Tuning into the Climate of our Era

~Exploring Norms of Engagement

Yesterday, the man next to me on the bus snorted, “There is so much hate. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, what country you’re talking about, there is so much anger and hate.” I had been watching him hover over his device for an hour reading the endless stream of news on social media. His face was visibly disturbed and fatigued; I recognized that strange and familiar digital age stupor.

When I got home, I changed out of my city clothes and sank deep into my sofa. I needed to watch that movie again. I loved that scene when Ruth Bader Ginsburg is standing on a street corner with her fifteen-year-old daughter trying to hail a cab while a group of construction workers are cat-calling. Her daughter yells at them defiantly before stopping a taxi and ordering her mother to jump in. Ruth stood there flabbergasted. Times had changed. The next generation had ushered in a new era; they were now ready to hear the call for gender equality.

 “A court ought not to be affected by the weather of the day but by the climate of the era.” 

In reality, the line from the law professor was, “The Court should never be influenced by the weather of the day but inevitably they will be influenced by the climate of the era.”

What is the climate of our era? Are we at a turning point in our history, to hear a new call for freedom and equality? I’m not sure. I don’t know if we know what we mean by freedom, democracy and equality anymore. Does freedom mean the same to you as it does to me?

In my book, I write we experience freedom when we are seen, acknowledged and appreciated for who we are; when we feel trust and belonging in social situations; when we feel worthy and useful in society. When a person can move into different spaces, adapt themselves without losing their sense of self and purpose and collaborate with others across differences towards a common goal, they experience the joy of freedom.

Does this mean freedom to you?

I argue that the two greatest barriers to the realization of freedom are considering another person’s freedom a threat to our own safety and security, and keeping us from the experience of freedom through abstraction. Both are a consequence of the mind, a lack of trust and fear.

I think it’s important for us to inquire into the climate of our era, to examine prevailing norms and beliefs, the nature of our relationships, the character of our society; to examine and listen to each other and learn what we mean when we say things. We can do this by looking inward, paying attention to our own shifting thoughts and beliefs and also by engaging with others with a new lens. When our mind is cluttered and concerned with threats (real or imaginary), it will hamper the natural flow of energy, blocking our ability to listen, to see things clearly, process information, and adapt ourselves to the existing situation. We don’t want to lose our sense of self, our sense of purpose and our dignity in discussions but we want to be responsive and open.

I suggest we set aside time to examine the norms of engagement that may impede open communication, trust and safety in discussions, the flow of information and the sharing of our ideas as it relates to freedom, equality and democracy. I also recommend that PLCs try on a new set of norms that may help change group dynamics and move learning into unexplored, generative territory.

Here are the Norms of Conscientious Engagement I introduce in my new book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice. I look forward to hearing about your experiences as you experiment with new ways of engaging.

Norms for CE.png

 

 

References:

On the Basis of Sex http://www.solzyatthemovies.com/2018/12/24/on-the-basis-of-sex/

 

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?

Why Do Teachers Experience Compassion Fatigue?

apathy-1940202_960_720Towards the end of a Tibetan Buddhism meditation lecture on compassion, a woman in the back row raised her hand and asked, what about compassion fatigue? Before the instructor could reply, the woman added, I am a teacher. I do my best. I care for my students, but it gets to the point when I can’t anymore. I feel empty and useless. I was in the front row and couldn’t see her face, but I felt the heaviness as if she were right beside me. The instructor explained that compassion fatigue is a result of being attached to outcomes. When things don’t turn out the way we expect, we feel disappointed which can lead to apathy and fatigue. She encouraged the woman to use her meditation practice to explore whether her happiness was dependent on the outcomes of her students or if she found joy in teaching them, regardless.

I left the session deep in thought. I appreciated how the instructor used the question as an opportunity to introduce the topic of detachment, the stripping away of one’s ego and the delusion of acting for the sake of self-aggrandizement, but I felt uncomfortable suggesting to a teacher that she detach herself from outcomes and focus on her happiness. So many educators, myself included, have turned to contemplative practices to find peace. Often we work in challenging environments where the best, most dedicated teachers are driven by outcomes. Outcomes tell us if we are doing our job correctly, if we are having an impact on the lives of students. When supporting teachers who are burnt out and suffering, we need to consider a different approach when they turn to mindfulness meditation training.

Teachers typically go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. They want to help students and make a difference in the world through the process of education. This is the seed of compassion. In reality, it is only a seed because compassion needs to be cultivated through mindfulness and pedagogical training. Oftentimes, our best intentions don’t translate into the world in the way we would like. Compassion involves listening deeply and bearing witness to suffering and also, helping to relieve that suffering. How does one listen deeply and bear witness? How does one know what is needed in any given situation?

