Take a moment, settle yourself, and note your immediate emotional response to these words:
Now think about them in the context of your work. Would your work be better if there were more of these things? Do you feel that they are relevant to what you do every day?
I’ll be honest: a deep part of myself resists these words.
On one hand, this makes no sense. Since adolescence, I have described myself as a pacifist (or aspiring pacifist); I don’t have many heroes (I’m skeptical of the whole concept) but if I have any they are people who in one way or another devoted themselves to the ideas in those words; I loathe so much that is the opposite of those words: cruelty, misery, thoughtlessness, hate, war.
However, even as I know my affinity for those words intellectually, I often must pause when somebody says their goal is to bring kindness, joy, and love into the world, to increase peace, to practice contemplation. I, too, want all these things — and yet when I am tempted to identify my own work with those words, a demon within me inevitably screams out, “SOFT-BRAINED SUCKER!!!”
This demon is not helpful. But it is illuminating. It illuminates the toxic swampwater we swim in every day, the swampwater of received ideas we are drowning in, the murderous connotations disfiguring the very words we need.
The great weird American poet Jack Spicer’s legendary last words were ones true for us all now: My vocabulary did this to me.
In recent years, I have occasionally given talks and workshops on creating “cruelty-free syllabi” and, more broadly, thinking about “cruelty-free teaching”. (For an overview, start here.) I came up with the term on a whim, giving it very little reflection, simply needing a catchy and humorous title for a faculty development workshop at my own institution, a title I hoped might intrigue a few people. It did, and the phrase took off in a way I could never have predicted, showing up in various publications and leading even to an appearance on the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. If I had known the idea would be so resonant, I might have thought through the term more, but it’s ended up doing some good work on its own, not least of which has been to show me just what our vocabulary is doing to us.
I have yet to encounter a teacher who openly wants their pedagogy to be cruel. The word is not one we like to associate with ourselves. But there is also — in myself and others — a resistance to the opposite of cruelty: kindness. An odd thing to resist on the face of it, but nonetheless, the resistance is real. Try it out for yourself. How do you feel when you say, “As a teacher, I strive to be kind,” or, “I want to be known, first and foremost, as a kind teacher.” Myself, I have learned to embrace this and make it the core of my pedagogy, but it has taken me years to get a place of comfort with it, and there are days still when the old resistance rears up and the demon’s sulfur clogs my senses.
Immediately, when I think of kindness I think of softness, of emotion rather than reason, of weakness. Obviously, this is the most basic, and toxic, way discourse both positions and devalues traits culturally coded as feminine. Caring gets seen as unmasculine, unmanly, emasculating. The work of caring, of emotion, of kindness becomes associated with a lack of power, a lack of value, a lack of seriousness. Such connotations are literally patriarchal.
In addition to letting patriarchal connotations pass unchallenged, we may fall into eugenic thinking: a kind teacher is one who coddles the undeserving, who does not cull the failures, who lets the impure pass.
This insight raises the stakes for me. Not only do I want to avoid creating cruelty through my work, but I also want to purge myself of patriarchal and eugenic tendencies in my thoughts, tendencies that bind to words and the concepts those words express.
When I feel a resistance now to ideas of care and kindness, I try to recognize that resistance as a seductive poison constructed by the elements of culture working against the survival of everything I value.
In my late teens and early twenties, I sporadically practiced a secular type of meditation, then neglected the practice until it no longer existed for me. (During that time, I experienced significant mental illness that probably contributed to this neglect. I don’t know that meditation would have helped — what helped, eventually, was hospitalization, therapy, and 20mg of Lexapro — but I should have kept it up.) A certain negative association grew in me because I associated that practice with failure and with the most painful years of my life. Even as multiple friends embraced Buddhism (one becoming a Buddhist priest) and mindfulness practices, even as I read Taoist and Zen writings regularly, I clung to a staunchly and reductively materialist view of everything, including myself. In some ways, I suppose this was a defense mechanism. To keep from being overwhelmed, to avoid actively resisting my own existence, I needed to see my being and body as machines, as little more than chemical processes. Somehow, this made things comprehensible in a way I could bear. I found contentment, enough to get on with life.
I shed the most dogmatic tendencies of my die-hard materialism a good decade before the COVID-19 pandemic upended all of our lives in the winter of 2020, but the pandemic unsettled the conceptions I had relied on, revealing to me just how haphazard and whimsical they were. I had been free of the worst of clinical depression for fifteen years at that point, unmedicated since about 2008, generally content in the deep but cheery nihilism that grounded my worldview — I took some joy in the absurdity of living rather than despair in the meaninglessness of it all, and I found (and still find) real ethical purpose in the idea that we are all stuck here in meaninglessness together and therefore ought to be good to each other.
