MF 47 – Contemplating torture in solitary confinement with Johnny Perez
Johnny Perez is a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project (MHP), a civil legal services firm that provides legal and social work services to people with serious mental illness. At the Urban Justice Center, he is assigned to MHP’s Safe Re-entry Project, where he works with people with mental illness and histories of incarceration, to connect them to the services in the community that will assist them to attain better measures of recovery and gain the stability necessary to avoid further contact with the criminal justice system.
Mr. Perez also works to change unjust policies and practices in the criminal justice system through his participation in the Jails Action Coalition, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), and the New York Reentry Education Network. Johnny is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Correction and Reentry Committee.
Drawing on the wisdom of thirteen years of direct involvement with the criminal justice system, Johnny has testified at the NY Advisory Committee to The US Civil Rights Commission about the inhumane treatment of teenagers in solitary confinement in state prisons and city jails. He is a sought after speaker having been invited to speak at Cornell Law, Fordham University, Amnesty International, and at the American Justice Summit where he discussed the cycle of incarceration with Nightline News anchor Ju Ju Chang.
Johnny is currently completing his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice at St. Francis College while also completing his first nonfiction book: Prison: The Upside Down Kingdom.
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
What were some of the events that led up to you spending 3 years in solitary out of a 15 year prison sentence?
The first time I landed in solitary I was 16 years old, and ended detained in Rikers island here in New York City for gun possession. Ended up incarcerated for 8 months for having a gun on me. While I was in Rikers Island, I got into a fight with an individual over the phone. If you don’t belong to a gang, you can’t use simple entitlements that every person that’s detained can use, like using the phone. Johnny got into a fight over the phone and as a result was given 60 days of solitary confinement.
One of the things that made the situation worse, was that the person that brought the food, breakfast and lunch, belonged to the same gang of the person I fought over the phone with. So for the first two weeks, I didn’t eat breakfast and lunch as a result. As a 16 year old it was challenging, lot of psychological and physical adversity as a result.
As an adult when I was 21 years old I was sentenced to 15 years of prison for robbery in the first degree in which I served 13 years of that, with a total of 3 years in solitary confinement.
My reaction as an adult was a whole lot different as an adult in solitary then as a teen. Now, years later, I’m a re-entry advocate at a non-profit law-firm at the early justice center. I’ve dedicated my voice, past experiences to creating alternative solutions to solitary confinement.
Can you tell me what that was like to be in solitary confinement?
The cell is very small, very quiet, maybe about the size of a small parking space. I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my arms out horizontally and touch both walls in a lot of the cells I’ve been in. During the summer, the walls start to sweat it’s so hot. During the winter, it gets so cold you have to keep your head under the covers. Except you can’t do that, because every hour an officer walks by your cell, to make sure you’re alive and according to protocol, they have to see your skin. They leave all the lights on during the night and day too for security purposes, so it’s hard to sleep with the light on.
It disrupts your circadian rhythm…
Yes, greatly, to the point where you lose track of time and even the dates. I’d try to keep a calendar to keep track of the days. Because one of my fears was that I would be there in prison for longer than I needed to be.
As a teen, 16 years old, still creating my identity, figuring out who I am. And to be placed in isolation, you begin to absorb some of the oppression in the sense that your self-esteem is damaged, you tell yourself, maybe I am a criminal, maybe I do belong here. You get thoughts of suicide and these kind of things, you think to yourself maybe people won’t miss me if I’m gone.
I felt my self as a teenager very overwhelmed with anger. Anger against authority figures, anger against the circumstances, anger against myself. I punched the wall a lot, I cried a lot, did a lot of push-ups, punched the wall a lot, screamed a lot. I sang.
And at the same time, you could hear everyone around you as well going through something similar?
Yeah, although it is very isolated, everyone in every other cell is doing the same exact thing I just mentioned. So when you put all these sounds together, the sounds itself is enough to to frustrate a person. You hear correctional officers who can’t even stand the noise from even working there, with the people kicking and screaming, and kicking the doors simultaneously.
Other times it gets very quiet also, so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. Your last meal is at 4:30 in the afternoon, next meal at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of times you can get a misbehavior report if your’e caught saving food. If you get this misbehavior report during solitary, you will get more solitary time. So it’s not uncommon to find someone who’s been sentenced to 90 days for testing positive for marijuana, and then end up 5,6,10 years, or decades even from receiving these back to back misbehavior reports.
So for holding a little bit of food, that is somehow a crime, even though in real life outside of prison that would never be considered a crime?
Absolutely, it’s considered contraband..So if I save 4 slices of bread and my milk, and then they come on a cell search, not only are they taking it, but I’ll receive a misbehavior report for holding contraband in my cell. It’s up to the officer’s discretion. But in their rationale is that if this food goes bad, then I’m harming my health. So they’re protecting me and doing something to prevent harm to myself.
As an adult I didn’t internalize a lot of the oppression that I faced. I became more extroverted and outspoken about the injustices, and began to think critically, to question the system. I began to think critically about exactly why we live in a country where it is OK to do this to people.
I remember the only person I’d have contact with was the officer that brought me food everyday. I did a combined 3 years for a number of infractions. Most of them was testing positive for marijuana. I think the most time I did at one time was one year, for testing positive for marijuana.
I asked myself, why we live in a country where it is OK to do this (putting someone in solitary for a year for testing positive for weed). Why are people not more concerned about this. It wasn’t until I was released, and started doing this work, I realized that people just don’t know.
Part of my job is to raise awareness about these issues, using my personal experience, to educate, and to compel people into action. This is an issue that is affecting about 100.000 people across the nation. 5000 alone in New York. We hear about a lot of the successes, but they’re just incremental change. When Obama says, we’re banning solitary for juveniles. Later to find out that there are only 27 juveniles in solitary on the federal level. You start to ask yourself how much change is actually happening on this issue.
So Obama changed the rules for juveniles and solitary confinement on the federal level, not the state level right..
Yes, so I always warn against incrementalism, where we change a small piece of the puzzle, but the entire picture still remains the same. So while no juveniles in the future won’t be placed on solitary on a federal level, that piece of legislation won’t do a whole lot as it relates to solitary reform. I will say that some states have followed suit, and placed their own limits on solitary on the state level. We’re very happy about that of course.
Virginia recently banned juveniles with mental illness from solitary. Here in New York we some progress as it relates to how much time spent in these cells. But the United Nations Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Juan Mendez deems anything above 15 days of solitary confinement amounts to torture (which is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions). And here in the US we hold people in solitary a lot of times indefinitely.
The US signed the Geneva Conventions where torture is prohibited…
Absolutely. But our prison system is not reflective of that. When you have a person like Albert Woodfox who was recently released after 42 years of solitary confinement. 42 years! I still have personal friends who are in solitary confinement still from when I was with them in these human cages.
At what point is our system going to reflect our human values?
Some of the reactions that people can get when put in solitary confinement that they’ve found from the statement titled “Harmful Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Just seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain. ” Do you see that happening with most people?
Yeah, it happens to a lot of people. A lot of times, people are placed in solitary for completely minor offences. 4 out of 5 offences where people are placed in solitary are for minor offences. It could be testing positive for drug use, having contraband in their cell. Could be tobacco, frying pan, cell phone, cash… And then they are place in solitary. There are people placed in solitary for violent acts. But those instances are far and few in between. While they are there, because we place very vulnerable people in solitary. Such as people with mental illness, or kids (like in New York one of two states). Women who are expecting children. Or elderly people, people who are developmentally disabled.
While they are there they suffer the psychological ramifications of being alone for extended periods of time.
Are they following a protocol for putting someone in solitary, or is this totally up to the discretion of the warden or prison officer?
Both. A lot of the times, the facility has already outlined infractions or behaviors that would land one in solitary in the first place. We’re also fighting that on that front. People should not go to solitary for testing positive for marijuana. They need drug treatment instead.
So the prisons have these guidelines. But then the hearing officer, or officer that writes this report in the first place, they have unwieldy discretion on who they send, how long they send them for, and even which type of solitary they send them to.
So there’s no third party that reviews the rationale, or decision used to send someone to solitary?
No, except that you can repeal a decision…but in practice an appeal doesn’t work like it works on paper. For example, when you get sentence a year in the box for testing positive for marijuana. Then when you get there, they say OK, here is your year, and you can appeal for 30 days. Except when you get to your cell, there is no writing paper, there’s no pen. The supplies only come by once a week. And you have to have it in within 30 days. A lot of times the men and women going to jail feel so defeated that they don’t just don’t even put in an appeal in the first place.
For those that are fortunate enough to have the stars aligned where they can actually submit an appeal, they find a lot of times are often denied at the facility level, and they have to appeal to the court. And the problem with that is that a lot of people in prison haven’t necessarily taken the bar exam to represent themselves in court. They don’t know how to file these court motions, like article 78, etc.
Additionally here in New York state, for you to access the law library, you have to ask for whatever documents you need 24 hours in advance. Then when you get a book, like the jailhouse lawyers manual, which outlines different court motions in laymen’s terms, you might find the book missing, or a chapter missing, or the officer doesn’t feel like giving out law library materials that day, or that week. So that makes it very difficult to appeal the decision, and to bring that decision in front of outside eyes, outside of prison.
And you have no outside representation that can help out, you basically have to represent yourself?
You definitely have no representation at the hearing stage, and even on the appeal stage. Which is another issue we try to fight as the campaign for alternatives to long-term isolated confinement. Due process is not suspended. You can’t isolate someone without due process. We do it in our court system. Except that in prison due process is really non existent. We have people who can’t speak English being sentenced at hearings that are completely in English! That’s a huge problem. People should be alarmed and concerned about what is going on in these prisons.
And this brings back to what you spoke about earlier, that you are not treated as a citizen in prison. This message of you’re less worthy than a citizen, is not just literal in your face, but also in terms of trying to find representation or recourse…
Yes, unfortunately we send people to prison (it’s supposed to be) as punishment, but nor for punishment.
Except that once people are placed in prison, people are faced with all these different kinds of adversity, injustices. And it’s justified by saying that if you don’t like it, they say, you shouldn’t have come to prison in the first place. But there is a problem with this ideology. I’ll give you a case study to show you what is wrong with this ideology..Mister Kalief Browder, who passed away. This was a young man who was 16 years old, who was literally picked up from the streets of New York, accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation, spends 3 years in prison, two years in solitary.
Later on, footage was revealed that he was routinely pulled out of his cell and beaten by correctional officers, put back. Beaten up by gang members, while officers just stood by watched and laughed. He attempted to commit suicide a number of times, yet never received any mental health treatment or psychological attention as a result of these suicide attempts.
Then one day, they dropped the charges. They said, we’re sorry we got the wrong person, three years later. 6 months after Mr Browder was released, he committed suicide.
He was permanently damaged in there…
Yes, permanently damaged.. So I want to say, that when we say, hey if you don’t like it you shouldn’t have gone to jail. People should know that not everyone who goes to jail, A, goes to jail for something they actually did, or B, for something that warrants the punishment that they received. A lot of time the punishment is not proportionate to what it is that they’re even being accused of.
And in those cases where it is justified to remove this person from society, people need to understand that prison IS the punishment. They’re not sent for additional punishment at the hands of people who have sworn to protect them. Which is what’s happening right now.
So getting back to when you were in solitary, how did you cope? You mentioned someone who committed suicide. But you came out with a different maybe attitude or resilience that you had…What was it that you had in prison that kept you going?
I want to say hope…I looked around my environment and said, people are dying here…I don’t want to die inside of a cell. My mother didn’t give birth to me to spend my days locked inside of a human cage. And a lot of times people believe in you more than you believe in yourself. For me, my source of strength was my daughter who was born 2 days before I was arrested and sentenced for 15 years. And my mother, who has loved me unconditionally, even when I behaved in ways that I didn’t deserve to be loved.
While in the cell, not only saying I need to survive for them, but also saying, I’m not going to succumb to this environment. I dreamt a lot, slept a lot, fantasized a lot, thought about winning the power-ball, and how I would fire every single correctional officer in the nation (laughing) and hire new people who really care about people. I exercised a lot, and wrote a lot as well. In the back of my bible, the back of the books from the library, on toilet paper. And then all of these writings, once I got back to the general population, I added them back to my journal.
This hope that I am more than just another person who’s inside of a cell. And have so much potential, and I’m not going to succumb to this. And today I am who I am, not because of solitary but despite solitary..
In solitary the writing is kind of a reflective practice, did you have any other reflective practices, or did you struggle with a lot of thinking…
Yeah, in prison your memory fades. That’s why in prison people like pictures because it reminds us. There were a lot of times where I thought back to an event that happened, but I didn’t’ remember correctly the way it actually happened. And it wasn’t until maybe I wrote to my mother, and she’d say that’s not how it happened. What are you talking about? It happened more times than I care to admit. Part of it was thinking, am I losing my mind here, am I creating these alternate realities and fantasies?
Which later I found out that is exactly what I was doing. For me to survive the environment, I had to get out of the environment, even if it was just psychologically closing my eyes. So the way I survived solitary was by using my imagination. There was an article written on that process, by Nautilus Magazine. How we use our imagination to detach or escape from an environment, so we don’t succumb to the environment. People who’ve gone through war and experiences like that, use similar visual exercises to cope with an environment. I didn’t know that I was doing that at that time.
A lot of us do meditation practices to get beyond the walls of our thinking, the walls of our minds as my teacher puts it. So it sounds like your imagination allowed you to get past these walls that were limiting your thinking. And in many cases people they think very little of themselves. It sounds like you were able to break through that constant messaging that puts you down…or as they might say, “put you in your place”, but really isn’t.
Yes, and unfortunately, a lot of people that are placed there, don’t have the capacity. They succumb to their environment. I’ve heard correction officers tell a detainee after they say, “I feel like hurting myself”. And the correction officer says, “come back to me when you actually hurt yourself…”.
Another case that happened, mister Bradley Ballard, this individual needed constant insulin shots, and the correction officers completely ignored his pleas to receive his medication. At one point one correction officer was kind enough to go to his commanding officer and say, “Hey, this guy, really might need some attention, we should take a look at that. ” The Sargent tells the correction officer, “is he dead yet?”. The reporting officer said, “No…he’s not dead, this is why I’m coming to you…”. The supervising officer then said, “Come back to me when you have a body, don’t come back here until you have a body.” Two days later, Bradley Ballard was found dead in his cell.
