How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Offering Refuge

In my last post I spoke about the importance of Setting the Tone after an event like Charlottesville. Pubic acts of hate can divide and distract us from our work in building coalitions across race, religion and class; from creating loving, equitable and holistic learning environments for all children. I encouraged readers to refuse to engage in hate and instead, practice Conscientious Engagement— which can look like a daily morning ritual or whole school assembly where we gather together and communicate the importance of shared responsibility and a reverence for all human life. Only through everyday practice can we renew and cement our commitment to our true purpose in education.

Since then, a catastrophic flood devastated Houston. Shortly following, Trump rescinding DACA terrorized thousands of young people across the country. Today, we watch hurricane Irma as it wreaks havoc across the Caribbean towards Florida. This week, I was in Chicago and like some rare form of schizophrenia our professional conversations were punctuated with human conversations about politics, race, class and the relentless question: What can I do? How can I make a difference that matters?

I’ve noticed that people who feel safe (because of race, gender, privilege, circumstances of geography) are also anxious and uneasy. This is because of association, confusion, guilt, fear and wonderings like—should I take responsibility? Some are questioning their identity, searching for the right language or a sign that ensures them that they are not failing as a human being. Others, who are feeling less fortunate are asking questions too, albeit with a different kind of urgency. Anger, pain, sleeplessness, suffering. We are not well. We are not at peace. We are not feeling safe at all, are we?

During my morning meditation today, I felt so calm and safe that I started thinking about the importance of Refuge.

Refuge means safety, protection, shelter. It can be physical safety, like providing shelter to someone who is trying to escape a heavy storm. It can mean safety from the brutality of an abusive family or a national regime. It can also mean social, emotional and spiritual safety like when we find refuge in a genuine embrace.

When I think about refuge I think about Edwin Ng who I interviewed for my book. He had already been thinking about this topic long before me. In his article, Making Refuge: ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Happiness’ are Distractions from our Moral Responsibility he surfaces some important points that influence my thinking as I consider moving from mindfulness to action. He writes:

“By refuge, I am trying to invite collective mindfulness about a certain promise that hosts a basic fact of our lives. The choicelessness of vulnerability comes to all of us. We don’t choose vulnerability, but we can decide how to respond. The co-inhabitants of this precarious world must invite from and gift to one another conditions of safety to grow and thrive as communities and habitats. Without this promise of caring responsiveness, how could we possibly encounter refuge, create space for refuge, or even understand what refuge is?”

What does it mean to offer Refuge at a time when it’s easy to feel insecure, unsafe, paralyzed or despairing? What does it mean to offer refuge in schools and learning organizations knowing that feeling safe is a basic human need?

Here are some beginning suggestions for the practice of Refuge as part of our work for Conscientious Engagement:

  1. Provide a safe, accessible space for rest and tranquility.
  2. Bear witness, keep company.
  3. Ensure a person’s value by standing up for their growth and well-being.
  4. Relieve them of a burden by paying, giving away or forgiving.
  5. Share information that will open new doors and windows.
  6. Welcome with open arms, patiently, carefully and unconditionally.

I imagine this will be a growing list that we can all work on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Setting the Tone After Charlottesville

There is a candle light vigil in Charlottesville now. Instead of violence and the obscenity of a rare vitriolic war dance reminiscent of our tribal past, there are hundreds of human beings standing together holding tiny flames of light, side by side in peace, standing for peace, quietly and gently, taking a stand for love, for brotherhood, for unity, for everything that keeps us together. If you haven’t yet, watch the video clip and narrow your eyelids. It will appear to be a sea of moving lights, angels, stars or spirits. This is the vision that keeps us waking up in the morning and sending off our fragile children to public schools in neighborhoods across the country where they will be in the vulnerable care of other human beings that are not family at all, but who have chosen a life of service.

Why can’t we start every morning with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

I have been thinking deeply about how we should respond to hate in our schools. What do our children need and what do we need for ourselves, as teachers and school leaders, in order to provide safe, nurturing spaces for children and young adults to learn and grow with a sense of moral clarity and shared responsibility for our planet.

