Nest of Inpredibilities

By Susan Dreyer Leon

For the last four years, my ten year old daughter has been writing a series of semi-autobiographical stories about a pig named Priscilla and her family. Priscilla has many of the same life situations that my daughter faces, epilepsy, frequent doctors’ appointments, fear of the the dentist, a need for glasses, pets who have to go to the vet, summer camp fun, vacations, first days of school and other manifestations of the normal range of suffering, inconvenience, joy and satisfaction that come with life in this realm.

Sometimes, when my daughter can’t find just the right word to express herself, she makes up a word or a phrase to get the job done properly. This has been somewhat aided by her interest in Andrew Clements’ book Frindle, in which students explore what language actually is and how new words come into being.  In my daughter’s, story Priscilla Goes to the Hotel, Priscilla is faced with a dilemma. Her foster sister, Jane, really wants Priscilla to go to an arcade and amusement park, but Priscilla does not want to go. She wants to go to a pet store. Priscilla allows herself to be persuaded only to be miserable at the arcade, which leads to bitter complains and sniping with her sister. At this point, Priscilla’s mother intervenes, saying, “Priscilla, you are getting into your own nest of inpredibilities.” From the moment I read this word, “inpredibilities,” I have loved it. And now I find it has become a part of how I think about many situations. To me, “inpredibilities” are a set of thoughts that entangle me in suffering. I also love that they are situated in a “nest.” Like a nest of snakes, I imagine.

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For those of us who are teachers, I find real utility for the word inpredibilities. In fact, I think we have an active need of it. Our work situations are so complex and fraught with various “have to” situations that we don’t necessarily choose. And yet, I think we also often have more choices than we know and we certainly have more choices about our reactions to these situations than we may recognize.

It’s very helpful to me to see when I’m caught in my own tangled web of thinking that is sometimes causing me even more suffering than the initial situation itself. For me, these feelings often include something like resentment, discomfort, fear, and regret, but you might have your own list. Often there is a sense of helplessness that goes along with them. It seems to me that this discursive thinking that accompanies me into dark places, actually serves to keep me stuck there rather than helping me to get out. This is the nest of inpredibilites.

So, what to do? Priscilla makes a good choice. She appologizes to her sister, accepts responsibility for her part in getting into the situation and then does what she wanted to do in the first place, which was go to the pet store. So, when you find yourself getting into your own “nest of inpredibilities” see if it isn’t possible to stop, forgive yourself and others with kindness, and start again. And please, feel free to put this helpful work into circulation in your context! But if anyone asks where you got the it, please credit the child author, AR Leon, and remember that name. I think you’ll see it again!

All New!!! Certificate Program in Mindfulness for Educators!

The Center for Mindful Inquiry, in collaboration with Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, announces a new Certificate in Mindfulness for Educators Program beginning in January 2011. The eight graduate credit Certificate combines opportunities for educators to deepen their own mindfulness and compassion practices and to better understand current theories that connect mindfulness to models of teaching, learning and human development. Participants attend three study retreats at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) followed up with online coursework.

By Susan Dreyer Leon, Ed.D

As many of you know, we have been hoping for some time to be able to bring together a group of educators who are interested in looking together at applications of mindfulness in their teaching practice.  After more than a year of development, we are thrilled to be able to announce a wonderful new collaboration that will allow us to begin this important and exciting journey.  We are looking for a starting group of dedicated educators, who want to explore deeply the connection between mindfulness meditation and their teaching practice.

About the Program

This 8 graduate credit program will begin in January 2011 with a weekend retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts.  Work will continue in our classrooms and on-line through the Spring of 2011 and the group will come together again in Barre in August for a five day retreat.  The Fall will bring more classroom practice and on-line communication topped off with a capstone weekend back in Barre.  We’re so grateful the Studies Center for providing us with this fantastic opportunity to join together in person in such a beautiful location and with access to their wonderful teachers and resources as a support for our own work.

