It’s not clear to me how I came to this understanding that what I’m doing in the classroom is working on myself, but it’s a realization that happened early in my work. Writing this last sentence is an admission of sorts. I don’t know how many of my fellow teachers see it or experience teaching this way. So it’s not surprising that many of my own shifts in life have happened around students.
I’ve been teaching 20+ years and alive on this planet 52. I’m deep into my middle age and reaching the last leg of my my teaching journey at Miami Dade College. As a teacher I’ve been an experimenter, someone eager to learn about learning and teaching. I have never grown tired of being surprised in my classes by grace and wonder. During this time, I’ve changed my mind about many things, caught all sorts of hopeful bugs, been cured of many of these same bugs, worked hard on putting what I learn to work, and more than anything still maintain delight to be in the presence of students. And so it sort of makes sense, at least to me, what happened five summers ago, I realized that what I need to do is not do, not want, not reach out, but merely stand still and surrender myself completely to something so much bigger than myself.
This realization came not because of anything I read, but because I crashed. Piercing headaches combined with some very powerful anxiety and panic attacks forced me to pay attention to my body and realize that I was taking it for granted and ignoring a great need to stop seeking, stop spinning my wheels.
I was teaching the summer semester and feeling overwhelmed. Three classes in six weeks, teaching morning and evening, over 75 students and their papers to read took me over my limit. In years past I have been able to do this without any issues, but now was different. Twenty odd years of non-stop teaching 7 and 8 classes each major term had zapped me.
Without much warning, or without me noticing that there were warning bells, my nervous system shut me down. I entered a dark space that made me question who I was, what I was doing, and whether or not the effort going into being myself made any sense. My personal life took a dive. The major roles of my life suddenly became clear that they were roles. I was not any one of them. Son. Father. Teacher. Husband. Lover.
For a brief moment I looked at myself in a mirror and noticed that the being staring back was much more than the identity that was interpreting the image. This literally happened to me while waiting for some tests at the hospital and having to put on a hospital gown. There was a mirror in the changing room and for a couple of minutes I froze in front of my own image and noticed that there was more than one me. The one staring at the image and the one who was the essence of the image or the mystery within the image or the witness of the image were not exactly the same.
This was a moment of disassociation that bewildered me and, surprisingly, brought me tremendous peace. In the quiet of the changing room, I knew I was not my thoughts, feelings, nor my body. The contradiction or confusion from this insight opened my awareness and gave me a sense of someone or something beyond my identity that was not necessarily within but which allowed the body, feelings, and thoughts to manifest.
That something or someone was no different than the something or someone that allows my wife, kids, students, or anyone or anything on the planet to manifest their bodies, thoughts, or feelings. I felt a tremendous rush of equanimity wash over me. Even as I was about to go through medical tests that I worried might not bring good news. I gave myself completely to that observer, knowing that he/she/it has always been present, has never been threatened, and is complete and perfect.
I had read in the Christian scriptures about the peace that is beyond understanding. That is what I sensed. I did not think. I did not move. I just was. I could say with Juliana of Norwich, the English mystic and writer of Revelations of Divine Love, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” What happened next was a sense of joy and release. I went through my tests. I was surprised, however, that instead of feeling back to normal, the next couple of weeks I experienced continuous panic attacks that left me rattled and confused.
All along I was still teaching my classes and at times even within my teaching I would feel the wave of panic engulf me. I knew I was not in control. Thankfully, the semester ended and I was able to retreat back to my house where with much tenderness and love, my family cared for me.
The panic episodes continued but more and more I was able to sit with them and let them wash over me. Over and over again, I kept on sensing that what I was experiencing was not a negative experience but an invitation to let go of my own story and stories. I was reminded of the story of Jacob wrestling the angel. And I knew I would not get out of this match unscathed.
Overtime, I became friendlier with my panic episodes and realized that they were there somehow as welcomed guests, leading me through an unfamiliar space. As I write this paragraph years later, these guests seem to have taken residence within. They don’t need to get my attention as much these days, but I’m aware that they are with me, whispering ever so lovingly to remember who I am, to let go of all that is not me, and surrender to the spaciousness of being nobody, nothing.
I experienced something on that day in front of the mirror that has left me wondering about stopping my storylines and the habitual thinking that creates the illusion that confuses self with body, thinking and feelings. In practical terms, I have been left reworking my own relationship with the world around me. This uncertainty is more than anything a blessing that I’m only beginning to appreciate.