That’s real mean spirited management, is this taught somehow in the culture, is it systemic?
You’re right, it’s not in the training, how to not have failings. It’s more like, a lot of well-intentioned officers, a lot of whom I’ve met through my incarceration. I’ve met a lot of good officers. Except that, they would rather not rattle the cage. They wouldn’t stand by and watch injustices happen, but because they value their job, or don’t want to get fired, they just don’t get in the way.
Officers are taught that we’re criminals, we shouldn’t be trusted, we are criminals, we shouldn’t be spoken to, shouldn’t be said hi to. So it’s definitely deeply embedded in the culture. Except not every officer subscribes to this culture. At least not proactively, but sometimes by allowing things to happen, I would argue that it’s also just as detrimental and bad.
Yes, Silence is also a choice…
Yeah…I like that..
You mentioned treating people like people earlier.. and this culture of you can put them down, because they’re not people develops in a prison culture..
And it reflects itself in the language a lot. You might hear officers say things like, “how many heads, how many bodies do you have?” Completely dehumanizing language. The problem with this dehumanizing language is that there are things I can do to a “criminal”, that I wouldn’t do to a, “father”. There are things I can do to an inmate, that I couldn’t do to a, “son”.
Once a person is viewed in such a dehumanizing way, then an officer feels justified and OK with for example, not giving you toilet paper for a few days, or not unclogging your toilet for a week. Or, “Here’s a cold tray of food, so what that it’s 3:30 in the afternoon, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7:30….Oh you want to hurt yourself? Well, you’ll figure it out..Don’t come back until you actually did.”
Then justify it, by saying, “these people committed horrific acts, they should not be given any pity or compassion.” Being compassionate or compassion is not something that you do, it’s something that you are…
I’m not sure if the department of correction can measure that on the way in. (laughing).
Have you seen any prison examples where that is taught or instituted, where there is emphasis on the humanness rather than making people less human?
Yeah, there are prisons that I’ve been exposed to who, “treat people like people”. What that means, is that they make sure that they have contact visits, educational resources, adequate mental treatment if and when they need it. Where they uncuff people during therapy sessions. This goes a long way, to be uncuffed when having therapy.
Really protecting and upholding the person’s dignity and worth…Something as simple as asking someone how they’re doing today…goes a long way. And really acknowledging a person’s humanity and presence. In prison, “how are you doing?” is not a phrase that’s heard often.
I want to say here in New York we’ve been moving towards that, a lot of restorative justice. A lot of step-down programs from solitary. Giving people the opportunity to get these treatments and educational resources while they’re in solitary. Except that it takes legislation to move towards that goal, and not just the sheer will of the people.
Basically prison used to be just punitive, what do you see happening towards a prison system that is instead of just punitive towards one that is rehabilitative?
Yeah, right now across the nation, criminal justice is very sexy so to speak. States are really taken a look at their systems, and saying, you know what, is our system as humane as possible. And if not, how can we make this better?
I’m just glad and honored to be alive during a period where it feels like people don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
So we’re seeing a lot more progressive changes in states moving towards not only rehabilitating people, but also equipping people with the tools, knowledge and information to make them productive citizens once they return to society. In addition to correcting a lot of the systemic parts that also people face once they’re released. Because it is not just the person, but also the systems that this person has to interact with that determines whether that person will recidivists (becomes a repeat offender) or not.
And so this rate of recidivism…A successful prison would be a model where the rate of recidivism is way lower, and prisoners correctly reintegrate back into society and become productive, there are models worth following right?
I’m not sure how I feel about the term “successful prison”. I even ask myself, do correctional facilities “correct” anything? When speaking to different journalists, they’ll say, “Johnny, prison was good to you…You are educated, eloquent, you work at a law firm, you advocate for people, you all of this, and you did 13 years in prison.”
I always say that we need to find a way to invest in people, not prisons.
For the people that are impressed with my journey, I’m only an example of what happens when you invest in people, not prisons. I discovered the power of education while incarcerated. I took college courses while incarcerated. Now kudos to Obama for the recent pilot program affecting about 12 thousand people across the country who will be exposed to higher education in the form of Pell Grants.
But a lot of that came despite the adversity, not because the adversity.
When I think of a successful prison and what that would look like, it would be prison in which the prison invests in the people inside the prison. Not in security, cameras, or fancier handcuffs. And more educational programs, drug treatment, mental health treatment. How can we empower this person. How can we make sure this person has housing and employment upon their release. Let’s help this person make more responsible decisions….
Would part of the solution be to take the profit out of the prison industrial complex? That’s a big part of the problem right?
Yeah, definitely. I think about my daughter who is 15 years old, and my future son. Do I want to bring my future son into a country where people profit from incarceration, oppression, profit from injustice. And if I’m up for parole and I come in front of a warden whose receiving money to keep me inside of a cell. What is least likely to happen? What’s most likely to happen? And what is actually going to happen?
What would you do to take profit out of the equation?
I would definitely not allow the privatization of prisons. I don’t think that any person should be able to make prison a business. Even though state run correctional facilities also have a piece of corporate America in them. People who are incarcerated work for pennies on the dollar. I worked for 15 cents an hour for over 10 years. Doing work that had I been doing it out in the world, it would have paid $20 dollars an hour.
And yet, how much does it cost to warehouse people, 170 thousand dollars a year?
Yeah, Rikers Island cost 170 thousand dollars a year to warehouse (chuckles), or hold someone in his/her cell. And these same people work for 15 cents an hour. If you give me a young kid who has made irresponsible decisions, and a 170 thousand dollars. Not only would I give this person Ivy league education, buy him or her a nice home and car, and still give you back a 100 thousand dollars left over.
So in the end, society would be way better off just investing in that person, instead of investing in this prison industrial complex…
Yes, huge, huge. And I ask myself why we’re not already doing that.
You’d think that especially the bean counters, the people who are saying money matters, they’d be saying, why wouldn’t we invest money in these persons, thus save society money, rather than giving prisons more money to keep the person longer in prison, thus costing the tax payers more….
Part of the problem is plain old corruption…Every now and then the veil is lifted. You might hear about a judge who is receiving kickbacks from a private for-profit prison for sending juveniles there. And we’re shocked when we hear these stories. Advocates and people in the prisons would say hey, you’re just now finding out about it. I’m just really glad criminal justice reform is on people’s radar, and people are finally getting tired and don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.
When you have the pope and the president saying, we need a better system, we need to reform our criminal justice system. It makes people perk up, and say wow, maybe we are over incarcerating people.
2.1 million people locked up in our nation’s prison. 65 million have a criminal record on file. (80,000-100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the US where they spend 22-24 hours a day in their cells, with little to no human contact for days or even decades.) Most of these people are disproportionately people of color…who come from low-income neighborhoods, who have little to no educational or financial resources. Or opportunities, and ending up finding themselves warehoused in a cell for days, weeks, years, decades at a time.
People of different races are singled out, vs, for example on a college campus where someone does the same thing, and receive no punishment. Whereas someone in a poor neighborhood does the same thing, and can end up in solitary…
Yeah, absolutely, I think about drug possession and drug use. I think about in my neighborhood for example, there are 24 hour porn shops, and 24 hour liquor stores. As if people from my neighborhood have gold laying around to pawn at 3 am in the morning. I think about the countless people who’ve gone to prison for drug possession and have gone to solitary for drug use. I’ve been to plenty of college campuses where drug use is rampant, except that there no one ends up going to jail. But in other places people do end up going to jail. It’s not necessarily that certain people get singled out, it’s that the system favors white people over people of color.
Unfortunately this is what goes on. Think of the recent case of the young man from Stanford who was sentenced to 6 months in jail for sexual assault. And I think about, if he was a person of color, would he have received 6 months of jail? Of course I would never know, I would argue he’d have received a much different sentence than 6 months.
I believe it…so what challenges do you face as re-entry advocate?
There are challenges that I face right now in the work that I do. And that is that I’m always trying to humanize the people in prison. But the systemic change has to come from these different systems that people have to interact with once they return to society. Specifically parole, or HRA, which we call Human Resources Administration, where people receive food stamps and different benefits and entitlements. Medicaid, social security. These systems really work against the people that return to society.
I have people who have been released who are given addresses to buildings that don’t even exist anymore. I have clients who parole says, I don’t want you to work, to go to school. I want you to only take anger management, and once you are done with that, then we talk about you getting a job. And that’s a huge problem.
The other part of the challenge is changing the culture enough to where the policy changes.
A lot of times these policies are created by people who have no experience with the prison system, have never been in the system, or have even come in contact with the people in this system. And yet they are allowed to create policy for these people. So part of my challenge is making people aware of the value of having the voices of people who are directly impacted in the work that they’re doing, when they’re having these policy discussions.
Because between theory and practice there is a huge space. And in order to close that space you need the voices of the people who are directly affected by the issue, who have lived through it. Who can say, hey, that policy doesn’t look like that in real life, that’s never going to work. But here is how we can make it work.
And a lot of times we’re excluded from these conversations, because again, we’re not seen as qualified, we’re not seen as believable in a lot of senses. And just not really brought into the conversation.
So how would you be able to get into the conversations?
Just invite me (laughing)…
Legislators know that there are advocates who are pushing for different reform. We constantly contact legislators, we contact government officials. We contact people in different spaces who are either engaged in new initiatives, or who are exploring ideas about whether alternative incarcerations, sentencing, bail reform, things of that nature. And we say, hey this is what should happen. So instead of saying, thank you for your opinion, why not say, why don’t you come and join us for this meeting that we’re having on how to actually formulate this.
I will say it has happened in some spaces, specifically Rikers Island. I’m on an adolescent advisory board here in NYC. I’m part of the bar association, on the community and re-entry committee, one of the people who’s not a lawyer. But they see the value in having us (the people who are directly affected) part of the conversation as it relates to reform.
They’ve really come to terms, and see that hey, we’re not going to get this right, until we make sure that the people in this cell also have a say-so into how this is going to turn out. And some spaces this is successful, and other spaces you’re invited, but not listened to.
Its just for lip service, just for show….
Yeah, to say, we had Johnny Perez there, formerly incarcerated, and he was part of the discussion. But every suggestion I made was shut down.
Another thing I wanted to ask, you mentioned if you hand someone a paintbrush, they will paint…expand on that a little bit.
This is the idea that criminals in prison are incorrigible individuals, criminals are born criminals, not made. And because of that, you have whether correctional services, or legislators, or even government officials, who believe that people can’t change. I would argue that people can change, they can change as long as they’re alive. Regardless of age. But because of this ideology, the idea is that we should educate people in prison. Because if you teach this guy who’s in prison for burglary, if you teach him computer skills, he’ll just become a computer hacker…
Just a better burglar….right..
Yeah..instead we should not teach them…because if you know there’s no change in this person. Where the reality is that if you teach me computer skills, I’m more likely to become a computer engineer, software engineer, or IT specialist. I won’t become a computer hacker. I’m not innately born a criminal.
That is one, then two, a lot of times, we stamp people with one label based on one chapter, or one act in their life. And for a lot of people, the difference between a lot of people in prison, and people in society is that the people in prison where arrested, and a lot of people in society have YET to be arrested.
I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve met who are either doctors, lawyers, etc. who’ve put their hand in a cookie jar at some point in their childhood, or early teens. except that they had the resources to not succumb to the criminal justice system. And have this lifelong blemish, or scarlet letter behind them.
Or they simply were not found out…
Yeah, exactly… or it never came to the light of day.
Or maybe because they grew up in a higher crime neighborhood where there is a lot of police presence already watching….You’re more likely to be found out with your hands in the cookie jar if you grow up in certain places.
Yeah, we know street crime is prosecuted at a higher degree than corporate crime. I don’t have to remind people about Enron and Mr Madoff. But those are far and few in between.
But the paintbrush is..I was at a board of corrections meeting, and one person proposed an art program, art therapy in prison. Who knew, let people paint! But a official said we can’t have this program, because we can’t have people take paintbrushes and create weapons out of them and kill each other. My eyebrows went up, wait a minute, people don’t automatically see a paintbrush and see a weapon!
Anything can be a weapon when you think about it. The person has to decide to do so. So saying we can’t have paintbrushes, because they will create weapons out of it, is to say these people are incorrigible and can’t be changed and are born criminals. No..criminals are made due to a number of different environmental and psychological factors. A lot of different variables go into that. Not just born…
And we also have a habit of telling someone, “You are a criminal” instead of, “you had criminal behavior” at one time. That alone is coming back to where words can be very powerful if you say, your identity from now on is just that. Because then they might start believing that, which also doesn’t help…
Exactly, and I think that was true for me as a teenager. The environment was sending me messages. Solitary was sending me a message of worthlessness. Of this is who you are, this is how you should be treated. And then after a while, I said well, if I am a criminal, then you know what, then I’m going to be one.
And real quickly when you go into prison, you learn it’s a completely different world, it’s an upside down kingdom. Where everything that you believed was true, is backwards. People do not value respect, people don’t value diplomacy, people do not value walking away from a conversation. People do not value just being able to talk things out. Violence is really the law of the land. Both for people doing time, as well as the correctional officers. They don’t talk things out, they talk with their batons.
You learn that for me to communicate, you have to communicate with violence. This is the language of the land here. When someone is constantly exposed to that for 10, 15, to 20 years. Then when they return back into society, they still operate by those norms. And that is how this cycle continues, this labeling theory cycle.
In prison, did you also find a lot of people turn towards religion as a way to cope?
Yeah, I found that people turn to religion for a number of reasons. In addition to coping with the environment, and this unbearable reality. The kind of let go, and let God take care of it so to speak of. Part of doing time is to come to terms with hopelessness. I know I mentioned hope before in solitary before. But also hopelessness in the fact that there is nothing I can do about this situation. Like absolutely nothing that I can do about it. All I can do it, is accept the situation.
So your’e not struggling against it the whole time…
Yes, that’s self talk. When I first went to prison, I had to tell myself, “Johnny, you’re not going home for the next 15 years.” This is your home for the next 15 years. Stop thinking that someone is going to open your cell someday, and say we’re going to let you go. It’s not going to happen. And I had to reprogram myself. And a lot of time, it’s saying, hey, God there’s nothing I can do about it, please take care of it. God if you give me another chance, I won’t do it again. That kind of thing.
