‘I wrote Meditations, rather than Disputations, as philosophers normally do, or Theorems and Problems, in the manner of geometers, so that by this fact alone I might make clear that I have no business except with those who are prepared to make the effort to meditate along with me and to consider the subject attentively.’ Descartes, Second Replies, p. 101


I am pleased to say that I have never done any formal meditating, but some of my students have advised me of its efficacy and pleasurableness. Others tell me that they have tried it, and rapidly bored of it, but could see the merits of it in an abstract rather than a practical sense. None has persuaded me to try it, through disputation or theorem or otherwise.

Similarly, none has persuaded me to take up running. Students have told me variously that it eliminates stress, irrigates the brain, promotes health and wellbeing (whatever that is) and so on. They have said nothing about their knees or their cardiac arrests, but that’s by-the-by.

On the other hand, no one has seriously tried to persuade me to declutter my life, although where psychic health is concerned it is the coming thing. Any number of books will now tell you how to say goodbye to your various effects. We are living, we are told, in a post-materialist world. Things do not make us happy. They weigh us down. They clutter our heads.

I am fairly well-persuaded that Descartes did not go jogging, nor did he meditate in the way that we understand it. He may have sought to clear his head of unnecessary objects, but only so he could build better founded structures of necessary objects. Whether he kept his room tidy and wished his socks goodbye when they got beyond darning is unknown, but since Descartes was not in fact a lunatic it seems unlikely.

Yet I suppose these are the things I am constantly pleading with my students to do. Reflect on what you do, stop and think, practice and repeat, get organised. And if they do not always respond in the ways I would like, then it is no more than a tacit acknowledgement that our approach to life is often untidy, inefficient, hasty. And all the more satisfying and probably no less oddly productive for it.

Zen and the Art of Classroom Maintenance

Buddha's statue located near Belum Caves, Andhra Pradesh, India.  photo: Purshi

Buddha’s statue located near Belum Caves, Andhra Pradesh, India.
photo: Purshi

It’s all getting a bit Zen for me. Yesterday I spent some time discussing Bhutanese management principles in my first lesson (a subject, incidentally, on which I am not expert), and then went into my next class to find someone decluttering the room.

I suppose there is something to be said for decluttering. We are all sensitive to the space around us, to a greater or lesser degree; no doubt a cluttered work environment can have a detrimental effect on certain more angsty souls. No one, to be sure, can think clearly in a pighole.

But the objection to clutter (whether as part of Buddhist tradition, or Christian ascesis, or New Age guff) runs counter to a well-established human tendency to leave stuff lying around. There has been, I would hazard, no human habitation in history or pre-history that has not had a bit of bone chucked in the corner.

Needless to say (I hope) I do not chuck bones into the corner of my classrooms, but rather those picked bones of the teacher’s art, the dried-up board pen, and the discarded photocopy. The accumulation of both, I suppose, points to the unfolding of some actual human activity, there in the classroom; their total absence would not clear the decks for precise thought so much as point to an upcoming inspection of some sort.

Just as Louis XIV went to his grave believing that all the fountains at Versailles worked all the time, only because teams of terrified gardeners ran ahead of him and behind him as he made his stately progress, turning them off and on at the spigot; so I imagine inspectors of classrooms (in whatever guise) see only tidy and well-ordered miniature worlds, and must wonder, if they stop to think about it, why clarity of mind and precision of thought are not more widespread in the world, and gusto and energy proportionately less so.