One of the greatest poisons is the subjugation of a person’s identity.

Because imagine how hard it is to separate yourself from your identity. If I am abused because I am a woman or enslaved because of the color of my skin, then my freedom requires that I disassociate from that part of my self. We find freedom when we transcend identity but there is loss and fragmentation for a long while after that. It is as if we have become orphaned.

This is the great paradox of our search for freedom and our healing process.

We want to forget. We need to get outside ourselves to find strength and take action. We want to release ourselves from being a victim.

Even for those who find themselves in the role of the oppressor (by fact or by legacy), it is a similar tale. We want to forget. We hold fast to sadness and tears that prevent our own liberation, our own call to action. Getting lost in sadness and tears are signs that we are still a victim.

We are all victims of oppression if you believe we are all born with a soul. Some express oppression through grief, others through shame, guilt, escapism, rage, denial. All of these emotions are normal but we cannot remain static in these emotions; they must be seen as processing emotions, that through change motion we have the power to liberate ourselves because in the very least, emotions penetrate our intellect. They are in communication with the soul. In education penetrating the intellect is important. We have been reduced to intellect alone.

This is a necessary step.

Disassociation follows. It is when we are aware of our own personal power and we recognize emotion as being separate from our self. If we can be aware of them, how they flow and change, then who is at the center of that awareness? Who is this being that remains a constant observer? We ask.

At this point, we may say– I do not have to attach myself to this emotion or that, to this  experience or that, that horror! I am separate from human frailty. I can create my own destiny, my own reality. I am for myself. I am free.

This is another crucial step. But again, this too cannot remain static and fixed. Evolution is constantly accepting motion. Every part of our evolution is process, even disassociation is process because it results in fragmentation and negates the totality of our human experience. We cannot just cut out part of our whole-selves.

We might begin to feel the pressure of heightened awareness which will eventually wear us down. We may feel the loss of belonging as we face yet another choice. Do I move deeper into this work? What does it mean to come back into myself as a whole? How can I reunite all of my parts, to participate fully in my life, allowing even identity to act with grace as a color on my brilliant canvas?

Stepping into one’s whole self, one’s whole humanity is scary because we fear we will get lost again. When we were born too-human we were vulnerable to subjugation and enslavement.

A woman to move into one’s womaness knowing it is the cause of one’s pain is terrifying. A Jew to lean further into one’s Jewishness can be distressing. Embracing one’s Black roots, one’s Latinoness, one’s Native, Indigenous self-ness—all can be intimidating because we feel vulnerable again. This is the world we live in. But we can transmute it with our willingness.

Even when enlightened whites consider whether to engage in the work of addressing and revealing white privilege, there is fear. This embracing oneself, acknowledging oneself as being a part of one whole, including how that self may exert power and control–is scary business. Am I my ancestors or am I me? We may ask.

And yet, all of this undoing and doing is necessary for wholeness.

A liberated individual will always find communion with the totality of their human identity if it is their purpose to reduce suffering. Your own healing cannot be static, motionless and alone. It is more like an eternal homecoming. You will experience what it’s like to rejoice in the beauty of all your parts coming together, even those parts that have caused you pain.

This is my current understanding of healing and our purpose as human beings. It is an awareness of our continuous evolution; it is why we are alive.

Sensing and becoming aware, realizing and liberating, acting on behalf of oneself and others, embracing the wide spectrum of continuous, evolving emotions and states of grace.

What comes next?

Compassion, perhaps. Consciousness, perhaps. Willingness and Openness, perhaps. Building a world where there is no more fear to just Be, where we embrace all shades of our humanity.

That journey continues to be unknown. Therein lies the great mystery.

Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Finding Balance & Space

There are four different spaces that make up the canvas of our lives:

  • personal, when we are alone;
  • interpersonal when we are in relationship with another;
  • community when we are part of a group with a shared purpose;
  • spiritual which can exist within each of the other three spaces or all of them combined.

On the coldest day of the year, or so it felt to me, I ventured into the warm and beautiful Kadampa Meditation Center in New York City, a spiritual space and refuge for those of us who wish to explore Buddhism and meditation. As part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of conscientious engagement, my purpose is always twofold: to experience and to study the phenomena of that experience. This is in a nutshell the nature and nurture of my own consciousness, as well as the pathway I have chosen to better understand how to develop consciousness in the world.

Unlike my other posts, this one will be brief. I wanted to take a moment to quickly share what I learned on my visit, which included approximately forty minutes of guided meditation in a room with about fifteen participants.

The first thing that was revealed to me was just how important it is that we engage in all four spaces that make up our human experience if we are to experience wholeness and well-being—in other words, balance.

Second, this experience revealed the enormous impact of how we design our spaces, via architecture or process structures such as when we design a school building or even a learning experience divided into modules, protocols and time.

Each detail of a space (the external and the internal elements) communicates value of purpose. For example, if we work in a place where the only common area is the size of a cubicle, what does that say about how our company culture values interpersonal relationships? Similarly, if we omit access to one of the four spaces entirely (as we often do in education) then how are we to experience holism and well-being? An example of this is designing a school entirely centered on personalized learning at the expense of community building. Or, creating schools in which no space is allotted for teachers and students to explore philosophy, ethics, the nature of our existence or the spiritual dimensions of consciousness and its impact on cognition.

There was something very beautiful and uplifting about sitting in meditation with other human beings as compared to sitting alone in my living room. Not to mention the open, simplicity of the architecture of the space, the room was large and spacious, with crystal clear windows and natural light and we were not cramped on top of each other. The voice of the instructor was soothing sending energetic frequencies into the space, and I knew we also transmitted energy to one another in our meditation. The space transcended the space itself.

I need to do this, I thought. And more often. I also left wanting to share these insights with my education colleagues who spend so much time cramming teachers into tight spaces teaching from curriculum and instruction designs that lack careful attention to the mind-body-spirit balance and the three spaces we need to communicate a value for the whole person. All of this refers to education spaces that meet the needs of the whole child. No wonder we we struggle with innovating the public education!

As such, I decided this experience deserves greater exploration. Some of the questions I will be thinking about over the next week are:

  • Do all four spaces require an equal amount of time for well-being? Is this the same for each person, or does it vary?
  • What is the difference between experiencing spirit alone as compared to being in a group?
  • Are we optimizing our energy/learning/well-being when we engage in experiences that integrate all four spaces or domains?
  • How has modern day living and technology coopted our access to space and what has been the impact on our consciousness?