So people turn to religion to help cope with the environment. And then people also turn to religion for feelings of warmth, to feel inclusive, and feel loved in a lot of senses. To feel they’re not alone, even though they’re in a crowded room.
Do you find that that they still maintain that relationship once they come out of prison into society?
A lot of times yes. I’ve met a lot of people who’ve found faith in prison, and then once released, they stay with their faith and their religion.
In terms of addressing the root problem, why do some turn towards a life of crime..how can we address this?
There are a number of different issues. I think policing is part of the issue. The way that some neighborhoods are policed and others are not. In my neighborhood, I get mobile police towers, other neighborhoods, they get community gardens. Again I have 24 hour porn shops, and these poverty pimps who pray on people needing things.
I definitely think that the resources that are allowed into the communities, except that it is not. When I was 16 years old, I wasn’t trying to decide to if I should go to band camp or karate school. I was trying to decide which gang to join, how I’m going to run from the cops. How I’m going to walk to school and keep myself from being bullied.
And then when I was in school, the messages I received from my own teachers weren’t positive. I cut school as a teen constantly, except that every year I found myself being passed to the next grade. I don’t know how I passed this, I never did any homework. I probably showed up about two weeks out of the school year, and here I am going from the 8th to the 9th, and then into the 10th, and 11th grade. How is this possible?
And then as an adult you realize that teachers were just passing the problem along. I found myself in the 11th grade with an 8th grade reading level. Where the teacher says, oh you didn’t do your homework, well it’s OK, you’ll probably end up in prison anyway…
So they’d already given up on you in high school…
Oh yeah, without a doubt. So let’s talk about the school-to-prison-pipeline. When you go in school, and our schools resemble prisons. You have to go through a metal detector, the’re are armed guards there. I can be arrested inside of school, if the teacher deems I’m being disruptive in class. How I’m suspended constantly for behaviors that other students might not be suspended for.
Next thing you know here I am, I have a criminal record from engaging in school. Then once I get in front of a judge for another infraction, I already have psychologically been exposed to these restrictive environments in a sense.
I think the policing, the education, and I bring it back to the resources that are afforded in these communities. There is nothing to do for people inside a lot of these impoverished communities.
I wonder what would happen if we were to infuse these communities with the resources, financial resources, human resources, opportunities. For people to take advantage of them. Instead of feeling like, I have to sell drugs to help my mother feed my three brothers. Which is the reason the first time I went to jail.
I hope something like that happens. It is very complicated in reality to implement that.
And then we can talk about alternatives to incarceration. When people are arrested for a certain crime, you should not go to prison. You should not go to jail for using drugs. You should not go to jail because your behavior was a direct result of your mental illness. You should not go to jail, because you’re sleeping on a park bench, because your homeless. You should not go to jail for hopping a turnstile on a train, because you can’t afford to pay $3 dollars to get on the subway. Except that you get arrested, fined $100 dollars and run through the system.
And I ask myself, have we criminalized poverty? Have we criminalized mental illness? And people are going to jail not because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are.. .in a lot of different cases.
Yeah, lot of things to solve, a lot more problems to solve. I would envision an island instead of filled with boxes, have an island with gardens, wood-shop, every kind of possible skill that could be taught there. And then I imagine people coming off that island very different than an island with boxes on it.
Yeah, places like this jail in Sweden. People there are so humanized, they don’t even have fences there. And people are not running away, because there is no fence. Places in India where the officers don’t use handcuffs. Where people willingly go to the precinct with the police officer, and are held accountable for their actions!
We can rethink our entire system beyond where it is now, in a way that empowers people. And protects and upholds their human dignity and worth. and is very directly reflective of our human and American values.
And this cycle keeps on going unless you have some advantages right now, like you could self-educate your way out of the cycle…
Yeah, and to have the support of people who say, we’re going to invest in this person. This person has potential.
I told a reporter from the times the other day, the entire time I was in prison, for 13 years straight, day in and day out…Not once did I meet a person who was incorrigible, who could not be changed, who was deep down a criminal. I met people who had so much unrealized potential. I’m talking about so creative, so smart. I know scholars who don’t have PhD. Who have studied subjects for the last 10-15 years because there is nothing else for them to do. And they’re so smart, but they would never see the light of day.
And I ask myself…Imagine…if the cure to cancer was stuck inside of the head of a person who is sitting inside of a cell, who is not being allowed the education to bring the cure into fruition. There is so much unrealized potential inside of our prisons.
If we were to invest in these people….our society as a whole, not only the moral fabric of our society would be upheld, but our society would be furthered by the accomplishments these people would make.
Yeah, I totally agree (laughing)
Anything else that I missed that you would like to get off your chest that you think people should know about incarceration?
I think I said it all, but I would emphasize for listeners who have never been exposed to the system or come in contact anyone who has been affected…People should know that a lot of people are in prison just because they haven’t given the opportunity to do better. And they can’t do better, unless they know how to do better.
So definitely education is part of the conversation. And the other part of the conversation is that there are no bad people. There are people who may commit bad acts or irresponsible acts. But we can’t subject one person to relegate one person to one chapter of their life. We’ve all made mistakes, whether we’ve been caught for that or not. Whether we’ve been held accountable for them or not. This could be your reality. You can also be subjected to this system.
And the reason people should care because 95% of the people who are in prison right now, are going to be released one day. Tomorrow, next week, next year. And they are going right into our communities. There is people in your community who may have criminal records who you may even be surprised that have a record, but have never mentioned or told you about their record.
Until we see people as people, we will not treat people as people.
Thanks for bringing light to this issues. For giving me a voice, to help me amplify my voice and reach a wider audience about these issues. I’m always available to answer any questions, and am available to do presentations in person, across the country to talk about these issues.
MF 43 – Guided Meditations to Help Develop a Regular Meditation Habit with OMG I can Meditate! co-founder Lynne Goldberg
Lynne was stressed-out, sleep-deprived, type-A businesswoman, and ended up a renowned meditation coach. As she talks about in the interview, when she started meditating, no one would have labeled Lynne Goldberg “a natural”.
Lynne had a series of devastating life blows, including the loss of twin baby girls, her mother, her marriage, and her job, coupled with years of infertility treatment and multiple failed adoptions, she counted on overworking and wine to help her survive.
But in the quiet moments she was forced to face the fact that, ultimately, she was still alone, unhappy, unfulfilled, and disconnected. Something—in fact, everything—was missing. Dragged kicking and screaming by a friend to a yoga retreat, Lynne reluctantly abided by the meat-free, alcohol-free diet and sat through the meditations simply because there was nowhere else to go.
But as she found her stress and anxiety slowly dissipating, the reluctance transformed into acceptance, and acceptance into appreciation and outright enjoyment. There was no denying the transformative effects this balanced, healthy approach was having on her life. She felt calm, capable, and in control.
Lynne course-corrected her life onto a path to understanding and embraced a new healthy and balanced lifestyle, studying along the way with Deepak Chopra, Sri Dharma Mittra and Tony Robbins.
Today she is a certified meditation coach, yoga instructor, strategic interventionist, and author of the book “Get Balanced. Get Blissed.”
Her passion and life mission lie in helping others transform their lives and discover true happiness, peace of mind and fulfillment through meditation and personal growth. Her ability to compassionately connect with others, and her accessible, everyday approach to teaching meditation, have led her to copach people from all walks of life, from celebrities, athletes, and business executives to 80-year-old cancer patients and five-year-old children.
Lynne’s meditation programs and curriculum have been implemented in elementary and high schools, special needs schools, and hospitals.
Lynne Goldberg is also co-founder of OMG. I Can Meditate!, a mobile and web meditation app that can teach anybody how to meditate in just 10 minutes a day. Lynne’s simple and clear teaching style has brought the joy of meditation to stressed-out business executives, soccer moms, eighty year olds, kindergarten kids, and everyone in between. She is the author of the book Get Balanced. Get Blissed.
When Lynne is not helping people find their bliss, she is living her own doing the things she loves most: being in nature, hiking or biking, traveling the world, cooking, or enjoying time with her husband and kids.
(What follows is a summary transcript of the interview. Listen to the episode for the full conversation)
(Above: Guided Meditation video by OMG I can Meditate! Lynn Goldberg)
What was your life like before you started a meditation practice?
Lynne was not a natural meditator at all (stresses this point). So many folks are intimidated by meditation, and look at other meditators and think, “oh, I could never do that”. She came to meditation by accident. Her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. At the time when Lynn’s mother went through all her cancer treatments, her doctor recommended she try meditation.
And simultaneously, Lynne was going through infertility treatments. She thought, while her mother was having difficulties with her treatments, if it can help her mother, maybe it can help her as well. And when you’re pregnant, people like to tell you, just relax, and you’ll get pregnant. So she looked at meditation as a way to help her relax, as well as deal with this stuff that was going on as well.
And over time, meditation with practice became easier.
And you mentioned that you had a lot of other dramas in your life as well, with your business as well. Were you attracted to meditation because you could see another way of dealing with these issues?
She didn’t have any plan. What she noticed was that she wasn’t coping as well as she’d like to cope. Lynne noticed that she was waking up at 3 am having panic attacks. Sleep was difficult for her. Her self-worth was very low. Lost her job, her marriage started to fall apart. She did not feel very good about herself.
And one of the things that really made a difference was meditation. It started to give her another sense of self-worth. As she started meditating more, those feelings of self-doubt, those inner voices that you tend to hear all the time, started to diminish. So it really helped.
Thich Nhat Hahn talks about the radio stations in our minds, how with time and more meditation, you can turn the channels to a less anxious channel/frequency.
Yes…I call it my automatic thought machine, my ATM, which unfortunately doesn’t dispense a lot of cash. (laughing) Rather it dispenses self-criticism. Over time, the self-talk can become a bit more realistic, little less self-critical.
So the story about yourself is less one-way, less rigid, less negative. It begins to open up…
What kind of meditations did you start with and how did it evolve?
Lynne’s first experience with meditation, she was going through infertility treatments. And she used a cassette tape guided meditation recording. That was more like body scan, that type of meditations. She wasn’t physically capable of doing silent meditations, of doing anything but guided meditations. Over time it didn’t really change, she’d have moments of peace and tranquility. But it wasn’t immediate.
Further down the road, as she started to develop that attention muscle, she could get more silence in those gaps. So she could develop that practice more. But, she admits, her mantra for a long time was, “When will this be over, when will this be over!”
So during your meditation practice, it was still future oriented..it was still about getting to another place..
Absolutely, yes, and there was an emphasis on the future, and also there was an emphasis on, I was not doing it right. A strong feeling that other people probably had more tranquility, silence, space in their thoughts than I. A lot of comparison, not feeling good enough in the meditation. And a sense that this was something that only I was failing at.
Which was really important to us, as we developed our app. We really tried to address those concerns, that most people have when they meditate. And then give up, because they think that they’re not doing it properly. We wanted to reassure people, that this is it.
There’s thought, thought, thought, thought, thought…And then you go back to the object of your attention, and you have some more thoughts. And as you continue to do that, eventually it becomes a bit more accessible. A little bit less though, and a little bit more space.
And it sounds like you’re putting components of self-acceptance in your app’s guided meditations. So that people aren’t as hard on themselves, as you were on your former self.
Did you also have teachers along the way?
My first experience, was a meditation retreat. It was a funny situation, my girlfriend dragged me kicking and screaming. Reluctant to go with her. I found out there was no alcohol there. And it was basically Vegan. (laughing) I was hoping to stay in a nearby hotel. So I was stuck there for a whole week.
But I submerged myself, and thankfully so. Because that was the beginning of a love affair.
Did you see it differently at the end of the retreat than at the beginning of the retreat?
I’d love to say that I did..What I did notice, was that I had been craving, hoping to achieve a certain state. Peace and quiet type of state. I noticed that that peace that was so elusive, was accessible for periods of time. And I could access this state of mind, more when I was allowing myself to be still and quiet than when I was not.
And so I counter-intuitively I always thought I had to work really really hard to achieve a certain state. If I do this, then maybe I can get there, or have that. But what I recognized, is the less I did, the more peaceful I actually felt. So that was that shift in me. I wouldn’t say that it, boom all changed all at once, but that realization was really helpful and important.
Yeah I think that is the case with many people, it doesn’t just go from one day to the next. But they may read a story that says it should happen a certain way, so pretty quick it turns to self-doubt, and then it turns into thinking there’s something wrong with oneself.
Did you end up going to more retreats in the future?
Yeah. I’m a retreat junkie. They’re fun, I like them. But it’s also very important to develop my own practice. But it was over time that it became a love affair that became consistent. That consistency was difficult for me.
That’s another thing we try to help people with. Even though I knew that some of my behaviors were not necessarily beneficial for myself, I still did that. Example, I know clearly, if I had a drink when I came home from work. It might be better if I meditate for 20 minutes after work.
Strong habit patterns…
Yes, old habit patterns. But hard to shift. So those habits, and getting to the place where I wanted to change the habits was also a long process, didn’t just happen. Still I’d come home, and still reach for a drink after a hard day.
I find it helpful to make a daily meditation practice habit. From habits that are not self nourishing, to habits that are self-nourishing. Getting myself in that regular habitual practice, that over time, did become a habit. Now I can’t imagine a time where I don’t meditate.
It’s a healthy habit, rather than a destructive habit. Did you also find that your attitude towards certain events would also change as a result of meditation? Like your response or how you deal with a very negative event for example?
Absolutely. That story that I tell my kids all the time. My favorite kid story. This farmer comes into his backyard, and his whole backyard is completely destroyed, how horrible! And his response is, “maybe good, maybe bad.” That is sort of how my own practice has helped me as well. Lynne’s dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer, a tumor in his lung. And there was that moment of understanding that this is something that is potentially life-threatening. But then after surgery, they find out that, Oh, it’s actually not cancer. And then he found out after that while he had internal bleeding, that developed into Pneumonia. And now he’s recuperating. And it’s those waves, and recognizing that it’s temporary, it’s what it it is.
Rather than getting caught up in the moment to moment events. Just being present with whatever is happening. And just enjoying the time, being able to be with my father. And have truly alone time with this man, where he’s truly lucid, and able to communicate and able to share feelings. And probably very poignant, and wouldn’t be said under any other circumstances.
Truly a gift. And being able to see the gift in whatever is happening at the moment, was a huge shift for me.