I have come up with only one answer. Respond with love, love first and last, always love. But what does that mean in schools and communities when we are focused on instruction and our minds are fragmented and divided, thinking professionally and like academics on the one hand and on the other, navigating the strong undercurrent of our social, emotional and spiritual selves; bombarded with thoughts, images, sensations of fear, rage, confusion, guilt, sorrow, despair and disgust? We have been so over-exposed to hate in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, the idolization of wealth and so on, that we are challenged with settling our hearts and minds.

What would happen if we stood together every morning as One to remind ourselves of the deep regard we have for life, our deeply threaded lives, our peace, our shared community? Like taking the time to honor the crossing guard who takes special care as she ushers our children safely from one side of the street to the other. Or the school nurse who creates a nook in her office to heal an unexpected tummy ache, or the dean who chooses to practice a restorative justice technique by listening first instead of adding more harm to harm by yelling. What would happen if we chose to stand together at the start of every school day with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

We’d look around and realize just how much we entrust our lives and our children’s lives to strangers every day, strangers who have been adorned (by some magical twist of fate) with a variety of colorful wardrobes— some black, some white, some brown, some olive, some old, some new, some gay. We’d see how some of our divine costumes cover our heads and others hang down, below our buttocks low. We’d see how we are all dressed up in some way or another as Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews, or Yogi. Perhaps we’d realize that strangely, we have all been expertly designed just a little too tall or too short, or big boned or lanky, male, female or “I’m not sure yet, really.”

So, it really is a miracle that with such a wide variety of garments covering our true souls, that we still choose to send our children out into schools, into the hands of all these uniquely adorned strangers, who we hope will embrace them with warm, loving and capable arms. These are the strangers we rely on to drive the bus safely, open the doors gracefully, sweep and mop the floors daily, read to children, teach them literature, music and social studies, remove pesticides from their fruit, wipe their tables clean, pick up their lost jackets, carefully lay out scissors and crayons, fill out the litany of healthcare forms, write letters of reference, organize a much deserved after school party.

What would happen if we could no longer entrust our children to all these uniquely costumed strangers who make up the fabric of our schools and society? What if, out of hate, fear or frustration—we began to assume, by default, that our children, some children perhaps, would most likely be mistreated or misplaced?

We can refuse to engage with the practice of hate. We can choose to channel our energy into creating loving, kind spaces overflowing with the social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual practice of love and authentic relationships. We can settle our minds and our hearts around a common ground, one rooted in shared responsibility, a reverence for all human life and community.

Every thought that is hate, say, “No.” and gently push it away.

Every word that is hate, gently and kindly say, “No.” And then consider how to replace it. Choose the words you want to fully integrate into your thought space and the thought space of the children and adults in your midst. This does not mean you need to bury your head in the sand when someone speaks hateful things, it means to be mindful of the impact of that speech on your thought space and know when it is time to walk away and, then, how will you replenish your thinking well?

Disentangle yourself from toxic relationships and teams that do not infuse your work and your spirit with love, inspiration, goodness, peace and well-being. If you cannot transform them, walk away.

Be mindful of your energy. Every action we take, every investment of our time and energy must be strategically determined. What do we value? Is this a loving action, for yourself and for others? How does this activity better our school, our community? How am I, how are we working for the benefit of our common good? If you are not sure— stay still and quiet and wait.

How would our schools and communities change if we started every morning with a candle vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight? What would it say to the world about who we really are, about the nature of our spirit and our belief in our ability to create an egalitarian society?

Set the tone and the rest will follow.

