Upstream – a Journey Toward Authenticity

Lecture by Michal Ben Shalom, 10th World Teachers' Conference, in: Journal Midsummer No. 57

Dear Friends from all over the world, dear colleagues, good morning,

To be honest, the last few days' contributions were so very rich and full – what else can I add? Perhaps a good story… a nature story.

I'll tell you the story of a great wanderer, one of the great wanderers in nature – the salmon.

They are born in freshwater streamlets, up in the mountains, high up, and as little ones, fingerlings, they stay in these remote places for some three years. A time ? a place, rather - they will never forget. A childhood place they are bound to remember, made to remember, to the end of their lives.

When ready, they leave, they swim great distances down the big rivers, sliding down the waterfalls, riding, as it were, on the waves of the powerfully flowing waters down, down towards the ocean. After this youthful, playful journey, they stop at the mouth of the rivers, stop for a short while, in order to adapt their body systems to salty water. They transform what is needed – and off they go!

They will spend the next five years in the deep, cold, sometimes very stormy ocean, with whales and seals, with seagulls and sea-eagles, with the "big ones".

But, when they are ready to lay their eggs, when they are to reproduce, that is, to form the future, the Big Salmon Run begins. Thousands upon thousands of salmon make their way from the open bays to the rivers of Canada, Alaska, to make their way back home. Remembering their exact place of birth, they arrive at the mouth of the river they left five years ago, and they get ready, adapting – yet again – this time from saltwater to freshwater. Research tells us each fish remembers. Their body knows for sure how to navigate back to the stream where they belong! They smell their way back to their place of origin. Perhaps they take some magnetic help, but their sense of smell seems to be a major astrolabe in their navigation.

Now, when they gather at the mouth of the river, getting ready, perform this miracle – salt – fresh –  a second time – they risk a lot! - In fact, they risk everything! Life! It is a very vulnerable time. They fall prey to bears, just waiting for them, to the flocks of seagulls and white-tailed eagles, to fishermen, lots and lots of them… And they are rather old by then, their health declines, their bodies are covered with deep scars, from the battle with predators in the open sea. They carry signs of age… yet off they go, forced on their way by an old call of nature, of existence, of life itself, and thus they perform one of the greatest wonders in nature – The Big Salmon Run.

Against all odds, they start up, against the current! Upstream! Against gushing water, wild, powerful streams, against high waterfalls. Some will struggle a journey of 20 km to the source of their river, and some, at the Yukon River, for instance, will make a journey of 2,000 km upstream, with many waterfalls to overcome. They risk all this way up to protect the next generation, i.e. the future. They risk everything, only to lay their thousands of eggs where they know the chances of survival of the young ones are better.

They swim against the enormous power of water, escaping predators, avoiding fishermen. They push themselves up the stream, and when they arrive at a waterfall, they circle underneath it for a time  and finding the right spot, they perform the unbelievable – they fly…! They jump up, nearly vertically, to the top of the waterfall; and sometimes they make it, sometimes they fail, they get carried down the stream, try again, fail again, fail better… and so on.

It is hard to believe that any creature could swim against powerful water, let alone jump skyward several metres each time – but they do! Determined, they carry on, following a deep impulse of both survival and renewal.

No wonder so many people, adults and children, come every year to witness this moving event. It must reflect a deep picture for the human soul, some secrets of life.

While taking this daring journey, the salmon feed the bears and the birds waiting to hunt. Only 2 of 6 salmon will reach the journey's goal. The rest feed all the inhabitants of the forest and the tundra. Research shows, that the vegetation and animals, flora and fauna, around the sources of the great rivers, where salmon lay their eggs in the gravel are surprisingly rich in minerals  one can find only in the depths of the ocean!

So, you see, the migration of salmon, their incredible endurance, serves as a messenger, delivering substances, knowledge, from the depths – to the heights, from dark places to the open light. They enable the cycle of life through their determination and perseverance – against all odds.

There is not much to say now, is there?

It is a masterpiece of nature, is it not? Perseverance, endurance, responsibility, trust, overcoming resistance, clear memory of one's origin, and courage, so much courage.

The top list of values and virtues one can wish for! Only… that with us, things are a little different.