I see how if your mind thought it was too real, and you get caught up in these situations, then you wouldn’t have as much time to be fully present for the person who is actually undergoing through this pain. There’s a huge advantage for the people around you, when you’re able to be more present for them, and not caught up or swallowed up by the stories. And at the same time you’re still able to grieve, but it doesn’t have the added mental stuff to it.
How does this meditation practice affect you as a parent?
My oldest son is 20 something, and my daughter is about 11 at this time. Different parenting rules and regulations at this point. I’m certainly grateful to my older son, for letting me practice on him (laughing). One of the things that was very important to me, was making sure that my kids had a contemplative practice of their own. The ability to step back.
Because my kids were not interested in learning from me, (laughing) as a parent, we really did our best to get the schools to put in meditation as part of the curriculum.
A very creative way as a parent to get your kids to do something you want them to do! (laughing) And at the same time, you’re helping the schools too.
Yes, it was a win-win for everyone. And I did this at different schools, because Lynn’s kids were at different schools. Her oldest son as ADHD, with learning disabilities. That’s all about your executive functioning, and the inability to concentrate. Making rash decisions, and not necessarily thinking things through.
Having meditation not only helped the teachers, as well as him, and myself. I’ve certainly relied on it as a parent. One of the stories was when her son was at school a few years back, and they called Lynne, telling her that he was on the way to the emergency. When they call like that, usually it means something bad has happened. It ended up that he had blown up the science lab, and part of his arm was injured as part of that experiment gone wrong.
But that practice for me, being able to step back, not getting caught up in the whole drama of the situation. Have a bit of calm and clarity with the situation. This has really helped me get out of that habit of the shame and blame that a lot of parents get into. Like, “why did he do that, how could he do that to me!” And then it becomes all about me, my ego, I’m so worried and I’m so upset. As opposed to just recognizing this is a kid who’s just being a kid, experimenting.
Have you noticed any changes in him as a result of his meditation?
It’s a work in progress (laughing). So he’s 20, and it’ll be interesting, because no one necessarily wants to do what their parents want them to do. He now has some meditation skills that he’s learned, and whether he chooses to use them, and when he will use them is up to him. When he’s ready, he’ll know how..he can make a choice.
Yeah, it has to come from within..
How did the guided meditations from going to schools, to fine-tuning them, making them better, and then taking them out into the world (through the OMG I can Meditate meditation app)?
We had things people would say repeatedly, like a common theme a lot of people complained about was, “I don’t have enough time”. So when we were developing the app, we wanted to give people an alarm, so they could just wake up with the app, and start meditating right away. So there were certain comments, which allowed us to put together a wishlist. If I could have everything in the world, what would it be to help people to have no more excuses to meditate. That would make it simple, and completely accessible and available. We were lucky that we have lots of people gave us lots of information.
Another thing besides the alarm, was the fact that it was daily and progressive. Also, we noticed that if we gave too much information up front, there wasn’t necessarily the sense of continuity. They wanted bite-size pieces, that they could have on a daily basis. This was more important. Consistency and continuity were very important. As opposed to how I did it, going to a full week meditation retreat, one week on, and then not consistent. It was a work in progress.
Was it like a year later that you decided to create the app?
Yes, it took a year of writing, and also making sure on the technology side getting it all put together.
Was it then at the kitchen table, where you decided to, your husband had already done all kinds of things like apps or ringtones right?
His claim to fame was (as he put it), developer of the Fart Ringtone (laughing). He wanted to do something in this chapter of his life that had a little more meaning than that! Yes, he had several technology companies and he had developed web content and content for mobile phones and mobile apps, prior to Apple. So he had been at this for a long time.
So he just thought, I can just take these meditations, and add the technologies with the bell and timer etc..
Yes, he knew how to make something that was consumer friendly..
And also now in airplanes, Air Canada, and Delta…how did that come about?
That’s his doing as well. We’d fly together, and the first 20 minutes you can’t really do anything anyway. And it was just like this, “we should be meditating right now, wouldn’t it be cool if….”. So he was the one to make that happen as well.
Seeing your app in the plane was amazing to me. When I took an international flight recently, I saw so many video screens on all night. Because now you can watch shows and movies all you want. So unlike the past, where folks slept during these international flights, now many people just watch one show after another, and get even less rest. There’s so much more distraction and things then in the past. So your app in a way helps counter-act that, and gives folks permission to rest and meditate.
Do you find the guided meditations from the store app, have different popular guided meditations, vs the meditation app in the planes?
We also wanted to make sure that we could address, each of the meditations on the app are situation specific. Anywhere from the, “my boss is a jerk” guided meditation, which teaches self, and other compassion. To standing in line at the grocery store. Like a 2 minute meditation. Very specific to whatever you need at the moment.
On a plane, if you have fears, or you’re worried about flying, concerns. Or if it’s just for rest and relaxation that would be another one. We have different ones that are specific to what you’d be going through when you’re flying.
That’s great, because in the past you might have to read through a whole book, or take a whole class before you get to the point that is relevant to a particular situation. And everyone has a different situation, and a different thing you might need at that moment. That’s a really wonderful thing about these apps, just-in-time learning, just in time needed, something that’s needed at that moment.
Any other surprises, or things you’ll be doing in the future, as a result of seeing the usage of your app?
It’s just been truly the most gratifying process I could ever imagine. We’ve met some wonderful people, like you..It’s just incredible to have met a community who share our interests and passions. But we’ve also seen the changes and differences that meditation can make in people’s lives. We’ve received some very gratifying letters from people, who’s lives have been improved and have been touched, by their own words. That’s the most special thing I can imagine.
Yes, very gratifying, makes your life meaningful too…
That’s why I get up in the morning, very meaningful. Makes it feel like there’s a sense of purpose. Very special.
Do you have any other plans, or keep building on what you have?
Right now the intention is to develop this further, we’re constantly releasing new content. We’re working with people who help us develop things that are important to them and giving us insight into what issues they have. So we’re very interested in continuing to grow that. We’re interested in developing our distribution network. That’s really the goal right now, making it useful.
You’re definitely succeeding at that. Any final tips for folks just beginning with practice, or struggling with practice?
The most important thing I can think of is consistency. Permitting, even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, as opposed setting a lofty goal of an hour. Better off, biting of 10 minutes at a time, and committing to that, and doing it consistently over time. That’s what the research shows, helps develop the attention muscle. You get your practice underway. Baby steps, be gentle with yourself. This is a practice that takes time. Not having expectations, that might be unrealistic. Just committing to it.
Also recognizing what your intention for starting the practice is in the first place.
Yes very good tip..
Recognizing this is why I’m doing that. And honoring that. Coming back to that, whenever there’s a moment when you feel, “Ugh…do I really want to do this!”
Yeah…rain or shine..
Do you see a community component coming up in the future?
Yes, so that’s our ultimate goal. But that’s secret (laughing). That’s an exiting possibility.
Thanks so much for sharing!
The popular guided meditation, “Blanket of Love Meditation” is played at the end of the interview to finish the episode.
MF 37 – Awakening from the Illusion of Separation with Lama Surya Das
Lama Surya Das is one of the foremost Western Buddhist meditation teachers and scholars, one of the main interpreters of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and a leading spokesperson for the emerging American Buddhism. The Dalai Lama affectionately calls him “The Western Lama.”
Surya has spent over forty five years studying Zen, vipassana, yoga, and Tibetan Buddhism with the great masters of Asia, including the Dalai Lama’s own teachers, and has twice completed the traditional three year meditation cloistered retreat at his teacher’s Tibetan monastery. He is an authorized lama and lineage holder in the Nyingmapa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and a close personal disciple of the leading grand lamas of that tradition. He is the founder of the Dzogchen Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its branch centers around the country, including the retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he conducts long training retreats and Advanced Dzogchen retreats. Over the years, Surya has brought many Tibetan lamas to this country to teach and start centers and retreats. As founder of the Western Buddhist Teachers Network with the Dalai Lama, he regularly helps organize its international Buddhist Teachers Conferences. He is also active in interfaith dialogue and charitable projects in the Third World. In recent years, Lama Surya has turned his efforts and focus towards youth and contemplative education initiatives, what he calls “True higher education and wisdom for life training.”
Surya Das has been featured in numerous publications and major media, including ABC, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, The Washington Post,The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, New York Post, Long Island Newsday, Long Island Business Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Jewish Free Press, New Age Journal, Tricycle Magazine, Yoga Journal, The Oregonian, Science of Mind, and has been the subject of a seven minute magazine story on CNN. One segment of the ABC-TV sitcom Dharma & Greg was based on his life (“Leonard’s Return”). Surya has appeared on Politically Correct with Bill Maher, and twice on The Colbert Report (see links below).
(This is a summary transcript, please listen to the episode to enjoy the full conversation)
Maybe you could start us off with a guided mini-meditation? (I usually do a short mini-meditation before all interviews)
Maybe we’ll just keep silent for the whole 45 minutes! (laughing)
Yes, let’s have a little instant meditation, very American. Friends, Meditate as fast as you can (laughing)!
Breathe in first, and say “Ahhhhhh” 3 times, the seed-syllable of Dzogchen, Tibetan Meditation. And enjoy a moment of mindfulness and contemplative sweetness, of just being. Getting of the threat-mill of events, and momentum of our conditioning and drivenness, and just breathing, just sitting, just being.
Present attentive. Lucidly aware.
Mindful, rather than mindlessly sleepwalking through life.
Just sitting, natural body is Buddha’s body.
Let it be, relaxed and at ease.
2. Just breathing, natural breath is letting go, letting if flow.
Awaring…Awareness is a verb.
Aware of physical sensations in the body.
Mindfulness of breathing,
3. Aware of awareness itself. Aware of thoughts, memories, moods, not trying to suppress them.
Mindfulness of thoughts is meditation. Not trying not to think.
Incandescent presence. Choice-less awareness. Nowness awareness is the true Buddha within.
Letting everything come and go, letting be, as it is.
Aware open, friendly accepting.
And enjoy the joy of natural meditation.
This breath as if the only breath, this moment as if the only moment. Enjoy the joy of naturalness, of genuine meditation.
Tibetan chanting follows…
“May all beings be happy, peaceful, in harmony, fulfilled and serene.
Healed and whole again.
And may we all together fulfill the promise of this spiritual journey.
One family, one sangha community, One world.
All beings, love to one and all.
And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her. “
I like that, as a substitute for God Bless America some times.
Yes, that’s what I say, “God Bless Everyone”. Let’s be a blessing in the world, a light, rather than a blight on the landscape. The world needs it.
That was a little natural meditation. You can find these in my books, which are like work books full of practices you can do.
Like breathe, relax, center and smile. 4 steps to instant meditation. Not that complicated. There’s 2600 years of ethics, practices, wisdom, and meditations behind all that.
3 pillars of natural meditations behind it. Just sitting, just breathing, just being aware. These are great practices for today. Secular, non-sectarian, no beliefs or conversions needed.
How did you get on a a path of meditation?
I grew up in the 50’s and sixties, and went to college in New York at the university of New York, university of Buffalo. And his best high school friend, Allison Krause, was shot and killed in may of 1970, along with 3 other students, she was 19. It was a big tragedy. She was running away from the part-time soldiers, the Ohio national guard. Who shot the students who were demonstrating the secret bombings of Cambodia and Vietnam by Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam war era.
That turned his head around about fighting for peace, and the radical anti-war movement. Lama Surya Das wanted to be for something positive. To make peace, become peace, be a peacemaker in the world. Rather than fighting for peace. Which became increasingly a contradiction in terms.
Like today we have suicide bombers, killing in the name of God. I don’t think that is exactly what God has in mind for us. Nothing new about this fanaticism, it’s been going for millennia and centuries. It’s part of our human society, we have to deal with it.
I went to India after graduation from college 1971, went to Zen retreats, meditation, encounter groups, legal and otherwise consciousness research. Hitchhiked across Europe, and middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, India, etc. Went to his first Vipassana course, insight meditation course.
That was in August 1971, with people like Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Coleman, and many of our current mindfulness teachers in America. Then met his first Tibetan teachers, Lamas. His first Hindu guru Neem Karoli Baba, who gave him his name Surya Das.
Surya Das was there throughout the 70’s and 80’s. Became a Buddhist monk, went to tibetan buddhist training for lamas. Did that twice in the 80’s, learned Tibetan. Was then invited to teach by some of the Vipassana teachers in America. Taught these teachers Dzogchen. His lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, starting in 1989.
By the 90’s started to write books and teach in Europe and America, started Dzogchen centers in America. That’s what he does, teaching, writing, and social activism. Spiritual service, or activism. Make a positive difference in the world. Be a Bodhisattva, an edifier, an awakener. A light in this world.
Now as he gets older, a spiritual elder. A role we sorely need today. Young folks don’t necessarily want authorities, religious leaders. Or trust political leaders. And yet..
We’re all thirsty for for this timeless wisdom, self knowledge, inner teacher, inner peace, outer harmony. How to heal the planet and climate issues. Not very esoteric. Everyone is interested in this today.
I did read in your book, you read a line as a teen, that “the whole universe is my body, all beings are my mind”. At that time you may not have realized it very deeply, but you were attracted to it right?
Of course, when I was in college, I was a Woodstock. Everyone he knew went to Woodstock. He read books like Aldous Huxley’s Perennial philosophy, Tibetan book of the Dead, Carlos Castaneda’s Yaqui way of knowledge, about his teacher Don Juan.
So he read that, but had no idea, was a kid, a jock, not interested in religion. Had no idea, just studied philosophy in college. He was into psychology, political science, creative writing. So now even now when I look at those notebooks from that day that I wrote down. Maybe I remember some of that. It’s amazing how much was there, and how little I understood about it when I was a kid.
Hormone driven, anti-counter-cultural, Vietnam era. But then it all starts to come back as you open your third eye. When he came back from India, even in the bible, of course humanism, of course Judaism and Christianity, there’s was plenty in there. But growing up, we weren’t that interested in it. Nobody taught us really how to meditate or pray to bring that into our bodies or into our lives.
It was more like oh on Sunday, where you listen to an old person give a boring sermon while reading a book in your lap about a totally different subject.
Right, I was the same way..
That’s what we did. I’m Jewish on my parents side, I was Bar Mitzvah, went to Hebrew school. There was nothing of interest for me. When he asked all his millions of questions, they would say, “Sheket! “, translated quiet little monkey! Shhh, Shh. OK, I’ll try..
