I recently spent 10 days in silence in India, studying Vipassana meditation. And let me tell you, there’s nothing like 120 hours inside your own head to start seeing the world from an entirely new perspective.
In Vipassana, we observe our bodily sensations with an equanimous mind, teaching ourselves not to entertain feelings of craving or aversion, which are the default settings of reactionary human behavior. Because every experience in our lives creates sensations, we essentially live in a constant state of craving pleasant sensations or hating unpleasant ones, a road never leading to peace, compassion, and enlightenment — unless we use meditation to reprogram our mind-body relationship.
Like everything in my life, meditation was, at first, a game: I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to “win.” When my mind was quiet, I was so pleased with myself. When my mind was a hurricane and I couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes, I felt miserable.
While of course completely counterproductive to the higher goals of meditation, it’s just what I had been doing my whole life: winning, performing, being good at stuff.
And so I began to think about my education. I realized that whether it’s a conscious or unconscious byproduct, school presents us with hoop after hoop to jump through. If we make it through the history hoop, we get an A, and we feel good. We like feeling good, so we want to do it again. If we make it through the Spanish hoop, we get another A, and we feel good.
Eventually, we lose sight of what we are doing and learning and will do anything as long as we can be good at it. (How much European history do you actually remember from high school? Probably not much if you got an A. I’m guessing you were too busy being good at it to actually digest the information.)
This whole methodology of rewarding the over-achiever, the straight A student, the student who never reveals (or never actually understands) his natural gifts and natural difficulties, although probably not intentional, is very convenient for preparing a obedient workforce. There’s no time to ask what’s right or to question the dimensions of participation, only the lurking incentive of continuously being good at something, being rewarded and experiencing those pleasant sensations of accomplishment. In this way, we never discover our true gifts because we had to be good at everything. We never fail and learn to be okay with it. We just follow the carrot and the paycheck.
I’m not calling for an overhaul of the mainstream education system or offering any practical solution to this challenge. I’m simply sharing what I’ve observed about my own educational experience and that of many of my twenty-something peers. And I’m calling us to recognize how this phenomena of “being good at stuff” influences our lives, goals, and intentions in the world.
Are you on a path right now simply because you’re good at it? Are you addicted to the feeling of accomplishment and this is the path of least resistance to achieving it? Are you unaware of your natural talents and passions? It could be because you were good (enough) at everything. You jumped through all the hoops. You enjoyed the recognition, the admiration from parents, educators, peers, and society. But perhaps now you’re lost. And you’re not alone.
Observing this is the first, critically important step.
Do things because they allow you to fall flat on your face and not care. Do thing because you’ve thought deeply and independently about them. Do things because they allow you to share, love, and grow.