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Philosophical Meanderings

The Unwobbling Pivot

“What is your journey around activism as an educator?  What are its milestones, its epiphanies?” is our question this week, and I will address this by through a recapitulation of my journey, not by telling particular stories.

First of all, I have worked in what are often considered different fields–social services and education–but to me they are more alike than different. They both involve relationships as their main conduit of exchange and as fulcrums of change. Both also exist under the premise that they have something of worth to offer communities–health and education. And in most cases both systems fail.

Thus, as a young hopeful dreamer I entered into these systems with the illusions that I would find kindred spirits bringing forth the change the world needed. Sane people helping others to also gain sanity whether through therapeutic techniques or learning experiences. This was not the case. I quickly learned how saddled both systems are with insanity, there is no other way to put it. Whether it is the bureaucratic mess made of these good intentions, the businesses made of them that become more worried about their own existence than actually delivering the services they were designed to, or the actual people running the shows, it is just a mess out there people. I mean a god-damned mess.

So in my earliest professional years, I had to deal with reconciling my hopes and dreams with the reality I was faced with. I had to become discerning between health and insanity, while developing a core or “unwobbling pivot” as Confucius called it. That no matter what was happening externally or internally (e.g. emotions) I could remain balanced and centered within these circumstances.

I had numerous experiences which revealed the interconnectedness of everything, in science called ecological understandings; in religion called mystic experiences. I learned with shamans and healers, monks and philosophers, trees and rivers. Through the study of consciousness and the development of personal discipline I came to be more resilient in the face of adversity. As Martin Buber wrote:

Difficulties aren’t hurdles on the road to god; they are the road.

Maturity can be measured by the degree to which we are able to master ourselves in the face of frustration and adversity. How well we can navigate chaos, avoiding what can be avoided, and dealing with what cannot be with integrity. So the bumps and bruises came to be my lessons, not only of what could change externally, but internally as well.

So in my early days it is very safe to say, I had a lot of maturing to do. My reactions to various stimuli–injustice, love, beauty–were all severe, in a wonderful youthful manner. The intensity I experienced the world with was raw and invigorating. It pushed me on to grow, to learn, to understand and to be able to act. I investigated the webs within which I was a part. Why were certain regulations in place? Why were certain protections not in place? Who were the people who wrote them? Enforced them? What could be done about them?

This rigorous investigation of the world around persists to this day and I hope always will. However, my concept of the systems I am a part of has widened and deepened. I first thought of myself as a very small nucleus bound to my biological parents, but this has widened to encompass my cosmic heritage of stars, my evolutionary kinship with every living thing on Earth, and thus my responsibility to every living thing that is now and ever will be.

As my purview changed so did my focus. I no longer had time for ridiculous policies and procedures that wasted my and everyone else’s time, I learned how to more quickly dissect them to either not be bothered with them or to get them changed. I came to learn where time and energy could be spent productively and where it would not be. I come more quickly to recognize where creativity is flourishing or where it is cut off and stagnation prevails. This is the creativity that David Bohm and Ken Robinson discuss, “the process of having original ideas that have value.” (from Robinson’s The Element)

I have come to understand that any segment of society may contain the kindred spirits I look for (or the insane), and what marks them is a tendency towards health. Health defined as a creative response to maintain integrity and balance to what otherwise would be harmful or destructive. These are people orientated towards goodness actualized in the service to others; care for themselves, others, and vulnerable populations; and innovation towards the ends of justice, balance, and peace.

When I come across these blessed people I quickly bond with them and discover what work we can do together to grow and contribute positively to the world (this blog is an example). When I come across those who are more confused than they are able to deal with (i.e. insane), I have great sympathy for them, but don’t confuse them any longer to be able helpers in doing other than crazy.

The I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes states that the best way to combat evil is to make energetic progress in the good. Just like in Star Wars, evil destroys itself in the end (Darth Vader’s death), thus I need not go after it, but to ensure that I don’t get taken by it. I look for opportunities every day to be radically kind to people, to authentically listen to them, and to advocate for those who are barely heard (e.g. kids, whales, the poor, the entire biosphere). I call on people frankly  to be responsible and point out when they are not, because I believe in people to have the capacity to act ethically. And I understand that first and foremost, it is my responsibility to do so, to be an example and beacon.

A little inspiration from another beacon of hope and medicine man to start off your week.

With hope,


About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


18 thoughts on “The Unwobbling Pivot

  1. Thank you Adam! In some ways this post also works as a creed. I think by telling our “stories” we share not only who we are but why we are. It is the why that matters! Your why is inspirational. I am grateful for knowing you, and will campaign hard for a doctorate program so that you will be around at Goddard Longer.

    Check out the tumblr page today …. I blogged a picture for you there. Hope you enjoy.

    If you get a chance do watch this Simon Sinek Tedtalk video….and let me know what you think.

    keep smiling,


    Posted by dloitz | May 10, 2010, 12:40 pm
    • David, I watched the Sinek talk and that made perfect sense to me. The “why” we do things is what is imperative. It is through cultivation of character that we refine this “why.” It is part of living a well evaluated life.