Salmon have to! – We are free…

Salmon are compelled – we can choose…

Salmon are made to remember – we are free to forget!

An old Jewish legend tells us, that just before we are born, an angel puts his finger right here, softly, above our upper lip, and says: "Now you must forget…", therefore, when we arrive here, we remember nothing of what had been "over there", on the other side of the threshold, (and we all have a beautiful mark above our upper lip!)

Despite the fact that we are so different from the salmon, it is a powerful picture, it is not for nothing that we are drawn to it, it speaks to us because we know something of it from within.

Our time confronts us with strong and challenging impulses, and resistance comes in many shapes and forms, from all directions: from without and from within.

One form of resistance, no doubt, is the impulse of acceleration. Time, the very being of time, is being forced to behave faster, quicker, shorter, thinner – staccato! We constantly lack time, run out of time and we even say to our children, "you are wasting time!" or "losing time" – this is NONSENSE! You cannot waste time, you cannot lose time, can you? Definitely not a child! Childhood is timeless, a hidden treasure of time, a sphere of golden time, the "golden age".

Acceleration also means, that things are expected or done in the wrong time, earlier than they should. With early academics, early decision-making, early consciousness, early bodily maturity, etc., culture pushes us to accelerate learning, to do a lot more in a lot less time, to lose touch with the healthy beat of time. Children need time to grow, they take time to grow, and they keep to very beautiful cycles of growth, where, if things are allowed to happen in their own time, they ripen when their time has come.

As we keep our direction against the current, we should cherish time, and treat time in a spiritual way, thus making Waldorf Education a slow education – not a fast education, but a slow one. If we want to do this, we need to become slow educators: both in our inner life and in our professional life. We shall not be able to know children, unless we slow down.

First and foremost is keeping nice rhythms. Working artistically with rhythms, in an open, playful way. Not pedantic repetition, but breathing, developing rhythms, where children can happily experience a new mood, a new element, the new hope of a new day. Pedantic repetition kills time, whereas living rhythms bring new moods, richness and soul colours.

Then, for the sake of slow education, we should practice nice long main lesson blocks, of four weeks or more, where time allows one to have full rich experiences, individualizing, gaining skills, etc.

However, when we teach in short blocks of 2-3 weeks each –

Because we still have a lot to teach….

Because there are so many blocks to squeeze in…

Or because of academic pressure…

… Then we allow fast education acceleration – to take a "seat of honour" in our schools. It is a form of "swimming downstream".

Another practical aspect of time would be sincerely following time rhythms that have to do with learning and forgetting, the ingenious arrangement of doing and not-doing. When introducing practice lessons in numbers, in the younger classes, or daily worksheets – because the children have to do it daily, because they "don't know enough", or "are not up to standards" – then we follow mechanistic learning ideas: "the more you practice, the better…"  –  then this is not our art of education. This is drifting down the stream with neither direction nor courage. It is a deep secret of time: learning – and forgetting. It means developing a different relationship to time, based on the Knowledge of Man.

All forms of resistance, like time pressure, early academic achievements, acceleration – are a wake-up call for us, it is an invitation to clear identity, a reminder of our spiritual responsibility for the children, for the future.

Resistance pushes you to know your Why, capital-W "Why". And if one has a strong Why, then one can survive any 'How'.

This is perhaps the most famous statement of Victor Frankl, who seems to be a source of inspiration for many of us here – being mentioned for the 4th time without the speakers knowing of one another! After having survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, he says in his book "Man's Search for Meaning", – If you have a clear goal, purpose, reason – you will find your way… or, in Viktor Frankl's words:

 “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.”

Resistance will make you ask questions,

Resistance will make you invent, try, alter,

Resistance will make you search

Resistance will keep you fresh, striving, flexible, agile:

In other words, resistance will keep you happily active and actively happy.

Because then you have this feeling – "I'm living my true life". You cannot get sour this way.

In a faraway town, so goes a Sufi story, there was a preacher who always prayed at great length and with much enthusiasm for the thieves and cruel robbers in the community.

O Lord, he prayed, Have mercy on them.

He did not pray for the good people, but for the evildoers.

His congregation asked him, "But why, why is that?"

Because, said he, whenever I see them, I am reminded that what they want is not what I want! They keep me on my spiritual path, on the right track, that's why!

