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/

 

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.

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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.