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/

 

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

 

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.

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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.

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.