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Archive for the ‘Transformation’ Category

I have been neglecting my blog for so long…and I never posted my published article about HH Dalai Lama’s visit to DC in October. Here it finally is:

On October 8th and 9th, 2009, I attended the Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century conference in Washington D.C. Panelists included neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives, with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama presiding. For six hours each day, the interdisciplinary dialogue attempted to answer such questions as, “How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century?” and “How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical, and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world?”

In The Outline of History (1920), H.G. Wells wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” How many of us now feel this every day in the classroom? Most of my current course load is basic writing and reading classes for underprepared alternative learners, and their needs are far beyond what the traditional teaching model has to offer. As educators, we have the responsibility to prepare our students to survive and succeed. In this new, interconnected world, what does it take to do this?

For those interested in educational reform, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum by J. Abner Peddiwell (Harold Benjamin) should be required reading. Published in 1939, and even more relevant today, the book offers a tongue-in-cheek description of a groundbreaking discovery of the Paleolithic school system. According to Peddiwell’s “research,” the original purpose of schooling was to provide basic life skills to young people:

• Saber-tooth tiger scaring
• Fish-grabbing
• Woolly-horse clubbing

The entire educational system was built around developing these core skills.

As the ice age passed, the saber-tooth tigers succumbed to pneumonia, silt from receding glaciers made streams too murky to see fish, and the small horses went east to the dry plains. Yet schools continued to teach the same basic life skills, maintaining that they defined an educated person. Educators who suggested there was no relationship between real life and fish-grabbing were branded as heretics.

While written as a humorous satire, Benjamin’s message is painfully relevant seventy years later. Education must begin adapting to the world of today and tomorrow. Students will need to develop unprecedented levels of intercultural cooperation, and be competent, ethical, and engaged citizens. Education can no longer simply be measured in terms of knowledge and cognitive skills, but must address skills and qualities such as social responsibility, emotional self-regulation, and compassion.

I have found that service-learning projects are an excellent way to teach social responsibility. There’s plenty of research out there to attest to this, but I don’t need the research to prove what I’ve seen first-hand. One of my writing classes is currently involved in a project to assist local non-profits with their websites. Working in small groups, they write a letter to the non-profit to offer their services; analyze the website for spelling and grammatical errors, broken links, and navigation problems; and report on their findings in a formal written presentation. The most interesting part of this project has been the level of engagement. The groups chose their own non-profits and the majority were organizations that worked with violence prevention and extreme poverty. I have watched my bored and somewhat apathetic students becoming passionate advocates for, not only their own project’s organization, but for the other groups’ as well.

But how does one teach emotional self-regulation, empathy, and compassion in a foundational college course? Panelist and developmental psychologist Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave an excellent overview of emotional self-regulation as it relates to empathy and compassion. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys and feels the same emotion as the rejected boy. This is empathy. Her empathy might lead her to feel concern and motivation to help the boy to feel better. This is compassion, which leads naturally to engagement.

Empathy does not always lead to compassion, however, and as Dr. Eisenberg aptly stated, this is where it gets interesting. If Isabella has been rejected in the past and has not developed emotional regulation skills, then when she feels the boy’s rejection (empathy), she begins to remember her own feelings of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety and personal distress. Isabella now wants to make herself feel better rather than the boy, so instead of experiencing compassion and engagement, she experiences avoidance.

I believe that most of my students experience empathy, but I have seen a clear lack of emotional self-regulation skills and avoidance is increasingly common. If compassion leads to engagement—necessary both for success in the classroom and in life—can we teach it? Mentoring, the panelists agreed, is a well-documented way to encourage these skills and teach compassion, but it can be time-consuming and difficult to get an entire classroom to commit. The Dalai Lama pointed out that in order to experience true compassion, students need to understand that “all beings are equal…both in their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it.” In doing so, they develop feelings of responsibility for others and wish to help them actively overcome their problems.

