Letting Go and Coming Together

“When we do zazen alone, it is not the same as when we do it with others. To do it alone the result is not so deep. And to continue doing it alone is difficult. But to do zazen with many others is the same as many logs burning.” Zen Teachings of Master Taisen Deshimaru

We can reconcile any difficulties in life with awareness and appreciation of shared human experience, that which comes from the discipline of mindfulness.

I am at a funeral parlor looking at the body of a woman who belonged to my childhood. In the wooden box, she looks petite and empty while in life she filled up the room with noble height and energy. I look around and think, what do I say to the mourning family, and to this group of distant friends and strangers? What words have meaning when no one really knows the association, the level of attachment, the impact she had?

One by one a person gets up to speak. Then the music plays, followed by a lively preacher. It is all so simple now. It is human connection, feelings moving, a communication of spirit. The preacher knows this, for this is his gift, to make us feel connected in this strange and uncomfortable space called death. He knows that we all have something in common, and it is more than our relationship to this woman. I sit real still and open myself to my senses.  I am no longer in my body.

I am at another funeral now with a different woman in the box, older, petite, empty. I am told I am to sit in the front row with the family. I don’t think it is my place to be in the front row but I do as I am told and as the ceremony proceeds, I become her family.

Awareness of shared human experience, that which comes from the discipline of mindfulness, is the beginning of all meaningful and transformative interaction in society. This awareness can only be achieved when we strip away identity, knowledge, language, words that define us, the constructs of our mind that categorize and delineate who we are in relation to each other, and our role in society.

It is difficult to see each individual in our midst, especially those who we have no real attachment to, no association with, no understanding of how we adorn our lives– as family. Family as in equal in value to those closest to us. It is difficult to see others as in need of our love and protection. I think if we can think this way, and be this way more, as in coming together as family, we will be fair and kind and enlightened in our interactions with each other. We would give ourselves permission to reach out more across lines. Why is this so difficult?

I see a child sitting on the carpet building a tall structure out of wooden blocks. There she is again on a beach erecting a sand castle. I see the shock and sadness that envelopes her when the tower topples over. What does she do now, with this emptiness, this hole that is left in place of her creation? What does she have to learn in this process?

There is a swift pain and sadness when we first learn about letting go. We want the tower or the castle to stay on forever. It is so beautiful and we enjoyed building it. And yet, when it is knocked over by time, a passerby, or an unexpected tide, we are required to see things differently. It is the great encounter with the silence that lies between then and now, the precise moment in which one must decide, shall I start again on my own or walk away in search of solace and company? And on and on it goes.

When we talk about the practice of mindfulness and we share a deep desire for a more just and enlightened society, we are talking about knocking down our towers and castles, and allowing the tenderness of heart, and loss to come into our lives, to see the emptiness and futility of holding onto earthly creations. They are all folly and temporary besides, and to be able to look into that open space in time, just when the castle has fallen and we are left suspended, deciding what to do and where to go, it is there we search for new possibility and belonging.

Herein lies the difficulty and promise of letting go and coming together.

What Happens When Teachers Get Too Attached?

Exploring Engaged Mindfulness

In my previous post on compassion fatigue, I talked about the fairly common ailment of teacher burn out, when teachers enter a cycle of apathy and weariness, usually following an intense period of supporting students with countless needs. In that post, I challenged the notion of using mindfulness meditation to detach ourselves from student outcomes, and find happiness in teaching, regardless. Being attached to outcomes is a complex and important topic. So is being attached to our students. I have spent the last week contemplating on attachment and how we should mentor and support teachers who experience mixed emotions about what healthy attachment is and isn’t, especially when painful experiences arise, like apathy and fatigue.

teacherandstudentPerhaps you have heard of engaged mindfulness? This term is used to describe the practice of mindfulness so that we are in a better position to help and respond to the needs of others, so that we are more connected to others and to our commitment to the happiness of all beings. I have been going around in circles wondering if it is possible for us to respond to the needs of others in education with care and compassion without attachment, without making ourselves vulnerable, without allowing ourselves to experience the debilitating blow of failure, the sting of loss in spite of doing everything, the despair of watching high hopes descend into ordinary, harsh reality.

When we talk about attachment in the context of schools, we are talking about the deep and enduring affectionate bond that connects one person to another across time and space. We are talking about trust, safety and security, the knowing that there is a person out there that is deeply concerned and invested in our personal well-being and development. Attachment is not encouraging dependency, but rather, it is communicating that you are not alone; that even as you explore the world, take risks, grow and learn— you are being seen, loved and guided gently. How can we teach without attachment, in this sense of the word? How can we expect our students to trust us without our attachment, without our willingness to be vulnerable to this intimate, loving connection with another human being?

