around them. The rolling stomach and butterflies in the chest will blow over: they need not become part of a mental scenario in which you are old, poor, cold, infirm and alone, a recurring image which has been freaking me out for the past month.    

In Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence  Shainberg recalls an exchange with Zen teacher Kyudo Nakagawa:

'So, Roshi, how are you today?'
'Fine! Fine!
I'm not sure why, but his answer annoys me. 'Come on, Roshi, you always say that. Nobody's fine all the time. Don't you ever have bad days?'
'Bad days? Sure! On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine.' 
His answer annoys me too, or rather, frustrates me, because it tightens the double bind that Zen deliberately traps you in: you want to feel that sense of freedom and detachment and the very wanting is what keeps you from it. 'On bad days, I fine. On good days I fine'. If I said 'well, I'll have to think about that,' I know the answer would be 'not thinking, Steven San! Thinking, this why you problem!' Before anyone objects, 'not thinking' in this sense means not succumbing to the kind of mental bad weather created by random, unacknowledged thoughts and judgments. It doesn't mean suppressing cool, deliberate cerebration.

'Don't keep any mind! Don't hold onto anything! This moment. This moment. No fixed ideas. No pictures. Anyway, don't worry, Larry San. Be patient. To be born is to suffer. Now you suffer girlfriend. Next week you suffer something else.'

Yeah, well, I'll have to thi...

What you think doing Buddhism will be like.
What doing Buddhism actually feels like.

Shainberg, L (1995) Ambivalent Zen New York: Vintage Books


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