 

Moving from Mindfulness to Advocacy

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“In its position on The Gates of Hell, The Thinker occupies the center of the lintel and presides over the figures of the damned that populate the doors below. Behind him a chaotic dance of death takes place. He sits apart, stripped of clothing, and no symbol remains to assist us in his identification. He is perhaps the poet, the creator, the judge, the sculptor – all of these or none.” The Thinker, Rodin, The MET, NYC

Yesterday I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I meandered into a long, rectangular room until I was face to face with Rodin’s most famous work, The Thinker. It was a smallish sculpture that hovered over three others, each triple in size. To the left, there was Adam who seemed to be emerging. To the right Eve who hid her face in shame. Between them, a group of male bodies called The Three Shades. When I approached the tiny inscription on the wall, I learned that The Thinker belongs to a greater, albeit unfinished masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.

I was stunned. All these years, I never knew. The Thinker is the central figure of a bigger vision! A chaotic dance of death and multiple figures of the damned. What is the purpose of this Thinker? I ask myself.  I had arrived at the museum fixated on another question which I realized was sort of the same: How do we move from mindfulness to transforming our world through education?

According to Dr. Chris Goto-Jones in a course he designed called, Politics of Mindfulness, the mindfulness revolution which is led primarily by white, middle class Americans, does not require any particular change in values or economic systems, but simply involves our becoming able to relate to them differently—with more patience, gentleness and compassion. Further he adds, for a ‘revolution,’ this movement seems to show remarkable conservatism.

In the field of education, I have often observed how the mindfulness movement for teachers and schools is about coping with stress. It can be interpreted as an individual therapeutic device or a way to accept (albeit with compassion and awareness) the way things are.

In my view, there is something missing in this perception of mindfulness. For me mindfulness is a spiritual act, one that leads to reciprocal transformation. It is an act of Conscientious Engagement that engenders courage, advocacy, seeking out and defending truth. As intended by ancient wisdom and tradition of Buddhism—mindfulness is about freedom from suffering for the self and for all living beings. That is because mindfulness leads to enlightenment which is the full destruction of any illusion of duality—in other words, there is no “other.” Freedom, in my mind, can never be an individual state , but rather only exists in community.

What is the value of The Thinker in society? A poet, a writer, a teacher, for example—a person who makes a life out of reflecting on knowledge, on interrogating our purpose as human beings, engaging with extremely complex topics in such a way that we can evolve and grow. This is at the heart of education, isn’t it, the passing on knowledge, skills, values, and beliefs from one generation to the next? What is the value we place on education?

I am asking these questions not just because of the recent proposed 9.2 billion dollar cut to the education budget, but because we are living in a world that is increasingly driven by dramatic, public displays of Actions that beg us to reflect on what we value—

Politicians grandstanding, television cameras taping, Twitter feeds feeding, soldiers fighting, angry people protesting, police arresting, bombs bursting, madmen hating, guns killing, teenagers drinking, escape pills popping, campaigns circulating, business deals signing, stocks investing, prison guards guarding, retirees redecorating, shoppers consuming, birthdays at Disney…

After a long time of feeling lost in chaotic thoughts, I step back from The Thinker and I accidentally crash into a mother wearing a hijab. She is holding the hand of her young daughter who looks about six. My sandal almost pops off so I bend down to fix it. When I stand up to regain my balance, the mother apologizes several times and she scurries away, her beautiful daughter looking back at me with luminous eyes. In that instant, I remember who and where I am. My mind flashes back to that time when I was waiting to meet a principal in a small Bronx elementary school. At the center of her office there was a small round table surrounded by books. One book was propped up in the center so I grabbed it and read it. It was called, What Do You Do With An Idea?

I was transformed. By the time the principal arrived, I was soft-hearted, open and clear minded. Any school leader with this book at the center of her office, on a child sized table matters deeply to our society. Without knowing anything more about her, I loved her and her role in the world instantly.

This year I published a book. And even though my writing miraculously found its way out into the world thanks to my editor at Routledge, I still sometimes get a little lost. It’s so easy to forget one’s whole journey, one’s purpose. Who am I and do my words and actions matter?

My goal for writing the book was to provide a guide for others like me to move from thinking and mindfulness to action, to develop every day practices that matter in the real world of schools and institutions, always keeping equity in mind. I believe that we can build an egalitarian society if we can envision it but I am not sure if everybody believes this is possible and if they do, they may not know how to be proactive. Sometimes, I feel we are fragmented…those who sit in meditation and do yoga and believe in small acts of kindness and those who are riled up, rightly angry and speak out passionately against injustice. What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!

