From Classrooms to Juvenile Hall; From Oakland to Newark
We might think that a curriculum based on Simple Reality would be a hard-sell in our nation’s schools let alone within the walls of our penal institutions. The good news is that it is already happening in both places, albeit on a modest scale, but a beginning is a beginning.
The truth is that a very young child, due to a universal inner wisdom—an intuitive understanding of Oneness—will resonate with truth and beauty when it is encountered. Educators and activists, many from the most troubled cities across the U.S., have discovered the power inherent in the worldview, identity and behavior of Simple Reality, regardless of the name they may give it. Author Barry Boyce speaking of the Dalai Lama, makes the point that we don’t have to create anything new but merely discover our natural state as human beings. Mindful peace is not a product of meditation, according to the Dalai Lama. It’s there all along.
Affirming the Simple Reality principle that the intellect is in service to intuition, Oakland community activist Brenda Salgado observed that to succeed in changing behavior “your head needs to align with your heart.” Understanding this more profound relationship between “head” and “heart” will bring about the awareness that empowers the creation of healthier human communities.
Ali Smith, an activist in Baltimore, emphasizes the importance of the context and compassion necessary to begin the process of moving troubled communities toward sustainability. “If I can be a more holistic, well-rounded, loving, and peaceful person, that’s what will make me the most powerful person in helping other people.”
The challenge facing America in preventing the slide of many of our largest cities into chaos is to bring to consciousness the underlying principles of what it means to be truly human and then create programs to make those principles the basis of our education system and indeed make them the operational vision of all of our institutions. For several decades, the Dalai Lama has been talking about “secular ethics”—that compassion and affection toward our fellow beings is our birthright, not an ideology we adopt from our religious or cultural background. Compassion, in other words, is the foundation of our human identity.
The beginning or “first principle” of a sustainable community is the worldview of Oneness. Oakland youth worker, Chris McKenna, reveals that she realizes this in saying that, “Our various groups see ourselves as interconnected, networked. We’re making a soup together, and awareness is a key ingredient. We encourage fundamental curiosity toward life and question views we’ve inherited about food, housing, economy, justice. We don’t just try to fix things to make them fit a version of what the city should look like from the outside. We discover together what it could look like from the inside.”
Fear is always the fundamental obstacle to human awakening to Simple Reality and compassion is the expression of human energy that can overcome that fear. Barry Boyce puts it this way: Those who look at these communities from the outside are viewing them from with a wide-angle lens and they see mostly pain and dysfunction, and they are afraid. The peacemakers witness the faces in close-up, and see beauty and an indomitable human spirit, and they are inspired.
Cory Booker, the young mayor of Newark, New Jersey is bothered by recidivism rates in the U.S. cities that range from 50 percent to two-thirds. He also sees a heightened awareness of the truth of Oneness in the human community. He feels…that we’re in the middle of developing a “more spiritual understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence in this and other areas. Convicts can no longer be seen as separate from us. They are us. We have an interwoven destiny. We need our ex-cons to be successful.”
Another key principle in Simple Reality is that art can provide the experience that can awaken the human connection to the True Self. (See examples in Art and Simple Reality on this blog.) Oakland has two youth programs, Youth Radio and United Roots Oakland which use art and performance to inspire and engage young people…
The two practices that form the pragmatic heart of Simple Reality, mindfulness meditation and The Point of Power Practice, are emerging, albeit slowly, in America’s institutions including education and criminal justice.
The Mind Body Awareness Project has shown that mindfulness meditation can address the problem of recidivism for young people within the Oakland justice system. Chris McKenna speaking of a retreat program that shows that silence can benefit our troubled youth says, “At Camp Glenwood we’ve had kids in silence for three or four hours at a time. A lot of awareness can come out of a space like that.”
What type of awareness/mindfulness do we want to see in our communities? Among the most important is that we all have the opportunity to make choices. Earl Best, an ex-con, distributes food on the streets of Newark from his “Street Doctor” van and is a model for what healthy choices can look like for youth and adults alike. “I show them how in my own life I took the energy I put into violence and put it into peace. I let them know in any given moment they can make a different choice.”
Laurie Grossman, Richard Shankman and Megan Cowan founded Mindful Schools in Oakland in 2007. One of the aspects of their curriculum involves what we can call the distinction between “response” and “reaction.” “That’s what mindfulness does for children,” Cowan said. “It offers young people access to oneself, to have self-awareness.” She said students very quickly discovered a quality of peace and stillness and ease, “of not having to respond [react] to external stimulus,” which translated into a look of relief on their faces.
We can teach children as soon as they enter school, and at home for that matter, the self-reliance embodied in The Point of Power Practice, which provides the opportunity to make better choices. Cowan feels Mindful Schools has been able to enter so many schools because the mechanisms and the benefits of the program are straightforward and promote better education: mindfulness creates space between our emotions and our reactions to them, giving us the opportunity to make choices more consciously.
Reactive human behavior derives its energy from fear. In deeply conditioned habitual behavior we are often not aware of the initial fear which is felt unconsciously and so fast that we are already reacting before we are aware of what is happening or why it’s happening. “When I teach,” describes Cowan, “I often start talking about anger, and I ask the kids to think of as many examples as they can of things people do when they’re angry. …Then I hold up two fingers tightly together and say the action so often automatically comes right after, together with the emotion.” Cowan then separates her fingers and explains that mindfulness can open up a space between them. “In that space, we have a choice.”
Further, teaching the children about the importance of their story and their identity would give them a powerful context supporting their mindfulness practice. That space between the fingers is for breathing, taking time to refrain from reacting, taking the time to not identify with the mind, body or afflictive emotions.
As one of Cowan’s students said, “I was so angry and I was about to kick my little brother, throw a glass—or even go get a weapon—but then I remembered my mindfulness and calmed down.” At the end of one session, a boy said, “I think if we did this every day, there would be no more fighting.” Quite possibly, quite possibly!
_______________________________________________________________Much more can be found in the book Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival, available for purchase on Amazon.com.