Saturday, June 1, 2013


I have two occupations, the confluence of which continues to startle and thrill me.  I am an educator and a professional improvising pianist.  I have taught in public school classrooms, grades 1 through 6, for nearly 20 years.  This past year, I was a school principal, a job that fused many of the approaches and strategies that had proved so successful to me in helping children to find their deeper selves, both as learners and as members of a classroom community. 

As an improvising musician, I have, in the last few years, moved from jazz to free improvisation.  In jazz, I worked within a composed form, a key center, a set of chord changes, generating spontaneous melodic lines on piano that stayed within the harmonic and temporal framework of the given song.  In free improvisation on the other hand, I am not constrained by form, keys, chords, or familiar physical techniques for producing sound.  I surrender fully to intuition, that rare gift bestowed on us by this living planet.  The musical expressions that spring from this sort of intuition, while often unusual in sound, are nonetheless refined by years of practice and training.  So while this kind of music is not predictable or familiar, it is delivered through a deliberate aesthetic, and a honed technique which keeps it from sounding random.

It is my belief that music –and in particular the improvised forms- is a language of the Earth.  In the pulsing, breathing, sentient planet, there is an energy which expresses itself in myriad ways, from the blooming flowers, to the graceful movements of animals, to the flowing shapes of mountains against sky, to the whisperings of the stream as it cascades over rock-laden dips and turns.  Earth constantly expresses a profoundly healing message, and the great human art forms –poetry, painting, teaching, music, loving, dance, drama, etc. –these are all in the business of expressing this Language of the Earth, through the trained human animal.  The more authentic and uninhibited the artist, and the more deliberate and engendered the training, the more luxurious the expression.  Earth is speaking through us, and it is most potent in its message when the artist is not just trained, but also able to move past expectation, ego, competition, self-criticism and analysis, surrendering instead to intuition, honesty, trust, spontaneity and integrity.  It is an amazing thing to experience this kind of pure art, which communicates with our deepest knowingness.  This has less to do with artist and appreciator, and everything to do with an energy moving through the two, an energy always flowing from the earth through living forms, ideas, and experiences, though often invisible or unseen. 

For me, intuition is something we inherit because we are human.  It springs from, and then validates our personal genius.  It comes through our bones, and is unambiguous.  Intuition is a living instruction, a direct impulse, an unflagging certainty to move, act, instruct, intend.  As a teacher, I have been witness to the power of intuition to heal, to solve, to unravel, to reveal, to propel.  In the teacher-to-student dynamic, intuition plays a pivotal role in what Michael Meade and Malidoma Some call “genius to genius mentoring.”  A mentor is first and foremost a fearless advocate for the genius of the mentee.  A mentor sees the gift, trusts its inevitable purpose, calls forth its revelation, and quietly celebrates the child or young person for the integrity and value of this embodied gift.  Unlike parents, mentors are especially believable because they have no agenda or bias. Mentors play a pivotal role in guiding the entire human living and growing project through its myriad transitions.  Parents are guardians, protectors, and nurturers.  Mentors recognize and expressly welcome the gift in the one mentored, and celebrate its emergence.  A society without viable mentoring can become wildly pathological.  Youth, who crave mentoring most conspicuously in the great moment of transition to adult, will apprentice themselves to whatever teachers they can find, and do this most unwittingly.  Whether the guide is a packaged media message, a coalition of online gamers, a dogmatic political or religious cause, or a slightly-older and visibly edgier peer, young people will not attempt the transition without some degree of surrender to a trusted authority.  Culture cannot evolve in the absence of authentic mentors, and no entity nor person can successfully replace a conscientious and aged person to fill that role.  For millennia, our species and our cultures have evolved in response to the mentoring tutelage of genuine elders as they engage youth, and breath the Language of the Earth into these young souls. 

As a teacher, I do not simply parlay state standardized academic content.  Hardly.  I mentor, and I do this with intuition. 