Compassion is associated with the heart chakra. When there is an imbalance in our heart chakra, we begin to experience insensitivity and apathy for others; what would normally be heartbreaking, suddenly means nothing. The heart chakra is associated with love, relationships, and kindheartedness, but it also pertains to self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is often forgotten. It is arguably the most important aspect of how we cultivate our ability to be compassionate. Self-acceptance involves understanding who you are, knowing your strengths and your weaknesses, and recognizing your limits. Without self-acceptance, we cannot be compassionate without burning out, and losing clarity.

Let us consider an example of compassionate behavior in a school setting. A teacher walks down the hall, busy and late. She passes a student who is crying so she stops everything. She takes the time to fix the situation by getting a band-aid or walking him to the guidance office. This is a very simple scenario, but in most cases, it is unrealistic. What about the classroom full of rowdy students who would be left alone without supervision? Or the principal who would be left waiting in her office scowling? Teachers work in complex, often chaotic environments characterized by countless demands and a wide range of social, emotional, and academic needs. It can be difficult to make choices. It can be difficult to be compassionate all the time. For the newest teachers, still figuring out the curriculum, they are unaware of what may be going on below the surface. Why is Fran’s head down? Is she tired, confused, or hungry? Why did Tomás refuse to answer the question? Is he shy or does he not know the vocabulary? Why didn’t half the parents show up to the parent teacher conference? Was it timing or cultural insensitivity?

Contemplative practices, and meditation in particular, can help us develop compassion starting with self-acceptance. We learn to appreciate ourselves and our basic goodness. We gain insight into our strengths and limitations. When we meditate, we become aware that there is a consciousness separate from our thoughts, and that we have the power to look upon ourselves, and our thoughts with compassion and forgiveness. This discernment is so important when many teachers experience an internal battle with their thoughts having been socialized to believe that they can and should be able to fix countless social problems through the practice of education in spite of inadequate support, training and resources.

Compassion fatigue does not mean you are too attached to outcomes, but rather, you are not spending enough time getting to know and appreciate yourself, your humanity, your own suffering, your boundaries. It means you are trying to help others without first taking care of your own needs. Think about being on an airplane. When there is an unexpected change in air pressure, the air masks drop and in spite of the fact that the steward warns you to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, you start to help others. Within moments, it is only natural that you lose your ability to see straight, get disoriented and eventually lose consciousness entirely.

When we consider mindfulness meditation practice in the context of schooling—schools being just like airplanes with levels of air pressure that can change suddenly— we need to view it as the gateway to getting acquainted with ourselves, learning our limitations, understanding that we don’t always see things clearly, that we are human after all, with limited energy. In this way, we begin to develop wisdom that can guide our greatest intention to be compassionate in schools.

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If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please find my contact information here. I am always open to dialogue. You can also add your thoughts by leaving a comment which I will open up to readers. I am looking forward to the release of my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities which will be available this April. In this guide, I offer numerous strategies and tools to help teachers and professional learning communities explore the notion of compassion and fatigue, and learn to recognize the personal, social and transpersonal dynamics of our work, especially as they apply to our commitment to social justice and shared responsibility.

Teaching Freedom with Limits

The Vietnamese monk and master teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote: “It is an illusion that we are free…”

Koan: A statement, a saying, an act or gesture that can bring to an understanding of the truth. Also, a tool used to educate a disciple.

In my early morning sleep, I had this dream. I had arrived ten minutes late to my lecture and found two students entwined on a chair. They were in love. One had a shaven head, torn denim jeans and scruff. Their posture didn’t alarm me, but I had to think quickly how to untangle them. I knew that if I mishandled the situation, they would not engage fully in the lesson. With a light but firm voice, I told one to get off, and I gestured to a nearby chair. I said, setting limits defines you, gives you character and identity. It does not mean you do not love or that you are not free; it simply reveals who you are and how you express your individuality. Let me show you, I said.

I walked to the front of the room and found a large, piece of white construction paper and a pair of scissors. By this point, the young man had moved to his own chair and was listening intently. I held the construction paper up for everyone to see. This paper is blank and free of any writing or drawing, I said. It is completely open to possibility. It is beautiful, yes, to look at a blank sheet of paper like this, like a canvas with infinite, creative potential? Now, let us see what happens.

With the scissors, I began to cut into the paper. Slowly and with great care and precision, I carved out a figure of a man, with long arms and legs and broad shoulders. When I was done, I held up the cutout for the whole room to see. He too is beautiful, isn’t he? A unique and curious character has been born, and he is looking for a name to call himself. You see what I have done here? Without the limits I have imposed upon this blank sheet, carving out form with precise snips, this bold, young man would not exist. He would remain invisible and unnoticed.

