Archive for September, 2012

I quoted last time from Dr. Rendon’s wonderful book Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy and as I read further into the book I was excited to see how she blends spiritual elements into her pedagogy to help her students learn not only the content but the ability to be good citizens in their communities.

She goes on to say ”The spiritual elements in Sentipensante Pedagogy include the use of diverse forms of contemplative practice, which may do two things: (a) quiet the mind to allow for the cultivation of deep insights and personal awareness, and (b) activate the senses as learners engage in social activism and self-transformation (page 141).”

Let’s not forget that regardless of our age, education, or time spent in school we are all learners!  We are learning something each and every day.  Maybe you read a newspaper, magazine, or book and discovered something that you did not know before.  It could be as simple as a new way to cook all the squash you’ve got growing in your backyard garden to a more beautiful route that you can take to the grocery store.  But learning you are!

Most of us would love to be able to quiet our minds, as Dr. Rendon says, to be able to go deep within ourselves to discover who we “really” are, to find out what our potential is, to discover how we can make our schools, towns, states and our country a better place for everyone to grow and blossom in.  For some it may be through social activism and for others it may come through self-transformation or maybe it is through both.

Even my 92-year-old mother has said to me many times, “I need a job.  I’ve got to be doing something.” It is not that easy to explain to her that no one is going to hire a 92-year-old woman with dementia so I try to find some thing that she is doing daily that is kind of like a job and is helping others.  It can be as simple as being kind and helpful at the Alzheimer’s Daycare Center with the other people who attend there, or when she tells a story to the staff that makes them laugh and lightens up their day.  When that sinks in she is excited to get on the bus to what she calls “school or work” the next morning.

Dr. Rendon goes on to write, “Consequently, contemplative practice is two-dimensional.  Contemplation may involve stillness and quieting the mind.  Yet it may also involve stirring the soul, shaking up the learner’s belief system, fostering a social justice consciousness, developing wisdom, and in the end transforming the self (page 141).”

I sat this morning at Zen contemplating a Koan that I am working on and came upon an interesting thought that when things are “broken” they are not always fixable for whatever reason.  Sometimes the problems are too large and maybe I just need to look at them from a different vantage point.  Maybe I need to give them more time, or be more creative in my thinking about the situation.  Maybe I just need to leave it alone until such time as the answer appears on its own.  Maybe I need to not force an answer, solution, or idea.

Imagine what a great tool it would be for our students if we taught them how to use contemplation and meditation tools to help them engage with problem solving, decision making, and more.  To use these tools to help them quiet down the “monkey mind” that rages in their heads all day and sometimes all night long.

The school of life is daunting, beautiful, fantastic, challenging, and unpredictable.  Spending time in quiet meditation and contemplation can help us and our students get our lives together and find a simple and peaceful way of living.  We can get off the playground where all the “kids” are running and jumping, and yelling and fighting and kicking, and go to the playground where the people are laughing and smiling and sharing and enjoying each others company in peaceful conversations and discussions.

Which playground are you on today?




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What Laura Rendon, author of Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice and Liberation, talks about in her book is so relevant to the situations occurring in our world today.  The actions by the militants in Libya and Egypt, the creation of a totally inaccurate and prejudice video about Islam from a nut case in California, and the threat to burn the Koran by the crazy minister in Florida, plus the “shoot from the lip” response from Romney about the crisis in Egypt and Libya are a direct result of their education being at odds with Rendon’s research and philosophy on teaching.  She writes:

               ” What does it mean to be truly educated in the world today? We are being challenged to educate students for a complex future with ever-ending, ever more difficult social, political, and cultural challenges that test our ability to make sound, ethical, and moral decisions, as well as to make the world peaceful, equitable, and survivable.  The entrenched belief system privileges separation, monodisciplinarity, competition, intellectualism, and passivity at the expense of collaboration, transdisciplinarity, intuition, and active learning, especially that focused on social change (p.135).”

Modern religious education in America and around the world frequently teaches our children to be separate, different, better “than,” and always right.  It does not teach them to be independent free thinkers but automatons, unquestioning, and rigid.  It creates death, destruction, wars, hatred, and misogyny.  It separates rather than joins, it hates rather than loves.  It fears rather than shares. It kills rather than heals.

And yet right now we see this going on here and abroad and we do nothing about it in our school systems.  We have the teachers on strike in Chicago because the politicians want to run the schools and they have had absolutely no education in teaching, pedagogy, administration, counseling, social work, or psychology.  All of which are imperative to run a classroom, a student counseling office, or a principal’s office.

