Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher who helped introduced Buddhist practices to the U.S. in the 1970s, offers this lesson from the Buddha in her “On Being” interview with Krista Tippett:
That was a very important image for me, out of the Buddha’s teaching, where he said the mind—your mind, my mind—is naturally radiant and pure. “The mind is shining.” “It is because of visiting forces that we suffer.”
The visiting forces that cause us to suffer are not inherent or intrinsic in us, Salzberg explains; they’re not who we are. When they come knocking at our door (and they will come knocking, sometimes very loudly), instead of trying to ignore them or shut them out, we can learn to open the door, invite them in for a meal, and have a conversation—always remembering they are visitors, not permanent residents.
This idea of welcoming the visiting forces struck a chord with me, because I have learned to think of my anxiety as a pesky little sister, who shows up at the worst possible times and demands my attention. I can’t get rid of her, and as annoying as she is, she makes me a better person. So instead of trying to ignore her or make her go away, I have to say, “Oh, of course you’re here, because this is something I care about, so hold my hand and let’s move through this together.”
Exam period ended this week, meaning it was time for me to start grading student work, an activity that always excites my needy little sister. On the evening after my first day of grading, I started to notice some negative voices knocking around in my head. They sounded too deep to be my little sister, so I decided to try Salzberg’s method, and address them as “visiting forces.” I pulled out a spiral notebook and began writing:
I am entertaining visitors telling me of my inadequacy and uselessness, my lack of skill and knowledge, my inconsequentiality as a teacher and scholar. Why are they visiting today? Let me ask them.
Why are you here? Is it because I’ve been grading and am disappointed in the quality of some of the work? Is it because I got angry and annoyed with a student who, once again, failed to submit assignments? Is it because I’m comparing myself to colleagues who sing the praises of their students’ work on social media? Why can’t I see my students’ work as just as marvelous? And why do flaws in their work reflect on me as a teacher? See how the questioning so quickly turns to my failings and inadequacies.
Thank you for showing up for something I care about: the measure of my students’ learning and achievement. Thank you for reminding me to be humble, to accept less than perfection, in myself and them. Remind me how to evaluate the work, while still loving and appreciating the person who did it. I know you’ll be hanging around this week, casting shadows around the room. Here, have a cookie. You can stay, but please lower your voices. I have work to do.