Progress…what is it?

What have I been taught by being a teacher?

One of the most important lessons my students have taught me is that we must continually go toward what is difficult. Instead of avoiding pain at all costs, we must continue to ask, “Where am I having difficulty? Why am I experiencing difficulty? What can I do differently so that I can learn from this difficulty?” My mantra of learning comes from this little line from Paulo Coelho: “Teaching is only demonstrating that it is possible. Learning is making it possible for yourself.” So in order to learn from a difficulty, you must stay with it, train yourself, seek guidance, explore your own wisdom, use the tools you have as well as acquire the ones you don’t have, until you make that difficult thing possible for yourself. In other words, my students have taught me that the greatest gifts are the things that we find most difficult.

In teaching me this, they have only demonstrated to me that it is possible to face difficulties, instead of avoiding them or trying to create shortcuts that make them “easier”, and to experience authentic growth.

But have I really learned it? Have I made this possible for myself? Maybe it’s because I have parents who faced difficulties I will never face in my life – or maybe it’s because I was told those stories for so many years of my life – but I feel a sense of restlessness whenever I get to a point in my life that feels too easy. I find myself asking, “What am I having difficulty with? How can I spend more time working on the things that are difficult for me?” When most people would just hang on and “enjoy” the feeling of ease, I find myself yearning for more growth and more opportunities to learn.

In order to open the possibilities for learning, we have to know our vulnerabilities. We have to face what is difficult. And by facing what is difficult, and staying in that place, we can observe ourselves responding to the difficulty. Too often we are tempted to “find the easy way out”. While it may seem smart or feel good, it is actually a short-circuiting of learning. In order to learn, you must encounter a difficult situation over and over again, and train yourself to get through it in a graceful, heartfelt way. Teachers can help, but only if their goal is that their students actually learn (by making it possible for themselves). Learning only reveals itself in the moment that you encounter a situation that was once difficult, and through your own training, you are finally able to respond to it in a different way.

Progress, then, is measured by how enthusiastically you face each new difficulty in your path. Having had the past experience of learning from something difficult, you now have the confidence and belief and strength to face another difficulty, and you know that you have within yourself what is required to learn from it.

Imagine how our world would tranform if we could all – as teachers and learners – think of progress in this way.

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