It is right to experience freedom without limits in meditation. That is why the practice is essential. In the real world, however, in the material world, we define ourselves, and make our mark. In other words, we learn we are ‘cut out’ to give meaning and definition to human existence. Invisibility is good, yes, and so is partaking with others. Setting limits and applying discipline help us share spaces and adapt to social situations. When we do it mindfully, with consciousness, we are not losing freedom, or authenticity. We are still very much beautiful and simple, like that open canvas. We are just sharing it with others. In this way, we can learn from them. In this way, we discover happiness.

In order to explore this concept of Freedom with Limits further, I encourage you to try this activity with a small, professional learning community.

Shared Freedom Activity
Purpose: To explore the notion of freedom with limits; to increase awareness of how we adapt ourselves in group situations
Overview: A group of three people simultaneously cut out an image of themselves onto one piece of paper
  1. You will need a large piece of construction paper, scissors for each person, a timer and a group of three people
    • Sit comfortably in a circle, close enough for each person to hold the paper
  2. Have someone volunteer to be the timekeeper, and go over the instructions
    • Each person will cut out a full-length image of themselves, working at the same time
    • Do not let the cut-outs fall out of the paper. In other words, there should be one whole paper design holding the figures in place at the end
  3. Before starting, take a few minutes to contemplate the intention of the activity: Shared Freedom. Set the timer for 3 min
    • An intention directs your attention and energy to an outcome. The outcome is typically a disposition, virtue or state of being
    • Sometimes, we connect an intention to a particular problem we want to solve, such as how to resolve a conflict with a student, boss or colleague. An intention of this nature would take the form of a statement such as “By contemplating shared freedom, I can learn how to work more effectively with my team.”
  4. Each person picks up the scissors at the same time and starts cutting. Set the timer for 10 min.
  5. After the timer goes off, reflect individually in writing, or discuss with the group the following questions:
    • How did it feel to engage in this activity?
    • What challenges did you encounter?
    • How did you negotiate with each other?
    • How did the end product turn out?
    • What did you learn about the nature of freedom with limits?

*A portion of this post, as well as the format, was adapted from my forthcoming book, Mindful Practice for Social Justice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities, Routledge, April, 2019.

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References

Deshimaru, T. (1996) Sit: Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru, Hohm Press, p. 317

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Four Layers of Consciousness, The Lions Roar, Dec. 26, 2018 https://www.lionsroar.com/the-four-layers-of-consciousness/

On Music, Mindfulness and Cultural Appreciation

“All his life he had done nothing but talk, write, lecture, concoct sentences, search for formulations and amend them, so in the end no words were precise, their meanings were obliterated, their content lost, they turned into trash, chaff, dust, sand; prowling through his brain, tearing at his head, they were his insomnia, his illness. And what he yearned for at the moment, vaguely but with all his might, was unbounded music, powering, window-rattling din to engulf, once and for all, the pain, the futility, the vanity of words.” 

~The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera

Music

Music detaches us from the intellect and shifts us into right brain mode where we see things as they are: in relationship, out of time and space. We are lost in music and then transported to some unknown place: part imagination, part the world of the artist. This warping of our senses invites us to become aware of the vast wonders of originality and simultaneously, the universality of all human experience.

Exquisite music, the kind that is unbounded, is artistic expression that is certainly influenced by culture, language, identity and mastery but also genius. When we close our eyes and allow such music to penetrate our being, we are merging with a vision of an artist who may live far away or speak a different language but who is able to transmit the essence of longing or suffering identical to our own. What does it matter from where or by whom, with the eyes closed?

If we were to be lectured about such an out of body experience, or any notion of invisibility through music, we would likely want to defend rational thought and objectivism as a matter of freedom. And yet, when we are in the presence of music, or any enduring art form, we are liberated from the rational mind, and only then, can we breathe in the sweet, infinite nature of our humanity.

A spiritual master once told me that the purpose of all knowledge is to move from the visible to the invisible.

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Freedom for the Holidays

Every year, my family and I engage in a back and forth, group chat style discussion via email about how we want to celebrate our holiday. This year, like the last, I began to notice new, challenging behaviors and a bit of a strain. I’ve been thinking a lot about how what is going on in my family is also going on in society. Traditions and social norms are being examined every day and many are being confronted. It seems to me we have always relied on certain customs, rituals and symbols to bring us together, so I can’t help wonder how these emerging developments will transmute our society in the future.

freedom symbols

Rituals are a set of behaviors, a series of actions and the handling of certain objects designed to produce feelings of joy, gratitude, appreciation, honor or tribute. A ritual can be very personal like lighting a candle before prayer, or it can be shared like singing carols in a circle. These activities can enrich our lives by creating a sacred space, honoring a shared history or cultivating bonds, but they can also work against us, making us feel trapped into outdated modes of behavior or make us feel like we have to pay tribute to values we no longer hold dear. How can we honor our history, hold onto togetherness and continue to build relationships while at the same time creating a safe space and freedom to explore new ways of being and doing?