In my previous post, I suggested that teachers who experience compassion fatigue should use their meditation practice to cultivate self-acceptance. As a follow up, I would also suggest that teachers spend some time contemplating what it means to build bonds and healthy attachment with their students in the school setting, knowing that authentic relationships lead to an open and tender heart, pain and sadness, failure and other vulnerabilities. Quote2Mindful meditation practice can help us to know ourselves and accept our limitations, and it can also prepare us to absorb and transmute heavy emotions into a healing energy that can be applied to how we teach.

To transmute means to change the state of being. In Native American medicine, the snake represents transmutation because snakes shed their skin. Snake medicine is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind. How can mindfulness meditation transmute pain, suffering, sadness, failure and vulnerability?

When we sit in quiet acceptance of the truth, and allow it to be exactly what it is, we begin to see how the pain we experience also contains the pathway to freedom. In my experiments in the practice of meditation, I have discovered four states of being that can be associated with transmuting painful experiences:

  1. Bearing Witness: Our experience of suffering is real, a natural part of life and universal
  2. Anticipation: Each situation that arises involves some kind of suffering and all suffering is impermanent
  3. Gathering Energy: Relaxation and meditation relieve suffering and lead to clarity
  4. Application: We can relieve suffering for ourself and others by applying specific behaviors and cultivating dispositions

It is only natural for teachers at the start of their career to shy away from getting too close to students or getting too attached to outcomes which can result in painful experiences, especially when we work in distressed areas with chronic failure due to inequities in society. However, when we are ready to embrace our noble profession for what it really is, and for what it requires, we realize that teaching involves cultivating authentic relationships with students. This makes us open, vulnerable and deeply attached to their hopes and dreams, their pain and suffering, their sanity and insanity, their struggle and achievements.  Only in this way do teachers become master teachers, or change agents for an enlightened society.

___________

References:

Thich Naht Hanh, Good Citizens: Creating Enlightened Society, Parallax Press, 2012

Attachment in the Classroom by Christi Bergen and David Bergen, Educational Psychology Review, June 2009

Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, Jamie Sams and David Carson, Bear and Company, 1988

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.

***

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.

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.

Learning from Mistakes When Stakes Are High

kid-taking-a-test21When my son was three and we had just furnished our first house, he took a marker and drew pictures on our new Mexican console. I remember walking into the living room and feeling the rise of heat behind my ears. He was so small and innocent but all I could see were the black marks and the price tag of the furniture piece. I grabbed his hand, yelled a few words and demanded that he scrub the console with me. We scrubbed together for a half hour until it was clean. To this day I regret the severity of my reaction. I have often wondered what damage I might have inflicted on his young psyche and his ability to take risks and learn from mistakes. Seventeen years later with my son in college, I read a lot of articles written for teachers about learning from failure and building a culture of resilience amongst students. In my experience this is a tricky and nuanced topic especially when we consider the social and emotional dynamics of living in an inequitably society.

My parents and my husbands’ parents, for example, were a lot less tolerant of mistakes. For them it was a sign of their time but also a mindset correlated to adversity and fear of scarcity. No one can argue that it is significantly harder to embrace a mistake when we’ve only got one chance, or one item that cannot be replaced. Our parents grew up with one Sunday outfit. Stain it or soil it was a big mistake. The money that came in needed to stretch as far as possible to cover basic needs. If an item broke, or it was lost— that was it. We’d have to do without. There were swift consequences when we failed at an assigned task. Sometimes a slap or a punishment accompanied the pain of failure as a reminder to do better next time. We understood the high stakes of human shortcoming.

Things are better now. We try to be more compassionate, loving, easy-going with our children. But like the incident with the console, it is easy to fall into the trap of anger and fear. As a parent and educator, I feel like the stakes are high. What will we do if our children make a mistake we cannot fix? As members of a flailing middle class, we live with the fear of falling into poverty. Daily life is filled with anxiety and attention to detail. There are so many precarious factors such as rising housing costs, accessing good schools, job stability and healthcare— we find ourselves saying things like, be careful and don’t get hurt because we can’t afford medical bills. Don’t flunk that test because we can’t afford to borrow more for tuition. Don’t forget, don’t do this, be vigilant …. or else.

I think a lot about the literature on learning from failure and building resiliency in kids. I love the idea and the thinking is certainly in line with what we know about teaching and learning but it feels disconnected and out of touch with the reality teachers, students and families face every day. Such as high stakes standardized testing. Or school admission and application requirements. What is the real cost associated with academic failure in society? This weekend, I read about the recent outrage of parents from an Upper West Side public school when they were told about the city’s integration plan requiring that they reserve a quarter of its seats to “low-performing” students. Parents protested loudly. They believe such a plan will diminish their own children’s chances of getting accepted to the city’s most desired schools. Is their fear justifiable or are they bad, intolerant people? The issues involved are hard to unpack especially when we are beholden to a system that is driven by high-stakes testing, evaluations and inequitable funding. How is it possible for any of us to embrace failure or be tolerant of anything less than perfection and ‘high performing’ in an environment such as this?