About our Teachers

We have two extraordinary lead faculty, Claire Stanley, PhD and Jack Millet, MAT to guide our work this year.  Claire and Jack are long time teacher educators from the School for International Training in Vermont and more recently have been the founding dharma teachers at Vermont Insight Meditation and the Center for Mindful Inquiry, in Brattleboro, VT.   We know of no other two people who have thought so long and deeply about the connection between daily classroom practice and mindfulness.  We’re thrilled have them anchor this collaboration through CMI.   In addition to Claire and Jack’s leading role,  Judy Coven and I will be providing some instructional support on the Antioch side.   Judy has just recently retired from her full time role on the Integrated Learning faculty at AUNE and has been instrumental in the planning and guidance of this program from the beginning.   I am currently serving as the director of the Experienced Educators program at AUNE and am thrilled to add this collaboration to our available offerings for working teachers through the Antioch Center for School Renewal.  Finally, we’re very lucky to have the opportunity to benefit from the expertise of Andrew Olendzki, the executive director and senior scholar of the Barre Center for Buddhist studies and Mu Soeng, the BCBS program director and resident scholar.   For more information about our faculty, please visit the Center For Mindful Inquiry Website or follow the AUNE and BCBS links on the right side of this blog page.

How to Apply or Get More Information

For more information and program details or to apply, go to http://www.mindfulinquiry.org.  To apply for the Certificate Program, contact Claire Stanley, Ph.D. or Jack Millett, MAT at The Center for Mindful Inquiry, 167 Main St. Brattleboro, VT 05301, 802-451-6514 or at certificate.program@mindfulinquiry.org.

More Details, Dates and Course Titles

The Center for Mindful Inquiry, in collaboration with Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, announces a new Certificate in Mindfulness for Educators Program beginning in January 2011.  The eight graduate credit Certificate combines opportunities for educators to deepen their own mindfulness and compassion practices and to better understand current theories that connect mindfulness to models of teaching, learning and human development.  Participants attend three study retreats at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) followed up with online coursework. In addition, two completely online courses in the spring and fall strengthen the learning community and focus on the integration of mindfulness practice and theory in the participants’ work as educators and in everyday life.  Graduate credits are given with the successful completion of each course.  The Certificate is earned by the completion of all five components of the program.

Opening Residential Weekend

January 28 – 30 at BCBS

Using Buddhist Frameworks to Understand Teaching and Learning

Online Course

March 28 – May 6 through CMI

Mindfulness and Reflection: Tools for Clarity, Creativity and Compassion in the Classroom

Summer Intensive

July 31 – August 5 at BCBS

Human Development and The Inner Landscape of Teaching and Learning

Online Course

September 26 – November 4 through CMI

Awareness of Body, Mind, Heart and Brain:  Pathways to Change

Capstone Weekend

December 2 – 4 at BCBS

Toward Freedom and Joy in Teaching and Learning

How to Apply or Get More Information

For more information, go to http://www.mindfulinquiry.org.  To apply for the Certificate Program, contact Claire Stanley, Ph.D. or Jack Millett, MAT at The Center for Mindful Inquiry, 167 Main St. Brattleboro, VT 05301, 802-451-6514 or at certificate.program@mindfulinquiry.org.

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.

http://www.panhala.net/Archive/To_be_of_Use.html

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

http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1469

To learn more about Herb Ferris’s class on mindfulness and other programs at Time & Space in Springfield, VT,  follow this link
http://www.studiotimeandspace.org/

A Season of Kindness

Since my November posting about the Arising of Compassion, I’ve been thinking some more about how we can cultivate joy in our classrooms (and our lives).  This led me back to a wonderful book by Sylvia Boorstein’s called Pay Attention for Goodness Sake (2002).   She talks about something that captured her imagination very early on in her mindfulness practice.  It was a small plaque that read “Life is so difficult, how can we be anything but kind?”  I think that this simple idea lies at the heart of what many educators strive for with their mindfulness practice.  We are reaching for the inner resources that can allow us to maintain our kindness towards ourselves, our students, our peers, and our families even during stressful times, in fact, especially during stressful times.

The practice of kindness is one of those things that generates its own energy beyond just the simple act itself.  I can still remember vividly the winter of my sixth grade year.  Sixth grade was a tough year in our district.  Students moved from small local elementary schools to a big, impersonal middle school.  Low level violence and bullying were routine daily experiences for many of us and it was struggle to feel seen by teachers as we moved from class to class every 45 minutes.  I hadn’t found my place in this new world yet and was often anxious and overwhelmed.

One thing that was consistent for me from elementary school was reading.  Each month we had a chance to order books from the Weekly Reader magazine and I always eagerly awaited the arrival of my new choices.  This particular month I had brought in money to order books as usual but when the books arrived, my order wasn’t there.  Somehow, in the shuffle of my teacher’s desk, my order had not gone in.