How do we pull these worlds together? Do we share the same language, the same dream?

I also believe we are each equipped with a divine intelligence to move us in the direction of unity. Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost, to forget our power, to know what we do and say matters very much in the world, be we are very equipped for greatness. We will move beyond this.

In my book I discuss six principles that I envision will help us move from mindfulness to transforming our institutions in society, starting with education organizations and schools. I outline in detail the rationale for these principles and provide real world examples of the practice. It is just a beginning. Moving forward, I will rely on each and every one of you, those of you in the field, to share back, to respond, to help keep building this new language and an understanding for this important work.

Take a look first.

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In the End the True Nature of Teaching Will Prevail

Teaching and learning is art. The role of the artist is to reveal the essence of reality so that we are moved into compassion for ourselves and the world. So we can respond with kindness and humanity, to grow and flourish, to love each other and experience the effortlessness of unbound beauty, the type of effortless beauty found in a Spring bloom.

This has been a socially, emotionally and spiritually tumultuous year for all of us. Not too long ago I remember thinking and hearing that if this president or that, became president—“I am leaving the country!” Alas, this president, or that became president and most of us are still here. For some, this “morning after” is marked by an effervescent glow while for others, we find ourselves stripped naked and bare, each of our flaws and imperfections magnified by a blinding fluorescent light.

How will these social and political changes impact our teaching and learning craftsmanship? How long will it take for our eyes to adjust before we begin to see things more objectively, more clearly— not seeped in a morning after glow or stark naked shame?

I have felt sadness for the many losses and disappointments experienced over the course of this year. Yet, on some days, I am filled with gratitude. Especially during this month of June that marks the end of a year for teachers. Put the past to rest and the anticipation of starting again. I suspect that you are experiencing similar emotions because even though we are all unique individuals, we are together in this shared-reality, these months of social upheaval. Together we have witnessed a grand clearing out, the removal of clutter and garbage that has allowed us to scratch past the fine lens of complacency and superficiality. We are feeling the aftereffects of what happens when toxins are released into our blood stream, similar to what you might feel after a deep tissue massage: the pain and the soreness and all you want is Ibuprofen and green tea.

Donald Pfaff tells us that we are naturally good, that we are biologically wired for altruism. I want to believe him. Especially now when I encounter more news about war than peace and I find people filled with rage rather than gentle kindness. He writes:

“For too long it has become common wisdom that human nature is essentially selfish. We are taught that our instincts are somehow designed by nature to promote ourselves, and that these ‘animal’ selves must be tamed to fit into civilization…. The human brain is actually programmed to make us care for others. Many of our basic drives, reactions and skills are more products of nature than nurture. The innate biology of the human brain [in fact] compels us to be kind. That is, we are wired for good will.” [1]

If you decide to read Pfaff’s book, you will discover his very intriguing “Altruistic Brain Theory” which can be summed up this way:

For a person to act altruistically, they must picture the person who will be the target of this altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self, which provides the basis for treating the other like oneself.

A brilliant and critical theory for teachers to consider right now, as we engage in the last stage of cleaning out cubbies, saying goodbye, letting go of the past and anticipating a new beginning. Why? Because now is the time, when we are no longer gripped by the fear of unfamiliar shadows and are ready to find peace and acceptance for who we really are. Now, we can narrow in on what we need to do to move into alignment with our magnificent, altruistic nature.

I for one, make a commitment to engage in a mindful inquiry this summer about altruism. I will reflect on this question every time I interact with another human being:

Does the image of the person in front of me blur with the image of myself?  

Then I will ask, why or why not?

What are the barriers, filters and/or mindsets that prevent us from being able to picture or visualize a person, as being like oneself?

