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.

Why have a mindfulness practice? Here’s one radical idea.

I’m sure we can all write our own posts on this topic and I’d love to hear from others about why they find having a mindfulness practice beneficial to them as educators (and human beings!)  I’ve been working with some very challenging emotions recently and I’m realizing more and more that one of my biggest reasons for wanting a mindfulness practice is to cultivate the possibility that I can interact with the world from a perspective of peaceful acceptance, regardless of external circumstances.  This idea runs as a powerful counter current to almost all of our emotional conditioning, especially in this culture.

Very often, we tell ourselves and each other that angry outbursts, fearful withdrawal, wounded pride or sulky acceptance are normal responses to the external conditions of our lives.  We actually support one another in validating these responses as healthy and we expect and accept that those around us will excuse, forgive and understand our behavior as normal under the circumstances.  And, thank goodness they do or we’d all be in big trouble!  The path of mindfulness, however, suggests another possibility, another choice.

Meditation instructor Michelle McDonald tells the story of a Zen teacher who is instructing his cook.  He tells the cook that part of his job is to keep the fire burning sharp and bright regardless of the quality of wood that he has to work with on any particular day.  Some days he’ll have wonderful dry cooking fuel and other days brambles, but regardless, he must keep the fire going.  If he gets sulky and neglects his job in frustration, then the fire will smoke and when that happens, it disturbs others.

I love the idea that one of our goals could be not to get smoky and bother other people.   Of course, this is a huge challenge.  But cultivating a mindfulness practice is a great first step to laying a foundation that can allow us to be less reactive and to have more choices in our reactions to external circumstances.  So much of what happens in our classrooms and schools, and with our students in their lives is way beyond our influence, but our responses to these events is something we can investigate every day.

If we can keep our fires burning bright, then at the very least, we can support and encourage others rather than adding to their burdens.  We can lessen drama, lower anxiety levels and add joy and peacefulness to our classroom communities. The amazing thing is that if we practice with offering more peaceful responses, rather than our standard conditioned ones, then we feel better too.  Double benefit.  We feel better and we don’t get smoky and disturb others.

Here is the link to Michelle McDonald’s talk for those who might be interested:

This blog can support your mindful teaching practice!

In the opening line of the text Issues & Alternatives in Educational Philosophy, George Knight observes that “Mindlessness is the most pertinent and accurate criticism of American Education.” One of the reasons I like this description is that it can be interpreted from so many different points of view and all of them feel pretty accurate in my experience.

What I am hoping to explore together in this blog space is what individual teachers can do–actually really do–to help fight mindlessness in their own teaching practice. I hope to focus on our practice, because that’s what, at the end of the day, each one of us can control. I contend that if we nurture and sustain our own mindfulness as educators, this has the greatest potential to change the learning experiences of our students and maybe the practice of our colleagues, and even the work within our schools. I hope that others of you who are also interested in investigating these ideas will join us here, contribute, comment and share your practices with us.

Please check back often and feel free to comment and add your thoughts, experiences and resources.