Tag Archives: mindfulness practice

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year: October 20, 2017


October 11th of last week was Oregon’s official teacher in-service day. In our school district, the day is unofficial, in that it’s no longer a paid work day. Somehow during negotiations that took place more than a decade ago now, the paid in-service day was bargained away in exchange for some other mysterious but beneficial thing. We still have the day off, but my sense is that most of the teachers in my school, and in my district, are not in-servicing themselves. It’s a three-day weekend, for crying out loud.

I got my haircut on teacher in-service day. And I shopped for new music.

But here I am, a week later, at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island with the Center for Courage and Renewal, on retreat for four days, taking two professional leave days and soul-sacrificing an entire weekend, officially in-servicing myself in the mysterious ways of what has come to be called by all its practitioners: Courage Work.

The work, inspired by the writer Parker J. Palmer and his book The Courage to Teach, began as a program for the professional and personal renewal of teachers. Over the last 15 years or so, the philosophies and strategies of that work have expanded exponentially and now include other professional groups: people in leadership roles, clergy, mental health professionals, health care professionals, etc.

So, I have joined 33 strangers here on this island, 29 participants and a leadership team of 4 facilitators, coming from all over the country, from Canada and from England, to delve deeper into this practice and to begin exploring the idea and possibility of moving into this work on a professional level. The Gateway Retreat, as this one is named, is designed specifically for people who have some significant experience already with Courage Work and who are thinking about a training program to become facilitators. That would be me. I am one of those people.

It is notoriously difficult to quickly describe to someone what it is exactly that we do here. For teachers, it’s not about classroom practice (but it could be), it’s not about raising test scores (but it could be), it’s not about curriculum development (but it could be), it’s not about professional relationships (but it could be). You get the picture. For a participant at a retreat of this kind, it is ABOUT whatever you need it to be about. Right now, you’re not thinking about teaching, instead, you’ve just put one of your parents in a nursing home; or you’re going through a divorce; or you’re choosing a subject for your next painting; or you find yourself unable to paint at all. Your life stuff becomes central—because your life stuff cannot help but influence and color and shape your profession and your work in that profession. Primarily, this retreat is about YOU and the way in which your identity intersects with your life’s work: the coming together of soul and role. Yes, we’re doing soul work. Sssshh. It’s a solitary endeavor—but here it absolutely requires community. We’re not all off gazing at our shoes. We are looking into mirrors. We are listening deeply. We are creating what is called Circles of Trust.

And the result? The magic word here is discernment. I find swirling around this work a number of other magic words as well: Clarity. Consciousness. Integrity. Authenticity. Silence. Storytelling. Solitude. Community. Paradox. And concerning these last three, my favorite and to me the most important paradox of Courage Work: that only in community can we find true solitude—but it has to be a community that values and nurtures that solitude, that welcomes and invites the soul. Most of our communities don’t do this. They need to. They must. So much depends upon it. This, I’ve found, again and again since I first came to it in 2000, is a good place to start.

We were thinking about the word SOUL this morning, and reflecting on Parker Palmer’s metaphor that the soul is like a wild animal: it’s strong, it’s mysterious, it’s resourceful, its orientation is always toward survival—but if you want to see it, you don’t run through the forest shouting. You’ve got to be quiet. You’ve got to be respectful. And in one of these moments, two deer came right up to the windows of our meeting place. They were massive and beautiful and they looked into our windows to say hey, and then they were gone.

We ask a lot of open, honest questions of ourselves and others. As of this writing, we’re only half way through the retreat, but here’s a sampling:

  • What are you listening for in your life right now?
  • What, if anything, do you need to let go of?
  • What signs of renewal do you see in your life?
  • What’s the difference between an ego story and a soul story? What’s a story from your life you can tell in two ways—as a story of ego and as a story of soul?
  • After reading from John Lewis’ Walking in the Wind: What is your experience in a societal storm among those most like you and across lines of difference?
  • What’s it like for you standing inside of a tragic gap, that distance between what is possible and what is a reality?

We reflect, in writing or in silence. We make art. We read poems together—not to study, as one would do in an English class, but to explore as what we call “a third thing”—some kind of language event (usually a poem but not always) that serves as a springboard for personal inquiry or reflection on the kinds of questions like those above. It’s a medium or a visiting voice between facilitator and community, a third thing, a tool to elicit deep inquiry from deep places. This is no place for a formalist critic, an English teacher habit that I find easy to jettison in this space.

