Teaching and Skillful Means

The end of the school year is the best time to think about the next school year, since obviously I’ve got nothing else going on. I’m working on a few things to reboot and overhaul my classroom practices, but also looking into ways to stay excited about math and connect it to something meaningful. This can lead to some wide-ranging book-browsing, with some interesting results. For instance:

I was standing in the Strand, reading a copy of Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum and I was wondering why I was reading it at all. I don’t teach quantum mechanics, let alone science, and it isn’t the kind of book one picks up casually. It’s not a beach read — but then again, I’m not much of a beach-reader!

I’ve been interested in quantum physics for a while. I read a lot about it when I was in college, and have become more interested in it again as of late while listening to the lectures of Neil Theise, a liver pathologist and senior student at the Village Zendo, where I practice. He has written and spoken about intersections between modern science and traditional systems of wisdom. I find him most exciting when he talks about Fundamental Awareness, which relates the findings of quantum physics to the primarily Eastern philosophical and religious idea that consciousness/awareness is not an emergent property of matter but in fact fundamental to the structure of the universe. When I first heard him speak about it, it opened a world of speculation in old interests of mine through the lens of my meditation practice.

Initially, though, I was so excited about the ideas that I didn’t see its relationship to mediation. It was all so cerebral and abstract, and I loved it — but what does it have to do with sitting on your cushion? He said: the whole philosophical construct is kind of skillful means, fulfilled and personalized by one’s disciplined practice with the Zen community. He said, more directly, “the universe has made one request of me, that I be aware. This is one way to know that, and meditation is my way to practice that.”

So I read about quantum mechanics now, about the fact that consciousness cannot be removed from consideration in objective observations, and I think about my practice and my participation in the world.

But I wanted something a little more: I wanted something related to my math teaching. Still, I was holding this book, getting excited about its ideas and its math and its spiritual implications, and still I was feeling like, this is related! How?

Standing there reading about spin and the states of quantum systems, and moving through this fog of anticipation and mild befuddlement, the words skillful means suddenly hit me. I think I actually said “Oh!” out loud.

If science and quantum physics is related to skillful means and ethical action, so is math teaching. In fact, every discipline is related by skillful means, the practices and habits by which we wake up to what’s real. So I asked these two questions of myself, as a math teacher:

  1. how can a math class be taught with skillful means?
  2. how can a math class sustain and develop skillful means in my students?

Both questions are related to having some understanding about reality, about “Things As It Is,” as Suzuki Roshi once said. For a long time I’ve wondered how to combine my Zen practice, my theological and depth-psychological education, and my teaching vocation together. These central questions move me toward that.

I remembered a line from a mentor of mine, Ann Ulanov, about why she writes texts that combine theology and psychology to “see how one discipline can feed another, without collapsing or dishonoring one either.” How can we bring one field into fruitful conversation with another?

Anyway, those two questions are the broad questions I’ll be asking as I prepare for teaching next year. Now I just have to get to the summer!


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