Creating a School Culture of Mindfulness

Mindfulness offers educators and students an opportunity to cultivate the capacity to be present, to be less reactive in the moment, to stop, breath and listen, and to make choices in the face of challenges.

When I cofounded the Children’s Community School four years ago,  I wanted to infuse our school with mindfulness. I wanted young children to learn the tools I discovered late in life. I wanted our educators to have the support of a mindful perspective on their teaching lives. What I discovered as I shared tools, is that in order for Mindfulness to be deeply transformative it must be embedded in a culture that seeks to be mindful.

Mindfulness tools, without a lens and a culture of mindfulness may be valuable, but they are  much less transformative when they exist outside of a larger culture. Ringing a bell and demanding silence, for example, is not the same as ringing a bell and inviting silence. A demand and an invitation come out of different perspectives/ different cultures. One might use the same tools, the same words, but the desired outcome is different. A demand for silence asks for submission, for compliance. An invitation asks for cooperation, exploration, community. In my opinion, only the second, really teaches mindfulness.

So how can a culture of mindfulness be cultivated in an institution? Here are my suggestions after 4 years of exploration in our school. Please note that all of these practices must be engaged in at the student level and also at the teacher and administrative level and that they are most deeply transformative when trust and confidentiality are invoked in the processes:

  1.  By inviting and creating a space and a regular time for discussion,  exploration, and questioning of the practices, principles and concepts of mindfulness
  2. By regularly and actively engaging in gatherings that ask everyone to reflect on their practices, their perspectives, their experiences.
  3. By inviting members of a community to share their experiences without comment or commentary from others, and by asking that members listen without commenting and /or trying to fix or change one another
  4. By working with the above practices with the intention of becoming and building a community that establishes practices together and integrating everyone’s experiences. And by coming together with the intention of cultivating community.

© Traci Childress, 2014

What does it mean to be Child Friendly? Community, Conflict, and Mindful Action

I had an interaction at a local (and very hip) shopping market. My then 2 year old picked up a silicone Popsicle container and put the edge of it in his mouth.  They are on ground level– bottom shelf. I was turned away from him, right beside him, looking at the bread. His older brother was at the milk cabinet picking out yogurt. I looked down, saw E with the pop container, and replaced it in the bin.

When I got to the other side of the store, a manager came to me and asked me to purchase the silicone container as well as the other one that had been in the bin.

I am not good with conflict. And I was so surprised that all I could say was “but he only put one in his mouth.” I was told that because I had returned it to the bin I had contaminated them all and had to buy them.

They are not expensive– I think the 2 of them cost me $5 , but I was so offended and upset by the event. I ended up writing them an email about it, because the event taped into my general issue with the culture around children in public. My perspective was that the response to what happened was directly related to the fact that a child had done this.

I once broke a jar of pickles in the same store. I was carelessly racing to get in and out of the store and hit the jar with my bag. The manager told me it was fine, don’t worry. No problem. I was then, sort of appalled recently, that I was asked to purchase an item that is not perishable nor packaged because my son’s lips had touched it. In my mind, and to my understanding, any item not packed and used to put food in, will be washed once purchased and is not ruined by a mouth.

You see, my mind went this way (and I do not find it irrational): the moment was seen as a misbehaving child, or inattentive parent, who needed to be punished (whether consciously or not). My much more careless visit that resulted in a broken jar of pickles was treated with a sense of “it’s okay.” On one hand, I totally get the need to make sure parents don’t let their children disrespect a space. However, I have been in the store, at times, every day of the week with both children and nothing has happened. The one time one son puts a nonperishable item to his lips, I am asked to purchase it. It felt like a subconscious issue with children.

In our culture, sadly, even the most liberal and progressive of folks, often really only want a child present if he/she is well behaved. However, well behaved children are not necessarily good citizens. Children need to understand respect and respect for others and for community– that is the principle I cofounded a school on. But well behaved moments are not a measure of whether or not children are respectful members of society. Children can behave for many reasons– and sometimes not at all out of respect .

 

© Traci Childress, 2014

 

Practice to Navigate Paradox

There is a verse from Lau Tzu that says: “Instead of trying to be a mountain, be the valley of the universe, so all things will come to you.”

