(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
As a physical education teacher, I’m constantly explaining things. Every class begins with a breakdown of the inner workings of such mysteries as Dice Tiggy, Hula Hoop Scatter Tag, Gaga Ball, and other imaginatively named activities. Following these explanations I take questions. I have one class in particular that has made an art of the Q & A. They have even managed to pass this skill on, transmitting their powers of questioning to each incoming group of first graders so that year after year their classroom extends explanations to absurd lengths. Our pregame talks go something like this:
“What happens if you trip on your shoelace and fall over?”
“Well, we’d pause the game and make sure you’re OK.”
“What happens if you trip on your shoelace and roll into a mat and it falls on you?”
“We’d lift up the mat, and if you weren’t a pancake we’d keep playing.”
“What happens if you trip on your shoelace and bump into someone who also tripped on their shoelace?”
“Then we’d pause the game and have a shoe-tying clinic. Any other questions?”
I used to try and speed the Q & A session along, fearing the class was getting shortchanged on their playing time due to the length of the inquisition. But then it occurred to me that this investigative period served a purpose: gym could be both about what we do and how we make sense of what we do. Our actions could be informed by our conversation, and even if the questions were silly, they were an opportunity for the kids to be heard, to be curious simply for curiosity’s sake. When I recognized this, my answers often became equally silly, but that never seemed to matter. What mattered was the willingness to engage. After many years of answering questions, I’ve come to see this dialogue as a form of compassion, a mutual humoring that honors both parties. Within the dynamic of the Q and A, questions are an expression of interest and answers a validation of curiosity.
This same dynamic often arises when I find myself answering questions about my own meditation practice. I used to loathe talking about practice, which dated back to my teenage years when I was a closet practitioner. I started to meditate in high school and kept pretty quiet about it. I wasn’t sure where Zen fit in between conversations about sports, movies, and girls, I wasn’t particularly keen on being labeled “spiritual.” I figured there were many paths to the top of the mountain, and I hoped to quietly walk mine without making a fuss about it. A bodhisattva I was not.
Keeping a low profile became more difficult after I started making trips to the Zen Center of Ottawa in college. Begrudgingly, I began to talk about practice, but in much the same way a child talks in an old-fashioned household: speak only when spoken to. As much as I wanted to be open and forthcoming, I felt that my feelings about practice were best expressed by not being overly expressive about it. I wanted those around me to see meditation as a crucial component to my life, but one that didn’t need explication or justification. It was just something I did, and I hoped there was enough conveyed in the simple act of doing it. But silence opens the door for assumption, and in discussing practice, I found that I could at least provide an informed perspective in my small circle of friends. Whether I liked it or not, I was something of an ambassador.
There is a certain tone people use when asking me about practice. It is probing and somewhat disbelieving, as if there is a tarantula on my head that they are forbidden to mention. But the questions are usually pretty straightforward, an attempt to picture just what it is that goes on within the monastery walls. Conversations often go something like this:
“Do you talk?”
“There is functional talking only. So if I need to know where something goes, I could ask.”
“What if you want someone to pass the salt?”
“Well there’s not like, salt shakers sitting around. But theoretically, yeah, if there were something I needed passed to me, I could ask for it.”
“What if you have to burp?”
I came to see how useful my perspective could be when my friend Matt was asking me about a retreat. Matt was making his way through the usual mundanities when he finally got to the heart of the matter, the proverbial tarantula. “OK, what I want to know,” he said, “is do people laugh?”
I laughed and assured Matt that the monastery walls frequently echoed with the sounds of laughter; that I often feel, during and after a retreat, that my laughter flows out of me as if it had been dammed, the stopper suddenly lifted. Matt was satisfied. The self-serious task of meditation was revealed to him to be about loosening that self-seriousness. Practice, our conversation revealed, was at its most basic inclusive and human, not exclusive and robotic. By talking about practice I had been able to clarify a misperception and share something vital about my experience.
It took me a long time to see that talking about practice could demystify it. Rather than marking me as spiritual, these conversations served to make the esoteric ordinary and accessible. The questions people asked were not intended to expose me but to gain insight into my practice, into what I was doing and how I made sense of it. In asking these questions people were honoring my effort, and in answering them I was validating their interest. The interest might not lead anywhere, or it might lead to someone investigating further and beginning his or her own practice. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the willingness to engage.
Which isn’t to say I’ve mastered the art of the Q & A. When people ask what I’m up to for December break, depending on how well I know them, I might offer something vague —“heading to Canada for a bit”—or I might tell it straight and prepare for the inevitable line of questioning. And I know that the best thing I can do is to respond to this inquiry honestly. As my students have shown me, there is never an end to questioning. But there is value in dialogue, in being brave enough to ask and open enough to answer. The questions might seem silly, and I may not have all the answers, but the exchange is still worthwhile.
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