We’ve even allowed them to re-write our curriculum and take “science” out of our classrooms and textbooks and teach “creationism” and “abstinence only” instead!  The nuts have taken over the nut house now they have taken over the school house as well! In Texas they have even taken Thomas Jefferson out of the history books because he fathered a child with a slave!  Yikes… What next?  Do we take Einstein out of the theory of relativity because he was a Jew?  Or how about taking Maria Curie out of our science books because she was a woman?  Even though her work included pioneering research on radioactivity, and she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in multiple sciences.  That will be next if these types of people are given additional power in our school systems here and around the world.

Rendon goes on to say:

                “In our quest to transform the entrenched belief system, we must be willing to address questions such as: Why have I not broken out of a belief system that is oppressive in nature for many students and faculty?  How is my behavior upholding power structures in the academy? What do I believe about who can and cannot learn? How am I choosing my curriculum—what assumptions do I follow, and is the curriculum truly inclusive and multicultural in nature?  If not, what prevents me from doing this and why am I going along with this limiting view of knowledge (p. 135-6)?”

If these questions are not answered by us and by all countries and their leaders I hate to see what kind of world our children will grow up in.  What will happen with this lack of knowledge, love, and compassion for all beings, all religions, and our slowly dying planet Earth?  Sometimes I am glad that I am old enough that I will not live to see these potentially devastating outcomes.

Today is the day for each of us to BE the change that we want to see in the world….what will you do to make that happen?

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As Calvin said to Hobbes in a cartoon one day, “Today at school I tried to decide whether to cheat on my test or not.  Well, it just seemed wrong to cheat on an ethics test.”  Good thinking Calvin!

Cheating, ethics, morals, lies, white lies, little lies, misstatements, gaffes, spin, plagiarism, how many different ways can we say the same thing: doing the wrong thing, when doing the right thing would have served you better.  Bernie Madoff made off with everyone’s money.  And not just the millionaires and billionaires money, but charities and people’s pensions, and so he sits in a federal prison where he was sentenced to 150 years in jail and a forfeiture of $17.179 billion.  Was it worth it Mr. Madoff?

According to Rushworth Kidder the author of the book How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living, this would be considered a right vs wrong dilemma.  Clearly a person can see that what Madoff did was not only illegal but it was unethical. For many of my college students plagiarism is confusing to them and they do not seem to understand that it is wrong to plagiarize something that another person wrote.  And there are rules against it in every school.  After a certain number of times in any school you will be suspended and/or expelled from that institution and rightly so.

Then there is the right vs right ethical dilemma.  That is much harder to figure out and much harder to decide what to do in that case.  During this presidential election time in our country we hear lots of right vs right ethical dilemmas.  Do we raise taxes on the rich to balance the budget, cut services to the poor to balance the budget.  Do we keep Obamacare because it has so many important elements to it that will help everyone, including giving more customers and therefore more money to the insurance companies.  Do we repeal it and start over?  Do we expand the military industrial complex or shrink it?  I could go on and on, but I won’t.  You get the idea.  Whose values are correct anyway?

Every spiritual tradition on this planet gives you a set of values to live by, the 10 commandments, 16 precepts, the golden rule, and more.  Those who are ethical humanists may have something similar in their creed as well.  But how many of us stop to think about these commandments, creeds,or  rules when we are in the middle of a tough decision?

Did Paul Ryan stop to think about them when he wrote a budget that took much needed services away from the poor, the elderly, and the sick?  Maybe he did after he was chastised by the Catholic Bishops and the Nun’s on the Bus.  Did he think about it when he told the reporter he had run “marathons” and his fastest time was around two hours?  Did John Edwards think about the consequences when he cheated on his wife and fathered a child out of wedlock?

Our transgressions may not have been as dramatic and over reaching as Madoff, Ryan, and Edward’s but we need to be aware of them and think about how they affected our family, friends, students, co-workers and more.  As educators it is our responsibility to set the example for our students.  To be the person that they can look up to, and to check in with them to help them deal with their ethical dilemmas.  Do we create fun and informative exercises in our classes that bring ethics into the subject matter?  It does not matter what subject you teach–they all will ultimately depend on good ethical decision making and problem solving.

If you teach history are you looking at the historical figures and talking about some of their unethical decisions from genocide of the native Americans to the Patriot Act and some of its unintended consequences.  If you teach literature are you reading stories, fiction and non-fiction, that illustrate ethical choices.  Are you letting them write essays, reports, and poems on ethics.  Do you have them debate the subject with some of the students taking the pro and others taking the con on a particular ethical dilemma?

Many years ago I played a game with my students and it was all about ethics.  The students were broken into groups, each group was acting as a country.  Each group was given certain items at random–problems and solutions.  Some of the problems were drought, floods, wars, corruption,  and more.  Then the solutions were things like water resources, scientists, good politicians, food, clothes, and more.  The game was not over until all the groups had solved each one of their dilemmas and no one was left behind with an unsolved problem!  Wow was that hard and fun and rewarding for the students.  They came up with fantastic solutions and great cooperation and sharing was demonstrated by the group members.