      Thank you for your kind words and I love the picture on the Tumblr blog, good find.

      So why do you do what you do?


      Posted by Adam Burk | May 10, 2010, 7:57 pm
  2. Got to wait until friday….. But for now….. Because I have to…. sometimes it is that simple. It is in ever fiber of my body!


    Posted by dloitz | May 10, 2010, 9:08 pm
  3. Adam, I am struck by your story about the discovery of your center and your subsequent deliberate action from it. My recent arrival at activism seems a million times more haphazard to me, as if it happened in spite of my deliberate actions in pursuing traditional notions of success as a student and teacher in traditional schools. I’m glad to be able to learn from you.

    Here are some questions you and Aaron have me pondering:

    When does a student conditioned to insanity become an adult complicit in it? When does someone in need of help become someone not helpful? Is it too much to expect sane adults to emerge from extended consumer adolescences spent in our society? Are we going to lose most of a generation changing our culture to benefit the next one?

    I like the ideas of energetic progress in the good and of assembling willing allies to help voice and act on the needs of the voiceless.

    I’m struggling with how to be a beacon in a classroom that’s systematically isolated from others by the structures of school, in a state with a tiny number of charter schools, and in a charter movement that pours millions of dollars into test-prep-replication, corporate operators while innovative schools go it alone.

    This is a good struggle to have. More tomorrow at 3:00 PM EST.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 10, 2010, 9:15 pm
  4. Chad,

    These are great questions, ones that there is no definitive answer to per se. It comes down to attitude.

    I will begin by addressing “When does a student conditioned to insanity become an adult complicit in it? ” Although there will be much cross over in my answers to your questions. When does a person become shut off to learning and growing? Not just learning about external subjects, but about themselves and the world they live in. This can be shut off for quite some time but then some unexpected event shakes a person’s world, whether it be an ecstatic event like a mystical awakening, or a painful one-death, injury, or disease. The power of such events can necessarily break down scaffolding and give a person a new foundation for rebuilding.

    Habits are strong, and equally strong measures must be taken to break them. Take smoking for example. Despite everyone knowing it kills you, millions of people still smoke. It takes enormous internal will power to change directions and quit. This will power comes from some sort of pressure, either to fight off a disease (e.g. cancer) that has begun to set in, for loved ones, or because one simply has a greater orientation towards health.

    So in the struggle for sanity, anyone can “awaken” at anytime, once this happens, it becomes a struggle to refine our habits to ensure sanity rather than insanity. Each of us, myself most certainly included, have to become aware of our neurotic tendencies; tendencies towards chaos that keep us disconnected from wholeness. We must then learn manage these tendencies at least, or heal and transform them at best.

    I know I am talking to an adult complicit to insanity when I hear things like, “that’s the way I am, I’m never going to change, not interested in it.” Or “it’s not me that’s the problem, it’s _______. They (or it’s) what has to change.”

    That’s when I slowly back away and quietly leave the room.

    More on your other questions later. Thank you for being a champion of sanity, Chad. I sneaked a peak at your post and the world is in for a treat. Yours is a very inspiring story.


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 6:14 am
    • That’s a really kind compliment, Adam. Thank you.

      Thank you also for articulating your responses – these comments and your post are coming together for me in a big picture of how to approach change. I can see now your point about helping people who are ready to change OR at least questioning what they’re doing. I agree that it’s not helpful to engage in back-and-forth power struggles with those not willing to examine teaching, learning, and living more sanely.

      Dependence apart from the natural interdependence of people working together for their learning and well-being isn’t helpful. I think of teachers frustrated by students’ inability to understand directions contrasted against happy teachers who support student-directed learning.

      Thanks for coming back to these questions for me –

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 1:14 pm
  5. Chad,

    Regarding your second question, “When does someone in need of help become someone not helpful?” My answer is when they are not willing to help themselves. The thread here is the same idea that Kirsten has brought up, locus of control. At some point change makers come to feel that the responsibility is theirs to make things happen. Many of us, and in particular the category of people your question calls to mind, think that help needs to always come from outside of us. “If only this were different…or this…” “It’s not my fault, it’s because this happened…”

    The Chinese have a saying, “There are two kinds of luck, the first is what happens to us, the second is what we do with it.” The key here is the second kind of luck, it is the only kind we have control over. Even in the worst of circumstances we can make meaning and use those experiences to leverage change and hope. This is what Viktor Frankl did during his time in the concentration camps and wrote about in Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s also what Ishmael Beah has done since being a child soldier in Sierra Leone. These are extreme examples but give us scale for our own struggles, disappointments, and challenges.

    So when someone is unwilling to be reflective, to try to find another way to look at their circumstances, to try to look for answer that they are a part of, this is when they are obstructive and quite honestly, best left to their own devices. Unless you want to do everything for them and create a situation of codependence, one that rationalizes all their neuroses and creates and environment in which they do not have to deal with themselves or their problems, then it’s not worth your energy.

