Monday, March 11, 2013

Fast and slow

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" today, movement and stillness. (A paper was due so there was no assigned reading to discuss.)
The movement I called "Ethics Diary Speed Dating." Students are supposed to be keeping a diary of ethically interesting or troubling situations they experience or hear or read about. This time each got a chance to ask five classmates about a case of their choosing. The catch was that there were only five minutes for each conversation (which had to address both participants' questions) and then, after 20 seconds to jot things down - everyone had to stand up and find someone else.
I think it worked. (Since there was an even number of students in attendance I didn't get to be more than timekeeper.) Questions included what to do when undercharged in a restaurant, how to react if an old lady cuts in front of you in a line, whether it's OK to refer to a pair of identical twins by a single name, the ethics of skipping class (yes!), whether to donate to a Buddhist monk who presents you with a shiny Kuanyin amulet and then thrusts a book in your face of others who have donated $20, $50, $100, $200, and asks how much you're in for.
The students noticed how differently their various classmates framed and justified a view - and how they themselves subtly changed the situation they were asking about. In comparison with other students' ways into topics they began to notice a consistency in their own responses to the others' questions. It's just a start, but I think this thing has legs. It's certainly a great way to get everyone engaged and talking in not very much time. Next time I think I'll allow time between rounds for them to sharpen or otherwise tweak their questions.
After discussing the speed dating (I suppose I could just call it "round robin" but speed dating is sexier), it was time for something completely different: a 27-minute guided metta ("loving kindness") meditation by Sharon Salzberg, one of the founders of Insight Meditation Society. (Much better than the 7-minute version last time round.) If you're unfamiliar with this practice: metta repeats a series of intentions - that X be safe and protected, that X be healthy, that X be happy, that X live with ease (not always in that sequence) - starting with yourself and then expanding the circle of care progressively to a benefactor or friend, then to a "neutral" person you neither like nor dislike, then to a "difficult" person, and finally to all beings everywhere.
There's much to remark on in an ethics context, starting with the way metta simply bypasses the modern fancy that you could or should abandon self-care in order to care for others. (We're really taught that care for self and others are radically opposed, even fundamentally different, as different as "selfishness" and "ethics"!) It's also powerful as an experience of how self-concern can transcend itself, overflowing, and eventually I'll refer back to it when we focus on the overwhelming importance of intention (not action, not result) in Buddhist ethics... But our brief discussion today confirmed that what is hardest for us today is care for the self. One student, experienced with this meditation, said he still couldn't do the first step. A philosophy major said he "didn't want to want to be happy." Interesting discussions await!

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