In trying to foster this sense of community within the classroom, I use a commonalities exercise. It is an excellent (and relatively brief) way to encourage the leap from empathy to compassion, and it helps to build camaraderie in the classroom as well. I usually do it as a first week icebreaker activity. We begin in small groups with the instruction to recognize and list what all members have in common. When the groups come together as a class, they share such commonalities as the basic needs of food, shelter, and love. They also begin to discuss bigger ideas: “Just like me, everyone in my group wants to be happy,” “Just like me, everyone in my group has known sadness and loneliness,” and “Just like me, everyone in my group wants to be liked and belong.” Once students realize that they have so many similarities, and once the foundation for caring relationships is laid, they recognize their own interconnectedness and begin to actively care for each other. I had two students hospitalized early in a semester, and classmates got together care packages and homework assignments—without any suggestions or prompting on my part. They had been strangers to each other prior to the start of the school year, but they made the leap from empathy to compassion in a few short weeks.

There were still many unanswered questions by the close of the conference, but all agreed that compassion is not merely a word, it is an action, and to teach compassion, we must emulate it. Panelist and educator Linda Lantieri shared a story from Gandhi’s autobiography. In this story, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi tells the mother to bring the child back in two weeks. The mother returns in two weeks with her son and Gandhi lectures him on the dangers of eating sugar. The mother asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?” Gandhi replies, “Because two weeks ago when you asked, I was still eating sugar.” Thus, the only real way to teach social responsibility, emotional self-regulation, and compassion, is to embody them. If we succeed, human history will shift from “a race between education and catastrophe,” to a journey of enriched possibilities.

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waterI am practicing water mind.

Water is the great connector, uniting the infinite and the miniscule without bias, without preference. From the body’s cells to the earth’s land masses, water connects what seems separate, distant, and different, into one seamless whole.

Water unites the earth with the sky through the never-ending cycle of evaporation and precipitation. This process of flow mirrors the path all beings follow—becoming, being, dying…life, death, recycle. Our destination of returning is never in question.

Steam above a sizzling street
Smoky fog that claims the sea
Rising mist, descending rain
And it all begins again.

Water is able to both expand and contract, and the same is true of the human spirit. When we are harsh to a child, their spirit contracts. When we love a child, their spirit expands. This is why the practice of metta—of lovingkindness—is so powerful. An expanding spirit is capable of touching all living beings.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be healed and whole
May all have whatever they want and need
May all be protected from harm and free from fear
May all beings enjoy inner peace and ease
May all be awakened, liberated and free
May there be peace in this world
and throughout the entire universe.

Regardless of the obstacles encountered, water does not stop. It does not give up. Water will rest, however, and wait for the proper circumstances—a path, an opening.

I am practicing water mind. Moving, joining, nurturing, cleansing, renewing…when everything is experienced as this “One”—when flow is simply flow—then there is no separation…no pain, destruction, lack, hurt, death. There are no hard surfaces to bump up against and nothing to grab hold of. This mind of endless, effortless rest, renewal, and movement, is as calm as doing…as simply Being.

The end of every journey is a new beginning, every destination is temporary, every goal is cyclical.

Beginning complete, we remain complete.

With nowhere to go,
There is nothing to fulfill
Except our destiny.

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I didn’t plant potatoes this year. I silently lament this as I slice up the less-than-stellar red bliss potatoes from the local market. Funny, we live here in Maine, one of the major potato-growing states, but California still ships us their potatoes.

I am thinking of my grandpa as I scrub a few more potatoes, returning to the cutting board to slice them into thin half-moons. I miss him and often wish he could have lived long enough to meet my children and to know the woman I’ve become. He was such a wonderful man, so spiritual yet so grounded in the Now. My favorite time of year was always autumn, not only because it welcomed my birthday, but because it marked my favorite family trip—when my parents would pack us up and drive deep into the Catskills to visit him. I sprinkle some olive oil over the potatoes and smile to myself, remembering.