There were many lessons learned and many “Ah Has” gotten during the training.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get all of our politicians, local, state, and federal to play this game, to take the things they learned from it and actually put them to use for the citizens of this country.  And if they cheated or didn’t share or plagiarized, or allowed themselves to have “insider trading” they would be given “time out” or suspended or expelled from their jobs.  What a wonderful world we would have if only that were true.

So let’s take some time this fall and look at our ethics and see how well we score.  Let’s take the time to be introspective and discover what we mean when we define the word ethics. Let’s look at our lives and see if we parse them out–more ethics on Sunday after church, or on Saturday after sitting at the Zendo.  How about less ethics at work, yet more ethics at home in front of the kids, and less ethics at the grocery store when we are alone.

Where oh where has your ethics gone?

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Dr. Jan Chozen Bays in her book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness created an exercise she calls “Listen like a Sponge.”  She describes it thus: Listen to other people as if you were a sponge, soaking up whatever the other person says.  Let the mind be quiet, and just take it in.  Don’t formulate any response in the mind until a response is requested or obviously needed (p. 158).”

I use this exercise in many of my workshops and trainings regardless of the topic.  I don’t care if the class is on English grammar, listening, communication, supervision, customer service, or team building—everyone needs to improve his or her ability to listen and think, to open the mind, to listen and think outside the box, to take the time to listen and think without judgment, and only then to evaluate the other person’s words before speaking.

Sadly though, we do not!  I know that I have been, and sometimes still am, a very poor listener.  I can remember many times in the past when one of my friends would call while I was in the middle of doing something on the computer and I would be “listening” to him or her and would still be typing or “so called” multitasking at the same time.  One day my girlfriend hollered out, “You’re not listening I can hear you typing in the background!”  She was right, I really was not listening.

I can recall when I was a young child, needless to say I was a talker, and I would come home from school and tell my mother everything that had happened to me from the time I got on the school bus till I returned home.  One day I was sharing my story while my mother was peeling potatoes at the sink and I asked her a question.  Much to my chagrin she did not answer.  So I asked the question just a little bit louder, and once again she did not answer.  So I gave a third try, and still no response.  So I yelled out, “Mother you’re not listening!” She spun around with potato peeler in hand and said, “If I listened to all five of you kids every time you talked I’d be in the nut house already!”

Wow, what a rude awakening I had that not everything I had to say, or every thought I had in my head was important or needed to be said out loud!  However, if my quiet and shy sister had come in and said something I am sure that my mother would have spun around with potato peeler in hand and listened intently.  Why?  Because she only spoke when absolutely necessary, she was slight on words and expressed herself often through drawing and art.  At one time in my life I thought she might even become a famous cartoonist.

So how good are you at listening?  Dr. Bays goes on to write, “Good psychotherapists use absorptive listening.  They are attuned to the subtle changes in tone or quality of voice that indicate something deeper than the words, even belying the words, a sticking place, hidden tears or anger that needs to be explored (159).”  How many times have you greeted someone in the morning and said, “How are things going today?”  Their response was “fine” or “okay.” And then later in the day you found out from someone that the person was not “fine” or “okay” and that something tragic, or sad, or painful had happened to him or her.

How could you have missed it–because you did not listen like a sponge.  You did not, as the good psychotherapists encourage us to do, use absorptive listening; you did not focus on the deepness of the words, the tone of the words, the hidden tears in his or her eyes.  Indeed, you may not have made eye contact with him or her at all!

The opposite is also true, you may have found out that something fabulous, fun, or life changing in a positive way had happened to him or her.  Yet, you were so engrossed in not listening or seeing the joy that you only found out about it from a co-worker or friend after your initial cursory/obligatory greeting in the morning.

Dr. Bays asks us to think about how many times we “check-out” while someone is speaking.  In the middle of a conversation you’re thinking about your grocery list, or what you are going to have for lunch, or about that golf game you played on Saturday.  Being a great listener is not easy!  But it is imperative if you want to be a good friend, family member, teacher, boss, employee, counselor, minister, store clerk, or gardener.

To be a good listener we have to “want” to listen.  We have to find something to focus our attention on, to find some good reason to listen.  I remember many years ago I had this wonderfully intelligent minister who was a master teacher of metaphysics, yet every Sunday I found his talks to be disjointed, jumping from one idea to another without any links or connections as to how he got from one thought to the other.  I began to “not listen” to be thinking “I wonder when this is going to be over so we can go to brunch.”  Then one day I found something important in his talk that changed something for the better in my life and I was so glad I had listened at that moment.