When he landed in India, he went to the meditation course, 10 day mindfulness course, silent for 10 days with S.N. Goenka. Not many questions. Teacher gave one hour talk everyday. Which the insight school is carrying on these days in America. Tara Brach, Jon Kabat Zinn is an offshoot of that. Terrific mindfulness training.
When he was with his first lama grand old masters of Tibet Kalu Rinpoche, he was Dalai Lama’s teacher of the 6 Tibetan Tantric Yogas. He used to pepper him a lot with questions, he had a lot more work and teaching, refuge camps, building schools and infirmaries.
So when Surya Das asked him, is it OK if I ask you all these questions? He said, “Ask me all of your questions, then one day you too will know.”
That was very empowering. Quite different then my, “religious upbringing”. He also gave me practices, self inquiry, ways of thinking, basic Buddhist philosophy and psychology. How to meditate and look into his mind, his feelings. Ways of looking into relationships, ethics and moral precepts. How to develop virtues, like generosity and patience. Not just believe in them.
Oh Jesus could love the enemy, well I don’t know how? But he taught us how!
To exchange self for others, called Tibetan Tonglen practices. Put yourself in the other’s shoes, equalizing yourself and others. And mindfulness and awareness practices.
I encourage people to question, seek, inquire. Find out for yourself, don’t just belief everything on blind faith. Of course most of us won’t, since many of us are Americans.
Do you think we have to journey into separateness, into a sense of self and other, so we can fully appreciate non-separateness?
Yes. That’s really the universal pageant. It’s a little hard to talk about, so let me talk in English.
God created the world because he/she was lonely. Likes a good story. That is one amusing way of looking at it.
The whole journey back to the Garden of Eden, or oneness or God or beyond separation. First you have to be separate to experience Union, otherwise you have no perspective.
Like the poet, mystic Saint Kabir of India said, “The fish doesn’t know the sea that there in. ”
“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.
You don’t grasp the fact that what is most alive of all is inside your own house;
and you walk from one holy city to the next with a confused look!
Kabir will tell you the truth: go wherever you like, to Calcutta or Tibet;
if you can’t find where your soul is hidden,
for you the world will never be real!”
The bubble has to burst to return to the sea, but it has never been apart.
So we’re conceived and we cut the umbilical cord and become separate, and grow up and individuate and become independent. These are healthy stages of development. But then we also have to have a healthy ego, not be an egotistical bastard.
And then, start to recognize interdependence and interconnection. And have autonomy within interdependence, not just be independent like a teenager wants.
Find autonomy and freedom within interdependence. Recognize that we’re not separate, that we’re all interconnected.
As we see in the global level today, with the global economy, environment, ozone layer, rising seas. We’re all connected, we can’t just worry about what’s going on in our village in our own country anymore. And not worry about the bigger issues.
And also individually, nobody can do it alone today. It’s not the age of isolationism of specialists anymore.
Belief me, I’ve tried as a Tibetan monk in monasteries for 8 or 9 years.
We need each other, to develop compassion, empathy, loving-kindness Not just wisdom from the far head up.
The whole journey is about coming home to oneness or ourselves. The subtitle of my book, make me one with everything, is “Buddhist meditations to awaken from the illusion of separation”.
So we have to experience separation in order to come back, just like with love. You can’t know love unless we feel a little separate. Then we can experience the oneness and the union of being one and together, as we come together and apart in a healthy relationship dance.
When you became a monk for those 8 years when you still thought that it was a separate journey, was there a point that you realized that you perspective was shifting from that sense of separate individual journey to we’re part of a larger whole.
Well it was very gradual in the sense that growing up I was always on sports teams, stayed in one neighborhood, being with my buddies. That was great, and then also in college, and later, a little bit more inner, with hallucinogens, started to write poetry, creatively, songs, develop my inner. That was a little more of the separate. Self growth, self development. Although still with friends, women.
My teachers in India, Nepal, Tibet, even in Japan where Lama Das studied Zen and teaching English. Mostly monks or monastic style, they wanted us to become monks and nuns. Like the Kalu Rinpoche started the first 3 year western training in the west. But I never believed I’d be a monk my own life. I wanted to come back to my own culture. And place and time and make a difference. Not be an ex-pat in foreign country. It’s different if you’re part of the scene there, like you as a Dutch person married here in America.
But in India it was more separate, like sahibs and memsabs. Like the British invaders. I wanted to go back to my own time and culture, and starting teaching counseling, writing, and organizing, social activism.
As a monk that is very hard to imagine continuing to do that. I didn’t intend to stay a monk forever. As a monk, it gets really complicated. Not being able to do many things. It’s not my vocation anyway. I’m more of a people person, Bhakti, as they say in India. A lover of life, people and of God. God in people, God in nature, God in animals.
So when the 3 year retreats were over after 8/9 years, I gave up my robes.
My message is if I can do it, you can do it, everyone can do it. I’m not different, I’m not the Dalai Lama, I don’t want anyone to idealize me. Just a Jewish jock from Long Island. Like a player coach, let’s do these practices together. It’s a wonderful joyous spiritual path.
I love this journey of kindred spirits together. I love the beloved community, the Sangha, the Satsang. So gradually I got used to this idea. Starting to see, this is not the time, it’s never the time for selfishness. But self-growth, isolationism, and closing my eyes, and going inward, and being silent for years.
This is the era for integration, collaboration, of the 99% occupying the spirit. Not just the 1% percent waiting for the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa to do it.
This is very important, so that is why I wrote this book about co-meditation, inter-meditation, awakening together.
I could tell by the way you wrote it, you want to take the “me” out of Meditation. So you created the new word, inter-meditation.
Yes from Me-ditation to We-ditation. Not just with people, but with nature, with animals, with the lake, trees, the sun, the sky, with the sound of the waves. And let them do it for you, wash over you and through you. Relax a little, be open, not just close our eyes, and try to get away from it all.
Be with it, not trying to get away from it. Be with it, be open, not against it. Be with it!
Loving kindness means friendliness and openness. And also be friendly and open to what comes up within us. To our own inner phenomena and noumena, the mental stuff, bodily feeling. Healthily integrating it all into our open heart and Big Mind.
It’s the Big Mindfulness. Re-Mindfulness, remembering through member what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Not just trying to getaway from it all or stop thinking.
To me the sense of integration, that you talk about, is we used to spend a lot of time developing or nurturing the little self, the ego, ignoring the big self. And now when the Big Self is in the foreground, and the little self is in service of the big self. At the same time we need to develop our own unique expression of the Big Self, which is non-repeatable, which has it’s own talents and skills that still need nurturing. Some might think they have to kill their ego, or toss it away. Because the world needs everyone to be there, authentic to show up.
Authentic, effective, yes. Authentic is a hard word to define. But it’s so important. No need to kill anything or kill your ego. Anti-ego is just another crime. Egotism, “I’m the worst”, or “I’m worse than anybody else!”
I think Buddhist greatest teaching is the middle way. Not too much and not too little. Not ascetic and not indulgent. There’s a lot of room in between, it’s not a razor’s edge. There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway of authentic awakening. And the awakened life. The mindful life. The beautiful loving true life that everyone deserves. Not in an entitled way, that everyone can have and participate in equally.
There’s a lot of lanes in this great highway of life, let’s just try to stay away from the ditches on either side. Nihilism, nothing matters. Vs Materialism, everything is as real as it seems. If we can’t weight it or see it, it’s not real. That’s materialism. Nihilism and materialism are extreme views, the ditches off the highway. Extreme views. Killing for God mentality.
There’s a lot of lanes in the great highway including the different religions, like humanism, and atheism. Atheists and Agnostics are some of the most spiritual people I know. There’s room for all.
Suicide bombings and genocide, not so much room in my mind for that. We have to deal with that for sure. It’s part of life. And the inequalities and injustices of life make the problem worse. So we have to make some systemic changes, not just change ourselves.
When I become clearer, everything becomes clearer. That’s Buddha’s basic premise.That’s why we meditate, concentrate, self-inquiry.But still we have to work on the outer level, as well as the inner level.
It’s election year, an important time to step up, speak out, and vote. If you don’t vote, I don’t want to hear you complaining about what’s wrong with politics in Washington.
Being an informed citizen is a co-meditation in a way.
Participating. If you’re a parent you got to participate with the children, not just send them off to school, and hope someone else do the parenting. Stand up for them, going to the school, and being involved.
This is a time for integration, not getting away from it all.
Of course having said that, I got away from it all for a long time. I still lead silent meditation retreats year-round. You can see my schedule, see below in the resources. But I still talk a lot about integration and selfless service, seva.
Linking our hands, hearts and heads. We’re all in the same boat, we rise and fall, sink or swim together.
We got a lot more to do, with terrorism, school shootings, separation and alienation.
Yes, it’s terrible. The education system in North America. But the gun problem is even more of a crisis than the education crisis. There’s some pretty entrenched lobbies around that issue. Maybe we need to implement more mindful anger management in law enforcement. So people can think before they respond. More mindful management amongst teachers and institutional leaders. And with children. But it’s coming.
Mindful anger management can go a long way to reducing the violence that is becoming so endemic to our society.
These school shootings and mass killings are becoming like a national characteristic. It’s infuriating. Doesn’t happen in Canada. In this country there’s more guns then people! Don’t know why.
Inner peace and outer peace and harmony have to go together. I’m all for it.
You mention in your book, there’s a massive movement towards mindfulness , but folks miss out on some of the spiritual benefits, if they only go for the more mindful this or that. Effectiveness training.
It’s probably always been this way, com-modifying. Different societies generalize the things they import, like Yoga, that came into the 50’s and 60’s. Now probably in the armed forces.
Yoga just for exercise and health is missing out on the real meaning of Yoga, which is Yoga as Union with the Oneness, God, the highness. Missing out on the spiritual dimensions. The 8 limb yoga. Not just physical yoga.
Similarly meditation and mindfulness. Mindfulness for effectiveness, mindfulness for relaxation, for stress relief is terrific. But mindfulness is also part of the Buddhist path of awakening. Brings enlightenment, brings other benefits. Brings wisdom development, less selfishness, more openness. Wouldn’t want us to lose out on those aspects.
If prayer would be only for what you want, like kids petitioning Santa. It would be a big loss.
If mindfulness becomes only about us getting what we want, like feeling a little better, getting a bigger high, reducing blood pressure and stress. It would be a loss from the point of view of wisdom cultivation and development.
Awareness, self-knowledge development, attitude transformation, and so on. Other aspects of mindfulness. When Surya Das teaches, he also teaches about 6 kinds of mindfulness. It’s a very rich subject.
It’s also about soulfulness and heartfulness. Not just about the mind. That’s very American, we love the mind and thoughts. We’re think-aholics! Addicted to thinking.
But there’s life without thinking! Sometimes we’re having an experience and we’re still there, but not thinking. Like in the throws of ecstatic love making, or other situation, extreme exercise, or lucid dreaming.
Thoughts are a good servant, but a poor master. We’re too much under it’s power. Which is why I stress awareness.
I really appreciate my uncle who was a priest at the time. We were on a boat, about to go under a bridge, and I was standing on the boat about to get my head sliced off. He swore the most highest profanities at the time to get me to immediately bend down, or my head was about to get sliced off. That response was very appropriate!
Yes, you can’t legislate that. We call that wrathful compassion, not anger. He saved your life by cursing at the top of his lungs. If your children run into the street, you scream. You don’t just tiptoe, mindfully, silently toward the street to save them. That would be insane.
Spiritual life practice make us more sane, not insane.
Meditation is a good friend with benefits.
I wouldn’t want it to be just mindfulness for effectiveness or yoga for health.
And that does require a balance between taking the practice seriously, but holding it lightly..another balance you gotta learn over time.
Life aint much fun if we’re taking ourselves to seriously. That’s one of the downsides of religion today. It’s become so intimidating, so sectarian. I believe we need to really work to transform the atmosphere of spirituality. Apply it to daily life in many different ways, like mindful anger management, health and stress reduction is all good.
We need to lighten up, as well as enlighten up.
Joy is one of the four boundless virtues of Buddhist practice. Also joy in the good fortune of others, rejoicing. Joy is an important virtue to cultivate. Not just thinking this world sucks, waiting for the next world.
And your book title, “Make me one with everything”, maybe you can mention this joke.
Here’s the joke! BTW, I’m proud that, “Serious Das” (his wife used to call him that when he got too serious about his practice) has the only book title that I know of, in which the title is the punch line of a joke.
So you probably don’t know what the Dalai said to the hot-dog vendor?
The Dalai Lama walked up to the hot dog vendor and said, “Make me One with Everything!”
But there’s more! So then the vendor starts making the hot-dog, the sweet relish, the crappy onions, bean sprouts, mustard, ketchup, etc.
Then the vendor hands over the hot-dog to the Dalai Lama, and then the Dalai Lama hands over the 10 dollar bill. Then there’s a pregnant pause, a silence, are they meditating? Staring contest? What’s going on? Misunderstanding?
The Dalai Lama then finally gives in, speaks first, “What no change?”
The hot dog vendor responds, “Change must come from within”….:-)
Lightening up, while enlightening up. Not taking ourselves too seriously, and also cultivating the joy. Life is a miracle, we didn’t create it. Everyday we get up is a good day, we’re not dead. We all know folks who are younger and have died or dread diagnosis. In parts of the world where people are in slavery, poverty, wars, famines all the time, or most of the time. etc.
The beautiful nature around us, the freedoms we have in this great country. Increasingly diverse. Religious freedoms, freedom of speech and so on. Let me add, especially if you’re a white person.
I practice this kind of reverence and gratitude everyday. That makes my heart more joyful. I’m more resilient. Less brittle, less fearful, less cautious. More free and spontaneous. I can give and take. I can breathe in and out. Co-meditate with the difficulties, as well as with the people I like. Have much more resilience, forbearance and tolerance. Joyous, it’s a buoyant awakening.
And the meditation practice is what helps you with these benefits like resilience..
Yes, I’ve been meditating since 19791, when I did that first mindfulness course. Like that American expression, don’t leave home without it. I take it with me everyday, wherever I go.
Sometimes twice a day, sometimes in retreats all day. Sometimes I take part of the Sabbath off to take some time off to meditate. Meditate pray chant. Walking meditation, natural meditation, or sky gazing, lie down, dissolving into the sky, or co-meditation with water. Walk outside without earbuds. Co-meditation helps us integrate, inter-meditate with everything, every moment, even if we’re in a busy place.