The last 5 years have been teaching me this– strong willed and motivated, I feel that I have a more inherent understanding of what it means to be a mountain than a valley.

The study of allowing things to come to me arrived with the birth of my first son. I approached that birth experience  as I often approach things:  with my head down, ready– determined– to ram my way through it.  Things did not proceed as I had planned. The birth involved unplanned interventions. The year that followed had a lot to do with accepting this. With the pregnancy of my second child, I worked to let go my sense of control and yet still stand in my own power.

How do we surrender control but not become submissive? How do we align ourselves to that which is authentic within us, and yet remain open and pliable. Two births have led me into an unavoidable and intimate exploration of this tension.

Being a parent brings me right to the crossroads of this paradox as well, daily. How do I provide space for authentic exploration and also structure for my children to be safe and learn in?

As a Director of a school, who is responsible for the business, how do I remain receptive to changing needs of families and staff, while maintaining the mission/vision and financial viability of the school?

For me the practices that support me to simply be present at these intersecting moments and in these paradoxical tensions, are the only answer for living in these paradoxes with any sense of grace. And as I head into 2014, I hope to use my natural momentum to move forward, my “determination”,  to move towards matters of the heart. This is the next step in my study of being a valley and of learning to allow things to come to me.

© Traci Childress, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbal Tea Blending and Drinking

I grew up with grandparents who wove knowledge and lore about plants into stories– plants as medicine were a subtle background in stories from my childhood. Recently, as I have been developing Weeds and Seeds Tea Blends, I have come to see the complexity of my own relationship to plants, our culture’s relationship to herbal plants, and the natural tensions that arise as one seeks to share products that are plant based.

One of my favorite blends is the Expecting Mother’s Blend;  I find it subtle in flavor and yet grounding, nourishing. I had consumed a similar blend before I was pregnant, and came to this particular one when I was pregnant the first time; the spearmint helped my nausea. When I decided to name the blend “Expecting Mother’s Blend” I did so in order to make it accessible to new mother’s who frequently look for such blends. And yet, the tea blend has properties to offer those of who are NOT expecting mother’s as well: red raspberry leaves, oatstraw, alfalfa, nettle, red clover blossoms, spearmint, and rose hips provide vitamins and nutrients that can benefit many of us.

I am eager to explore ways to support others to develop a relationship to these types of plants that are supportive and nutritive. I have a few ideas for community projects and workshops for the coming years. For now, I might just play with what happens when I change the name of this blend, or slightly change the ingredients. In the end, it is my hope that more folks will discover the power of building an understanding of plants as medicine– especially simple, safe, and affordable native plants.

 

 

Mindful Time Management

We are all visionaries, capable of bringing our gifts to the world. Yet, often we struggle to realize our visions.  The capacity to manage our time is a skill each of us has the capacity to develop in order to support our real gifts.

Here is a mindfully based time management process (and, yes, it really can be this simple, if combined with dedication, commitment, AND self care):

1. Identify your goals and visons

Have a brain dump. Don’t sensor, just write out all of your dreams and visions. Put your pen to paper and keep writing for ten minutes. In a day or two, reread, and from this writing, pull out the concrete items and put them in a list form. If you notice a progressive order, have this reflected in your list. Sometimes, if you have lots of pieces, write each individual item on a separate piece of small paper. Lay them out and play with them, see if you learn something from the process. If a linear list doesn’t work or evolve, then pin them to a wall in whatever pattern you want. Just get them out of your head.

2. Identify your obstacles

Repeat the free writing exercise above with your obstacles. Take ten minutes and get it all out. Return to it in a day or two, pull out the individual obstacles from your writing, and respond to each individual obstacle. Here is an example: “I don’t have time.” Might evolve to be “I will make time.” If you cannot access an alternative, then see if you can reframe your perspective in relation to the obstable. Some things cannot be changed on our desired timelines. For example, “I won’t be able to pubish  my book this year,” might be reframed as “I can create an outline for a book this year.”