But going into the pandemic, my edges were already frayed. I had been struggling to do the one thing that had always provided meaning in my life: writing. Indeed, I think one reason why I was able to give up meditation long ago was because I found greater pleasure, meaning, and healing in the work of writing, which is very much not the same as meditation but nonetheless, for me at least, offered a parallel space. (It is probably no coincidence that the writing text I have most frequently assigned to students is Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind.) After completing my Ph.D. dissertation, and then after my mother’s death a few months later, and then the early death of one of my best friends in the writing community, writing got harder than it had ever been. With the pandemic, it became torture. Even when I managed to finish something, it felt dead on the page. Some of this was simply a false perception in the moment — there are essays, blog posts, stories that I wrote during this time that I can now look back on with some admiration, even as I remember the writing of them being excruciatingly slow and unfulfilling — but the days and days (sometimes weeks, even months) of staring at a blank screen or blank paper and getting nowhere were real. The despair sometimes became overwhelming. The one thing that I had been able to rely on since childhood — the writing — was just not there.
And then Barry Lopez died on December 25, 2020. In the summer of 2000, I had been a member of Lopez’s workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and it changed my life. I had arrived with skill but little purpose, and I left with an entirely new way of seeing my work. I had not thought about his lessons directly for a while, but when I learned that he had died, I dug out the old notebook with my notes from his workshop. Lopez’s lessons were not about how to get published by The New Yorker or how to get an agent or how to write a bestselling novel or any of that. Lopez’s lessons were about what storytelling does in the world and what it might do, what power words have, what ideas we ought to devote ourselves to, what meaning there is in the work itself, regardless of whether anyone sees it. I returned to his ideas, to texts he recommended to us, to his own texts, to my beloved copies of Lao Tzu and Dogen and the Chinese mountain poets and Japanese haiku writers. I set out to write a short essay about Lopez and ended up writing a 20,000 word piece in a couple weeks, the most fluent and passionate writing I had done in years. (It will be published in the next year or so as a book. More info when I can release details.)
Not too long before Lopez’s death, I discovered myself meditating again. I had last meditated formally about a year before I went to Bread Loaf. (One of the reasons I think I enjoyed Lopez’s lessons was because they felt in many ways like meditation.) The return to this practice I had given up and in some ways shunned really was a matter of discovery, of my unconscious taking over and insisting that it needed some attention. I would be at home and find myself just sitting there, not looking at the tv or computer, not listening to music, not reading, not writing, just sitting. Recognizing that this was what my mind and body wanted, I became more deliberate in it. I have a room in the house without windows, and when I felt particularly overwhelmed by the world or work or existence, I would go there, turn off the lights, and let my senses have a break. I found myself remembering a phrase from Dogen: thinking not thinking. Finally, I decided to give in and really do it, to return to setting at least half an hour a day aside (usually morning right when I get up) to sit on a cushion on the floor in whatever approximation of the lotus position my aging bones and hips will put up with … and just be.
I should emphasize that ultimately my return to meditation was a matter of desperation. It did not feel like a choice. More like survival. Honestly, it was either return to that or medication, and I didn’t feel in crisis enough for medication. (I am not anti-medication for mental health. I would have died without it. But I strongly prefer not to take it whenever I can do so safely.) It has been going well, but even here, now, writing all this, I feel resistance. The demon tells me this is mindfulness and mindfulness is about weakness, irrationality, softness; it is perhaps harmless, but nonetheless stupid and embarrassing, not something one should ever admit in public.
That demon needs to be exorcised.
Consider the cover of this book. I have made it very small here to protect readers who do not want to see an image of a moment of death, but if you click on it, you can see it in full size. It is a disturbing image, but if you can stand to do so, really look at it:
That is the cover of the original edition of the first book the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh published in English: Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967). In some editions, it is subtitled A Buddhist Proposal of Peace. The photograph used on the cover is of the revered Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in the midst of self-immolation.
For the full context, I recommend Marc Andrus’s book Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, Jr., which includes the first letter Nhat Hanh wrote to King, initiating their friendship, a letter explaining why the self-immolations of Buddhist priests are not best interpreted as suicide or even as protest:
The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire non-existence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives — as told in a story of Jataka — who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.pp. 19-20
The cover of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book shows the moment of sacrifice. It disturbs. It seeks to bring kindness and compassion to the world, but the image is an attack on our sense of propriety, a scream against our complacency. You could never call that image weak; it brings not just strength but almost unimaginable fierceness to its work of compassion.