Resistance is a reminder, you see. It can keep us on the right track.

In the face of resistance, we need courage. Courage for the truth, for the true knowledge of Man. In Hebrew, that is a very ancient language, courage and effort are derived from the same root.

Courage – OMETZ, and effort – MA'AMATZ.

It suggests perhaps, that courage has to do with an effort, that it is an activity of the will, which requires constant effort. In the face of fear, danger, threat or pain, you constantly have to practice courage. You equally have to practice courage in the face of untruth, injustice, wrongdoing and lies.

Physical courage or moral courage, both involve effort, will. Courage, says Steiner in his lecture series "Metamorphoses of the Soul", could be the end result of loving authority in childhood, between 7 and 14. If a child was fortunate enough to have teachers who stood beside him with loving authority and words of truth – that is to say, to protect his etheric body and even enhance it, making it "bigger" and "better" – that may appear later in life, between ages 28 – 35, the 5th 7-year cycle, corresponding with the 2nd cycle as courage and initiative. So interesting – courage and initiative belong to one another, and are both born and blossom out of the same flowerbed – the etheric sphere.

As teachers, we are a nation of doers. Doing is our second name, is it not? Constantly preparing, meeting, talking, consulting, explaining, running around. Sometimes, it feels like a merry-go-round of tasks and duties, commitments and deeds. If we do not wish to get carried away and get lost in the stream, it is vital that we take the initiative for inner dialogue and reflection, for inner space to balance out the enormous flow of deeds. Doers must have moments of Dreaming.

Go into an inner space, reflect on the day. A full day of actions leaves no room in the soul. A good quiet recall of the day that has been, not only brings fresh air into the soul and helps to untie the day's tangled knots, but also helps to make new space. It slows you down. It is a very clear experience. When you Do a lot, you have to Un-do. A recall is an undoing. New room. Space for new love, for new ideas.

You all know it – you have a problem in your class, you keep talking to this boy, you change his seat, you call the parents, you consult colleagues… yet all  this leads to a dead end. But taking your encounters with this boy into your evening recall – that is something that opens up new ways, creative ways.

I was teaching many years ago as a subject teacher in Class 2, and one of the boys there gave me a hard time. Constant noise, teasing, these were part of his daily repertoire, and it went from bad to worse.

Until I realised what my task was – I started taking him with me in my evening recall. Who is this boy, what is he asking for… I got interested. I continued thus for several weeks, and… nothing changed. One afternoon I met the boy and his father having a walk and after greeting one another, the father asked me: "And how is my boy in your lessons?" He was very excited about his boy and about school. "Your boy", I started, not knowing what is to come next – and then I had a very clear experience that something is talking through me. I heard myself as if from outside, saying: "Your boy is a wonderful pupil." Amazed at myself, I heard myself carry on: "He sings and recites so beautifully, listens and joins  in with every activity. Just wonderful!" I could half notice the boy's black eyes, while I was speaking. They got bigger and deeper. He was beaming at me. That was it. From the next day onward, he behaved exactly as I had described to his father.

This inner dialogue with the child is a spring of creativity, a never-ending spring of creative ideas. And as it is an effort done out of one's own free will and initiative, it takes one closer to one's true self, to one's "I". When one thinks one's own thoughts, even for a few moments, one stops the endless flow of data–news–ideas coming from outside. One gets nearer to one's authentic, real being. In our time, the head opens the way to the heart.

Authenticity – in Greek – stands for "itself", distinguished. In our words – "individualized". Authenticity – normally, we relate this term with artists. A certain style, a way of dealing with light, or of holding the brush. When we see a work of Chagall, we know it! It is authentic, there is no-one like him. The blue hues that always dominate his paintings with their gravity-free reality. When listening to Beethoven, one immediately recognizes his undoubtedly Promethean style. For us teachers, being authentic means finding the tone, colour, that is ours. This inner dialogue takes us there, helps us to strike our unique note, to find our colour, to hold our own brush and pallet.

Rumi said, "there are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground… "

There are thousands of ways to teach, to be a teacher… we all want to find this unique way of how to "kneel and kiss the ground". Waldorf education is not about uniformity, not about repeating one another's main lessons, not about fixed methods. It is about becoming myself – through teaching, through the effort to loving children.