It seems like the lack of appreciation is one of the reasons why there’s so much depression, why people have problems with the world.
It’s the difference between seeing the half of glass that’s empty and the half that’s full. Or, if things are never good enough for you, if you’re a perfectionist. Or worse insatiable craving or addiction. How those things cycle. It’s hard to get out of it by more of the same things that you’re stuck in. You have to make a quantum leap. Not just a little adjustment.
I’m not an alcoholic, I’ll just drink less. Well good luck to you if that works. From my understanding, the 12 step program at stopping totally, is the best and almost the only solution for alcoholics. I’m for the middle way, but sometimes you have to be all or nothing with certain things.
With the bad habits, afflictions, things like depression, or other pathologies, maybe we need some psychiatric help, or chemical intervention. Maybe we need to change our diet, or lifestyle. If we can’t change our ways of thinking.
Back to what I believe in is experiential practices. Not just converting to another religion, or converting to another political party, they’re so much the same. But doing the inner work, on oneself, and together. And asking for help, getting help from others who have more experience can be very helpful.
So meditation, self inquiry, support groups, therapy, Tai chi, yoga, or your favorite hobby. Maybe kneeling in the sun in your garden is your way of being closest to the One, rather than kneeling in the church where you have all kinds of other associations. Maybe some creative art is it for you. Authenticity, we have to be honest with ourselves, or imitate someone else’s way. If we’re truth seekers. Not fool ourselves, learn and apply. With our youngers, with our elders, with other species etc.
As a teacher what issues do you see your students struggle the most with?
I shouldn’t tell on them (laughing) from their private consultations, etc. It’s no secret, that westerners mostly struggle with mental stuff. Less so with poverty and disease that you see in other parts of the world. Like genocide, being refugees, or having your family members disappeared, kidnapped.
A lost of his students struggle with relationships. The search for love and wholeness. The feelings of incompleteness, feelings of loneliness and isolation. Meaninglessness, what’s it all about in life. Why bad things happen to good people. People with various cancers, ill children, parents, to take care of. These are things that people struggling with, and have always struggled with.
That’s why I’m thinking about co-meditation. The difficulty or challenge. Being with it not trying to get away from it. The “enemy”, like a disease. To be with it, breathe with it, learn to tolerate it, be more patient less resistant.
See through the illusion of separation, is a great antidote to all this mental suffering.
You don’t just mean intellectual..
Breathing with it, tolerating. Like befriend anxiety, if you have difficult feelings. Not fighting it, thinking it has to go away. Or over-medicating it away. Like sweeping crap under the rug. Where it festers. Throwing radioactive waste into the ocean. So we don’t have to deal with it. Of course our children would have to deal with it. Breathing through physical pain. Moving your attention can move your world in a positive direction.
Recognizing the inter-connectedness, putting yourself in others shoes. If your “enemy”, “bad” boss, (bad is subjective) employee, neighbors, if you have a problematic relationship. If you put yourself in their shoes, you might see yourself very differently.
We might have been the Hitler youth, if we’d been brought up in Nazi Germany. With the boy scouts, everyone was in the Hitler youth. You have to say that these extremists from the middle east. I don’t know that I’d be a terrorist. But they’re very loyal to their parents, their schools, just like we were. They’re not that different. They have the universal commonality of human beings, we love our land, our children, etc. We gotta find some common ground. Doesn’t mean we have to have the same religion.
Look at our gridlocked separateness in our nation’s capital. The partisan politics. Nobody can get anything done. It’s a real problem if we can’t find a third or fourth way, and see through the illusion of separateness. And get to the greater common good.
We have to take relational actional steps, learning, inquiring steps.
This Tibetan practice about riding the breath is very helpful and important today. Breathing in the difficulty, with Tibetan Tonglen practice is very important. Equalizing self and other.
You mention the shootings, it’s about what we’ve been talking about. Why do people do it, it’s about feeling separate, excluded, meaningless, victimized, pushed out, no one will listen to me. I’m gonna make a statement, extreme statement, because I’m not heard. We need to address these issues.
And the spiritual practice and path is a timeless and evergreen path to addressing these big life questions.
What further encouragement would you give someone listening who’s not fully committed or sure why they’re practicing?
Nobody fully understands it, I don’t pretend to fully understand. Life is a mystery. We have to live it. It’s like love, who fully understands love? But some are better than others, they become good lovers, good loving people. Like Buddha or Christ like love. Buddha said only go where invited, and when people ask. You can’t push people. So if people ask, then I share the best that I can.
In general I don’t need people to be different then they are. If they’re interested and looking where I’m looking, then we can start to “co-meditate” together. Discuss, and practice together. I’m not that square that I think everyone should meditate. There are people who should not meditate, like extreme introverts. They might do better with a relational spiritual practice. Being involved with others, like sing and dance and chant.
Tai chi was a big one for me when I was young. A martial art, not an us/them martial art, an internal martial art.
Yes, that’s more like contemplation in action, it’s a very good competitive sports. They train kids in ethics, character, self empowerment, courage, I advocate that for sure. Also, as my wife used to say it’s un-american to sit quietly and do nothing. Tai Chi, Chi gong, yoga. Especially with the younger people. It’s a little late when kids are already in college, their habits are already entrenched. It’s hard to change.
Since I was in college I’ve been working in this self-growth and transformation biz. And it’s still hard to change!
But a little acceptance goes a long way to transform your relations, which is the point. Self-acceptance, other acceptance. radical acceptance. I love Tara Brach’s, Radical Acceptance book. Much recommended.
So there’s definitely a discernment where you can’t just shove down each person’s throat to meditate.
Yes, that’s aggressive. Only teach where asked, not intervene. Maybe you don’t really know better than them. People used to say, how can I get my family to go to church, eat vegetarian, do this or that, etc. How can I get them to do what I want them to do. That’s not my situation. What we’re talking about is a journey where you can easily be their travel agent. Not for everyone, inner travel.
So it’s important for everyone today to take a breath, and slow down, breathe, relax, center and smile. Have a moment of prayer, connect with yourself. Not always thinking or looking down the road into the future. Sit in the car and feel the feelings in your bud cheeks and in your hands, not just thinking about where you’re going to arrive.
More fully inhabit your body and mind, and spirit, energy and soul. And then see about authenticity, inquiring into about what you’re deceiving yourself about. Or denying, or “bad habits” that you always wanted to change, but never can.
This is all part of working on ourselves, very doable. Just wise and sane, and the world needs that.
The head is the office, the heart is the home.
Try to live from the heart. Be kind and compassionate to others.
And then the method doesn’t matter, as long as you’re moving towards the heart.
And it’s an infinite journey, so there’s no hurry. Hasten slowly, and you shall soon arrive as the Chinese proverb says.
Life moves fast, you must move slowly.
That’s what this podcast for me is about to, I like to interview folks from very differing backgrounds. I have a more Zen background, I do believe that everyone has to find what works for them. As long as it makes them more loving and move towards non-separation, then whatever works for them.
Right as long as it doesn’t intrude on others. We all have the right to be as eccentric as we want to be, if it fits. If the Nazis want to march, but they’re not to genocide.
We have to live by that, and also for ourselves. We have to respect others, and respect ourselves. We don’t want to fit into someone else’s mold. That’s imitation. Not just sit there like ice cubes in a tray, like in a Zen monastery. Everyone on a cushion, same position, at the same time.
If you’re a single mom with 3 kids, that’s probably not going to be your practice for the next 20 years. There’s got to be another way. There’s a million ways to worship and to reverence and to be beautiful in this world. All different kinds of flowers in “God’s Garden”. Not just one kind, just roses, not just lotuses.
And a lot of gardeners.
If you have a ending poem that helps people feel less separate.
Let me chant out my millennium prayer that I wrote and said on the radio of Y2K.
May all beings everywhere, with whom we are inseparably interconnected
And who want and need the same as we do
May all be awakened, liberated, healed, fulfilled, and free
May there peace and harmony in this world, and an end to war, violence, injustice, poverty, and oppression.
And may we all together fulfill the promise of the spiritual journey.
All together now, one family, one sangha, one beloved community, all one.
In love, the heart of the matter.
And I bow to the Buddha in your seat, don’t overlook her.. friends.
MF 33 – Simple and Highly Effective Ways to Reduce Destructive Behaviors like Gun Violence and Bullying in Schools using Mindfulness with Laura Bakosh
About Laura Bakosh
Laura obtained a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from Sofia University and has spent more than five years researching the academic and behavioral effects of mindful-awareness practices on children in k-12 schools. She has a Bachelors Degree in Business fromp Boston College and worked for 20 years in large, multinational companies, including Northern Telecom, EMC and GE. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness and co-developed the audio-guided Inner Explorer Programs. She has had a personal mindful awareness practice for more than 21 years.
Laura discovered the benefits of mindful awareness more than 20 years ago when she was trying to manage the stress of travel and long workdays. While working at GE, Laura had the insight to share her mindful awareness practice with hundreds of fellow employees. Upon seeing the many positive results the daily practice had on performance, creativity, and wellbeing, she realized it would be the perfect fit for education.
The practices can help children navigate the ups and downs of life with resilience, alleviating stress and anxiety, and can help them focus, allowing them to be ‘ready to learn’. — all with compassion, openness, and love. She can hardly wait for the first generation of kids going through this program to reach adulthood! Laura received a Bachelor of Science Degree from Boston College and a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from Sofia University. She was trained as a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) instructor through the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.
When not working, Laura loves to spend time with family and friends, especially with her husband Rick and son Will. She loves being outside, which is much easier now that she moved from Illinois to Florida, going for a bike ride, running with her dog Scout, kayaking, or playing tennis.
About Inner Explorer
Janice L. Houlihan
Laura Co-Founded Inner Explorer with Janice L. Houlihan. Inner Explorer’s Vision is to inspire people to develop a daily mindful awareness practice, leading to a more compassionate, joyful, healthful, loving and peaceful world. They accomplish this by providing programs and tools, for children and their families worldwide, that inspire a daily mindful awareness practice. This practice will help lead the children and teens towards their highest potential by bolstering academic performance, creativity, social & emotional aptitude and well-being.
Laura Bakosh Interview Transcript
What follows is a summarized partial transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
How did you get started with Meditation and Mindfulness?
Laura came to it in 1994 to manage the stress of long hours and travel when working for GE. She felt stressed out very often, not eating and sleeping well, unraveling and reactive.
She started reading about stress reduction, and one of the books was from John Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are. She found this incredibly eye opening. So then went to a retreat, and became very committed to practicing everyday. Started to notice lots of positive changes. She started feeling better, sleeping better, a lot more calm and level.
She continued to practice, and went to several training classes and retreats. As her colleagues began noticing changes in her, she realized it might help them too. She introduced MBSR to GE in 2001. Lisa Grady, an MBSR instructor created a program called the “Corporate Athlete”. Lisa conducted several retreats for the team and helped them develop a personal practice through audio-guided tapes, and weekly call-in’s. Over time, more and more GE employees asked to be included in the retreat sessions, to the point where they got 100 people to come in on their weekend retreat. The business outcomes were fantastic, higher orders, less employee turnover, and improved culture and collaboration. It transformed the entire team, from 2001-2004.
At the same time, Dr. Richard Davidson and his team at UW-Madison were conducting exciting mindfulness research using functional MRI (fMRI) equipment on the Buddhist monks. The results showed that the brain changes as a result of these practices. In general, the researchers found that there is less reactivity in limbic (fight/flight) system and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning). GE made the fMRI equipment, so there was a tie-in.
Through her own personal practice and the interactions with the team, she realized the biggest challenge is that it’s hard to practice every day. If you go to a seminar, it may be interesting, yet it’s hard to integrate that into your daily life. The practice is simple in that you are just sitting, but it’s not easy because most of us are not used to just “being”. Also, if your work environment doesn’t integrate mindfulness, it is difficult to find the time on your own.
So if the employees that came to these sessions didn’t have that support when they returned to their divisions/departments/teams, they ended up losing the practice.
Laura realized that regular practice is critical to integrating these skills and to realizing the health and well-being benefits. So if you teach them while their young, it’s going to be extremely useful to them when their young, but also for the rest of their lives. So then she decided to leave GE at that time.
She went to the U-Mass teacher training program in MBSR. And went to grad school to further study and evaluate the impact in education. She then began to translate these mindfulness practices designed for adults into language that would be applicable to kids.
In 2011 she co-founded Inner Explorer with Janice Houlihan, to bring daily mindfulness practices into K-12 schools.
I’m curious about the struggles you experienced integrating the mindfulness practice into the GE workplace?
Yes, the key thing is some learning you can get from a seminar, but with mindfulness it is very critical that you practice every day. If you don’t practice it every day, or at least most days, the benefits will be more fleeting and won’t last. It’s similar to brushing your teeth every day, which leads to dental health. Practicing mindfulness every day leads to cognitive health (and physical health)
Your team has to be supported in your practice efforts. In her team, the practice was front and center in people’s mind. We encouraged them to dig in as they felt comfortable. As they did that, they found that it was very useful in their lives, so they embraced it. If you don’t have that kind of structure in your life, it is very hard to fit it in.
Most workplaces didn’t have acceptable policies or ways to do this mindfulness practice every day.
So many people have a hard time fitting this practice in. This is one of the reasons Laura and Janice started this company. Each of the tracks is just 10 minutes, the teacher simply presses play, and participates with the students.
So this program that you created with Inner Explorer, how does this work?
Each series (Pre-K- Kindergarten, Elementary School, Middle School, High School) are audio guided, where the first thing the recording (audio stream) says is “closing your eyes”, because we want them going inward. Each series has 90 separate tracks, 10 minutes for most of them, 5 minutes for the youngest kids. Students listen every school day.
We ask the teachers to consider when is the best time during the day is to re-engage the kids. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes after lunch, sometimes after recess. It depends on the class and the teacher, it’s flexible. The program is streamed into the classroom. The teacher just logs in and plays the program.
We encourage the teachers to participate with the students, so they get a chance for 10 minutes a day to reground themselves. The teachers consistently report to us that it’s their favorite time a day. Because they get a chance to settle.
Teachers are under a lot of challenges. Students report higher and higher levels of stress. We know also that the majority of US students are living in poverty (51% ). Teachers have to meet this stress, anxiety and trauma every day with multiple students. These practices teachers the chance to develop resilience in the face of these challenges.