    Thanks for having me flush all this out, Chad, it is a very helpful process for me. I hope it is helpful for others.


    Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 7:22 am
    • Adam, you’re right to point out these examples of people liberating themselves from inhumane circumstance. I remember giving Beah’s book to the boys who received my 8th grade English awards for growth at my last school.

      I just started a collab blog for my school so teachers can share sparkling moments about the community. I wonder if requiring some kind of written reflection between peers, like this blog, couldn’t be one piece of culture change at schools. What do you think? Would it be fair of a principal to require and participate in an effort like ours?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 1:18 pm
      • Chad have you and a chance to peek at Berger’s book yet….

        I think you are right on. I don’t think your can require this type of culture…..but I think you can strongly suggested it…..

        can’t wait to read about your journey.


        Posted by dloitz | May 11, 2010, 1:41 pm
        • Not yet, David, but I’m half-way through my first Coöp-influenced order of Holt, Illich, et al. I’ll definitely get to Berger by the end of the school year. Is there an excerpt online I can easily reach?


          PS – Actually, I ordered it. The book arrived today separately from the rest of my order, which arrived earlier – what a great surprise & reminder!

          Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 2:15 pm
      • Chad,

        I don’t think requirement is the right way to go. This connects back to our how to effectively be a change agent and that is to work with the people who are interested in making change. If it is required you may get too many deadweights who just complain about it being another thing they have to do and because of their attitudes, undermine the project. I am with David, that to strongly encourage the project would be a good approach. Allow those who see the value of doing such a thing, do it. And then provide opportunities for them to share with their colleagues the benefits of their engagement, preferably in a face-to-face setting, instead of another electronic communication. That way people can actually see and feel people’s excitement about the project and their learning. It provides an on-ramp through the face-to-face conversation for others to get involved and then continue the conversations on-line.

        Now what might be an interesting requirement would be for an administrator to put forth that teachers must provide evidence of authentic self-reflection and engagement with a learning community. Then just like project-based learning for students, teachers can find that engagement and practice in a way that suits their style. Professional Development could then be orientated around this as well to support the cultural shift.

        Now I think that’s a pretty cool idea, what do you think Co-op?

        Posted by Adam Burk | May 11, 2010, 5:06 pm
  6. That’s a better approach to school blogging, Adam. Part of that valued, shared work could be inviting others in from time to time.

    I also like the idea of asking teachers to provide evidence “authentic self-reflection” and counting it towards PD requirements.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 11, 2010, 6:59 pm
  7. Adam, dear friend,

    What’s your growing edge right now? What are you working on to create “blessed unrest?”

    Posted by Kirsten | May 12, 2010, 4:59 pm
    • Kirsten,

      I just accepted a job that is funded by Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. I will be working to build partnerships with various towns and their schools to get community gardens, schools gardens, improved bicycle infrastructure, and higher quality foods (including local and organic) into the school cafeterias. This will position me to have conversations I want to have for cultural reform both in and outside of schools.

      In addition to that I am part of the start-up team for Maine Farm Enterprise Schools, a really exciting model. I am organizing TEDxDirigo a local TED event in Portland, Maine. All the while exploring doctoral programs to further research and practice how to bring forth the cultural reform we desperately need with a focus on resilience-ecological, social, psychological, and economic.

      Personally, I am trying to be more disciplined in taking time for my own restorative practices such as mindfully connecting with nature and T’ai Chi. Interpersonally, I am always exploring effective means to enact dynamic relationships which promote growth-a lifelong endeavor.

      Thanks for asking, Kirsten. I’m very interested to hear how things went in California, if you have a chance to share.

      With hope,

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 12, 2010, 9:06 pm
  8. Adam those are all amazing areas…to move forward in. I am excited to hear about all of them.

    Congrats on the new job… are you still planning on entering the classroom anytime soon? The Maine farm school is amazing. I follow them on Facebook….


    Posted by dloitz | May 12, 2010, 9:57 pm
  9. Thank you David. I will not be in a classroom full time at least for the next two years, as that’s how long my new position is grant-funded. That gives us ample time to get the Maine Farm Enterprise Schools up and running and then hopefully I will have a job there to transition into. After my current stint in a “progressive” school, I have come to know that I need a very particular environment to work in, much like Paula has described. Currently there are no schools around that are hiring that fit that criteria. So as fate would have it, there is this wonderful job that allows me to work for what I am passionate about which is health-physical (including ecological), emotional, psychological, and spiritual-and make some meaningful change in communities I love.

    Thanks for “liking” MFES on Facebook, I am the person in charge of that page!

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 13, 2010, 6:01 am
  10. I just got “Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of Schools,” by Chip Wood as a gift from my mentor. I dug into the introduction and lifted this gem of a quote, the words are of Thomas Merton:

    “The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation with violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

    And this is my new growth edge, Kirsten, I need to recalibrate myself. I take on too many projects and leave myself not enough time and space to be, to connect with silence and stillness.

    I think this book will end up on my “must read” list. Thanks, Tim.

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 14, 2010, 6:01 pm

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