The drive always seemed so long, but I would gaze out the window in awe of the growing beauty around me as we moved from the overcrowded east shore, through western Massachusetts, into that perfect place of rock, tree, and sky. As the trees increased in number, they became an endless wave of oranges, yellows, and reds, stretching off into hills broken only by the golden fields of grazing cows. Stone walls defined age-old property lines, pastures, and rough dirt roads. Peace would gradually creep into our car, stilling my sister’s chatter, softening my parent’s voices, and infusing my very body with its calm. It would start with the familiar warm feeling in my stomach, spreading slowly down my limbs, relaxing clenched hands and fidgety feet. By the time we finally pulled into the driveway of the parsonage house, darkness close on our heels, the peace would finally reach my head, and the seemingly endless chatter of my mind would stop as I tumbled out of the car and into the dry, crunchy air of my grandpa’s Now. He would hug me hard, all tough skin and long bones, and I would breathe deeply of his wool cardigan, smelling wood smoke, apples, and the dinner he was preparing.

Our visits were never long enough, but grandpa’s life continued at its normal pace while we were there. Chores were done with a reverence I longed to know, so I would follow him as he worked, helping, listening, and learning. He would bring me out to his garden to dig the potatoes left in the frost-hardened soil. He said they tasted better stored in the dirt, and always left them there until the first snowflakes began to fly and threatened to stay for good. As we dug through the dirt, I would breathe in the damp smell of the soil, feeling it seep into my very bones with its deeply primeval magic. I listened to the silence of the hills around me, smelled the smoke rising from a nearby chimney, and became one with the work, one with the earth beneath my knees. I knew my grandpa was doing the same.

I sprinkle some coarse sea salt over the tossed potato slices and spread them into a baking dish. How I long to recreate that feeling of peace and oneness with the earth, I think, as I scrape the thyme off its woody stem. I add a handful of chives and search for a sharp knife to chop the herbs. My drive to recreate those feelings is what motivated me to choose a more difficult path. I hone the blade and wipe it carefully with a towel. It would have been so much easier to follow the standard path of least resistance, the road America raises us to trod with confidence. I silently admonish myself for peering into that dark abyss of regrets, yet I can’t stop. Applying the knife to the herbs, I begin to mince and think.

My grandpa. I missed him so much. His death in 1986 was sudden and unfathomable. I was living in Virginia, working hard and singing a lot. I knew he was ill, yet I hadn’t gone to see him, mostly because my mom continued to warn me of his rapid decline due to the cancerous brain tumor that had invaded his mind. “He doesn’t make a lot of sense now,” she said on the phone. “He is a ghost of himself. Maybe it’s best if you remember him as he was, not as the person he’s becoming.” I took her words of advice to heart, holding him in my memories as the vigorous, vital man I knew.

Our last few visits before his illness had been troubled. I felt he was ashamed of me and my development into a free-spirited, independent young woman. Perhaps it was his impending illness speaking when he tried to take me aside in my parent’s home, and in a bizarre exhibit of evangelicalism demanded that I take jesus christ as my savior. I remember feeling fear in those words. My parents had always encouraged freedom of thought, and although I was raised a christian, we had never been told we were required to make any sacrifices for a dogma’s cause. For us, christianity was more about love, acceptance, and the goodness of all human beings.

His death overshadowed all this, though, and I continued to carry a piece of him with me. My road from Virginia to Georgia, Florida, Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, and finally into Oregon, was rocky, steep, and staggering in its disproportionate experiences. By the time I landed in Oregon, I was not only physically exhausted, but emotionally and spiritually drained as well. I craved silence, space, and a safe haven. Meeting my now ex husband seemed like a godsend. He carried himself with such calm austerity, his long brown hair and liquid eyes resembling the picture of Jesus that hung in my childhood church. When he sat still, legs crossed, hands folded upon his knee, cardigan buttoned to just below his sternum, he was the very image of…my grandpa.