Recently, I was invited to contribute to a column on race and implicit bias and I thought deeply about how personally responsible we should feel for the injustices we witness in schools and in society when there are so many complex factors at play such as widening income inequality, segregated schools and communities, a national narrative that breeds intolerance for immigrants, Muslims, poor people and so on. Implicit bias exists, however we need to understand that our minds are so fragile and conditioned by the prevailing narratives of our time. Our nature may be altruistic, but how often do we act in alignment with our true nature? What gets in the way of truth?

Teaching is an act of love. It is revelation. It is the total nurture of the mind, body and spirit of humanity. It is a craft to be taken on with compassion. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the majority of teachers go into the teaching profession for altruistic reasons. It is a calling for most.

This June, I hope that as you make sense of this socially, emotionally and spiritually challenging year, that you do not stray too far from your purpose. Rest up. Then visualize yet another iteration of yourself; a self that is One and in the same image as all other human beings, because tomorrow we will come together again.

We are still here and there is much work to be done.

____________________

[1] Pfaff, Donald W. (2015) The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good. Oxford University Press, 2015

Building a Team

Journal Entry, June 2009

In Aphoristic Style

The only way to find freedom is by offering it to someone else. Our destiny unfolds in someone else’s dream. This is not sacrifice. It is reality.

Do not disappear into another person; that is not it. Do not give up your own dreams for someone else’s. That is not it. Identify a territory, a field of dreams and a group of people you want in it. Then sow the seeds together as a team and the result will be every body’s fantasy.

Each person takes a unique task. You know what is yours because it is your gift. It chose you and it was purposeful.

Don’t run away from your destiny because you think it can not be done. Your gift never drowns you out, it surrounds you. It is all at once your greatest temptation, your greatest fear, your greatest fate. It is both effortless joy and painful longing. Your gift is found in your greatest failure.

One cannot field dreams alone. You must also find nature’s place; a niche between stones, sun and grace. Water flows there. It is a metaphor and a practicality.

Do not follow scarcity. Follow only the deep well of plenty. You might not see the depths at first glance, but you will surely smell it and feel it in your bones.

Choose your team wisely. There is much work to be done. Everyone has a sacred place in the group.

Don’t fret over tasks you do not do well or that don’t bring you joy. Only follow your instinct. In a team, another is always there to cover that path, that for you is dread but for her is joy. You cannot do it alone.

Your plan is irrelevant. It will exist but it will not be written in stone. Start with an idea, a glimpse into a lifestyle. Follow only emotion and the things that make you want to cry deep deep down. You will know the answer then.

It might surprise you when you lose obligation. To find that your greatest desire resides in the simplest life form.

Ask yourself these questions in this order: Where do you go when you are hungry? What provides you with the most nourishment? What do you enjoy most when your belly is full?

The Unfinished Game of Chess

We all have a purpose but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to change our position in life. From this way to that, from that way to this—we are stretched and pulled, relocated, transposed, swapped, transfigured in order to fit into the larger scheme, as needed. We are not contortionists but rather, spiritual beings poured into the form of three-dimensional shapes that can morph into an infinite number of roles in order to learn love and acceptance.

If we are not careful or gentle with others, and ourselves we may look upon our call to change and feel discontented. We ask ourselves why our own handiwork just doesn’t seem to fit and we are left embittered by this. Sometimes, we try to squeeze back into something, curl up or swing upside down until we realize that we may not be in total control. If we pause for a moment and peer outside our antics, we find that there is something greater than this, a creative intelligence perhaps, or a (w)holiness. Is it all by design, we ask? Not entirely, but know you are not alone.

What does it mean to go from “I” to “We?” What does it mean to surrender and at the same time exhibit agency? Is it possible to play chess and leave it, unfinished, with no winner or loser, but rather experience the bliss of moving pieces from one side of the board to the other, each time getting a deeper and deeper understanding of just how unique we all are and infinite possibilities?

Let go and let in.

The older I get, the more I float. Detached and free.

Wisdom is bowing down with humility, getting out of the way and watching our spirits rise, and morph into a variety of multicolored sizes and shapes.