3. Stop playing the habitual tapes and mantras in your head

Do not repeat negative statements to yourself about your goals and dreams. When you find yourself saying “I didn’t accomplish anything this weekend; I am so behind.” Stop. Breath. And do one simple thing. Make a plan for your next day to work on your project, schedule it in your planner, and move on. Dwelling in regret will not help you.

4. Map out a simple process /structure

Make a simple short term plan. Each week, pick one day or night to work on a project. Then don’t let it invade your life when you are not doing it. If a burning inspiration comes to you at a time other than the scheduled one, that you need to add to your work, ask yourself how you can most quickly get it out of you. You may not need to turn on your computer and open the file and reread everything to date, just grab paper, and write it down. Then return to what you were doing.

5. Create a physical space for holding things

Take your goals, and create a physical space for them. For example, you want to present at a conference, write and publish an article, and continue your training. Take out four folders. Call one “presentations”, one “writing”, one “publishing, and one “training.” Store your notes, related materials, drafts, etc, in these folders. Store those inspired thoughts from the example above in the correct folder, then on the day/night you scheduled to work on the project, pull out your folder, and dive in. This enables you to have boundries around your projects.

6. Take small steps

Try to remember that small steps take you much further than giant leaps. If you find yourself being pulled into big dreams and ideas and away from the task at hand, then take a ten minute visioning break. Repeat the first step, create a new folder, create a new date for the new project, and return to the task at hand.

7. Take care of yourself

No vision is worth your mental or physical well being. Take breaks. Eat well. Drink water. Do yoga. Dance. Take care of your needs and nurture yourself. Do not skip this step; it is essential.

8. Repeat and repeat. You are always a work in progress.

© Traci Childress, 2013.

Dear Stranger in a Public Place: Why do You Offer Commentary on What Children Do?

Standing in line to buy groceries, a friendly woman approaches me, reaching her thin hand out to pat my 2 year old on the arm, “what a good little boy, so quiet and so cooperative.”

I am unaware of a study that has mapped this, but I would venture to say that, aside from pregnant women, parents, and elderly citizens, children may be the receivers of the most unsolicited commentary from complete strangers, on who and how they are.

Yes, we all love those shopping trips when our children are happy, calm, cooperative, as do we prefer to shop when other people’s children are in such states. But, what does it really say about a child or say to the child in a moment when we (as strangers) offer our commentary? For, really,  behavior in one moment is much like a book cover, which most of us agree, you cannot judge a book by. But, children are often judged by theirs.

A snapshot moment of a child does not communicate what is going on internally for a child. It does not give us a valid perspective for accessing and labeling children.

Children’s moment to moment behavior can come as a result of any sort of parenting or caregiver culture. A moment in which a child is engaged in behavior that meets social expectations may come from being a member of a home in which caregivers are patient and model ideal and compassionate ways of being in the world. But “good” behavior can also be the result of living in a culture in which fear, punishment or coercion force children to behave. The same can be said of socially less acceptable behavior (like a tantrum). Our uninvited commentary on children’s behavior may well be reinforcing things we cannot see– some of which might be supportive to a child and some not.

It is a worthwhile practice to notice one’s own reactions to children in public spaces. Evaluating our own expectations and what implications they have, is a practice that will support mindful communication with children we meet in the world. It is an easy litmus test to ask “Why is it that I want to tell this child what I think of what s/he is doing when I don’t even know him/her? Am I really trying to connect to and with him/her, or do I have another motivation?

© Traci Childress, 2013.

A Mindfulness Practice to Help a Child Calm Down

When a child becomes unhinged and reactive– angry, sad, incapable of listening, overly physical with a peer or sibling, he/she usually needs a tool to calm down. Physical gestures can support your child to calm down and cope with intense emotions. Remember, too, that children need emotional release. You want them to learn to release emotion without harmful behavior, rather than asking them to avoid their emotional experiences.

Offer your child this tool for moments of overwhelm:

Stop! Press your hands together in front of your heart. Feel your hands pressing.

This tool bypasses the need to overuse language in the heat of the moment– it physically connects the child to the sensations in his/her hands; it grounds her in something concrete other than the sense of overwhelm.