While in session, we don’t talk to each other. We don’t discuss. There’s no give-or-take, back-and-forth. The impulse to argue or connect or add to or comment on is in perpetual check. Instead, we speak into the circle and listen carefully. In this way, it is unlike the kind of talk we do everywhere else in the world and especially in academics. In this way, each voice has a space, each voice is heard, each voice is welcome. And silences are intentional and weighty, never uncomfortable.

Saturday, we will prepare for Clearness Committees, a central component of a Courage Retreat in which five or six individuals help a single individual toward discernment on a problem or issue by doing nothing but asking honest, open questions for a full two and a half hours. A potentially life/mind altering experience and gift for both the individual with the issue and the people lucky enough to be able to share this deeply in someone else’s soul story.

This, in a nutshell, has been an attempt to describe what it is exactly that we do here.

Here are my central questions for this weekend:

How can I bring this back into my school community?

Is this truly my calling now?

And to answer your lingering question (perhaps) about how this work is possible for a room full of strangers, I call your attention to exhibits A and B: The touchstones of The Circle of Trust and The Five Habits of Heart. Good night and take care.

img_4810

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Education, Self Reflection, Teaching

100 Consecutive Days of Meditation Practice; 31 Days Without Sugar, Dairy, Grains, Legumes, Alcohol, and Soy; It’s Spring!

whole30_thumb

And no sugar that is not a natural byproduct of any of those items on the left.

Today my Insight Timer, an iphone app that keeps track of how many consecutive days and how many minutes and hours one spends in meditation practice, confirmed for me the 100th consecutive day of sitting for at least 10 minutes, every other Sunday as much as an hour, on a cushion. Today I have set two personal records. 100 days of mindfulness practice is the first. The second record is that I am on day 31 without alcohol, sugar, dairy products, grains, beans, and soy. I have successfully completed the Whole 30 project. So I thought I would check in today to do a little bit of reflection about the results, and about what I think this all means for me.

Result #1: I have lost weight. I’m not a big boy by any means, but things were protruding somewhat conspicuously in the middle. That protrusion has subsided somewhat and I think, depending on the accuracy of the scale or my memory, I’ve lost almost 10 pounds.

Result #2: I sleep better. I find myself going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier. I find myself dreaming more vividly. I have not heard in 30 days any complaints from my sleeping companion about snoring. There are times when I wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep, kept awake by what I have come to call “hamsters.” But this is an entirely different kind of problem from the fitful sleeping fueled by alcohol that might have been an almost weekly problem for me heretofore. And napping in the afternoon after work has all but disappeared–except on maybe one or two occasions during the month when I was suffering from a minor cold or recovering from a night with the hamsters.

Result #3: I have experienced a boost in energy. It seems I have more fuel and there’s a certainty that this new fuel reserve is a direct byproduct of the foodstuff I am consuming, and more importantly, the foodstuff I am NOT consuming. No sugar, breads, pastas, dairy, or alcohol (I see these intuitively as the main culprits) to put a drag on the day. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #4: Concerning alcohol, I know now that if I choose to, I can stop drinking. This was actually a question for me before this whole project got underway. I worried about it. And I meditated on it. And I am happy to report that I am not an alcoholic. As I look ahead, what I hope is that I have given myself permission and an opportunity to rethink my relationship with the stuff. I can’t see myself as a teetotaller, but I can see myself as a person who drinks less habitually and more mindfully, cautiously, moderately. That’s the kind of drinker I’d like to be. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Result #5: I have felt happy more often, sometimes unaccountably so. Maybe only once this entire month have I felt what one might call “blue.” I wept today over the end of Death of a Salesman, but that’s different. That’s an appropriate response to emotional stimuli, rather than a sense of gloom or boredom or discontentedness that would sometimes overwhelm me out of nowhere. So, there’s been less of that. And the happiness I’m describing is not some kind of feeling of fulfillment, ultimate satisfaction, a sense that I’ve arrived, but rather a kind of joyful bug, an invasion of mirth or wonder. Glee for no good reason. And it’s spring. There’s that.

Final Result: I believe somewhat without any evidence whatsoever that my meditation practice made it possible for me to successfully complete my Whole 30 project. I can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but here are two activities occurring simultaneously in my life. Did the meditation practice influence the success of the Food Project or did the Food Project facilitate the successful conclusion of 100 days of meditation practice or do the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other? Don’t spoil it for me. I think meditation helped. But perhaps, more so than what it is I was doing, it’s possible that ANY discipline religiously observed might pave the way for another discipline religiously observed. And I don’t mean religious religiously (but I suppose if I was a praying man and I was praying for 100 days straight I would be convinced that these prayers were answered), I mean religiously in the sense of its definition, three definitions down: scrupulously faithful; conscientious I could have been praying, sure, or exercising, or writing a poem, or maintaining a zen rock and sand garden, or drinking a magic potion; the devoted practice done repeatedly might just pave the way for other life goals or projects. You know what they say: success breeds success. So this is all I can claim: I think the meditation helped, primarily in the way that it disciplined me and perhaps made possible the discipline I would need for The Food Project, not to mention the other things I think meditation achieves for me: it centers, it mellows, it cools, it calms, it evens out, it stabilizes, it connects, it reflects, it resonates, it quiets. I have faith in the science that says it’s beneficial in part because I feel its benefits. And it’s spring. There’s that too, after all.

