On being helpful

Lately, I’ve been encountering (or is it noticing) some important messages on theme of helping.  This train of thought sort of started a few weeks ago when I had a chance to here the Buddhist Meditation teacher, Herb Ferris speak on the topic.  He suggested that many of us are interested in meditation and mindfulness precisely because we want to follow the path of what some Buddhist traditions call “bodhichitta.”  One translation of this concept is that it’s the desire to pursue mindfulness in order to be of benefit to other people and maybe even help them to follow the same path.  This goes back to one of my early fall posts on cultivating mindfulness in order to get clear so that we don’t “disturb other people” with all our turmoil.

I think, as teachers, we especially resonate with these ideas.  We want to be helpful to our students, first and foremost, but also to our colleagues, our schools and communities.  It’s the aspect of teaching that is more like a calling than like a job.  And we want to teach with some awareness so that our own issues and moods and all the inevitable peaks and troughs of our personal lives do not create upheavals in our classrooms and for our students.  We look to cultivate some equanimity for their benefit as well as our own.

But, here’s the thing that Herb Ferris said at his talk.  It’s not easy.  It turns out that the seemingly simple intention to help others is very, very hard.  And it’s hard on several levels.  First of all, it’s hard because we don’t always know how to help.  It’s not clear what the right course of action is.  And then, to make matters more complex, it’s virtually impossible to figure out in advance what kind of help will have unintended harmful consequences.  And then, on top of all these logistical questions, there are deeper questions of motivation.  Are we helping because we are seeing clearly how we can be of assistance, or are our motivations clouded by unrealized personal needs on our part?

Sometimes, it’s easy to do a seemingly simple good deed (give food to your local family center or food pantry).  It seems, however, that the kinds of “help” that teaching requires get sticky much more quickly.  How much do we do for our students?  How much do we let them do for themselves, knowing the frustrations and risks down those various roads, maybe better than they do.

I can vividly remember the sort of “soul shock” that hit me when I had been working very hard to “help” a teenage student of mine get out of his family’s house where I believed he was being abused and neglected.  He was finally placed in foster care.  Right away he gained about 20 pounds and I remember feeling so vindicated that he was at least thriving physically in his new setting.  Then he was moved into a substance abuse rehab center.  He didn’t do so well there and ended up in a juvenile detention facility where he had some horrible experiences.  At the end of this three month odyssey, he was placed right back in his house and things returned to the way they had been before he left.  Except he didn’t trust me anymore, and he stopped coming to school.   He sided with his family, who told him that the “system” was trying to put in him jail and break up his family.  Of course he did that.  He needed them to survive and he loved them and needed them to love him back.

It wasn’t until a compassionate counselor and I started talking about this young man’s situation that I really understood what a lot of folks “in the system” had been trying to tell me.  We actually don’t have good options for abused teens.  They’re too old to go into the foster care system.  Long-term residential placements are rare and expensive.  I had been under the delusion that there were spaces and places for kids where they could heal and be nurtured into adulthood free from their dangerous home lives.  But actually, what we mostly do is incarcerate our poorest troubled teens and they grow up in the prison system, where they are often trapped well into their twenties and sometimes beyond.  It’s actually quite lucky this young man was able to get out of the detention center.  If he had had a more serious fight there, they could have charged him with felony assault and kept him for years for that crime.

If I had all this to do over again, I think I would have tried much harder to get family counseling for this young man and his family.  To try to heal at the community level the environment in which he was destined to spend the four remaining years of his youth.  In truth he loved his family, for all their problems, and he didn’t want to be taken away from his home.

I couldn’t see all that at the time.  I wasn’t looking clearly at the situation.  I was just seeing it from inside my own head.  That’s where the value of mindfulness comes in.  It allows you to pause, to seek multiple perspectives.  It doesn’t mean you don’t act.  It just means that you can act with greater clarity and less certainty (which in this case would have been a good thing).  I think the desire to be of use, is still a wonderful motivation for teaching, but I also think that tempering that desire with mindfulness practices can only be good.

At the School Reform Initiative Conference in January we spent some time with Marge Piercy’s poem “To be of use.”  It’s such a wonderful statement of the intention of many of us in the educational world.  The line that really hit me was,

“But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.”

I think we all know this feeling in our hearts when we’ve done it right.  The thing well done “clean and evident.”  This kind of helpfulness comes from that deeper place of insight and understanding.

To read the whole poem, follow this link.


To read an article by Pema Chodron on the concept of bodhichitta, follow this link.


To learn more about Herb Ferris’s class on mindfulness and other programs at Time & Space in Springfield, VT,  follow this link


Author: sdreyerleon

Susan Dreyer Leon, EdD is the Chair of the Education Department at Antioch University New England and the Director of the Mindfulness for Educators Program. www.antiochne.edu

One thought on “On being helpful”

  1. Susan, Thanks for this posting. At the front end of your post, and throughout, you wrote about our desire to help. In my work collaborating with teachers, I wear on my sleeve that I am at their school to serve them rather than mandate or evaluate. While I am not always successful at maintain the service aspect of my work… I observe surprise in teachers’ eyes and body language when they hear me express this early and often.

    I have been in similar conversations about our service to kids – the example you share is engaging to say the least. I think we often forget to keep in mind the individual or group we are attempting to serve / help. All these programs, processes, frameworks are great (well, most), but are we completing this work with the kids or people we serve in mind?

    While I don’t sit in meditation on a regular basis at this time, this act of leading with or front loading service in my work is a mindful act – for which I need much more practice.

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