In this three-part essay series, Donovan Irven details his personal and philosophical exploration of Zen Buddhism and the practice of zazen in the context of a situational mental health crisis.
Part I | Part II | Part III
I am sitting quarter lotus on the floor of an eighth-grade science room. Around me, facts about energy transfer and conversion, the planets, the water cycle, and the periodic table adorn the wall in a colorful whorl. It is calm for another fifteen minutes, until the first bell and the kids come in, some quietly ready to work, some rambunctious, irascible, copping attitude, others on an empty stomach.
This has been my job since September. I entered on an emergency teaching certification, issued to me partially on the basis of my Ph.D. and the recommendations of the school’s leadership team. The school year was well underway, and my classes had been unstructured as they were managed under the irregular hands of subs both long-term and short. But I was here to stay, I assured them.
They tested me. I had another panic attack. I was assured, given the circumstances, this was normal. So, I was meditating at least once a day, in the morning before school, and sometimes briefly during my planning period. This helped. I was being encouraged at home and by my therapist, and by my new colleagues at work who understood that the first year teaching middle school was especially hard for everyone.
I had gone back to school to get the regular, permanent teaching certification, taking online classes through ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. I felt like I had rearranged my whole life. I felt my old scholarly obligations falling by the wayside as I made room for these new responsibilities, for the things I would need to do to make this job permanent and dedicate myself to a new career path, which I thought was important and noble and worthy of my full attention.
I am teaching in a school that requires a high level of compassion because the underserved student population had forgotten, amid the disruption of Covid and the stresses of their home lives, how to be students. Classes are chaotic. Students struggle to complete assignments to a high degree, both because they are sometimes without the necessary knowledge set, and sometimes because they are simply unwilling. The set of students who are engaged with their learning struggle with their own compassion, becoming resentful of their fellow students who are disrupting the classroom environment with their antics, with fights, with a general air of disrespect toward our shared project.
Compassion is one of the most important pillars of Buddhism, and I’ve been told I’m supposed to model certain behavior and expectations for the students, both in terms of the content they are learning, but also by way of our general attitudes. Calm, more self-reflective, respectful toward our peers, and quiet when we need to be. I’ve been told students at this age are incapable of self-regulation, which I do not believe since several of them are surrogate parents to their siblings and I know are doing laundry and groceries and several other things demanding self-regulation. But they do lose it sometimes. I lose it sometimes.
Nevertheless, I’m told I should model these behaviors so they can learn something it is impossible for them to do. That’s the message I get, anyway.
Listen to “Unschooling and Gentle Parenting“
Whatever the case, I practice Buddha nature talking a girl down from her own panic attack. We breathe together and I assure us that everything is okay, that this is a safe place, and five minutes later she’s back at her desk, happily completing a chart of the lunar cycles as the moon orbits the earth, always half-illuminated, showing us its many faces through relative motion.
Then, in February, I was informed of a series of budget cuts that would be coming, in the middle of a teacher shortage, because of a rather large deficit in the district’s budget. This meant I would likely not be offered a contract for the next school year because I was on emergency certification. The certified teachers would have first dibs on contracts, and positions were being cut, so my spot would likely be taken by someone who already had the certification I am now working toward in my online program. I was effectively out of a job. Again. It was almost 3 years to the day since I lost my contract in Texas and left higher ed.
I face the prospect of returning to the job market and all the energy I had mustered to face these new circumstances withers.
Buddhism is full of stories of traveling. Of someone who had to leave everything behind or who chose to leave it. My own story is a mixed bag. I did not choose to leave higher ed. But I could have done something else. I did choose to enter public education, because I think it is necessary at some level. And after growing pains and doubt and finally commitment—that hard existential virtue by which we live our life projects—it evaporated again. All that is solid.
Meditating, reading, and re-reading the Buddhist scriptures and words of Bodhisattva’s over these months and years, I understand better the words of Karl Marx who wrote that religion was the opiate of the people, and remember he says just prior that it is also the “sigh of the oppressed culture, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
Meditation is not an opiate that dulls me. Meditation sharpens me. It is a release, in one sense, something that brings calm amidst chaos, that allows me to observe and say goodbye to certain feelings of worry, to certain moods of high tension, of hyper-arousal, and allows me to return, again, to a space where I could be husband, father, teacher.