Merry Decker was the teacher.  She had actually been absent quite a bit that fall and I didn’t know her well.  I didn’t think she knew me either.  I can still remember exactly how I felt approaching her desk.  I was half ready to yell and half ready to cry.  I was both fiercely disappointed and mad at her.  I can’t remember anything about what I said or what she said, I just remember the feelings.  I remember feeling seen, heard, comforted.  I remember that she gave me books that she had ordered for the classroom to replace some of the books that I didn’t get.  And I fell in love.  Right there in that five minutes of interaction, Mrs. Decker became one of the most important people in my life, for that year and for many years afterwards until long after her retirement and my departure for college.

As it turns out, she was having a terrible year herself.  A divorced mother of two, she had just lost her adult daughter, Susie, in a car accident and was suffering a great deal.  I’m not even sure I knew about the accident that year, but I know that she somehow managed to bring her best self to the classroom each day.  I often marveled that she had lived up to her unusual name, Merry.  There was nothing superficial about her joy.  It was deep and wise and generous.   It could encompass suffering, hers and others, and produce not bitterness or despair, but kindness.  And that kindness allowed me to relax and begin to participate in the life of my new school more fully.

I’m sure that many of  you could think of similar stories in your own educational lives:  the small act of an individual teacher that made all the difference.  To cultivate this ability in my own teaching is definitely one of the goals of mindfulness practice for me.   It means I have to be open.  I have to really see the student in front of me.  It sometimes only takes a moment to really see, hear and help another person.  That’s going to be my practice this season.  I’d love to hear from some of you about your experiences with kindness in the classroom.  I think we can all draw inspiration from stories of those like Merry Decker, who have shown us the way.

Finding time to practice

If you’re like most of us,  finding time for your mindfulness practice is a challenge.  There are some folks who have been able to find a really regular daily routine that allows them to create a formal sitting practice at more or less the same time each day.  A lot of us, however, just don’t’ have a regular schedule, or we struggle with finding enough time to do all that we need to get done.  A friend of mine once famously said that there are five requirements of the balanced life: work, family, social life, self-maintenance, and sleep.  The rub is, we only have time for four of them.  So, this literally requires a juggle if we’re to keep all of them in our lives.  It’s no surprise, then that self-maintenance is often the one that keeps getting the heave ho!

Personally, I have a forward-looking sort of mind.  So, I’ve always got a plan for how my meditation practice is going to be in the future.  This is a trap as well, since, of course, the present is the only time you can actually meditate (or do anything else).   I also realize that I’ve struggled with the challenge of when to meditate through a wide variety of life circumstances, including the YEAR that I took off partly in order to have more time to develop a formal meditation practice.

In the end, what works best for me now is to set my intention to meditate for a specific amount of time (sometimes as little as 10 minutes, but ideally more like 30 minutes) then be flexible as I move through my day to find that 30 minutes.  Sometimes all three of my house-mates will be napping at the same time.  Sometimes I’ll take 30 minutes out of lunchtime  at work.  I even sit in my car along the side of the road!  During one particularly challenging period I’d get to bed and realize I hadn’t practiced so I’d just flop down on the cushion next to my bed, knowing that I was just going to fall asleep on the floor.  But, you know, once in a while, that didn’t happen!

The point is to find a way to squeeze it in.  I’d love to hear from some of you about how you’re finding time to nurture your own practice in the midst of your busy life.  Maybe we can make a commitment together to support our own and each others’ practice in 2010 —  ah,  there’s that future mind.  Why not start today.  Right now….

The arising of compassion

Many of us enter education because we have a strong sense of compassion for the students and families that we would like to serve. It’s relatively easy to feel compassion for young people, especially young children. I often think of compassion as being a foundational element in teaching practice, so it was with some excitement that I went last week to hear a Tibetan monk named Lama Tashi speak about compassion at Vermont Insight Meditation Center in Brattleboro, VT.