Amongst Martin Buber's Chassidic Legends, there is a story about Rabbi Bunim of Peshis'cha that goes as follows:

Once, Rabbi Bunim of Peshis'cha gathered his pupils around him and said to them, "When I am dead, and face the heavenly court to be judged, God shall not ask me, 'Well, Rabbi Bunim, why were you not like Rabbi Moses?' God shall ask me, 'Rabbi Bunim, why were you not Rabbi Bunim?'"

I have a friend, a wonderful teacher, who once asked me, at the end of a long school day:

Do you know who the teacher's best friend is? He looked quite lonely to me… I tried one or two answers, and he said, victoriously: "The teacher's best friend is Helplessness!"

We all experience helplessness, as teachers, as men and women of our time. Helplessness, not knowing, is a sign of our time. If we don't experience it, it means that we rely on old forms and cling to the past. The clear answers of a long-destroyed past do not work anymore. The old order is gone. The 20th century presented us with a major catastrophe, and the 21st century does not seem to promise sunny skies either. "Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world", says W.B. Yeats in his poem "The Second Coming":

"…The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, …"

Our modern constitution daily reflects the anarchy, the "falling apart". The falcon "cannot hear the falconer", nor obeys him... The gap between who we are and who we should be, who we should become, is a painful reality. It is a frightening gap sometimes.

Clearly, we experience ourselves as imperfect beings. This is the way we are. Imperfection – is the new human perfection. Perfection is inhuman – it does not allow a change. The good news is that imperfection is the gate to Becoming…

Being human is allowing imperfection. That is how it should be now.

So, as teachers, allow my friend's best friend, Helplessness, to walk beside you. Do not ignore him, he is there anyway. Be friendly to him, to your constant companion, for denying him would be the worst thing to do.

Besides, his friendship can be of great help – "not knowing" is an open space for creativity, for authenticity, for becoming.

Thomas Tranströmer, a Swedish poet, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize for poetry, described this new human situation in a consoling, poetic way in his poem "Romanesque Arches":

Romanesque Arches

Tourists have crowded into the half-dark of the enormous

Romanesque church.

Vault opening behind vault and no perspective.

A few candle flames flickered.

An angel whose face I could not see embraced me

and his whisper went all through my body:

"Don't be ashamed to be a human being, be proud!

Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly.

You'll never be complete, and that's as it should be."

Tears blinded me

as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza,

together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini;

within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

(Translated from Swedish by Robert Bly )

I started with a world wanderer, and I conclude with a world artist, a man in becoming.

On 18th November 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the outstanding violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Lincoln Center, New York City.

If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken by polio as a child, in Tel Aviv, and so has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of crutches.

To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is a powerful sight. It fills you with awe.

He walks painfully, yet so majestically until he reaches his chair.

It takes TIME. 

Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward, which again takes TIME… then he bends down, picks up his violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor, and… starts playing.

By now, the audience is used to the ritual. Everybody sits quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. Everybody remains reverently silent, while he undoes the clasps, and everyone waits until he is ready to play. – But this time, on the 18th of November, something went wrong. Just as he finished playing the first few bars, one of the strings of his violin broke. Everybody heard it snap. The sound went off like a gunshot across the hall. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. He would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage – either to find another violin, or else to find another string for this one. But HE DID NOT. He did neither this nor that.

Instead, he waited for a moment, closed his eyes, and then made a sign to the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off.

And he played as never before, with such passion, such spirit, and such purity.

Of course, everyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work, a concerto, with only three strings. Impossible!

Even not being a violinist, I know it – but that night, Itzhak Perlman refused to know it!

You could see him modulating, changing, composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them, sounds they had never made before. Think about that…

When he finished, there was total silence, awe, in the auditorium. And then… people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner. Everybody was on their feet, shouting, cheering, doing everything they could to show how much appreciation they had for what he had done. He smiled, wiped his perspiration and raised his bow to quiet the audience, and then, in a modest way, he said: "You know, I think sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you are left with."

As for us, teachers, we should also go on, make music, write, and rewrite our own music, strike our authentic note, find ways, find new ways, become the best of teachers with what we are left with.