I have completely destroyed these poor herbs, I think, as I scoop them up to scatter into the resting potatoes. I tuck pieces of sliced garlic in and around them, grind fresh black pepper over the entire dish, and slide it into the oven to roast. It is ridiculous how our histories, our experiences, form us. I feel used, shaped by the happenings of my youth into some kind of pitiful knot tied by a child’s fumbling fingers. Is this the way our histories are supposed to unfold? Does every person struggle with the tangles of familial and experiential relationships as they try to forge their own way through life? I have felt so isolated in my present self, alone in my regrets and pain. I think of the potatoes in the oven. Perhaps we are all just common potatoes, used by our own realities, depending upon the seasonings of our experiences to give us depth of flavor and interest. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be. I wouldn’t be standing here now, listening to the sizzling of garlicky potatoes meeting the heat, awaiting the savory-sweet earthy scent to drift from the oven, if I hadn’t lived this life in particular to this exact point in time. I am my life, my choices, my history. It hurts right now but…yes, this is me.

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The other day I read an essay by Buddhist writer Sumi Loundon. Because I am four years deep in a writing project about personal loss, her opening words practically leapt off the page at me: “I have news for you young people: something bad will happen to you in your lifetime. It could be anything—a breakup, a loved one dying, a car accident—but for sure, something really awful will come your way, if it hasn’t already. That much is known. What is unknown is how you will handle it: whether you will be someone incapacitated by tragedy who inflicts suffering on those around you and makes things worse or whether you will come out on the other side a stronger, wiser, better person who helps others grow, too.” 

Almost 14 years ago I experienced the worst “something bad” I could ever have imagined: the death of my first daughter. When I spoke to my Grandma on the phone after Kachina’s death, she was very kind and gentle, not in a soft, sweet, grandmotherly way, but in her own, very real way. She made sympathetic noises, mentioned The Lord a few times, and then, surprisingly, quoted Nietzsche. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” she said.

Now, although it didn’t feel helpful at the time…I mean, could I really be expected to think, “Oh, wonderful, a new learning opportunity!”…?…she was right. Think on the Parable of the Butterfly. If the butterfly had been allowed to struggle its way out of the cocoon, it would have been healthier, stronger, and able to fly.

I have witnessed this metamorphosis repeatedly in my recent years working with the cancer community. My friend Liz was a perfect example: she and her husband ran a thriving real estate business, they were living in a mansion on Sebago Lake, they had a vacation home in Costa Rica, she wore an amazingly large diamond on her finger and drove a luxury SUV. They were unapologetically jet-setting Mainers, enjoying the materialistic life with gusto.

Then she got diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. She endured surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, lost most of her digestive system and all of her hair, and sank into a deep, seemingly bottomless depression. She said the loss of control was unbearable…that the life seemed chaotic and lacked sense and meaning. She withdrew from much of her life, but still managed to drag herself to our weekly meditation group. One day we were taking turns closing our eyes and drawing inspirational quotes from a batch of cards being passed around the group. Liz turned her card over and read the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When it is darkest, men see the stars.” And so began her powerful transformation.

A week later, Liz showed up for our group positively glowing. She had a blissful smile on her face and such a calm serenity surrounded her that we were in awe of her presence. “I’m selling my diamond after class,” she announced. “All of a sudden, it seems so…silly to wear such a thing.”

A week later, Liz looked even more beautiful. She announced that she and her husband had decided to sell their large home and move to a smaller, less ostentatious one. They were also selling their Costa Rican home, and were truly enjoying giving away the money to various charities and people in need. Even the way she spoke was radically transformed. The only words that passed her lips were kind and loving. She listened deeply when people spoke, and offered support and unconditional love to everyone she encountered.