So where has intuition taken me as a teacher?  When I moved into 6th grade (after several years in early elementary classrooms), I began to hear an ancient calling emerging through the fabric of my growing connections with these early adolescents.  Before teaching, I had studied anthropology, culling a BA and an MA in prehistoric studies and applied medical anthropology respectively.  I had acquired in the process both a respect for and strong intuitive sense of the ways of indigenous peoples.  I had also traveled a good bit, even spending time among the Shipibo Indians of the Amazon.  The gift of these studies and travels was that I became fascinated with my life as a 21st century homo sapiens who had descended from nomadic tribespeople.  With my 6th graders, I began to perceive the need to become their tribal elder, and to teach them about our prehistoric past.  We would create elaborate outdoor timelines that stretched for thousands of feet, and which revealed visually our remarkable inheritance as indigenous people who spent 99% of our social history living in wild nature.  On one mile-long ‘timeline’ that meandered through the local hills, the beginning was marked by the first upright human ancestors.  As we walked the course of this timeline, we invented stone tools, made fire, and –in just the last three meters- discovered farming. 

With my 6th graders, I felt called to get deeply seriously about nature immersion and ritual connections.  My school at that time was located adjacent to several thousand acres of State Park.  Drawing on something I remembered from books by Carlos Casteneda about ‘sit spots,’ I told my students to walk about carefully by carefreely, waiting for the earth to call them to a spot.  Once this happened, they were to commit to returning to that same spot each time we hiked, sitting in that place and becoming open to the winds, the shadows, the living sounds, the feelings.  In addition to sit spots, I encouraged my students to walk in silence, focusing first on what they saw, delivering all attention with all their will, onto the images cascading about their eyes.  Watching not just the flicker of shadows, the movement of leaves, but also to notice that expanse of vision, the periphery as well as the things in the focus range of the eyes.  I later asked them to attend fully to the sounds they were hearing, the winds, the footsteps of classmates, the birds of the sky.  We would move from one sense to another, and then we would try to bring two senses together.  We often walked in a large circle in a clearing to practice this.  First eyes, then ears, then skin and feet, then nose and mouth.  I talked to them about the linear mind, that cognitive tool honed in our 21st century world, this fabulous machine which when in full swing, trumps the senses entirely.  I cautioned them to notice when their thinking brain was spreading words across the imagination.  I told them how our tribal ancestors had learned to live in the mythical right hemisphere, the sensory apparatuses fully engaged, how their survival was predicated on such illuminatory awareness, and how this capacity had eroded over centuries of post-agricultural living in alienation from wild nature, and yet how this gift of being full alert in nature was something waiting dormant in our bones, fully ready to spring to life again with even modest attention and will. 

My 6th graders responded deeply to these ideas and practices, which served as the cornerstone of community building in my classroom over nearly 7 years.  On the last day of school, many times, our closing council was full of tears and sadness, as students wondered where they would find community like this again. I told them that they were warriors of a new way of being, that they would carry community everywhere they went, creating it anew because they had felt it deeply, and understood intuitively how that kind of connectedness mattered most. 

I have been transported by the curious muse we call intuition, this uncanny and delightful power that propels my creativity, speaking a language much older than any of us.  The word itself, ‘intuition,’ is treated a bit awkwardly in Present World, seen as the odd stepchild of linear cognition, or perhaps even as a wanderer from some far-away clan who may come to visit for the solstice.  We don’t give intuition serious attention, because it seems to have no source, no roots nor grounding.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  Ideas, on the other hand, are considered the result of careful thinking, in turn the product of schooling.  Intuition is a sort of ‘unseen’ entity, and what we can’t see, we don’t take too seriously, at least not in general public discourse. 

I am delighted by intuition.  I am mesmerized by the force that wells up in a quieted mind, in an impassioned yet attentive moment.  Intuition can become a seed of tremendous action and ideation.  We rarely notice that ideas are born of intuition, not thought.