But it was also a sigh, heaved at my own irrelevance. An open-handed gesture, shrugging as I was again told this was nothing personal. That, though it changed everything for me personally, it was nothing personal. This job is nothing. But, looking at the kids, their needs, it is at the same time everything.
My spouse has continued to do well. The cancer, as much as it can be for us, is gone for now. Cancer is nothing. And yet, for a time, it was everything. It could be everything again.
My son squeals as I lift him onto my back, and we bound around the house. I am a Batman robot, apparently. He clings to my back, imagining he pilots a giant mech suit. He is so light. He is nothing. He is everything.
What am I supposed to say at this point?
I wish, dear reader, I could tell you that my few days at Haku-un-ji turned everything around. That it was all good. That my spouse and I lived happily ever after with new jobs and new health and a new house with our cars in the garage.
I haven’t found much time to return to the zendo. But I was given my own zafu and zabuton as a gift, from my spouse, of course. She is always there with some encouragement. It’s nothing, really. Except, it can be everything.
I wish I could tell you that, after all these trials and travails, I’ve become a noble Bodhisattva. I’ve saved the lives of a dozen kids and brought them solace in hard times, and we all learned to read and do advanced math together, and they saved their school from budget cuts after we rallied the underdogs to victory in the big game.
I heave a sigh and open my eyes. The sunlight slants through windows high on the classroom wall. It is almost time. I strike a brass singing bowl and its clear chime rings for a long time in the classroom.
I don’t know if I will be back next year. I don’t know now exactly what my job prospects are or where this writing stuff will go, or what, really, I am supposed to do. I’m going to finish the teaching certification program. I’m going to keep writing as I’m able.
I’m going to keep meditating.
I could spin for you a scholarly yarn about mediation. I could recount, like I have in classes in a previous life, how the legendary Bodhidharma traveled to China across a river on a reed and brought with him a new mediation technique, founded the Shaolin temple, and became one of those mythical figures who cuts off their eyelids and stares at caves walls for a decade.
I could drape these tales in the trappings of neuroscience, the faith of today, and tell you how meditation changes your brain and really does clear the mind and really does, I mean “really” on the biological level, change the way you are in the world.
But I’m beginning to think that hardly matters anymore. These things too, are nothing. Until you make something of them.
What I can tell you is that meditation has worked for me. It has been an integral part of my journey out of a pretty terrible depression. I’m not “better,” that’s not the right metric, but I’m no longer having panic attacks.
I feel calm when the day starts, and if I have a bad first period, even just five minutes of sitting zazen during my free period helps me start the next encounters on a positive, open, and compassionate note.
Just the other day, two boys got into a fistfight in my classroom. They got in each other’s way, simple as that and, in their 13-year-old minds, some kind of honor was at stake, so they went after each other with fists and adolescent rage. I lept between them, physically separating them, holding one back as the other seethed in front of me, nose bleeding, glaring out from under his furrowed brow, not seeing me, seeing red, consumed by anger.
I held out my hand, the other holding one student at bay. “Breathe, just breathe.” The room seemed strangely silent. “You have to stop,” I said, “Take a breath with me. . . .”
It took me a while after the fight to calm down. I followed up with both boys afterward. They were apologetic. They were practically kids. “I didn’t mean to fight in your class,” one of them said to me. “I know,” I said, “You lost it there for a second. But, I just wanted to make sure you’re alright. Are you okay?” “Yes, Dr. Irven, I’m okay.” “Good,” I told him, “I’ll look forward to having you back in class.”
I’m here for a little while longer, anyway. Maybe that contract will come through. There’s a chance, after all. But maybe it won’t. And, I think, that might be okay, too.
The thing is, I’ve grown more comfortable, through this process of reflection, not knowing what the future holds. I used to think I had it figured out. I used to think I was on a track. Foolishly, for a time, I thought the tenure track. But that turned out to be so much air.
Now I know, I think, that all possibilities are nothing until they are one. I am here, now. I am all things and all things are in me. And, for all that, maybe because of it, I am nothing too. Just like this job. Just like cancer.
The bell rings, this one a cheap electronic chime. The door opens. Kids start to come in, some quietly, some announcing themselves with verve, some on an empty stomach. “Good morning, everyone,” I say. “It’s time to begin.”
Donovan is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction. He currently teaches eighth-grade science and offers philosophical consultations with the Lawn Chair Philosophy Foundation.
The author of two novels and a collection of philosophical essays, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Emerge, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.
He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Literature from Purdue University.