He talked about the value of a meditation practice in the cultivation of compassion and took questions from the audience of more than 50 people. All the questions were some variation on ways to access compassion under difficult circumstances or with difficult people or groups

The last questioner asked Lama Tashi to talk about the difficultly of accessing or sitting in joy. He responded with immediate understanding and launched right away into a discussion of guilt. It was, in my view, a wonderful reframing of the dilemma that many of us feel. He pointed out that in our culture, guilt occupies a central place in our being, which he generally indicated by pointing to the center of his chest. In his experience here in the U.S., he said that he has noticed again and again that this underlying feeling of guilt or even shame, often prevents us from fully accessing or experiencing joy. The two get co-mingled so that joy can rarely arise without our mind shifting to guilt. “How can I be so happy when x, y or z is happening or has happened?” is the way our thinking often goes. Lama Tashi seemed to be saying that guilt can sometimes seem to literally occupy the space where joy would naturally live and abide within us.

For untangling this guilt/joy knot, Lama Tahsi suggested that meditation can be helpful, but that what needs to be cultivated is particularly compassion for ourselves. We are often so quick to feel pity for others, or to beg forgiveness for our own shortcomings that we don’t really experience either genuine compassion or genuine remorse. These require more time and more openness to feeling our own feelings deeply and experiencing our lives with more quiet acceptance.

I was reminded of a meditation retreat for educators that I attended last January. On Friday we were all filled with the excitement of talking about how we were offering mindfulness experiences to our students, but by Sunday morning we were softly admitting that we found it extremely difficult to find time for our own practice or even to nurture mindful habits in our own lives. Traditional mindfulness training is very clear on this point, we cannot achieve true compassion for our students or really anyone else, if we don’t have some deep experience of feeling compassion for ourselves. It can start as a felt experience inside us, and then flow outward organically, even easily from there. This feeling of compassion is understood to be a universal experience of contemplative practice in many traditions and seems to spontaneously co-arise as we improve our ability to be in the present moment.

In three days, on Nov. 12, 2009, an organization called the Council on Conscience will launch the Compassion Charter. They are part of a growing global consensus that humanity is at a crossroads and that, as they say, “there is an urgent need for a new focus on compassion.” I find this idea to be very moving and timely, but I also keep reminding myself that my capacity to be part of such a movement starts very simply with my ability to genuinely feel compassion for myself.

For more information on the 2010 Mindfulness for Educators retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist studies, follow this link: https://bcbs.dharma.org/Pages/course_registration.lasso

For more information on the Compassion Charter, follow this link: http://charterforcompassion.org/

Mindfulness is so “in” right now it’s scary!!

This month in Washington DC an unprecedented conference took place under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute.  Leading schools of education from around the country joined with brain researchers and experts on contemplative practices from different traditions to discuss the role of education in preparing 21st Century Citizens.  You can learn more details about the conference by following this link http://www.educatingworldcitizens.org,  but I think one of the clearest messages from this amazing group is that social and emotional learning and increasing students’ capacity for emotional regulation is a critical element of educating human beings and that it has a rightful and indeed crucial place in our school system.  I’d love to hear from anyone who was able to attend the conference, or to look at their materials or view the proceedings on DVD.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to meet a Tibetan monk who was also an educator and the founder of a school in India for orphaned children from Tibet.  He was working in the U.S. and doing some consulting in suburban Boston.  He had two observations about the schools and students with whom he was working here in contrast to his students in India.  The first was that he found that students here could tell him everything, absolutely everything about a dinosaur, but nothing about their own development.  The second was that the pervasive sadness he found among American children and adolescents in school was striking to him, especially in contrast to the joyful atmosphere of his school in India.  Both of these observations speak to me about a missing element in our educational systems that could be addressed at least in part through some mindfulness practices.

As you can find through some of the links on this page, there is a lot happening around meditation, mindfulness and education.   As usual, there is a rush to action and programs are springing up all over (some great, some not so great) to take advantage of the new interest in these areas.  Many long-time advocates of mindfulness and education are both excited by this surge of interest and wary,  both of the “fad” quality that is so common in educational reform efforts and in the idea of a “commodification” of comtempletive practices that have been, for centuries, traditionally offered freely with teachers being supported by the voluntary offerings of their students and communities.

My idea, for right now, is that we have to start where we are.  I think there is a place for contemplative practice in teacher education and I trust that if educators are engaged in their own experiments with reflection and meditation, then they will be in uniquely good positions to understand how to help their students.  I believe that the most powerful contemplative tool you can bring to your classroom is your mindful presence and that from that, many things can grow in many different directions.  Once you begin to have a feel for yourself as a mindful teacher, you can connect with programs and experiences to support your students.