And do you find in some cases where the class is particularly riled up that the teachers decide to use the meditation audio during those occasions?
Yes, definitely. It’s generally a time when it is difficult to get the student re-engaged. Like coming in from lunch for example. Sometimes it takes students a little longer to get settled. It depends on the student. Once a routine is established, students settle quickly, and over time, (within a few weeks) they will begin reminding the teacher to run the program.
Students are already pretty mindful in the moment. But they don’t operate in an inward sense. They’re not usually digging in to understand what’s going on in their inner world. Once they do, they realize that it feels good. To notice thoughts and emotions coming and going. They start to disconnect from the sense that they are their anger and frustration.
They see anger and frustration coming and going. It’s really healthy for them to separate the thought and the thinker.
Do the students learn this distinction from the audio meditations, in other words, are these narrated instructions in the audio?
Yes, the program follows the MBSR protocol, which has been well studied for the last 25-35 years or so. It’s been very well researched and received very well. We’ve taken that protocol and have created out of that these 90 bite-sized pieces. So yes, the program is guided. Each day different instructions.
The Inner Explorer program then builds. Starts with awareness of breathing, relaxation, moves to physical senses, then thoughts, then emotions, then connection and compassion.
As kids build more and more attention and focus, they can then do it longer and longer. And they can handle more complicated ideas, like noticing emotions come up.
What’s remarkable, is that children start to practice what it feels like to be angry. They for example notice a time that they were angry. They notice the bodily sensations of that emotions. They become familiar with how anger comes up for them. We’re used to reacting in those circumstances.
But in this case they have that momentary awareness, that, “Oh that’s anger, I recognize that sensation”. Giving them that little bit of pause, is giving them a chance to respond. To bring that pre-frontal cortex part of the brain back online.
And that de-escalates it..
Exactly. We’ve done a bunch of research and others have replicated it. Students have a 50% reduction in their behavior problems. Fewer principal office visits, fewer suspensions, fewer incidences of bullying, higher grades higher test scores.
Amazing improvements with a 10 minute a day intervention, very cost-effective too.
So how did you do the research?
There were 3 different research studies conducted with about 1000 children. There was an 8 week study, 10 week study. And then a 27 week study. The first quarter grades were the pre-condition. And then for the next 3 quarters the student went through the intervention. And then the 4th quarter grades were the post-condition. The first study was controlled, meaning some children participated, some didn’t.
The second and third study were randomized controlled. Some of the volunteers (teachers) were randomized into either the control or the intervention condition.
Randomization is considered the gold standard in research, you have more faith in those results, because the teachers didn’t pick to do it, or not do it. They all picked that they wanted to do it, and were then randomized. It avoids self selection bias.
You had an interesting article in Mindful magazine, about the programs that were created to combat bullying in schools. But you explain that these programs were intellectual understanding of bullying. There was a gap between knowing and doing with regards to bullying.
Yes, that’s the thing about listening to a lecture, going to the seminar, or reading the book. We all want to “know” to “check the box”, but with mindfulness, you don’t know it or embody it, until you practice it.
Many studies have shown that people who regularly practice mindfulness have greater sense of self of self awareness, greater sense of resilience, and greater sense of compassion. Those are all well documented outcomes.
If you consider
The bullying triad: the Bully, the victim, and bystander, or witness.
If all children practice mindful awareness, here’s what happens to these three parties.
The victim (suffer in silence, they don’t feel they deserve help)
Mindfulness helps these children become more resilient.
Which means, they’re more likely ask for help
Less likely to become a target.
These things alone will shift the dynamic.
They start to become aware from a deep and profound level who they are, and understand their gift.
They start acting differently, no longer the easy target, they are not their story anymore
90% think bullying think it’s wrong and that they would intervene.
Only 11% actually do intervene.
So it’s a fight flight response, they don’t want to get bullied, they get nervous, they don’t know what to do in that situation. When push comes to shove, they don’t know what to do.
But with mindfulness there is tons of research that people/kids become more compassionate. This part of the brain becomes more active.
They start to act more compassionately, even with people they don’t know. You end up with bystanders that are much more inclined to engage to help, they have this growing sense of compassion.
They’re more wiling to touch base with the victim, if anything give a word of support to the victim or report it, or get someone else to help.
An enlargement of self idea is going on here too right, with the bystander not just thinking of themselves any longer?
When kids practice mindfulness on a regular basis, they shift. You can see it. The kids become more engaged with each other.
All of the people in the triad, are developing all these skills. The bystanders are also becoming more resilient, more willing to not let situations put them down.
Bully’s have all kinds of complicated situations in their backgrounds, that propel them into this role to begin with.
The practice foundation is awareness.
The bully’s are so disconnected from the actions they’re causing, especially with online cyber bullying.
A developing sense of awareness of their own actions are bound to connect them at a different level with their victim.
They’ll be able to understand, my actions have a consequence, they can tune into that more.
As a result of the mindfulness practice, we’ve seen the number of bullying incidences go down.
When I was at GE, the team of adults had bullying going on as well. This cat fighting and backstabbing. Not unusual in a corporate environment.
However, what ended up happening after this mindful practice, it all changed, cohesive, highly loyal team. The team became loyal, the “dream team”. The team was so much changed after the mindfulness practice.
And we see that in the classrooms, the teams become this connected, cohesive unit.
Wonderful. Especially now, this is so relevant, with these school shootings. I can see how mindfulness programs in school would also have a beneficial effect on school shootings. School shootings, the perpetrators feel alienated and disconnected, and so they seek attention in a very negative way. I can see how mindful programs would de-escalate would make them feel more connected, rather than less connected.
Yeah, I have a story about that. Here in Florida, we have an after school program for girls at-risk, Girls Inc. They inspire all girls to be strong, smart, and bold through enrichment programming like finance, business, leadership. The idea is to give these girls a chance at a better life.
There was one girl who’d been going for some 5 years, a girl who was so difficult. She was violent, mean, she stole, was angry, and unhelpful. Literally the antithesis of what they were trying to promote as an organization. But they wouldn’t give up on a child. So the staff had meetings every 2/3 weeks for 5 years, to figure out a new plan to try to reach this girl. They’d been trying everything to help her. This girl has a traumatic life, both parents in jail, lives with aunt in a chaotic household, health issues, diabetic, a challenged girl in many ways.
One morning after 8 weeks of the running a daily mindfulness program, this girl was voted unanimously “Girl of the month”. And the Executive Director read through the comments, from the students and staff, she couldn’t believe what she was reading. They said this girl was “helpful, kind, goes out of her way, caring, team player” etc. It’s as if she found herself for the first time, at just 12 years old.
Children from really challenging environments don’t know how to process what is happening to them. They don’t have the tools, and don’t know where to turn. Sometimes, the people who are supposed to be taking care of them are not able. The result is mental and physical health disorders, destructive and bullying behaviors, poor academic performance and often, engagement in the juvenile justice system.
So when you give them the chance to dig deeply, into whatever their essence is. Most often what’s there is really good. They just have to tap into that, and start to trust what’s there.
They then emerge from this beautiful amazing place, and they’re unstoppable. These former bully’s become these forces of good, positive momentum. We see this all the time.
That’s amazing, the transformation of a bully into a force for good!
Yes, it’s the regular practice that’s so important. Once they get that habit, it’s fantastic, and they love it. But it takes a little time to develop this practice.
How much time is involved?
We have a sense. Broadly, the littler kids the pre-KK, elementary. Within a week, week-and-a-half the kids are used to it. Teacher just hits the button and go. It’s also easier to fit it in those age-ranges, because the kids are in the same room usually throughout the day. The teacher can fit it in easier.
In the older grades, middle and high school, it’s a bit more challenging, because the courses are typically 45 minutes, so harder to fit in 10 minutes. But it can be fit into the study hour or home room type thing. The other thing is that with those ages, it takes a little longer before the pre teens and teens get the sense that this is helping them. They don’t immediately feel a difference, so they question it. So it might take 3 weeks or so.
So we guide the teachers to not give up, even if there’s push back initially.
Most students who get deeply engaged in it, do so because they really can feel a profound difference.
And if they did it in earlier grades, then the transition must be even smoother? Yes.
Do they continue to practice mindfulness once they leave school?
Yes, we know that 40-50% of the students bring their mindfulness practices home and teach someone in their household. They can see the stress that their families are under, not just families in poverty. All families have lots of stress. So they bring it home to teach their siblings and parents. So they have lots of students ask Laura and Janice if they could make an at-home program for the people in the households.
Ideally, we try to give them the skills and the tools through the Inner Explorer program. Our program is nice and easy, it’s guided. But they also mention in the program that, “Hey you can do this at home!” Try this at home. Because not everyone needs or wants the guidance, or guided meditation. They don’t need the guidance once they’re experienced with mindfulness. Some just want to sit at home, and do some of the practices at home. We’d love for every child to do these practices at home. The world would change.
Where do you see this mindfulness in schools development 5-10 years from now? With all the recent gun violence and other violence, folks talk all about controlling violence, and mental institutions, however, I think what your doing is much better, taking care of the root problem, rather than treating the symptoms.
What would be fantastic for us, would be to have the awareness, educators and parents need to be aware. Programs like ours and others are very cost effective, easy to implement, and can literally transform classrooms and schools today! We ought to be doing this everywhere.
There’s no reason why every school shouldn’t run a program like this.
It’s not just the academic and behavioral improvements. But there’s also health and well-being improvements. They reduce depression, anxiety, all kinds of mental health issues. This has been documented.
1 in 5 kids has a mental health disorder that inhibits their ability to succeed in school. Kids today report so much stress, which is linked to other disease states and immune system dysfunctions. This stuff is simple, and yet, I don’t know what we’re all waiting for.
We’re trying to reach 1 million children by 2019. There’s 55 million kids in this country. We’ve served close to 15.000 children so far that are practicing mindfulness every day. We’re not doing it fast enough. It’s all about funding and all. But we’re working on it.
I think it just needs to hit critical mass, and it will go quickly.
Exactly, we’re working on our systems, to make them easy to scale and robust. Streaming, and that the price point per classroom is low enough that it’s a strong value proposition for schools (The cost of the Inner Explorer program is now $100 per classroom for a one year license.* International rates differ). And that we’re ready when they’re ready.
Yes, it comes back to employers, saving sick leave and other costs by investing in a mindfulness program.
Yes, it is hard to get people to do this in the workplace as initiatives. So if we get these children to do mindfulness through school, we’ve improved the likelihood, that the habit will be developed and will be solid by the time they’re adults. And we wouldn’t even need a mindfulness workplace program for adults. Because it will already be done.
Yes, one generation should be able to do it.
Yes, that’s what we believe as well. It’s exciting work!
Mindfulness in Schools and Education with Alan Brown
Alan Brown is a Dean at Grace Church School in New York City, where he also leads the 9th-12th grade mindfulness program as well as the parent mindfulness program. Alan has taught in both public and private settings as a humanities instructor, and has worked with many other schools andp districts as a trainer for GLSEN (the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network). In addition to his academic degrees in the humanities from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago and a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, Alan holds additional certifications in teaching mindfulness, positive psychology, and yoga. He works with schools as well as with families to help bring mindfulness into the lives of youth and their caregivers.
What follows is a summarized transcript. Listen to the audio to get the full conversation.
Interview with Alan Brown
How did you get started with a meditation practice (Mindfulness Schools recommended I talk with you)
Alan got started by way of his Yoga practice and Yoga teacher training, in which he started to get more familiar with meditation through a sitting component. He got more familiar then with the contemplative practice.
At the time he was working in high schools, he was then teaching in a particular high-anxiety, high stress high achieving school population. He realized this makes so much sense, both in terms of how he was feeling, he found himself craving a lot more stillness. And of course with the kids spinning their wheels and going nuts and feeling this would be helpful practice for them too.
It wasn’t really until he wanted to share this practice with his students that he felt he had to learn to deepen his own practice first.
Just out of curiosity, what type of yoga were you practicing?
Vinyasa Yoga (also called flow or “breath-synchronized movement”)
So you were already doing an already more deep type of yoga practice then say power yoga.
Yes, in his practice although 100% movement based, it was already contemplative, and exploring the inner landscape.
Were there aha moments, or particular experiences that you had that convinced you what direction to go next with this?
In terms of what he’s doing now, for Alan who loves teaching. With mindful schools he did their yearlong training program. And their yearlong program really emphasizes the teacher’s personal practice as an intervention in the school.
The notion that your presence, your ability to be non-reactive, to find calm, and show up in that way for your colleagues, peers, the people you work with, talking to, is already something of importance already. That was huge for Alan.
So his first Aha moment in his first retreat, they weren’t allowed to talk about the kids. When they came out of silence. The premise was, let’s just talk about our personal practice. As caregivers and educators, they’re really in a rush to talk about how this will work in a classroom, or how you can do this with other people. You can’t poor from an empty cup.
That was a big moment for him, and continues to resonate as his sort of philosophical alignment to what he’s doing. You bring a calm and steady presence first. Then I can also share our practice with you. But that comes from a place of trying to create a certain energy in my own person, in the room, and work from there.
Yes, like Ghandi said, you have to “Be that change” first if you want to affect others .
So then when you got to this meditation practice, how did you end up utilizing “Mindful Schools”?
His interest at the time was with stress specifically. Working with a population with 11-12th graders that he teaches and works with, getting ready to go to college. All this cultural baggage associated with this stage, the amount of uncertainty and anxiety. The heaviness of judgement and expectation that they’re feeling. Wanting to help these folks out. Dragging themselves to the ground at what cost?
So in his own life, this is something that was very powerful, how does he share that.
How could he as an educator create some sense of perspective, some sense of space, a greater sense of ease with what is going on (for these stressed kids about to go to college)?
That was the motivation. Ironically that was what deepened Alan’s own practice. Luckily. It was motivated out of the interest to teach them, but he had a lot more to learn more himself.
In terms those stress and expectation, what do you see as the biggest stressors?
When he first began this work, both public and private settings, urban and suburban settings. At that time I would have said that it was the actual pressure of applying to college. As far as his interactions in the school and classroom setting.
