Pratyahara and pencils populate my thoughts today. Back to school, I can smell the freshly sharpened pencils—not that anyone sharpens pencils in my college classes so much. The sensory memory recalls the time of year: fall, school, endings, beginnings and lifelong learning. Cycles that inspire.
Inspiration arises in peculiar places. During a particularly dry creativity spell, I sat through the annual English department meeting last week at school, my employer, and felt a sudden spark. It was midway through a workshop on workshopping (silly sounding but fruitful) when I began to write about writing—and pratyahara.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb of the eight branches of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, reminds the practitioner to focus inward, withdraw from sensory distractions to promote equanimity. Working late nights this month, I’ve become caffeine reliant, which affects my stability. And so, pratyahara beckons me to my recent bout of writer’s and life block, a sort of flabbiness of the mind and spirit.
To combat the lethargic fog of wordlessness, I seek inspiration in words. Flipping through a Sanskrit dictionary and revisiting ananda, counting my bliss-ings, usually helps. However, not ananda but pratyahara floats through my days, and intuitively I know the word draws me to an open door, just as the season drives new beginnings through the dying of the year.
Perhaps school starting this week is responsible. The thought induces both excitement and exhaustion.
Teaching writing for 40 sixteen-week semesters in the last 15 years tests my dedication just as all long-time teachers struggle with keeping the job fresh. Teaching is exhausting, a constant delivery—instructing, emailing, meeting, preparing, grading, researching and learning. In exchange is the possible improvement of individual lives and global productivity. But pumping students through a college system of job preparation to make the world go round is not what moves me to teach.
Most students attend college to prepare for the working world. My class teaches them the practical skills to get there. However, I teach students how to think, not merely how to write a grammatically pristine sentence. Though aesthetically pleasing sentences seduce the philologist in me, awakening students to their own minds ultimately draws me to the profession. There, I believe I contribute most to a more meaningful life, mine and theirs.
Of course, I’m no miracle worker. Students come to me in all stages of emotional and intellectual development. Some breeze through my class barely touched, while others gather acorns of inspiration. But the work satisfies not so much in counting successes as in simply attempting to touch lives: opening students to glimmers of awareness—about themselves, their process and the surrounding world.
But that’s not what they expect from my class, nor college for that matter. Most wander through campus on autopilot, living someone else’s expectations—the culture’s or their parents’—only vaguely aware of their surroundings let alone their interior life. Most work long hours and maintain a social life on top of school, and so live on caffeine and alcohol, neither conducive to optimal balance or alertness.
No doubt writing takes attentiveness. Mindless writing has no place in most college courses. Revision, the heart of writing, requires presence. The writing instructor’s feat is to impress students with the opportunity to revise their work. The workshop on workshopping reminded me of that opportunity. Thus, my inspiration.
Revision takes acute focus and attention to detail. That’s why I recommend students read their essays after laying them down for a day or so, and then read from the last paragraph to the first in order to induce that state of attention required to mindfully examine each sentence. Reading from start to finish allows too many amendments supplied by the writer’s unconscious editor, the mind supplying modifications that are not actually there.
In other words, revision’s required attention awakens the senses from its stupor of unconscious reading and writing, the kind that comes from writing in the spoken voice inside the head. Writing is not speaking, I explain to those students who write “use to” as in “I use to go to school,” a minor example of the larger indiscretion. Spelling errors are just one byproduct of “speechifying” writing.
Making students aware of that unthinking voice, those speaking habits that produce not just grammatical errors in academic writing but stylistic dullness tasks me. How do I teach awareness? How do I get students to remove the film over their minds’ eyes to clarify the blur? Seems impossible, especially in their zombie states of information or sensory overload.
But that’s what it takes to teach college writing—teaching awareness of moments observed by the alert self: pratyahara in preparation for dharana (concentration). Students must be able to bring the light tower to their thoughts, beam on words, letter by letter, and leave the rest unlit. No simple task.
The abstract notion—awareness—fuzzes over in glazed eyes. And while writing tricks and the arsenal of teaching tools like workshops help to bring awareness, it’s not the right kind of awareness. Self-consciousness is not awareness that always aids the writer. Humiliation, pride, and defensiveness, all of these workshop-induced emotions evoked by enduring evaluation, are not the awareness I mean.
Writers critiqued by their peers require thick skins, thick with desire and understanding, not swollen with over-sensitivity. Emotions observed and then gently dimmed to the background begin the dispassionate process—analyzing essay construction—that propels the mind into productive awareness, breathed intention of pratyahara.
And it’s not just a frame of mind. I do not mean that students need only thick hides or the right mood to be critiqued. The writing spirit borrows the dispassionate curiosity of the engineer, mechanic or plumber. How does this thing work? Where does it fail? How do I examine every piece assembled to see the tiny breaks or hidden clogs? Curiosity and observance form the proper attitude to writing well.
This predisposition is what I call awareness. The ripeness of a fluidity where information can seep in freely without resistance and without fitting into inherent brain slots, habits and unconscious patterns. It forms an openness to absorption and application, a removal of blinders.
All too often, however, grading hinders the path to receptivity.
When students review their writing violated with pencil-marked scribbles and circles evidencing grammatical errors, missing words or incomplete thoughts, the students see the markings, not their own writings. The marks trigger feelings of inadequacy, maybe momentary defensiveness or aching despair of a long-held belief in perceived inabilities.
“Why did I get a D on this paper?” Some will ask. My unthinking response is to explain the mechanics, instructions, aim and skills tested. However, the answer should be: lack of awareness. Too much traffic crowds their vision—letters drop mindlessly on the page. That traffic probably results from blockages, habits, insecurities, misunderstanding or past instruction: the ghosts of English teachers past. Oftentimes, unready students fail to learn.
Receptiveness ripens from seeds planted, only taking root in growth-conducive conditions. Each student comes to me on a different growth-receptivity timeline.
And I despair that students wear that letter grade as skin. They believe they are D’s. But where some lack substance, they may have great form: clear structure and clean sentences. Hollow vases waiting to be daisy-filled, I believe. Their youth leaves them brushless painters. Others have colourful experience but lack discipline, interest, motivation or confidence. However, nearly all lack the awareness-writing connection.
My inspiration arises in offering a glimpse of that connection. Writing seeds a mind-body practice: a meditation in wakefulness. And though I long to teach them how to seek pratyahara first, that’s not my job, ostensibly. I teach college writing.
Writing. The ever-evolving struggle through words is the grand work of the attentive mind, a brick by brick building of skills with which to open the world to possibility envisioned through the window of youthful eyes. While I can borrow those eyes of wonder a few hours a week to escape boredom and cynicism, few can borrow mine to understand that preparation for class is not only in books but in loving themselves, deep within themselves, far from the hypnotic trance of the senses.
And that potential to educate writers that drift through my classes year in and year out, to gently urge them towards self and world awareness, transforms the drudgery of “work” and renews me, energizes and girds the will to teach each new semester as I drive along the rust, chestnut and amber of dying leaves adorning the tree-lined campus. And to write.