I have been thinking about Thich Nhat Hanh a lot recently because he died 2 weeks ago as I write this. His was probably the first Buddhist name I ever knew. Decades ago, a trusted friend told me to read Being Peace, and so I did, and it annoyed me. Often, the book’s sentences seemed vague, its guidance impractical. What really bothered me, though, was something I couldn’t identify at the time. Though I was, then, more or less committed to pacifism, I also wanted to bring fiery destruction down on everyone I disagreed with. Chapter 5, titled “Working for Peace”, was one I hoped would have ideas I could put into practice (to peacefully destroy my enemies, I suppose). Instead, it began with a story I found repulsive of Nhat Hanh meditating about the Thai sea pirates who had raped a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who then jumped from the boat and drowned. He meditated to find a way to understand these pirates and their destructive acts. I thought it was nauseating.
Then the passage that I still remember hardly being able to get through because it raised such anger in me:
During the war in Vietnam, we young Buddhists organized ourselves to help victims of the war rebuild villages that had been destroyed by the bombs. Many of us died during service, not only because of the bombs and the bullets, but because of the people who suspected us of being on the other side. We were able to understand the suffering of both sides, the communists and the anti-communists. We tried to be open to both, to understand this side and to understand that side, to be one with them. That is why we did not take a side, even though the whole world took sides. We tried to tell people our perception of the situation: that we wanted to stop the fighting. But the bombs were so loud. Sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to get the message across, but even then the world couldn’t hear us. They thought it was a political action. They didn’t know that it was a purely human action to be heard, to be understood. We didn’t want a victory, we wanted reconciliation. Working to help people in a circumstance like that is very dangerous, and many of my friends were killed. The communists killed us because they suspected that we were working with the Americans, and the anti-communists killed us because they thought that we were with the communists. But we didn’t give up and we didn’t take sides.
That first time reading it, I closed the book here and returned it to the library. (Or maybe to my friend? I don’t remember. All I remember is it had a different cover from the edition I now have.) I remember thinking this book was written by a person so out of touch with reality that his ideas were useless to me. I was all for peace (I thought), but I was also all for taking sides. Despite all this obvious suffering, despite the destruction of so much that he himself loved, he wouldn’t take sides?!? Lunacy!
Eventually, I came back to the book. I learned to sit with my discomfort, my resistance, my anger. I quickly embraced most of the other pages, even some of the pages in that disturbing fifth chapter. (I had learned to read books like Nhat Hanh’s as I read poetry. Trying to read them as expository prose hid their density, complexity, usefulness.) It remains a book I cherish because it remains a book I continue to struggle with.
Right now, though, I come back to the cover of Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. I do not want anyone literally to light themselves on fire, least of all myself. Yet it seems important to me that we let that image of Thích Quảng Đức live in our minds, that we live with it as an image not only of sacrifice but of the strength that kindness and compassion require in a world designed against them.
When kindness, compassion, and peace are distant; when they seem absent from our lives and world; when cruelty, indifference, and insensitivity are dominant forces — then we must oppose these powerful, overwhelming forces with their opposites, and doing so will require extraordinary strength and commitment.
Here is the beginning of Ursula Le Guin’s adaptation of the forty-third chapter of the Tao Te Ching:
What’s softest in the world
rushes and runs
over what’s hardest in the world.
I want to believe that is true. Many days, though, it feels like the world only grows harder, while the wellsprings of rushing water dry up.
Recently, my friend Karolyn Kinane published a valuable essay in the Journal of Contemplative Inquiry titled “Contemplative Reading”. (It’s frustrating that the journal is closed access — how ungenerous of the publisher! how self-defeating! If you don’t have institutional access, it’s worth seeking this article through interlibrary loan, or emailing someone who does have it to get a PDF.) I was pleased at how much this essay fits with things I have been exploring and reflecting on recently, both in my own reading and writing practices and those of students I work with.
In literary studies, there has been over the last decade or so a movement toward “post-critical” theory, most prominently in the work of Rita Felski, whose The Limits of Critique became something of a bestseller in its niche (partly because its publisher released it as an affordable paperback). I find Felski’s work frustrating for various reasons, but I am also drawn, like her, to seeking other approaches to analyze and discuss texts than the ever-suspicious and ever-critical.