Nowadays the trend towards the smart phone has become a bigger stressor. The anxiety of missing out, the FOMO, fear of missing out. Kids are not alone in this, adults too. The extend of this, like texting while showering, or sleeping next to your head. The ability to have not any moment to yourself, to not have any moment of stillness. Those maybe extremes. But the norm is that their attention, our attention is pulled in so many different directions, without the ability to recover. To have stillness, the ability to be able to hear yourself think, or even hear yourself not think. That is the bigger and more pressing issue as he sees it now.
The fragmented attention, the attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter.
Yeah, it’s very hard. When you create the conditions to not have those pressures on them. Like in a classroom where you even collect the mobile devices where you let them rest for a while. The first time he became an administrator, started doing detentions. Surprisingly, the number of kids that actually thanked him for an hour (of detention) without their device, it was like Wow!
This detention is not the thing that you want to come to! But they actually got a lot done, so they wanted to come back the next week voluntarily for an hour of detention!
That was very telling for Alan. That this (space, not being connected to your devices and distractions) is something that you are actually seeking. Its something that you have a hard time creating for yourself. But when the adults around you impose this on to you, you have to go away from your device, so you can’t respond to your friends AND parents texting is also a common occurrence throughout the day.
It keeps the brain in kind of that stress mode, it needs to be constantly at the ready, constantly ready for stimulus. This stimulus which is constant.
Which makes it really hard to delve into something, to concentrate for a chunk of time.. Yes.
So the kids have to get permission to un-tether, they have to learn to give themselves permission to unplug for a while?
Yes, that’s exactly right. It’s really hard for teens in particular. They’re developmentally where the social world matter so much, that’s appropriate, that’s how it goes in those years. Figuring out who they are, and how they are in terms of their peers, families, individuating from their parents and families, and come into their own. Not a negative, but that makes it that much harder for them to be away from this thing that connects them at all moments to the social network, that is so powerful and so all-important.
So yeah, when there is that permission to put the always-connected devices away, it is for many folks a sigh of relief, there is this nice exhale. I can just be here, I don’t have to be anywhere else.
How do you implement this mindfulness practice in the classroom?
For starters for some classes actually need their devices, otherwise they go away. You remember your notes better when you write them by hand. Let’s put everything away so we can be right here. Then yes, we do begin with something that is contemplative. Usually it is silence, it depends also on the time of day. Right after lunch movement is much more helpful, or they’ll fall asleep. They don’t get much sleep to begin with.
Alan usually invites a student to lead us into the practice. For example:
The “5 finger meditation”
Which is to meet one finger to your palm of the opposite hand. And as you breathe in, you trace up the pinkie, breathe out, and come back down. And then as you breathe in, you come up the forefinger, and back down. And so on and so forth, and then we switch hands. There’s something really nice and tactile about this practice, you just follow the finger along the palm. There’s movement involved without being too much of a big deal, no extra noise or anything special involved. By the time you’re finished you’ve taken 10 nice slow breaths, you’re likely to have arrived!
Also have a bell, it’s an easy and fun one for kids to lead. We just listen to the bell for 1-3 times. Even an 18 year old feels great leading with the bell. We have a schedule who gets to ring the bell.
So that way you’re helping them invest take ownership of this ritual.
Yes, right, and every class has a slightly different personality. And every room is different, it’s a little bit of trial and error. Usually the group responds to something. They feel, how can I get the teacher off topic, to not teach us. This is something students love to do, getting the teacher off track, off topic. They’re feeling like awesome, I got the teacher to not teach! What they don’t realize that those 3 minutes spent doing a meditation, makes them better at the things we’re going to do. We’re now able to do more, rather than less.
It’s a worthwhile investment in the actual stuff of teaching.
What are you finding to be the most effective with the teens in terms of their minds going off wandering. you already mentioned tactile meditations, and using sounds, like the bell.
In Alan’s own teaching, humanities classes, English, History and Philosophy. And also teach specifically to the 9th and 10th grade, he teaches specifically mindfulness. So they’re already familiar with these practices. In terms what is most effective in mindfulness practice, it’s not just one thing that is most useful.
At the beginning of class or just for a quick calm down activity, for Alan the finger to palm meditation works best for him. It’s not for everyone, but has the widest appeal as he has practiced it.
At the beginning when I talk to kids, about mindfulness. I tell them, you can see it as a buffet, he as the teacher provides lots of exercises. Try them all, so you can you know how they feel and taste, and hopefully one or two of these sticks out the most for you. And that will be different to everyone. Even how you breathe, where do you pay attention when you’re breathing. Do you feel it in your nose, mouth, belly, etc. That sensation is going to be different for everyone of us.
We all have different ways of learning. Just as you have different learning styles, we all have different things that will hold our attention, different things to be mindful off, or to use as an anchor, use as a practice. None is more right than anything else.
Do you find some of the students taking these mindfulness/meditation techniques, and taking them for example home, where there might be a stressful situation?
Yes, that’s the most gratifying. To hear when, where, and how these kids are using this in their lives. For example, a kid uses mindful breathing before a test put down their pen, and took a couple deep breaths, and then they were able to come back to the test, and on track again, and do better on their tests. Or a student had a swim meet, and beforehand closed their eyes, visualized what they were going to do, and took some breaths before their test.
So they are actually applying this. And he talks about this in class. But if you’re able to use this in your life, like one student the other day struggled with acting out in school, as a symptom of conflict at home. This was upsetting the family, but the student could do this in family when arguing. The student realized their feelings and behavior or how he chose to react about it, are two different things. And this is better for me, as I was getting myself into trouble. So Alan was blown away by that, that the students had these insights and were able to make those connections.
Very trans formative…
Yes, in teaching social and emotional learning, we want students to name their experience, but then what do you do with that? In the world of social-emotional education, we spent a lot of time talking about emotional intelligence. Being able to identify your inner landscape, which is a huge first step. But then what do I do about that. If I then able to create a behavioral change, something that I do differently. That is where mindfulness is a often a very helpful tool for kids. It’s a great addition to the social emotional toolbox for teachers.
Like education is not the filling of a pail, but the lightening of a fire, and Aristotle’s quote about education without educating the heart is no education at all..The approach your school and yourself are doing, is much more about integration, instead of compartmentalization.
That’s right. And something that I try to emphasize, when he works with teachers. It’s great that we have our classrooms and this content that we want to deliver. The students are not just content receivers. They show up as a whole person, they bring their whole person to class. If that’s an argument from lunch time carrying over, or nerves about the game afterwards. All of that is sitting at that desk, trying to learn history or trying to learn physics. The more we can provide the space and the tools to deal with one aspect of their lives, and be successful. It does carry over. It is one integrated whole at the end of the day, or at least better integrated, if we help them.
You’re also helping them see learning as a joy, rather than as a means to get to the next level, or piece of paper, etc.
I would hope so, that’s I think what all teachers aim for. The real gold, the way you know you’re successful is you’ve created a lifelong learner. I don’t delude myself into thinking student remember even a minority of what was taught in a semester. If there are skills that you learned with us, that to me is a much more important gift. Because you’ll go on to learn in much greater depth the things you’ll need in your career. Have we provided you the capacity to learn them. There are certain academic skills, other skills, but then there are the life skills you need to learn to just be a human being. To show up in a room of people.
One of the things his head of school said, “I’ll be able to measure the success of this project by whether or not there is Joy in our students”.
Wow, very different by measuring success only by scores!
Yes, measuring by scores is not bad, we need those numbers, they’re helpful for understanding. But when you reduce a person to just test scores or transcript, it ignores so much of their experience, most of it.
It’s very limited. What are some of the other benefits, for example conflict resolution. Some of the other things you’ve noticed, since you’ve implemented this mindfulness life skill.
Yes, another hat Alan wears is great Dean, which means being the primary administrator. Which includes discipline. Teaching mindfulness doesn’t automatically make difficult moments go away, it’s a toolbox to navigate or deal with problems differently.
Teens who are already particularly impulsive. He tells the teens, you’ve got another 10 years before your pre-frontal cortex is fully grown. They need some more time before their good judgment kicks in, compared to those of us adults. But yes, the ability after the fact, when they realize the decision they made wasn’t the greatest.
The ability for them after the fact even, after they’ve realized they made a decision that wasn’t the greatest. The ability to stop, slow down, and figure out, how did that happen. To see what just happened, what did they feel about that, what do I do about that. So often , that impulsivity comes at the cost of any self-knowledge.
I’ll watch kids get into an argument or scuffle, and it’s so it’s over, so they could say, here is what led me to that. And I realize that is the moment I should have probably made a different decision. The truth is, these same kids, without this practice, may not even been able to name that, which just happened. So they would not have been able to do it differently next time.
Part of this is just becoming aware of our triggers, our habits, and all of the ways we’re used to doing things impulsively, without thinking, doing them mindlessly.
When you have an awareness, of , “Oh, this is what got me to this behavior, that I definitely don’t want to repeat, or this poor behavior”. Here’s what I’m going to do next time, being able to figure out, next time I have this trigger, I notice this habit, here’s what I can do. So it doesn’t go down this same road.
Yes, that road can lead to some totally different direction 50 years from now, if the teen didn’t have this consciousness, awareness and attention.
Yes, very powerful to watch kids. And as an administrator, watching them through 3-4 grades, I remember how this went in 9th grade, and 10th grade, and seeing how they’re making different choices.
Where do you see this practice going, inserting it from kindergarten all the way into higher education, so it is not easily cast aside?
Alan does see some of his pre-school colleagues doing this as well. There have been some attempts and interest at researching how this is being incorporated in pre- K through 12 schools. It’s a difficult thing.
His sense is that more elementary school classrooms are already doing it, because those schools are already charged with social-emotional learning. One of the things you learn in kindergarten is how to sit still. It’s not unique to kindergartners to need to learn to sit still.
We don’t teach those things (how to sit still) in high school, although we probably should! It turns out that even though they live in different bodies, we make assumptions that they can do that. It’s an easier map onto the elementary classroom. So folks who teach in a mode of responsive classroom, which allows for classroom meeting time, using a bell etc. I happen to think it is an easy in for middle and high school as well for all the reasons talked about above. If anything just for learning outcomes. The productivity aspect to it.
Which of course isn’t the only reason to do it. There is significant debate and conversation around using mindfulness for those kinds of outcomes. And if that is the doorway that this comes through, then great.
To the larger question about where we’re going with this as an education system with this. Because the undeniable increase in distractions, all the devices, stimuli, increased pace of all those things.
I do think we’re seeing a movement a larger trend towards needing to teach attention, provide stillness, and quiet. It wouldn’t surprise Alan, if this 10 years from now, this become just the standard. There is a tremendous interest in it. And most teachers really are thinking along these lines. I wish I know how to …and it’s a lot of those things that mindfulness provides for those kids.
There is one caveat about this, there is some concern of mindfulness as a tool for classroom management, and compliance. I want to teach you this thing, so that you’ll shut up, and do what I say. And I would see that as a mis-use of mindfulness.
But it hasn’t been Alan’s experience in working with teachers, that this has been the approach.
Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that would happen if the teacher doesn’t really understand what it’s about, and so use it only as an external tool.
Yeah, and folks in this community who are trying to bring this work forward, are sensitive to that. The very clear philosophical orientation is towards teacher practice first, even if no one got any farther than learning mindfulness for themselves, that would be a tremendous victory I think in education.
To get into any mindful schools class, you must have first pass through the gateway either already have a mindfulness practice of your own, know what this is in your body, or of going through a mindfulness fundamentals course first. We’d never stick someone into a classroom to teach the cello, who know how to play the cello first.
Yeah, you got to practice what you preach..
Was there any issue you see with folks from Judeo-Christian traditions, like the parents being concerned about inserting mindfulness (with it’s Buddhist influence) into the curriculum?
In different settings, different approaches makes sense. Usually in schools with a faith background, usually, there is already more space for this. Because the topic of spirituality is already on the table, we’re not necessarily afraid of contemplative time, contemplative practice. Schools that have prayer or silence as part of their day, are more likely to be open to this practice.
For us we are affiliated with the episcopal church, we’re a school for children of all faiths, or no faith. We don’t specifically teach in the same way as other faith schools, that said, in terms of religious influence.
My strong belief, is that mindfulness is not a religious practice perse. Mindfulness specifically involves a set of human practices. What it means to exist in a human body, and this human mind and brain. And the space and stillness that we really need to find. In the way that science is starting to back up, with some conclusiveness.
It’s really pointing us in a direction that says, we really do need to provide ourselves space and stillness. Here’s what happens when we do. That is an innate human quality, an innate capacity to have self knowledge. To see one’s own thoughts and experience. To feel the sensations in one’s body.
There can be a spiritual layer to that, that is quite profound. But that has or should necessarily be taught in a school setting.
I’m teaching stillness, silence, self knowledge, the ability to be aware of what is going on in your own immediate experience. What comes out of that, is totally up to the student. I don’t use the Tibetan singing bowl for example, which has a more cultural reference. We teach all religions, but yes, it is not his personal goal to teach Buddhism.
You explain it really well, it’s space and having room to breath, self knowledge, that’s the human experience, not any religious domain.
And all religions have some aspect of contemplative practice. So really what we’re doing it’s not religious. For those who are concerned about religion at all, what we’re doing is not religious. For those concerned about their own religious tradition, I think this is found in most all of them.
One of his colleagues is an orthodox Jew, and was cautious at first, concerned about how this would work with her religion. How does this work with her own faith practices. She had some trepidation. But she found a number of Jewish organizations, like the JCC in Manhattan is teaching MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction). Including with a faith bend, if that is what you’re looking for.
Its back to that idea, whatever door you come in through, or go through and into. This is a practice that is there for folks.
If any parent or teacher would like to see mindfulness practice implemented in their own schools, how can they go about this?
His affiliation is with Mindful Schools, mindfulschools.org. This is a great starting place, but there are many good organizations bringing this into schools. Just even raising the question in your school, “why are we not doing/teaching this?” It’s helpful to my child. Is there an opportunity for my child to learn and get exposed to this.
Is there an opportunity for mindful parenting? Mindfulness in parenting is a for sure a great companion skill. If your child is learning this at school, then you can speak the same language if you as a parent do it as well.
For teachers same thing, talk to the department chair, administrator, principal, professional development person. See if there is some openness to this. The benefits that this might provide are so many.
Lead with the benefits, and the intention of doing good for the kids, faculty, parents, whatever the population is.
People are certainly more open to hearing this, investigating this. Folks want solutions for some of the real challenges we’re seeing with our children.