The last time I saw Liz before she died, she spoke of the cancer as her most powerful teacher. She said that her life had lacked deep meaning before becoming ill…not that she had even missed it. But, although her prosperous life may have appeared blessed, it was not until she became so gravely ill and experienced the transformation—the spiritual awakening—and shed all the exterior…and completely unnecessary…trappings she had distracted herself with, that she realized how precious life was, and began to cultivate deep love and intentionality. This brought her closer to her true nature, she felt, and helped her discover Spirit.

Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris has written that stress (struggle) is what creates evolution (transformation) in nature: Plants grow through pruning, and we humans grow the same way. When we’re faced with a situation that we can’t control or change, evolutionary stress arises. The stress impels us to eliminate (prune) what no longer serves us. We dig deep to tap into our Source, and often this results in a leap to a higher level of consciousness. We stand strong in the face of chaos and evolve.

Sometimes this evolutionary leap occurs with the realization that we still have a greater purpose to serve. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Victor Frankl, describes the pivotal moment in the camp when he experienced his spiritual transformation. He was on his way to work one day, trying to decide if he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup. He worried how he was going to work with a new foreman who was particularly sadistic. Suddenly, he was disgusted by just how trivial and meaningless his life had become. He realized that, in order to survive the senseless chaos and lack of control, he had to find some purpose. He became inspired to survive so he could share his story with the world. He pictured himself giving a lecture after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp, to help outsiders understand what the prisoners had gone through. Although he wasn’t even sure he would survive, he succeeded in rising above his current suffering. He later wrote, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”

Sometimes our transformation begins with the realization that we are not alone in our pain…that others have experienced the very same thing and have still managed to continue on. Let me tell you a story: In the time of the Buddha, a woman suffered the death of her only child. Unable to accept it, she ran from person to person, seeking a medicine to restore her child to life. The Buddha was said to have such a medicine.

She went to the Buddha, paid homage, and asked, “Can you make a medicine that will restore my child?”

“I know of such a medicine,” the Buddha replied. “But in order to make it, I must have certain ingredients.”

Relieved, the woman asked, “What ingredients do you require?”

“Bring me a handful of mustard seed,” said the Buddha.

The woman promised to procure it for him, but as she was leaving, he added, “I require the mustard seed to be taken from a household where no child, spouse, parent, or servant has died.”

The woman agreed and began going from house to house in search of the mustard seed. At each house the people agreed to give her the seed, but when she asked them if anyone had died in that household, she could find no home where death had not visited—in one house a daughter, in another a servant, in others a husband or parent had died. The woman was not able to find a home free from the suffering of death. Seeing she was not alone in her grief, the mother let go of her child’s lifeless body and returned to the Buddha, who said with great compassion, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”

I found out after my daughter’s passing that my Grandma had lost a child—her first as well—to spinal bifida. The knowledge that I was not alone, that I was not the only one who had suffered such a seemingly senseless loss, did much to support me through my own spiritual transformation. When my Grandmother quoted Nietzsche, she was actually speaking from personal experience. What HADN’T killed her HAD made her stronger: after suffering the death of her first-born, she was able to move on to successfully birth two more children and have long and successful careers as both an elementary school teacher and semiprofessional soprano. And although she experienced more suffering—such as the untimely death of her beloved husband—she still rose from the depths of despair to put both her children through college and support herself comfortably into old age. She saw the births of eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and lived to the ripe old age of 96. She was opinionated, stubborn, and unyielding. She was also decisive, dependable, loving, loyal, and steadfast.

My Grandma became, as Loundon’s words so aptly described, “a stronger, wiser, better person who help(ed) others grow, too.” She was able to transform devastation to victory, and become an example of how to be happy, generous, and loving. And as my own life moved forward from that place of deep grieving, I too began to more fully understand that the same struggle that challenges us, transforms us, helping us to finally break out of the cocoon and evolve.

I think I’ll quote Nietzsche too when my own children or grandchildren look to me for support during difficult times. I’ve already chosen the words: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.” 

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