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?

Muggles, Witches, Wizards and Yoda

“Learning organizations of the future will be centers where Master Teachers and students study consciousness and practice manifesting ideas into reality.”

~Ríos, Mindful Practice for Social Justice

What would have happened to Harry Potter if he had not attended Hogwarts School of Witches and Wizardry? Hogwarts is the highly selective school based on a magical quill that detects the birth of magical children keeping their names in a large parchment book. There is no admission test because according to J.K. Rowling, “Everyone who shows magical ability before their eleventh birthday will automatically gain a place at Hogwarts; there is no question of not being ‘magical enough’; you are either magical or you are not.”

Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard while living in a very small room under the stairs, in the ordinary, non-magical world of Muggles. It takes a pack of owls, a flurry of acceptance letters and magic to free Harry from his uncle’s grip, who wants to keep Harry from his destiny. Harry’s uncle is terrified of what the child’s powers might bring.

Did J.K. Rowling tap into our greatest desire and our greatest fear with the Harry Potter series? Are we either magical or are we not? What is it about this select group of powerful children who get to study at a magnificent school in a castle that creates widespread delight and fascination all over the world?

According to Dewey, all children are born with powers. He writes:

The only true education comes through the stimulation of a child’s powers. The child’s own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. 

But, what are these powers exactly? Dewey refers to a child’s natural tendencies and talents and also, to a highly specialized power of plasticity and adjustment, which is the ability to grow and develop, learn from experience, modify actions based on experience and develop habits and dispositions. In other words, the capacity to become something different under external influences. Capacity, according to Dewey, is an ability, a force positively present, that when looked at from a social standpoint, involves a fundamental interdependence.

Yoda_Empire_Strikes_BackYoda, the legendary Jedi Master in the Star War series is known for his deep connection to a force positively present. The teachings of Master Yoda are based on learning how to tap into the force by channeling energy and a training of the mind. What starts out as a seemingly simple mindfulness meditation practice, becomes the capacity to move material objects— in other words, the ability to alter the material world through the power of our mind. Watch this:

Why is taking a break from reality and thinking about Muggles, Witches, Wizards and Yoda important? This week, we have witnessed the unraveling of a scandal amongst the rich and famous for admittance into several top-rate universities. At the same time, in New York City, we are witnessing a full blown battle involving Mayor de Blasio over entrance into eight specialized high schools, centered around the notion of equity. Both cases raise important questions about fairness, merit and the purpose of education.

Perhaps we have got it all wrong. Perhaps we are wasting our energy trying to fix a system that is broken. Visionary Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting an existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

It is important to take notice of where we focus our attention. Are we channeling our energy to create the schools of the future that serve a higher purpose? Are we taking the  time to look beyond old mental models that have created the current situation? What I see are new schools that are designed to tap into each child’s innate power and potential. They will be open and accessible, magical and fun. They will be led by Master Teachers who will lead us through change and adaptability. There in this vision, I experience a positive force present, and a deep regard for our interdependence.

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Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education John Dewey, New York, The Macmillan company, 1916.

My Pedagogic Creed, John Dewey, Journal of the National Education Association, 1929

 

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/