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On teaching and holding lightly

Turning 38 in a bit more than a month from now, I’m discovering that there is a truth in distinguishing different phases in life. This is an old truth, which has been codified in many cultures around the world, but for some reason I always regarded it as a more or less plausible socio-theoretical construction, without ever relating to it directly. Now, I do.

 

I remember my childhood (‘phase one’) as relatively scattered, as something growing in different directions in different ways, often awkwardly, having to deal with relatively difficult conditions. From my teens onwards (‘phase two’), this magmatic stuff started to crystallize. At least, ‘growing up’ has been mostly a series of efforts towards taking a particular shape and embodying a particular persona. The most obvious example being my desperate and dramatic attempt at becoming a pianist or a musician; then the relatively more successful one at becoming an academic (interestingly, I never thought of becoming a ‘philosopher’ as a ‘form’ I would take). I remember quite clearly a moment some seven years ago when I was observing how much stronger I saw myself. I said ‘stronger’ but actually I meant ‘harder’. I observed a process of hardening around my own core (emotional, and deeper down), something that made me move through quite some though years and eventually reaching a level of relative economic and social stability.

 

From an external point of view, that looked like an ‘achievement’ as I managed to embody the form and being successful in doing so. I could have kept just doing the same, or more of the same, and nobody would have objected. But instead, something happened. In fact, that was the beginning of a very different process (‘phase three’). Over the past years I started piercing and cracking that hard crust and little by little to let it fall. The process is still ongoing but it is advanced enough for me to see now that this is definitely a different phase in my life. It moves in an opposite direction, not towards embodying a form, but toward deconstructing all forms.

 

Nothing new so far, I’ve been reflecting on this topic in previous posts (here, and here, and here). But I now see how this difference in the ‘phases’ of life connects also with other themes and questions I’ve been pondering for quite a while.

 

Let me flesh this idea out by exploring my relationship with teaching. I think I always loved the idea of teaching others, even since my teens. I ended up in a profession in which I am in fact in a teaching position, and usually I’m relatively appreciated as a teacher. By why do I want (indeed, why do I need) to teach others? This question hunted me for some time now. It became more pressing the past four years or so, when my actual teaching became profoundly shaped by my own personal development, and I even started teaching subjects officially outside of my professional profile (like meditation). As I shifted to a different phase in life, this reflected also in both the topics and the approach I took towards teaching. Several elements are involved here. To some extent, I engineered my teaching as a way of conveying and sharing my own personal journey, albeit somewhat in disguise and in a way that could be helpful also for other and very different people. Teaching out of a desire for sharing is pretty common, but I’d like to question this attitude nonetheless. Why? Why should others benefit from my own experience? Why would this experience have any normative value for them?

 

At the beginning of this shift, I can admit that my approach was rather apologetic. I wanted to share my own path as the path to follow, I created a form around my own deconstructive phase, and wanted to in-form others by it. I can see now quite clearly how teaching others is in fact yet another way of allowing one’s own form to crystallize more.

 

Over the last two years, this approach changed. I started relaxing the need of in-forming others and used the materials I had collected more as a starting point, a canvas for a relatively free improvisation. I disempowered myself as a model and just tried to offer a concrete instance of how a certain open-ended process could be instantiated. But in fact, I also started changing my own understanding of my own process by taking more seriously into account the feedback I was receiving from my students. The most glaring example is my relationship towards Buddhism. At the beginning, I was really informed by the ascetic ideal I was absorbing by my fascination for the monastic life (which happens mostly during the pandemic, and I think the two are in fact related in terms of social and emotional constraints that were faced at that time). This was a necessary stepping stone, but the more I tried to bring this model to lay people in their twenties (my standard audience as a teacher), the more I saw not only the difficulties in conveying the value of the renunciant model, but also started realizing its limitations. I was taught by my own students the need for letting go even of that form. In this sense, the process of deconstruction started to work on itself: I used Buddhism to deconstruct most of my emotional defence systems, and then I started to deconstruct my own relation to Buddhism itself (which in a Buddhist perspective is actually a good thing to do).