Recently, working with a PhD student, I encouraged him not to go to war in his writing, not to seek enemies to obliterate, sins to prosecute. He was good at being a critical warrior and hanging judge because it’s what he’s been shown that academic reading is for, and it appealed to him emotionally. I know this appeal deeply. There is a pleasure to be had in swinging the intellectual blade of our righteousness against textual wrongs. I have also learned, through hard experience, that more often than not such pleasure is not the pleasure of accuracy and truth, but the pleasure of domination. It is the triumph of ego over the object the ego comes in contact with. Again and again, it lessens insight rather than deepens it. Often, it leads to pain.
The desire to slash and burn our way across everything that seems WRONG in a work of literature is familiar, but I have also come to believe it is a psychological defense mechanism to protect us from the recognition of our own limitations, failures, hypocrisies, complacencies, complicities. The fire that fuels the machineries of our critique is, too often, kindled by our own fear of error. At least, that has been my own experience.
Karolyn writes in her essay:
Before designing a contemplative assignment for my early British literature survey course and Senior Seminar on Mysticism and Contemplation, I identified the two things I had hoped contemplative practice could transform. First, students come to my classes with a firm sense of themselves as tolerant (or justified in their intolerance) that I want them to rethink. The assignment, therefore, aims to help students recognize their own intolerance. Second, students have a firm sense of an Other in place: The (medieval) past and (Christian) religious texts may be quaint historical artifacts, but they have nothing to teach us now. The assignment, therefore, encourages students to practice generous reading and to “try on” an attitude of curiosity so that they may see beyond what they expect to see (counteracting confirmation bias).
The essay goes on to explain ways of encouraging this generous thinking in students. Have students write about their moment-to-moment awareness as a reader, about the experiences and attitudes that inform their attractions and aversions, encourage them to return to the text to see novelty or something they didn’t notice before, to imagine the text as a friend in conversation. It’s a marvelous approach, one I have only occasionally stumbled on via, for instance, using Peter Elbow’s “believing and doubting games”. Mostly, I have tried to model for students more generous ways of thinking about texts and ideas, or have asked them to try to think more openly about what they read, but mine were not especially effective approaches. The practical, specific ways of thinking Karolyn offers are better, and I expect to use them in the future.
Even more valuable is an idea that comes a few pages later in the essay. Students — people! — often assign to objects of study immutable properties or values that are, in fact, mutable elements of the scholar’s own personality, beliefs, experiences, and prejudices. In many ways, this is an essential part of reading and thinking. It is hard to know or learn anything without projecting some of our self into it. But it is exactly in that projection that we must be especially mindful, especially careful. (A friend recently said, of a book I admire greatly, “Clearly, this is a flawed text,” a statement which is itself more flawed than the text under discussion, because what my friend really was saying was, “This novel does not conform to my own aesthetic principles,” a very different thing, indeed.) Karolyn writes that the process of noticing how we read is key to making sense of what it is we are reading:
A key step in this “noticing” requires students to own the feelings and thoughts that arise through reading a text rather than projecting them on to the text. That is, rather than saying, “This poem is boring” or “This writer is making me angry,” students say “I’m starting to get bored at this place in the poem,” or “I’m getting angry at this passage.” Outside of this assignment, we practice noticing when reactions arise and owning those reactions in a brief activity I call “changing the grammar of our thoughts.” Here, students write sentences about non-volatile things that “are annoying” or “are great” in their lives. They then re-write these statements until 1) they themselves are the subject in the statements and situation and 2) they note the detail they are responding to. For example, “My roommate is annoying” becomes “I get annoyed when my roommate slams the door.” And, “Weekends are great” becomes “I really like weekends when I can hike.” This exercise highlights students’ agency in situations, ensures the Other is not monolithic, and cultivates precision and vividness in students’ writing.
The exercise also helps relieve students of the feeling that they must speak from some outside position about the text, a feeling that often leads to the kind of oracular pronouncements that “this is a flawed text” represents.
(A bit of a tangent: This kind of highlighting of subjectivity is deeply annoying to some teachers and pundits who feel that it encourages narcissism. Interestingly, a lot of the same feeling can be found in articles and books that critique mindfulness practices. Certainly, there are methods of approaching texts — and definitely methods of approaching mindfulness — that are fundamentally narcissistic in any definition of narcissism that you want to use. But that’s true of everything, and avoiding subjectivity [or mindfulness] is no way to avoid narcissism. Avoiding subjectivity just means leaving your narcissism unrecognized, or repressed, or disguised. Look back at literary criticism from a century ago, when a pose of objectivity was the rule of law. Much of that writing reads badly today because it sounds like the bloviations of a self-satisfied man who thinks his every little opinion has been written on stone tablets and handed down by God.)
