For Working Class, Mindfulness is a Gimmick

When I called my colleague and told him the title of my new book, he told me I had sold out. Sold out? I snapped. I’ve been unemployed for years, while you’re sitting easy in a tenured teacher position. He snickered and told me to calm down.

Yesterday, they towed my ten-year-old car away after it was declared totaled. I was rear ended by a huge GMC over Labor Day weekend. We’d been praying the car would last another year. My part time job and husband’s salary doesn’t cover our bills. Every day debt and ‘fear of falling’ are snowballing. When the insurance man gives me the bad news, I get so angry and shaky I give him a piece of my mind—fulness.

There are mindfulness people selling their books and working the circuit. Social Justice people are doing their thing. The words are academic and their jobs appear safe and secure, to me. I scoff and say they are all part of the establishment, while I crank out another resume.

Teachers and other workers, who are part of the disappearing middle class are right to be careful. They say they will try these practices out. Whatever you want and need from me, I’ll do it. I just want to know if I will get home  in time to be with my kids. Some of this stuff does work, they think. Oh, yes! Yoga and social emotional learning is a beautiful thing.  Equity, absolutely! Teachers are in the business of changing the world, one mind, one student at a time, one yoga class, one day of mindfulness at a time.

I talk to the field inspector who has my puny check. I ask him if he’s heard of mindfulness. He’s not sure, he says, isn’t that something to do with paying attention? Yes, I say and we look at each other inquisitively. We are standing in the middle of the street. I ask him what he knows about yoga, or meditation. He says, yea, I know about that, I’ve been doing those things my whole life. Really? Yea, I do martial arts, it’s the same thing. How’s that? He goes on to explain that martial arts is about the mind-body, discipline and focus. I’m impressed. Do you think martial arts has anything to do with mindfulness? I don’t know, does it? I ignore the question and ask, what about spirituality? I don’t know, he says, I guess it depends on the teacher. He shifts his weight and I know he has to leave.

Sometimes, I think words, like a webpage, put us in a bubble, an illusion, dividing us from each other, keeping us lost in some abstract notion of who we are that rarely has anything to do with reality. Most of us are working class people, thinking about bread and butter issues. We don’t have time and money to keep up with the inner circle where academic words, book contracts, networking and research grants mean anything. Outside, on the street, in the working class world, saying things like mindful practice for social justice just sounds ridiculous. People just want to know if I have a job, what organization I belong to or what school.

Mindfulness Starts at Home. Then Social Justice

“The way to experience newness, is to realize that this moment, this very point in your life, is always the occasion. So the consideration of where you are, and what you are, on the spot, is very important. That is one reason that your family situation, your domestic everyday life is so important. You should regard your home as sacred, as a golden opportunity to experience newness.” 

~Chögyam Trungpa

In the past, I traveled a lot for work. I enjoyed being on the road. I felt free. I had meals prepared for me and the cleaning was taken care of by a staff I could not see. I focused on my work, my thinking, my Self, my needs. I loved my work so I thought this is what it means to be happy. Even when my neck started hurting and my back ached from too much traveling, I accepted it, as part of business.

When my work contract ended, I found myself stuck at home. It was hard to adjust. Even though I was writing and job hunting, my daily routine featured shopping, cleaning, carpooling, cooking, care taking, walking alone. I became the master of our home. I noticed every lint, every dropping. I bought mop heads and knew when my neighbors were coming and going.

Domestic life felt oppressive and ordinary. I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember feeling I had lost my identity.

I felt disconnected from the world. I felt unseen. Less useful suddenly.

People around me seemed to be working on important projects, teaching and traveling, attending conferences, fighting for social justice, saving the planet.

One day, in my research, I came across a Buddhist writer and philosopher Chögyam Trungpa. He wrote about how mindfulness and building an enlightened society start at home. I found this very hard to understand. And even harder to put into practice.

How can shopping, washing the dishes enlighten me, make me feel at peace, make me happy? How can my life at home, with my family, cultivate world peace?

It has been almost two years living a home life. I have learned that mindfulness requires discipline, time and trust. I read and reread, read and reread wisdom writings and traditions and practice meditation and contemplation daily. I join a Sangha occassionally but mostly it’s just me, on an island, listening and grappling with the now, and the very, very ordinary reality.

It has taken me a long time to find calm. And even calm is temporary. I have begun to see how patience and compassion does grow. Awareness of the details matter. I find that in every wrong, I have been there. And the wrongs that I am still unaware, repeat over and over again until I see myself in them, and then I am sad again realizing that all along, I am the misfit, that we are all misfits, and shy of it, and that I am the carrier of every wrong, of every pain and how can I do better?  Understanding and forgiveness is in the Self first, and then knowing that you are the mirror image of every human being, and then multiply that by society.

What is a detail? Each detail is a small view of the bigger picture of the world. Like discovering the simplicity and complexity of a snowflake. One single snowflake in the world of snow. Think about that.

Now, with all this time and space around me, I think about those years on the road. Eating and living in hotels. People cooking and cleaning and taking care me so that I could be an intellectual, thinking and busy.

In some strange way, I have found new meaning for the words, social justice, freedom and fairness. Thinking about how sometimes it is time to say, “Now, it is your turn.” or “Now, it is my turn.”

My turn to make life easier for other people, like my husband and children. Every day they have to go out there to work, commuting on the train. They work, go to school, navigate the real world— which is too often callous and cold and too busy to be sensitive to their needs.