 

Interestingly, in both the formative and the deconstructive phase, others are involved. I could not build myself into a disguised-monk without taking inspiration by my frequentation with actual monks I met and I was inspired by. And I could not deconstruct that monastic form without allowing others who weren’t resonating with that form to affect me with their dissonance. This suggests that both the formative and the deconstructive phase are deeply relational and based on our way of relating to others (which is no surprise at all), but that they differ in the way in which we relate to others. In the formative phase, the relation is linear: we take the form from A, make it ours, and then transmit the form to B. In the deconstructive phase, the relation is circular: we bring the form from A to B, see how it fits B, and take it back to A with some variations, in a feedback loop in which all parties are eventually transformed. In the formative phase, the form itself is reproduced, while in the deconstructive phase, the form is actually developed or it evolves, unfolds, changes, transforms. As we always must have some form, we could in fact say that the formative phase is about controlling the form in order to keep it the same, while the deconstructive phase is about allowing for the metamorphosis of all forms, opening up their infinite possibilities (and all the uncertainty and risks that this brings)—like copyright materials to be reproduced always identically, versus public domain materials to be reused in all possible ways. Between the two phases, the way in which we relate to others thus shifts from the pattern of transmission to the pattern of critique (meaning the healthy challenge of the established form, its questioning, its testing and probing).

 

The idea of creating a system in order to transmit to others what one has learned is typical of the second phase of life (the ‘formative’ phase). It’s the same game. No matter what one teaches, teaching can be used as just another way of building up a shape, a persona, or replicate a pattern. As I move deeper into the third phase (the ‘deconstructive’ phase), it becomes impossible to authentically teach in this way. I can’t see myself today teaching anybody how they should think, how they should relate, how they should feel or talk, nor even teaching what I think is the truth (even when I see something as true). Yet, the paradox is that teaching is always to some extent a normative effort and it always entails creating constraints for others and providing an ‘in-formative’ training. Even teaching how to deconstruct all forms can become just a new form, a new pattern.

 

So, how can I teach anything while remaining true to my current life phase, which makes extremely difficult for me to really move towards building up forms of any kind? To make the question even trickier, I have also to take into account that what is valid for someone in their third phase is not necessarily valid for one in their second phase. You can’t teach deconstruction to someone who has not yet learned to fully construct anything (by the way, this is an insight that the Indians crystalized in the ashram system, by defending the idea at some point that renunciation must follow household life). In my own life experience, I encountered these two phases in sequence: formation first, deconstruction afterwards. I totally see that for me, the order could not have been reversed. But I also see that this linearity brings with it many side effects.

 

I already spent some posts (like this) in reflecting on why and how rigidly taking up a form can be limiting and even detrimental (what the Buddhist would call ‘grasping at views’). In a sense, a deconstruction phase becomes needed just as a way of surviving and ‘healing’ from the efforts and sacrifice of self-confinement that comes with taking up any rigidly assigned form. Hence, deconstructing after formation is just an emergency resource (which not even everybody gets the chance of exercising), but it is in fact far from ideal, at least from a pedagogical point of view.

 

The only direction I envisage at this point would consist in teaching forms but in a disempowered way. Teaching how to hold something, but lightly. Not as things to embody fully and even desperately, but as ways of actualizing certain spaces of possibilities, in which much remains to be explored. The concrete scheme I have in mind is of course one of the deepest elements I’ve learned practicing contact improvisation (see here): how a pattern can be used to learn not only how to do things (creating a form), but also how to do things differently (I can initiate a specific pattern, but only to disband it at any point and see what possibilities open up then). This would be helpful for people in the second phase, who need to learn how to build forms, but probably would save them time and they could skip going through the third phase. In this case, in fact, the two phases would be supplanted by an alternative life path altogether, in which the sequentiality that I have experienced would be replaced by a more integrated movement. Moreover, this would entail less of a shift in one’s relation to others (from transmission to critique) and settled instead in the pattern of co-creation since the beginning.



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