bell2    

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Religion, Self Reflection

Finding My Way Back to Courage

courage-to-teach

At the turn of the new year in 2016, I resolved to live more mindfully, and in January I joined a local meditation group. A year and some months later, the group still meets every other week, is facilitated by a super competent, compassionate and knowledgeable guy who earns his living as a hypnotherapist. We spend an hour and a half together in silent meditation, in guided meditation, in other meditative exercises and activities, and in discussion over our experiences together.

I enjoy my time with this group very much and in a year’s span I’ve only missed a handful of our meetings. It has inspired me to keep up my own private and daily meditation practice, it has given me some tools for cooling the fires, for dealing constructively with the common stresses of work and family life, for living more reflectively, and subsequently, it has been a boon for that 2016 resolution to work on more mindful living, a resolution that has had more staying power than any I’ve ever set for myself.

I realize, though, that I had another motive for seeking out a meditation group, a sangha, if you will, to enhance and grow my own spiritual experience. I find myself hearkening back and trying to find a way to recreate or recapture a much earlier and more formative experience with mindfulness practice. The search began for me in 1999, the year I embarked on a long relationship and several extended experiences with a program called The Courage To Teach, an educational opportunity based on the work of writer, educator, and peace activist Parker Palmer.

I had read Parker Palmer’s book and had seen him speak once almost a year before, but The Courage To Teach program was news to me several months later, billed as a series of retreats over a two year period and designed as a course in “teacher renewal.” It appealed to me then, closing in on my first decade as a public high school English teacher, because I felt like I was already in dire need of renewal, that already early in my career I felt not a little bit in danger of burn-out. Renewal. There was something about that word. And there was something about another phrase associated with the program: “formation work.” Both resonated with me in a serious and palpable way. Yes, I knew I needed to renew my teacher self, and yes, there was also something inside, gestating, some kind of formation, a sense of  “becoming” something more–or rather, “becoming” into something already there, but dormant.

What followed for me was a two year series of eight Courage retreats, in the late 2000’s another round of four retreats over a single year, and between that first experience and the second, and between the second and this present moment, a smattering, maybe three or four more individual weekend retreats. I have told colleagues and friends of mine that this work, my initial introduction to it and my continual revisitation of it, has been the single most impactful, meaningful, influential, and enriching experience I have ever had, rivaled perhaps only by the heady years during my work toward an MFA in creative writing.

My Courage colleagues and I often joked about the difficulty of describing to someone “on the outside” exactly what it was one “did” at a Courage To Teach retreat. At the center, perhaps, was a fascinating and invigorating paradox, that we were together in community and simultaneously in solitude. Our facilitators gave us poems or short essays to read; they gave us prompts for writing, meditating, thinking, drawing, finger-painting; they asked us questions for conversations in small group or partnerships; they told us to go on walks outside; they gave us two hour breaks during which we were asked to be completely silent, and they brought us together on the eve of our last morning together for Circles of Trust: the Clearness Committee, the centerpiece of the two day retreat. I could go on about any of these listed activities, but to make things snappy I’ll just enlarge this paradox a bit by saying that the goal of all of this work was not academic conversation, was not classroom pedagogy, was not teacher strategies, but rather, in community to invite the individual soul and “inner teacher” of each member of the group. We didn’t discuss things, but we spoke into the circle and were heard. There was almost a religious principle that commentary on what someone else might share was verboten–alongside a serious commitment to confidentiality. The ethos of the work spiraled around a set of community expectations or “touchstones” that worked so powerfully over the proceedings, they are worth listing here. They are repeated and discussed at the beginning of every retreat and often referred to throughout the process. The touchstones ask you to:

  • Come with 100% of your self
  • Presume welcome and extend welcome
  • Believe that it is possible to leave more refreshed than when you arrived
  • Know that there is always invitation, never demand
  • Avoid fixing–no fixing
  • Practice openness and learn from others
  • Speak for your self; use “I” statements
  • Turn to inquiry when the going gets tough
  • Listen to the silence
  • Observe confidentiality

Another complete blog essay could be written about each of the preceding touchstones, but I’ll just say here that these particular norms had such a powerful and positive impact on the way these groups were together, that in as many experiences as I had with this process and with as many different groups of people, almost all of whom were essentially strangers to me, I never, not once, had a negative experience, not even a single moment when I felt anything other than completely safe and taken care of.