It takes courage to say no to a long standing tradition. Whether in a family unit or a school environment, rituals were designed to build community and preserve important values. How do we know when it’s time to disengage and how do we communicate a desire to change in a thoughtful way? Any challenge or adjustment to group norms can threaten our sense of security. Standing out, or standing up for something new can produce fear and suspicion. The human spirit yearns for belonging and authentic relationships. We are instinctively drawn to each other like insects to light. Yet, some rituals, traditions and symbols have become problematic. Some things have lost their purpose. Isn’t it normal to wonder whether our actions, our behavior and our attachment to certain symbols reflect who we are, right now, at present? Haven’t you ever experienced the pang of unrest or detachment? Partaking in rituals merely out of habit, obligation or fear of negative consequences can cause distress and suffering for individuals and even whole communities when the ritual represents a past injustice or no longer serves a higher purpose.

The time has come, the walrus said! to reflect and take notice of the rituals and traditions in your midst. Do they feel authentic? How do others feel about the customs we take for granted? As uncertain as it may feel at times, we must dare to look through the cracks to see a brave new world emerge. Maybe the best gift we can give ourselves and each other this season is freedom; freedom to dare, to look, to pause, to reflect, to reimagine what it means to live an undivided life, and to come together as ‘one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Common Mistakes When Approaching Race in Schools… What Should We Do Instead?

Race is one aspect of human identity that changes reflecting the politics and science of the times. Now more than ever students are identifying as mixed-race or do not identify with any race category at all. The latter is especially true for Hispanics, according to a recent Census bureau research. Racial categories, which have been included on every U.S. census since the first one in 1790 have changed from decade to decade. The biggest mistake teachers make when trying to approach the topic of race is not to recognize that race is a social construct. The actual genetic difference between individual human beings is only about 0.1%. The second mistake teachers make is not seeing variation within racialized groups. Teachers do their best when they design learning experiences that reveal the multifaceted and complex nature of human identity and offer ample opportunities for students to teach others about their unique cultural experience.

According to Sonia Nieto, a leading scholar on this topic, culture is extremely dynamic, multifaceted, embedded in context, influenced by social, economic and political factors, socially constructed, learned and dialectical. Further, she suggests that culture is not a given, but a human creation, dependent on particular geographical, temporal and socio-political contexts and therefore vulnerable to issues of power and control.[i] Understanding the interrelationship between culture, learning and how students construct knowledge is important, especially now when we fall into the trap of reducing students to fixed, racialized identities when in fact, a student’s culture is the total expression of his or her humanity—that which includes race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation but that which also includes other parts of who we are that are not always apparent, such as how we express ourselves through language and art, what religion we identify with if at all, how we communicate love, how we understand relationships and power in society and how we perceive, interpret and integrate historical events.

Culture and learning are connected, however fluid. Advances in the modern learning sciences have revealed that our brains are constantly shaped and reshaped by the interaction with the surrounding environment.[ii] Social experiences and human interactions that engender fear, trauma, stress, hate, shame, embarrassment, low self-esteem impact brain functioning and cognition. These experiences are endemic and indicative of oppression. Our country grapples with a long history of racism and inequality, therefore it is important for teachers to learn to pay attention to their own mindset and behavior. The goal is to reduce stress, build trust and create an inclusive environment with love and acceptance so learning can occur. In order to do this work artfully, proactive teachers adopt a practice to foster critical consciousness. Critical consciousness is awareness of the intersection of factors that contribute to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of well-being and their readiness to learn.

Three strategies to develop critical consciousness are a) take time for self-reflection and meditation, b) engage in intergroup dialogues on culture and class c) analyze human rights movements and d) participate in imagery-based learning activities to strengthen your brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007).

In my forthcoming book, Mindfulness and Social Justice in Practice: A Guide for Educators and Professional Learning Communities (Routledge, May, 2019), I provide teachers and school leaders with numerous strategies and tools for developing critical consciousness infusing mindfulness and social justice pedagogy.

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[i] Nieto, S. (2008) Culture and education. In Yearbook for the National Society for the Study of Education. Blackwell Publishing

[ii] Rose, D et al. (2011/12) The Universal Design for Learning Framework to Support Culturally Diverse Learners, Journal of Education