Break Every Yoke

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 08 2013

On being more like an elevator

I think I’ll write a quasi-continuation of my last post, in honor of my first snow day ever. (Thanks, Nemo!)

Even as a second-year teacher, it’s easy to feel paralyzed by the sheer quantity of things I need to do. Adopting the Together Teacher system over the summer has helped a little, but there are still times when I stare at my to-do list for the evening, can’t figure out where to start, accidentally browse Facebook or Google News for half an hour, stare at my to-do list again, and stress out that I just lost half an hour of productivity. Often, this cycle repeats two or three times before I finally pick a task at random and get started. I feel anxious just writing about it.

This paralysis occurs in the long term as well. I’ve been writing down ideas like “Submit DonorsChoose project,” “Start using SMART Response clickers,” and “Create individual unit trackers” in my planner since the beginning of September, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve actually gotten around to implementing them. It’s not that I haven’t had any free time to chip away at this list (see previous paragraph). It’s just that I didn’t bother prioritizing my ideas or the steps it would take to make them a reality, and, feeling pulled in so many directions at once, rationalized putting everything off until I had a huge chunk of free time, like over winter vacation. Of course, we all know what happens over vacation.

I recently read a post on the Providence Zen Center blog that very much speaks to this phenomenon of being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. I’ve quoted the entirety of the post below, with minor edits for readability:

Dear Zen Master Seung Sahn,

I feel like I’m going crazy. I’m working for the Legal Aid Society, and the maximum caseload at any one time is supposed to be 75. I have more than 75 cases right now. Starting this Friday, one of the attorneys is going on vacation, which will mean even more new cases for each person (there are 3 other lawyers).

I am quite new to the job and feeling totally overwhelmed. As the number of cases increases, I can do less and less for each person. Weeks go by in which there is no time to devote to some of the cases I already have.

I am very worried about this because I’m forced to keep doing a more and more sloppy job. I want to help people, and I like to do a beautiful job. I fear what this will do to my health (pains, ulcers, etc.) I try to have a good attitude, but I am being completely overwhelmed by all this. I am feeling very desperate.

Hapjang with love,


Dear Michael,

Thank you for your letter. How are you? You are very busy and are helping many people—that is wonderful!

If your mind is busy then the whole world is busy. If your mind is complicated, the whole world is complicated. If your mind is quiet, then the whole world is quiet. So, an eminent teacher said, “Everything is created by the mind.”

Do you know an elevator’s job? Many people can push the button wanting the elevator, but the elevator only comes when the proper floor and direction appears. When the elevator is going up, it only stops for up-buttons and coming down it only stops for down-buttons. The elevator understands its correct action sequence. That is only going straight. If you put your mind in order, then it works the same as a computer. Then you will understand your correct action sequence. That is correct opinion, correct condition, and correct situation–Zen mind. Also, that is great love and great compassion mind. If you want that mind you must make your “I, My, Me” disappear. If you don’t hold your opinion, your condition or your situation, then your original high-class computer will work correctly. So, you must practice every day.

I ask you: What are you? If you don’t understand, only go straight—don’t know. This don’t know broom will sweep your consciousness computer clear of I, my, me dust. Then clear moment-to-moment working is possible. That is the correct way and the great bodhisattva way.

I hope you only go straight don’t know, which is clear like space, don’t make complicated, don’t make busy, soon get Enlightenment and save all people from suffering.

Yours in the Dharma,
Zen Master Seung Sahn

I may not be Buddhist, but I can appreciate the wisdom in the Zen Master’s response. A degree of selfishness does often underlie mental paralysis. I’ve entertained thoughts like, “I could be doing something way less stressful right now” or “When am I ever going to have time for my life?” or “People don’t appreciate me enough.” This overwhelming self-pity is the great enemy of clear-headedness and compassion, yet it’s the emotion that seems to dominate when I most need clarity of mind and charity of heart. Perhaps alongside INV, PLAN, and EXEC sessions, TFA needs to start offering ELEV sessions: teaching corps members how to be like elevators, faithfully carrying out the work that needs to be done but only in the proper sequence, one simple step at a time; serving students and colleagues selflessly but not allowing their needs and demands to eat away at inner peace. A suggestion for my End-Of-Year survey, maybe?

Lastly, like many lessons I’ve learned in the past year and a half, all of this is applicable to life outside of teaching as well. The world is broken and in need of much healing—a quick glance at the front page of any newspaper is evidence enough. As an individual, it’s hard to know where to begin, where my greatest impact would be, how to best utilize my skills for the greater good. I sometimes feel like throwing my hands up and retreating to a corner to read, write, and solve physics problems for the rest of my life. But if I could be more like an elevator, then every day would be an opportunity to make a meaningful impact, since every day would simply be one 24-hour-period of a life singularly dedicated to the straight path of doing good. It would mean buying a meal for the homeless guy I happen to pass by on the street; holding the door open for people even in the pouring rain; offering graciousness when conversation turns gossipy or negative; cheerfully driving my friend to the airport in the middle of the work week; doing the dishes even when it’s not my turn; being willing to talk about my faith when someone asks why I do the things I do.

Being like an elevator would mean being fully aware of the world’s needs, both big and small, and instead of feeling paralyzed, moving forward to meet them one by one.

3 Responses

  1. jennny g

    Instead of being paralyzed, it often helps to keep a running list of things to do (bet you never heard of that before!) BUT THEN, take a look at the list and choose ONE THING, either an easy thing, or a fun thing or an interesting thing. DO IT. Then cross it off. Choose something else now. Do it, cross it off. ETC. At some point you might even try one of the HARD THINGs, then cross it off. Bad news: you’ll probably never cross off everything. Good news: you’ll see some amazing progress! Hint: ignoring facebook, etc., is very helpful. Save some fb time for a reward to yourself and then set a timer to get off again. Try it!

  2. Hi Mr. K, It’s Maia from The Together Teacher :) I’m the author of the book. So glad you have found the system helpful so far. What you are feeling is completely normal. Please let me know if I can help in any way!


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