It was not, never was, a class or a workshop about “meditation,” per se, but everything about it was meditative, reflective, truth-seeking, and most importantly, respectful and inviting of silence. This is where I learned to meditate. So in the absence of around-the-calendar opportunities for Courage retreats, I joined a meditation group, hoping, perhaps, to be able to recreate or participate in something somewhat remotely like the retreat experience inspired by the work of Parker Palmer.

My experience in a meditation group over the last year and some months comes close. I’m not sure that’s correct. It does its job to create some similar conditions to those of a Courage retreat; also, it’s clearly beneficial on its own as simply another avenue into the neighborhood of raising consciousness, awareness, and equanimity. But I realize now, as I was looking to my meditation group as a  way to recapture the benefits of an earlier experience, that there might not exist an adequate substitute. There are elements to my Courage experiences that might possibly only emerge from a Courage experience. And this was a question often asked in the closing circle of a retreat: how do we sustain this work? How do we embody or continue these practices? How can this influence who I am in the world, with my family, with my students? Some religious people find this in their churches. Non-religious people like myself, who nevertheless hunger for spiritual growth experiences, find it in other places if they are lucky. For now, I’m in a meditation group. In April, I’ll write a poem every day. I’m rereading Palmer’s The Hidden Wholeness. I am thinking seriously about training to be a facilitator of this important, transformational work. Slowly but surely, I am finding my way back to courage.

http://www.couragerenewal.org/courage-to-teach/

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Religion, Self Reflection, Teaching

Mindfulness in 2016: A Reflection

Here’s the new year’s resolution I settled into last year:

I resolve in 2016 to be more mindful, to find opportunities daily for meditation practice, and to seek out a community, some companionship on the journey.

I wonder how I did. Let’s look, shall we? Two years ago I bought an application for my stupid smart phone called The Insight Timer. It’s a meditation bell app that also keeps track of your meditation statistics, your mindfulness “stats,” if you will. Hey, I took some screen shots. Look:

img_3952

Wow, that’s a big screen shot. What’s most useful about this lovely little graph (besides the notification that the phone is only 36% charged) is that it demonstrates quite nicely a gigantic mindfulness upswing over the last two years. 2016 simply dwarfs the previous two years in mindfulness. And, during the year, my best run was 87 days in a row of mindfulness meditation. 87 days in a row! It looks like, currently, I’ve done poorly, but that’s just because I took a break three days ago, and the counter starts fresh each time that happens. I don’t like it, but that’s the way it goes. Let’s look at another gigantic screen shot:

img_3954

Almost 59 hours of meditation in single year with an average meditation time of 16 minutes. You might be curious (or you might not be curious) about my longest session. 2 hours seems like a long time to sit with oneself, doesn’t it? Well, the answer to this question brings me to the second part of the resolution I made for 2016, and that was to seek out a community. Call it kismet or serendipity or synchronicity or whatever you like, almost immediately after writing that resolution a friend of mine, Scott Duvall, posted an invitation for like-minded individuals to start a group meditation practice. I have been doing this all year every other Sunday. I missed a few here and there, but typically, if I’m there, the group spends about an hour and a half to two hours together, not meditating the entire time, mind you, but several times over the duration of the session interspersed with some guided work and teaching from our ringleader Scott, all meditative. So there you have it. I have fulfilled my 2016 New Year’s resolution.

But I have not achieved total mindfulness; I do not yet feel enlightened. That wasn’t the resolution in the first place, but ultimately one has to ask oneself what it all means, what the effect has been, what has been the benefit of this focused attention on meditating 16 minutes almost every day over the course of a year. One thing I think we can safely say is that the phrase “mindfulness statistics” is a nonsensical oxymoron. I could have spent every single one of those 58 hours and 52 minutes thinking about sex, or thinking about things I want, or revisiting the past, or fantasizing about the future, or planning an evil plot to take over the world. To set your mind at ease, I was NOT thinking about all of those things, only some of them. It’s just really hard not to think of some of those things while I’m meditating. So let me just list, if I may, the benefits I believe I achieved through my dogged but imperfect efforts to make good on last year’s resolution, mainly, to develop a regular discipline of meditation practice:

  • Moving into my work as a high school English teacher, I have felt more relaxed through the course of each frenetic day.
  • I have come to really look forward to sitting on my cushion each morning; it is a comfortable, restful, peaceful oasis before all the noise of the day; it feels replenishing, nourishing.
  • I have learned, though, too, that the meditation cushion is not the only place to meditate.
  • I have been able to pay close attention to my mind, in essence, to know myself better.
  • I have become conscious of issues in my life and have been able to do some work around them–not to solve them, but to be more aware of them, to understand them, essentially to answer the question: what is the cause or causes of my suffering?
  • I have become, I think, more even-keeled in my response to difficulties in work and in relationship. I have not killed a single one of my high school freshmen.
  • I have been helped through the general grieving process of living through 2016 and have even discovered some strength and some hope to help me forward.
  • I have been reminded of the powerful paradox that good inner work requires both solitude and community.

There may be some things I’ve forgotten. For now, this covers it pretty well. These are the gifts of the work of the last year toward a mindful, meditation practice. I know that it’s been moving me slowly toward something greater, the specifics of which I do not yet understand and cannot visualize. So, it must be that my 2017 resolution is mostly a continuation of the one I wrote in 2016, because primarily, unlike most resolutions, it was successful, and, so they say, success breeds success. What I would ad, perhaps, is that with the continuation of this work, I might find more specific transformations are possible, personally, creatively, professionally, and politically. The inner transformation resonates outward and comes back again. It’s a feedback loop of meditative goodness, baby. So happy new year.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Self Reflection

#233: A Meditation on Forgetting to Meditate While Meditating

bell2

(for Scott)

Walking the dog,
focusing on the breath,
in and out, in rhythm
with my step, my
digital meditation bell
ticking away for twenty-five
minutes inside my pocket,
suddenly I realize that
I am missing group meditation.
I have to breathe more deeply
through the frustration
I feel for my forgetful self,
meditating and forgetting
to meditate, in solitude
and missing my community.

It’s true, I have been
distracted of late, what with
the end of the world and all,
trying to stay informed and
yet trying and failing to just
stay away, tune out, turn off,
power down, log out, let the
world do its thing, a deep struggle
between doing nothing and
doing something, between
a nagging doubt that says
meditation changes nothing
to a certainty that everything
is changed and that the inward
work resonates outward
and transforms the universe.

This is certain:
Things will work themselves
out one way or another.
The group will do its thing
and I can be both absent and
present at the same time;
and the world will do its thing
and I can be there to push
it along in the right direction
through breath, word, rhythm,
whether I am alone or with others,
sitting, walking, and listening for
the mindful bell that goes off
in my pocket, its sonorous chime
rings once, twice, a third time–
and I’m home.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Self Reflection

#223: A Course in Silence

p01wd5lm

My sophomores and I are studying the poetry of William Stafford and, as is inevitable in a study of poetry, at least from my perspective,  we are also writing poems. An exercise slightly more open-ended than the corruption assignment, is to simply take inspiration from our man Stafford, either by attempting, as he did for 50 some years, to write a little bit every day, or by borrowing subject matter or certain moves and approaches. For example, after reading “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” we might write our own ritual poem: “A Ritual to ________.” Or, from “Why I Am Happy,” we start with that title or fill in something more individually appropriate: Why I Am Sad, Angry, Hungry, Frustrated, Confused, or in Love. And, finding myself in a grading lull, I take full advantage of the opportunities I’m giving to my students to do some writing of my own. Here’s a thing inspired by Stafford’s “A Course in Creative Writing.” As I put up the prompt, “A Course in ________,” I couldn’t help but think about the kind of course I think children and young people, and adults, too, for that matter, need most.

A Course in Silence

How about a class
in which students
learn to be quiet,
in which they learn
how to sit and do
nothing, how to
breathe, how to be
without noise,
without screens,
without entertainment,
without distraction
of any kind?
The final exam:
sit here.
You can close
your eyes but
you don’t have to.
Be aware of the
spinning wheels
of your own mind
and try to slow
them down,
or not. It’s enough
to be aware of them
spinning.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Extra credit option:
do that again,
only better.

5 Comments

Filed under Education, Poetry, Teaching

#208: Lord Capulet Cleans Out His Chakra House

3b8990934a5695883fb0365c28398c41

Down there in the red Root the ground is slipping.
That navel orange Sacral space is pretty much on fire and
my Solar Plexis spins like a drunken dervish on a yellow sun.
All the Heart Stuff bubbles and boils dangerously
toward destruction, comes up green in my throat and
I find myself shouting all the time. Finally, I spy
with my Third Eye something like a clearing out,
a cleansing, a purple purge of everything that’s broken.
Violent delights have violent ends and a violet Crown
now sits on my head.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry