Monday, February 9, 2015

The Infinite in One Step

photo by Joseph McCaleb                                                                                                                    
In a time that wants the whole thing right now, in a culture obsessed with control while hating authority, and amid media flooding with information, what if we focus on just one step. Interestingly, this advice comes from both the mystic and the scientist. Since, I opened this post with Ghalib (b. Dec. 27, 1797, in Agra, India), I’ll explore the mystic first; the scientist is already cued up but saved for another post.  Applications related to teaching and learning, particularly to my current courses, are interspersed throughout.

And a third part seems needed in my attempt to compose a response to the incredible notion posed by Ghalib. Just as a scientist needs an instrument to see the world within a microscopic bit of matter, our capacity to see the universe in a single step requires assistance. Friends of mine know that I look to horsemanship for something like this. My engagements with Leg’cy offer validity checks, especially when the single step contains essences of power and love. An account of yesterday’s ride likely drifts in and out of our consideration of the “Infinite in One Step.”

As we enter, we might notice the naysayers. While within me at a deep level something knows the rightness in the modest grasp of a single step, still I sometimes twinge due to an accusation of being irresponsible because I’m not looking further ahead. The naysayer chastises me for not setting goals, counting costs, and allocating resources. Echoes still reverberate through my being from some forty years ago when an esteemed educator, highly published and president of the national organization, proclaimed that he could tell excellence in teaching because the outstanding pedagogue has the final examination prepared before a course begins. 

My gut revolted when I first heard him say it, and my conviction that he’s wrong is even stronger today even though his position aligns with our hegemonic standards/accountability/testing regime.  To steadfastly seek the infinite possibility in a single footprint as a professional educator requires courage, discipline, and dedication to advance one’s consciousness beyond the prevailing selfish and cynical conditions of schooling, politics, and materialism.

A further complication comes in a shiver that apprehends the immensity and impossibility of entering one moment with full presence. The advance in consciousness that is needed includes a tolerance for mixed messages and a capacity to withstand apparent contradiction and paradox. To deal with complexity involves a dialog between lived experience and representations about it. Uncertainty becomes a close companion. Building the advance in consciousness includes a patient unraveling of felt sense, and it looks for advice.

So I search for models about the meaning of the infinite possibility of one footprint. This notion comes not just from Ghalib; for example, often quoted is the mystic poet William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

A few lines down, in these fragments from Auguries of Innocence, Blake illustrates how the infinite condenses into the minute: “A Horse misus’d upon the Road /Calls to Heaven for Human blood.” A universal value manifests in the daily moments of ethical behavior; the infinite distills into the bit.  While a beautiful simplicity inhabits these lines and this life world, I believe that their enactment reflects a lifework, an engagement with one’s destiny, along with the advancement in consciousness.

I’m already pondering how the infinite/finite dynamic penetrates in our Good Stories course, and I believe it’s evident in a first step that established primary focus on resonance and then a second one on multiplicity. In our first class session, I told the college students that today’s lesson was brought to us by the letter R with support from M: R for resonance and M for multiplicity. In a way, we only engage Ph.D. concepts by taking Sesame Street steps. Specifically concerning resonance, our attention reaches for the vibrant response to life that’s stored in traditional narratives. In my view, the resonant vibration is signaling a core connection with the infinite; a mystic might consider this a link to the divine.

Continuing briefly into multiplicity, we open the resonant moment by weaving through several levels. We experience stories that I have found to contain the legacy of cultural investment; perhaps not infinite, but at least of considerable significance. Then, during and following the engagement with the resonately-selected and experienced oral narrative, we explore the archetypes and their expressions as they play out in lived experiences, social and personal, historical and contemporary. I’ve elaborated the nature of resonance and multiplicity in Good Stories in other posts that can be consulted, if desired, by clicking on those labels at the bottom of this post.

Building consciousness includes extending our understanding of both resonance and multiplicity. One opportunity to do so comes in looking at how the translators work with the poetry of Ghalib. In addition to including Ghalib in The Soul Is Here for Its Own Joy, Robert Bly collaborates with Sunil Dutta to focus solely on Ghalib in The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib. We might begin by noting the importance of the selection of the poet and the poem. Like the selection of a traditional tale or the theme for phenomenological inquiry, a point of focus by the participant needs to have a felt resonance.  Without vitality, the work lacks sustainability and will not even engage our own attention to say nothing of how it will fail to inspire our students and readers.

The poem cited at the top attracts my attention (as well as that of the translators, I believe) because it embodies multiplicity in the dynamic yin/yang-like entanglement of infinite/finite. The traditional tales that I select for Good Stories have to be tingling with incipient meaningfulness each time I begin telling them. The theme a teacher selects for phenomenological inquiry merits that attention in its resonance because that's what promises to animate the teacher’s being which will subsequently spread into the classroom thereby compelling attention and motivating work.

Multiplicity gets acted out in the process of translation in ways that inform how participants in our Good Stories class explore the levels of a story and how our work with phenomenological inquiry empowers our teaching. By looking at Bly’s and Dutta’s comments on the translation process, we can gain insight about our translation of resonance into our decoding of destiny.  The process of translation includes accessing the vitality needed to light up our lived experience.

Bly writes of the translation process with his collaborator Sunil Dutta:
“Our work would begin as he wrote out each couplet in Urdu script: a word-by-word version in English, awkward and virtually incomprehensible, followed. Sunil would then abandon the Urdu word order and create two lines in English that hinted at the content of the Urdu. So many ambiguities would be omitted in this version that he usually followed by writing several paragraphs of prose to bring the hidden cultural, religious, or philosophical questions out into the open. At that point I would enter the process and try to compose a couple of lines that would resonate a little with each other. Imposed meanings would stick out here and there like burrs on a dog, and we would have to painstakingly remove those burrs” (pp. 7-8).

As we appreciate the slow careful work given to moving verses across centuries, religions, and cultures toward today, we gain patience for the time and attention needed to translate time-space-matter-ing from traditional tales into our own social and individual lives. We may be able to accept more generously the complexity, subtlety, and preciousness of teaching in classrooms with constantly reforming prisms in the diversity of children who renew their minds moment by moment. Dutta writes, “In Urdu, words convey subtle shades of meaning, so that a well-composed couplet will shine, so to speak, with several colors at once” (p. 65). So do our classrooms. So should the stories that we re-tell and translate into the making of finer lives and advanced consciousness.

This work, the care given to translation, models for us the way to treat as sacred the precious moments that array the phenomenon of teaching/learning. The Ghalib and Blake poems and the comments on the translation process amplify for me the texture of teaching connected with phenomenological inquiry. An orientation that focuses on “one footprint” contrasts with the behavioristic approach to teaching and research which imposes a predetermined order complete with objectives, step-by-step procedures, and test questions. Contrasting with the behavioral and the accountability model of education, the “world of infinite possibility” is found in each moment of discovery.

Something as small as just taking one next step can breathe with the infinite.