Context is important. Karolyn notes:
It is likely that your students are radically different from mine. If students come to your courses uncritically revering the Great Authors and ready to embrace the timeless wisdom of a romanticized medieval era, your intention for transformation may be different from mine. As a result, your contemplative practice or assignment will look different. What I want to encourage in my fellow instructors is not rote adoption of my assignment, which may be completely inappropriate for your contexts, but rather deep reflection on what your pedagogy is doing, and why, and how within your own contexts.
This brings us to an important point: kindness, compassion, generosity, and other positive values should not be deployed as airy abstractions. They have little meaning unto themselves, and they do not gain strength from vagueness.
One of the things that sometimes happens when I talk about cruelty and syllabi is that people ask about a general policy — an attendance policy, for instance — wondering if it is an example of cruelty. Without context, there is no way to say. There are times when attendance policies are probably quite kind, generous, and compassionate. Heck, there are probably times when standardized tests are kind, generous, and compassionate: maybe not to the student taking them, exactly, but perhaps for the patient who needs to be treated by a nurse in an emergency and needs that nurse to be able to respond quickly and knowledgeably, and the way we know nurses can do that is that they can pass tests demonstrating it. (Whether standardized tests demonstrate such things or not, I leave to you to decide.)
At a workshop, a teacher said to me, “I hold my students to high standards because it is kind and compassionate to give them expectations and not to pretend that bad work is good.” This statement is a valuable example because it may seem specific, but without context it actually says nothing. What are the standards and expectations? How do you communicate those standards — how do you “hold” expectations? How do you distinguish high standards and expectations from low? What differentiates bad work from good, and how do you assess that? I can imagine ways of doing all of these things that come from a place of loving kindness and that communicate that loving kindness. I can also, even more easily, imagine ways that this teacher may think they are being kind, and may even want to be kind, but they are putting their policies into practice in ways that create anxiety, fear, and withdrawal in students. An unreflective, ego-based idea of our own authoritarian “kindness” in fact works against everything we may be trying to do — foster creativity and curiosity, encourage students to challenge themselves, develop expertise in complex and difficult disciplines. I have been that teacher, convinced of my own kindness when my policies and behaviors in fact were closer to cruelty. It is one of the great regrets of my life.
For over two years now, I have been trying to turn my work on cruelty-free teaching into a well-developed article or even a book. I have never gotten farther than writing six or seven thousand words, and none of those words are, yet, ones I think have much value. Part of the problem is the problem I have been having, generally, with writing, described above. A far bigger problem is that everything I have to say about cruelty-free practices feels terribly obvious and unoriginal. Don’t read me; read Paolo Freire and bell hooks and Paul Goodman and Jonathan Kozol and Cathy Davidson; read the wonderful books in the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series from West Virginia University Press; read in whatever religious or spiritual or philosophical or literary tradition most challenges you toward generosity and compassion…
And yet, tempting as it is to blame the difficulty of writing or the impossibility of originality, that’s not exactly it. Writing has often been difficult for me, originality is a concept I barely even believe in. The problem goes back to what I wrote about earlier. Our vocabulary did this to me. Kindness, compassion, generosity, and contemplation still feel somehow like they are not the words that are going to do anything but give nice feelings to the choir used to being preached to. Meanwhile, public education in the United States will continue to be neglected, teachers will continue to be degraded and distrusted, the public discourse will continue to be toxic, violence of all types will spread. Kindness, compassion, generosity, and contemplation feel inadequate to the storms destroying everything good in this world. Year after year after year, it seems the only people who get what they want from the world are the people who embrace cruelty, greed, authority, austerity. Against that, kindness does not feel strong.
But kindness must be strong. There is no choice. If I decide to give up on kindness because it feels weak, to embrace cruelty because it feels strong, to go out and embody the “hard truths of the world” and not let anybody get away with anything and be sure I get mine etc. etc. etc. — if I turn toward monstrosity, then I am not helping strengthen kindness or open up new possibilities for future progress, I am only becoming a monster.
Better not to blather on about these things. Better to be and do. Poetry knows that best. Here, then, some Liu Tsung-Yuan in translation by Red Pine, a poem with one of the longest titles I know:
Along the Road Past Shangshan There Was a Lone Pine to Which Someone Took an Ax for More Light. A Kind Person Took Pity and Built a Bamboo Fence Around What Remained, and It Responded with New Growth. Moved, I Wrote This Poem
by Liu Tsung-Yuan (773-819)
A lone pine shaded a rest stop with green
putting down roots beside a dirt road
it didn’t need to guard against the heights
it was injured for the sake of more light
luckily a kindhearted person came along
surrounding it with a fence
part of its heart survived
enough to feel the rain and dew