Exploring Engaged Mindfulness
In my previous post on compassion fatigue, I talked about the fairly common ailment of teacher burn out, when teachers enter a cycle of apathy and weariness, usually following an intense period of supporting students with countless needs. In that post, I challenged the notion of using mindfulness meditation to detach ourselves from student outcomes, and find happiness in teaching, regardless. Being attached to outcomes is a complex and important topic. So is being attached to our students. I have spent the last week contemplating on attachment and how we should mentor and support teachers who experience mixed emotions about what healthy attachment is and isn’t, especially when painful experiences arise, like apathy and fatigue.
Perhaps you have heard of engaged mindfulness? This term is used to describe the practice of mindfulness so that we are in a better position to help and respond to the needs of others, so that we are more connected to others and to our commitment to the happiness of all beings. I have been going around in circles wondering if it is possible for us to respond to the needs of others in education with care and compassion without attachment, without making ourselves vulnerable, without allowing ourselves to experience the debilitating blow of failure, the sting of loss in spite of doing everything, the despair of watching high hopes descend into ordinary, harsh reality.
When we talk about attachment in the context of schools, we are talking about the deep and enduring affectionate bond that connects one person to another across time and space. We are talking about trust, safety and security, the knowing that there is a person out there that is deeply concerned and invested in our personal well-being and development. Attachment is not encouraging dependency, but rather, it is communicating that you are not alone; that even as you explore the world, take risks, grow and learn— you are being seen, loved and guided gently. How can we teach without attachment, in this sense of the word? How can we expect our students to trust us without our attachment, without our willingness to be vulnerable to this intimate, loving connection with another human being?
In my previous post, I suggested that teachers who experience compassion fatigue should use their meditation practice to cultivate self-acceptance. As a follow up, I would also suggest that teachers spend some time contemplating what it means to build bonds and healthy attachment with their students in the school setting, knowing that authentic relationships lead to an open and tender heart, pain and sadness, failure and other vulnerabilities. Mindful meditation practice can help us to know ourselves and accept our limitations, and it can also prepare us to absorb and transmute heavy emotions into a healing energy that can be applied to how we teach.
To transmute means to change the state of being. In Native American medicine, the snake represents transmutation because snakes shed their skin. Snake medicine is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind. How can mindfulness meditation transmute pain, suffering, sadness, failure and vulnerability?
When we sit in quiet acceptance of the truth, and allow it to be exactly what it is, we begin to see how the pain we experience also contains the pathway to freedom. In my experiments in the practice of meditation, I have discovered four states of being that can be associated with transmuting painful experiences:
- Bearing Witness: Our experience of suffering is real, a natural part of life and universal
- Anticipation: Each situation that arises involves some kind of suffering and all suffering is impermanent
- Gathering Energy: Relaxation and meditation relieve suffering and lead to clarity
- Application: We can relieve suffering for ourself and others by applying specific behaviors and cultivating dispositions
It is only natural for teachers at the start of their career to shy away from getting too close to students or getting too attached to outcomes which can result in painful experiences, especially when we work in distressed areas with chronic failure due to inequities in society. However, when we are ready to embrace our noble profession for what it really is, and for what it requires, we realize that teaching involves cultivating authentic relationships with students. This makes us open, vulnerable and deeply attached to their hopes and dreams, their pain and suffering, their sanity and insanity, their struggle and achievements. Only in this way do teachers become master teachers, or change agents for an enlightened society.
Thich Naht Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, Parallax Press, 2012
Attachment in the Classroom by Christi Bergen and David Bergen, Educational Psychology Review, June 2009
Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, Jamie Sams and David Carson, Bear and Company, 1988