I learned a great lesson that day, and from that day forward I made a plan to become a better listener.  I set a goal for myself that each Sunday I would listen wholeheartedly to find one gem, one diamond amongst those words that could potentially change my life, or help me deal with a challenge in my life, or to help a friend or family member over a hill they were trying to climb.  And guess what?  I did and I could.  From that day forward every Sunday I found some simple words of wisdom in his talk that made my life easier, better, happier, or simply gave me a chuckle or a laugh.  My life was ever changed for the better!

You too can learn to “listen like a sponge.”  What does a sponge do anyway?  It absorbs everything that comes its way.  I encourage you to make a sign to put over your desk and on your bathroom mirror that simply says, “listen like a sponge” and whenever you see it ask yourself—how  absorbent have I been today!

Hey, I wish you good luck with that…did you hear me?  Good luck with that…

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Rose Robbins, my dear departed friend and teacher at Zen, wrote some powerful words in her book Cherish the Harvest: Making Enlightened Choices: A Holistic Perspective, Lessons from the Garden. “Actually, meditation can be called a search for simplicity, or a return to simplicity.  To be simple is the most difficult task in our society, or perhaps anywhere.  Yet it is essential if we are to attain peace of mind, for in reality, it is a search for significance and authenticity (p. 86).”

Today just happens to be the Labor Day holiday in America where simplicity is an oxymoron. Nothing in business or life is simple today and even though we are to be rife of labor on this particular day the stores are bustling with sales and companies are requiring their employees to go to work, even in jobs that could be closed in order to give them a day of rest and respite.

Women and men will be rushing to the grocery stores to buy those last minute items to prepare or to share at their family dinners and barbeques.  Those lucky enough to have the day off will be lining the roads rushing from home to store to friends and relatives with mustard or relish, potato or macaroni salad, and red velvet cake with icing on top in the shape of an American flag.

Or they will be rushing from store to store to catch that bargain that they really don’t need and may never wear or use, some arguing with sales clerks and other customers.  They will spend the day in chaos, use up our natural resources, put more carbon into our atmosphere, and while sitting at one of those endless traffic lights a glimmer of a thought may appear, “What the heck am I doing here?”

“On the wall of the silent retreat at the Sai Baba Ashram in India is a mural:

Before you speak consider.
Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind?
If not be silent, and listen to the quietness within (p 85).”

“To be simple” as Rose says, “is the most difficult task…”  How many of you reading this wish your lives were simpler?  If you do not take Sai Baba’s sage words to heart your life will continue to be filled with hustle and bustle and you’ll be saying as the commercial on TV does, “My life is busy, busy, busy.”   And when that life is over, as you lay in that hospice bed, what will you be thinking then?  Busy doing what?

Simplicity is a word that most Americans do not know, it is not a part of their lives in any way, shape, or form.  In fact, for some it is a “cuss word” as mom used to say.  They will say to me after a long day or week of sitting at the Zendo—you just sat for all those hours!?  You’re kidding, aren’t you?

Over the years I have tried to simplify my life in small steps, “baby steps, baby steps” as Richard Dreyfuss, the psychiatrist, would say to his neurotic patient, Bill Murray, in the 1991 movie “What About Bob?”   I went from a giant house in the suburbs, to a two bedroom condo on the beach, to a one bedroom condo on the beach, to sharing a one bedroom condo with a friend after his mother had died.  I live in one room that is filled with book cases, a computer desk, a recliner chair, and one of those wonderful hospital beds that go up and down so I can watch re-runs of old British comedies on my10 year-old TV with ease.  And I could not be happier!

In fact, my next move (when I fully retire) will be to purchase a small RV so that I can drive around the country and see all of the beautiful things in America that I have yet had the opportunity to see.

Simplicity in speech is also something I am working on daily.  Some of my friends may not think so I’m sure, but I am.  I am working to live a life as is described by Sai Baba above.  Before I speak I am practicing asking myself, “Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind?”  It goes along with the Sixth Grave Precept in Buddhism, “A disciple of Buddha does not speak of the faults of others.”  And yes, it is hard.  If you decide to try it you will find that your co-workers, friends, and family members will entice you in many and various ways to talk about others, to share gossip, and stories, and rumors and words of anger, hatred, or doubt. Or we end up doing just what the Buddha called “monkey talk.” Chatter, chatter, and chatter with no real point, or thought, or importance to the words at all.

In fact, I have gotten so bad with the “monkey talk” that I even talk to myself out loud at any time and in any place.  I actually said this to my friend just yesterday, “You know what I really love about my Bluetooth is that I can be talking to myself as I walk around and no one will know they will think I am talking to someone on the phone!.”  Now that is really pathetic, if I do say so myself!

If you are like me… instead, remind yourself that you are working, especially on this Labor Day holiday, toward living a simpler life as is sung in the Shaker hymn written by Elder Joseph, “Tis the Gift to be Simple.”

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Begin with baby steps—but begin today.  Yes, even on Labor Day! And for this I simply wish you luck…

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