Learning Japanese at 50: The Ultimate Test in Patience

Over the years I have read a variety of texts about how to stay on the Buddhist, Vajrayana path.  I studies Vajrayana and established a daily practice. Made my way through Ngondro and memorized mantras and chants that deepened stillness in my mind.

I chose to study a language because of what learning that language means to my mind: a single focus on a practice.  I brought all of what I learned from Vajrayana and applied it to learning Japanese.  I grabbed that first textbook and, much like my first steps into Vajrayana, failed.  How could I EVER hope to grasp a language that had three writing systems, that included a whole series of pronunciations?  So, I did what any person faced with such an overwhelming task faces.  I put the book in a box and ignored it….for three years.

Being tangled up in the daily life of a teacher, father, student, and generally silly human being constantly tugs away at our own need to thrive, mentally and emotionally.  We often put the needs of the many before the needs of the few.  (one of my favorite Star Trek lines) Of course that approach to life is exactly what we need to do for our families, society, and ourselves.  I love Kongfuzi’s Analects and his saying in Book One, #6 as a description of this ideal:

“The Master said: A young man should be filial within his home and respectful of elders when abroad, he should be careful and trustworthy, broadly caring of people at large, and should cleave to those who are ren.  If he has energy left over, he may study the refinements of culture (wen).” http://www.indiana.edu/~p374/Analects_of_Confucius_(Eno-2015).pdf

That last phrase has always resonated: “If he has energy left over….” Right? If he has energy, like me who often comes home from a day in the classroom completely spent and then making dinner, cleaning house, or washing clothes, helping with homework, clearly focused on everything other than “the refinements of culture.”

Energy.  That is the key, isn’t it?  Folks generally assume that having less energy is the nature of being over 50.  That somehow you are less energetic and more lethargic than when you were younger.  I heard this EXACT idea stated by a younger colleague whose husband wanted kids before he turned 40 because he was facing that “lack of energy” thing that folks get when they pass the BIG 4-0!  The slow, inevitable decline of our lives; bodies breaking down, mind numbed by years of toil, broken, tragic figures waiting until the final march toward death.

Good Grief! Seriously? That somehow, we, as humans, lack energy to accomplish even the most mundane of tasks because we are older than we were years before?  Here’s the thing: this whole idea of having less “energy” is a myth perpetrated on us by a media driven mad by youth culture.  I blame the ideas coming out of the 1960s: “don’t trust anyone over 30”. Jack Weinberg, the author of that quotation, has claimed that the quotation misrepresents his intention.  Of course, the quotation stuck and was associated with the idea that youth culture was basically good and the aged were not to be trusted or, better yet, ignored.

I have a message to the world and especially to folks who would perpetrate the idea that energy is a thing in the sole possession of those who are youthful: the energy to accomplish anything is in the hands of anyone willing to step onto the path.  Think of the path as a way into whatever it is you want to accomplish or do.   Whether you are 15 or 50 that thing we call “energy” is, in fact, motivation.  I’ve seen 15 and 50 year olds have no motivation to accomplish anything.  The reality is that motivation and intention are key to making something happen…whatever that thing is.

The Path at Fushimi-Inari taisha

Wow.  Now I sound like a bad motivational speaker…let’s be clear, folks used to describe motivation as “setting your mind to it” or “stick to-it’edness”. Whatever name this idea goes by, the reality is that the motivation to accomplish anything is based entirely on the focus of your own heart and mind.

So, motivation.  Why did I put away that Japanese textbook years ago?  Why wasn’t I capable of sticking to that book and the methodology?

Looking back on my mind about 3 or 4 years ago I remember feeling that I could not possibly tackle learning Japanese.  The language was beyond my ken…a challenge that, at my age, I was not capable of learning.  Too, the work – family balance was out of whack.  I was working to the point of exhaustion each day.  By 9:00PM, after most homework was done, I was ready to collapse.  As an aside, folks that are not teachers in elementary, middle, or high school do not comprehend the challenges we face in the classroom and in school.  We welcome these challenges and most of us face the daily classroom as a place for us to engage students and create positive learning environments.  That approach in the classroom takes enormous effort both in terms of work (preparing lessons, reading material, creating engaging activities) and in terms of emotional energy and enthusiasm.

As teachers we summon motivation each day, and the difficulty for most of us is that creating that motivation takes a huge amount of energy….really the practice of bringing together our enthusiasm for the subject, students, and parents.  In addition, we face an almost constant challenge from those same folks: parents, students, and even some colleagues, that we are not doing enough OR that we have failed, in some way, our mission.  A recent email from a parent went like this, “I am not sorry for your difficulties with my son.  How hard is it to engage one child in a classroom for 45 minutes? I have no sympathy for you or your work.”

For teachers, messages of support and care are few and far between.  We receive few accolades and rarely are given more than a grudging acceptance.  Students, occasionally, come back from college or work and say that we made something happen for them.  That they NOW appreciated what we were trying to do.  In my 20-year career in teaching so far, those messages amount to a handful of students.  And those four messages and comments are precious to me and to every teacher that receives them.  Since we rarely hear of our influence directly, hearing it JUST once is motivation to continue.

So motivation. When I decided to study an Asian language, my motivation was strong. I planned to take off pieces of the language each day, imagining that within a year I might have working knowledge and then by year two, to converse in this new language, gaining confidence in my new-found ability, offering staggering levels of insight and perspective in this brave new world of language!

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