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Sweet Sixteen

Empty yourself of everything.

Let the mind rest at peace.

This pretty much chimes with what I have recently been reading about time management – the secret is to get everything out of your head and onto a trusted source. Well, I guess that sources don’t come much more trusted than The Source to a taoist. Perhaps my next move should be the Tao of Time Management?

But for now we’re stuck with the tao of teaching.

Do NOT think about what the lord is going to do to the sheep at Passover...

And in particular, we’re stuck with a verse of the TTC that seems to be about death and dying. In short, the taoist wisdom of Verse 16 offers us this advice, “Look, you’re gonna die, OK? Deal with it.” Put next to Psalm 23, Verse 16 pretty much blows chunks. One is put in mind of the soon-to-be-deceased asking fearfully in the hospital room, “What’s gonna happen after I die?” Now, depending on whether the Catholic chaplain can move his chubby little legs faster than the taoist monk, he either hears, “You will be led through pastures green, by clear waters; you will live eternity in goodness and fear will be banished from your mind forever,” OR “Everything is pretty much going to stay the same. But without you.”

But this is the tao of teaching!!! What does Verse 16 have to offer us? Let’s try it out:

“Master Lao, before I go and teach my very first class, what have you to say that can help me to calm down?”

“Empty yourself of everything. Let the mind rest at peace. “
“You are joking, aren’t you? I need to go in with a plan, a syllabus, a scheme of work, a record of work, a class register, a CD, a CD player, board pens, a board wipe, a class file, a text book, a teacher’s book, a workbook, some photocopies…”

Yes. Taoism uses the phrase “the ten thousand things” to talk about the entirety of things in this world. It really is possible that this phrase was coined by Lao after he watched an EFL teacher scuttling into an imperial classroom with approximately this number of pedagogical accoutrements tucked in and around his person.

Lao tells us that we should empty ourselves of everything and “return to the source”. What is the source? It is “the way of nature”, which according to the Old Boy, is unchanging. It got the job of being the way of nature when it demonstrated its capacity for vastness, constancy and by being way Way beyond the ability of humans to comprehend. Actually, it was the only applicant for the job.

The Tao will never be tamed, labelled or fixed. Once you’ve got your head around that, why, then everything else just falls into place! And Tao is nature and is part of nature and is natural and is everything that is natural. And what could be more natural for human beings than language? So what does it mean to say that if we empty ourselves of everything, we will be able to return to the source? I’m going to suggest that this can be interpreted as saying that if we want to be at peace when we are learning/teaching a language, this is best done by leaving the crap at the door and going in ready to errr…use the language.

But use it for what, exactly? Sure…we all know it’s used for communication, but it’s used for a damn sight more than that. Claire Kramsch’s book Culture and Context in Language makes the point that language is used to build our world, to interact with our world and to serve as a metaphor within our world. It is not used “to talk about an event that happened in the past that is still having an effect on the present.” That is the thinking of a hippopotamus’s backside.

If we can locate the source of language within ourselves, we can identify it within our students. And “returning to the source is stillness” says Lao. Because once we are there, we don’t need to arse around with board pens and photocopies. When we use the language for what it was intended to be used for, learning is inevitable. We won’t need books, plans, or the ten thousand things that we use to wall ourselves away from our students and our students away from love of the language.

And that’s what the ten thousand things do, you know, they wall us away from what we would otherwise love. For example, there are many films that I love. Yes. Love. And if I was asked to nail my political colours to the mast, my ship would be flying the black ensign of the anarchists. But if I had to sit down with some boringly garrulous anarchist who would run through each one with me and instruct me into the anarchist analysis of each bit of film, then I would grow to associate the films with boredom, hatred, resistance, etc. And I would not love them. Oh no I would not. Now substitute film with language; anarchist with teac…oh, you got it? Sorry.

As I said at the start, this part of the TTC seems to be speaking about death and how we should not worry too much about it. It’s inevitable. It’ll happen to you sooner or later. If you can deal with that, you’ll find tao. And even though you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil, like rock and roll, the tao will never die.

So, I’d like to think of chapter 16 of the Tao Te Ching as the death notice for the ten thousand approaches, methods, theories etc of SLA. The Tao is bigger than any label and cannot be broken up into packageable units that are then consumed over the course of a career. What is the source of language teaching? Language. What is the source of language? The mind and the world around it. How can I teach? By allowing the mind to observe the world around it and to talk about it.

We should get over the idea that language can be broken down in any way – it’s not just grammar which is evil, but functions too and all the other crap we try to break language into. They try to suggest that language learning is finite, that it’s just a matter of knowing how to hone that skill, climb that hill, perfect that drill. And it’s no surprise that the view of language as a tool with which things can be built and/or made is a metaphor that could come straight from the world of industry. The hegemony dictates the metaphors by which we live and die. But another world is possible, or so I am told.

Language is about interacting; developing a character (You) and putting it through its paces with other characters that are creating themselves and which you are also creating. You put words in your mouth. Sometimes you put words in other mouths. Everything that you hear or say you interpret in the light of how you view the speakers. That isn’t business. That’s soap opera.

Break down the dominant metaphors and take them for what they are: the interpretations of the powerful and how they see the world. These interpretations are like the Safety Curtain at the theatre which serves to hide what’s really going on behind the scenes. And behind the curtain is the real tao: empty, full of life, building, moving, recreating, taking down, changing and still there when you go home after the performance.

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Categories: Commentaries on TTC
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