My son just called to inform me that water spilled on his costly laptop damaging the motherboard. I would be lying if I told you my reaction was compassionate. After I hang up the phone I sit quiet and sullen. How is it possible that after all my education, mindfulness and meditation practice that I can still fall into the trap of madness?

I pick up the phone with resolve and I shower him with words of wisdom, encouragement and love. I tell him “it is just a computer.”

I am doing my best under the circumstances but I know I am part of the whole. We can do better with practice. We can plant the seeds for a new generation driven by love and tolerance for human frailty.

The Weight or Weightlessness of Courageous Conversations

The heaviness of a small segment of dark brown bodies at the end of a long color line that curves around the room going from dark skin to medium to light. Two outliers insert themselves and evocatively defy the trend. They are motivated by something else; the unexpected psyche of an individual who defies the very notion of a ‘fixed’ color line. For them, notions of color remained equivocal and complex. Even after interrogation, there was an explanation, defensiveness, squeamishness. How do you identify yourself? Is your experience the same as the others on your side? The answer remained surprisingly yes…and no. I wondered, Is there a space in our consciousness that defies color?

It reminded me of the label ‘trans-gender’ or ‘trans-racial.’ I think about the many youth who are creating new labels that for them communicate a desire to transcend the narrow-minded materialism of the body form. Are they giving rise to a new, boundless human consciousness?

Alternatively, the outliers on our side of the color line who were seemingly ‘white,’ could have been in denial or exercising privilege. Dr. Lori Watson explained, the color-line is not the entirety of our experience, but it is critical that we isolate race so we can understand it and intervene in the inequities that exist in society.

Across the color-line, I see three white women standing side by side. One is squirming, the other crying and the third—the younger of the three— is standing confident, firm, wide-eyed. The latter, we learn is angry at her colleagues’ surprise at what we are witnessing. We were all grateful she chose to express voice, like many others. Three white bodies, the same and yet different. Three brown bodies, the same and yet different. And yet, we were grouped accordingly based on a survey of our experience in the world.

Some of the comments that ensued were, We don’t want pity, we want understanding. We want voice. We want to bring our whole selves to work. I’m tired of carrying the weight of this experience. One added, I have never experienced functioning in a predominantly white organization.

I was thinking, now what? What do I want to see? What is my expectation moving forward?

I want each individual regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background to get paid equitably for their service and have an equitable scope of work. I want each individual to have equal access to leadership positions and to be developed in that direction, especially those who come from underrepresented groups. The real lever for transformation is the redistribution of power across the color-line. Access to leadership, job-security, adequate pay and a well-balanced scope of work allows individuals not only to thrive in society but to engage in making decisions that matter. Such as policy, company norms and processes, strategic planning and importantly, managing and allocating money. It also involves hiring and retention which is crucial to the integration of new perspectives, capacity building and sustainability.

I am not saying that awareness of race and racism and inequities don’t matter. Or that equity of voice in a meeting does not matter, or bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work is not a fundamental human need called Belonging. However, in order for us to walk the path we must value all human beings both in awareness and acts. Adequate and fair compensation. Allies across the organization who communicate safety and job-security. Ongoing investment in an individual’s professional advancement. Access to real decision-making on issues that matter. These are demonstrations of equity that have the power to shape a new practice in education so that our children will inherit a place that values all life and is committed to the sustainability of our collective humanity.

It has been a heavy two days. Yet, I am beginning to feel light and hopeful as I sit and write in my hotel room in San Francisco just before getting ready to return back to New York City. I wanted to take a moment to share —Courageous Conversations are important. Moving beyond diversity is important. Learning our history is important like— who knew Rosa Parks was a trained activist surrounded and supported by the NAACP community who had a long-term Civil Rights strategy? How much of our history has been modified or deleted denying our right to truth?

On a more personal note, I will say I felt enormous pride and gratitude for standing amongst my people. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Others often get lost in the conversation. We get lost with each other, in confusion or by being passed over or coopted. We are a diverse and rich community. Let’s look at each other more.

I didn’t want to attend the conference, I confess. I get emotionally, physically and spiritually fatigued by the topic. But, a colleague wisely pointed out that when we receive an invitation to such an event, it is not just an invitation for your Self. It is an invitation for you, your forefathers, your ancestors— who without your presence remains voiceless and unrepresented.

So, yes. In the end I moved from action and thinking to the emotional quadrant. I got teary eyed and sensitive standing alongside my brothers and sisters. Real action, compensation and retribution for a people’s suffering are all important. But so is standing up publicly and holding hands with your friends, colleagues, family and ancestry. It is because of your willingness to embrace these rare, very present moments that we have the power to touch many lives that span and blend and even by death transcend the color-line.