I am beginning to think differently about not having and suffering. About waiting. About what we value in life and society. How we assign worth and status to some jobs, how the traditional woman’s work in the home, is never valued enough. How we need to be compassionate and careful in our treatment of others, who are busy or not busy enough.

How sometimes we have to live it and breathe it before we understand desolation, anxiety, hunger, despair, forgiving.

Isn’t this mindfulness and its relationship to social justice—when we become aware of who we are, outside our role, our helplessness, our vulnerability, and that wheel of fortune turning and turning? Where it stops nobody knows. Isn’t that the beginning of compassion and treating each other with dignity?

Looking Through the Cracks: Fighting Ignorance with Mindfulness & Critical Consciousness

Mindfulness is a constant unfolding that gives us new sight, called insight. It moves from the inside out, unfolding outward like the petals of a lotus. It is a way to see out, from the inside cracks of ordinary life.

Solomon, Emmonds and Paolini wrote a picture book called, Through the Cracks. It is about what is wrong with schools and society that makes kids get smaller and smaller until they slip through the cracks in the floor. This is a good metaphor for us to consider when thinking about the practice of mindfulness as a lever for advocacy; a pathway for us to lead the way for a holistic schooling model that is inclusive, creative and uplifting.

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We need to see clearly what is happening to students in schools and society. If we examine from the outside and think we can understand what is happening, we are misguided. We have to train our mind and our eyes to see differently, to move from our inner world to the outer world, to look through the tiny cracks in ourselves, to understand how all human beings can feel isolated and afraid, unworthy and confused, a real lack of purpose in the world. We have to change our perspective in order to understand that an individual is not solely responsible but rather, there are conditions in the environment that make people shrink.

When we first go into teaching we are creative and giving. Some of us are in love with our subject matter a little more than working with children, but we are in love all the same, and that is what matters, that we teach from this starting point, creativity and love. 50% of the teachers drop out of the teaching profession within the first 5 years. Why is this happening? Because they fall out of love with teaching. All awareness of what is wrong with our schools and what is wrong in society starts with an understanding of the self. We have to identify the how, when and where we have been separated from our passion, from our heart. I fell through the cracks a long time ago when the practice of education began to feel oppressive and boring. It lost its creativity and giving nature. I was forced to conform to what others wanted me to be. When I felt unseen, and not worthy, I fell through the cracks.

Mindfulness is raising awareness of your inner world, your inner dilemmas. This is entry to consciousness. This is the inner most layer, the foundation. Then, as you move along in the practice, your awareness unfolds and you can move towards critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is going beyond and recognizing how social, political and cultural factors influence your sight and receptivity, your thoughts, your feelings of worthiness and social standing in the world. It is about realizing that your state of mind and well-being are directly related to the state of mind and well-being of everybody around you. This in interdependence, integrative consciousness and systems thinking.

Mindfulness and critical consciousness are a choice because as I stated earlier, they are born out of continuous action, the discipline of slowing things down so that you can browse inside your mind and familiarize yourself with existence; to pick up on the fine details, the elements that have come together to create your story and context. When we allow ourselves to move on and on without reflection, we are mindless actors performing. We are not seeing the features and contours of our behavior, the impact of the scenery on experience. In essence, we are in a state of ignorance. Picture1Ignorance means to ignore. When we are not mindful, we are ignoring insight and knowledge of the world and the people inside it. That is why awareness and critical consciousness is a daily choice and active discipline. It starts with the self, looking inward, and expands to the outer world. It is constantly changing and adapting the image of yourself and the world.

Many teachers, especially those who work in schools and societies that are not healthy, distressed or malfunctioning, walk around in ignorance, ignoring the truth of the situation. It is awareness and critical consciousness that allow us to see clearly the cracks in the floor where children sink, that which causes us tremendous pain and discomfort so we want to ignore it. When we open our eyes wide, we may say, I would never send my child to this school, this harsh institution where lunch is served at 9:30am, kids are silenced, classrooms are housed in trailers or there is no library or gymnasium. We begin to attribute the conditions of the place, the negativity and the disruptions to something outside ourselves, something far away and foreign. If we opened our eyes and our heart fully to the conditions of our work, the conditions of our students’ lives, we may not want to stay and do the job at all. Who wants to live in such misery? We focus on pay at first, but money will never be enough in these situations.

So we suffer. We realize more and more that we can’t separate ourselves from them, from it, from the place. When children lack joy and creativity, when they are fearful for their lives, when our students fall through the cracks, piece by piece, our own humanity dies. We feel like failures inside, because we are those children. We go home at night and wonder— why can’t we do something differently to remedy the situation? The next day we try again. We are not trying to save the children, as some may say. We are trying to save our own sanity. Adults are falling through the cracks every day. Teachers especially. When thousands of teachers across the country are on the streets protesting, they are not blind walking. They are fighting for sanity. It is not just money they want, although this is important to our survival. They are fighting for the end of suffering. Money is the distraction. We know this because we love children for free.

Mindfulness that has led to critical consciousness is a lever for conscious action and justice in education. It is about asking the hard question, what do we do now? When we say, this is real, this is happening, even though it hurts, we keep our eyes open and we begin to dig deep into the cracks, exploring what part of our self is down there—we begin to gain more and more awareness of the context, the intersection of factors, the social, cultural, political matrix that has created the conditions for this situation, and our role in it. We begin to see the bird not separate from its nest, not separate from its mother, the flight, the food, the wind, the height of the tree. This is critical consciousness, and we are thinking, what to do with all this knowledge?