Feel your hands pressing. Press your hands

Children can be overwhelmed by words and choices in the heat of a moment. Providing a physical practice they can use gives them a tool that requires very few words. The practice becomes a bridge out of the overwhelming state they are in.  For very physical children it gives them an alternative to using their bodies/hands in inappropriate ways.

Introduce this practice to the child before she is upset. Invite the child, at a time when he is not upset, to think of a simple gesture or movement he might want to use. One child I shared this with came up with a gesture that involved placing his hands on his thighs and squeezing. He called it “mad squeeze.” Another child choose to wrap her arms around her upper body, like a self hug. Both children were able to deploy these gestures when getting overwhelmed or overly physical with another.

After creating a gesture together to use,  remind the child in moments of overwhelm to use it.

© Traci Childress, 2013.

Riverstone Meditation:A Mindfulness Practice for Children

My oldest son sometimes has difficulty going to sleep. Over time, I found that he tends to get himself caught up in thoughts at bedtime. I created this meditation for him. We adapt it each time a bit– if he is afraid, or having a recurring thought, we might insert a specific reference to that thought or feeling into the meditation where it now says “thought” below. He can practice it himself, and sometimes, he asks me to “do the rock thing” at bedtime to help him unplug and settle into sleep.

This is our Riverstone Meditation:

Lie down and let your body be comfortable. Settle your arms and legs and gently close your eyes. Relax your hands, your eyes, and take a few soft breaths. Now,  imagine that you are a rock, a nice round river rock. Someone has just softly plopped you into a river. 

Feel yourself slowly drifting down through the water to the river bed. Slowly settling into the sandy floor of the river. Feel the sand receive you, allow yourself to gently sink down into the river bed. You are held gently there now. 

Feel the river, the water, as it moves around you. The water is like your thoughts. They come, and they go, but you are still there, softly settled into the sand. Just be there. Feel the water moving. Feel the water flowing around you. If you find yourself thinking about something again, see if you can let it go, don’t worry, just let it flow around you like the water. Return to the image, the feeling of being a stone resting on the bottom of the river. Feel the support of the ground, the motion of the water. Just breath.

Allow quiet now. And for a few minutes, ever so often, repeat one of the phrases to your child “let the water gentle touch you as you rest on the sand.” “Feel the river bed, holding you gently.”

© Traci Childress, 2013.

Teaching Children to Stop, Breath, and Listen

Integrating a mantra or phrase, such as “stop, breath, listen” into your child’s life can support them to develop tools to navigate their own emotions in moments of conflict, confusion, or emotional overwhelm.

As they develop an understanding of the three parts, you can use the phrase to redirect your younger child in challenging moments.  You can very simply introduce the phrase at several “meetings” or playdates with your child through playful discovery exercises such as the ones below.

1. Stop

  • Ask: what does stop mean? Ask him to show you. Ask her when it is good to stop

  • Play a stop/ go game like “Simon Says”  or freeze dance for a concrete experience of what stop means in a way that is playful.

2.Breath

  • Ask: Can you feel your breath? Is your breath fast or slow?

  • Invite her to feel her breath while sitting, then to stand up, jump or run fast for one minute. Invite her back to her breath. Ask: what do you notice?

  • Notice your child’s breath. When they are upset, you can say, ‘I see you are breathing fast.’ When they are tired, you can say “I notice your breathing is slow and quiet.”

  • Make noises together: Breath like a lion, breath like a snake. Play is an excellent way to discover things.

3. Listen

  • Ask :What does it mean to listen? How do we listen? What do you hear right now?

  • In your day to day life help your child to notice what he/she hears. On a walk, making dinner, ask: “What do you hear?”

  • After a conflict with someone, invite your child to listen to the other person’s experience.

© Traci Childress, 2013.

Mindful Leadership

There is a line from Rilke’s First Elegy that I have carried with me since college–  something I  return to remind myself of the importance of letting go– of opening my heart to the moment. “Don’t you know yet? Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe; perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.”

Even 13 years ago, traveling in Mexico, i was struck by the powerful visual representation of this concept when I saw a statue of a saint, his arms open to the sky and birds (real flesh and feather ones) were flying through. I knew then, in my cells, in my very flesh, that letting go was the most important lesson I could learn

My spiritual practice has been the study of that idea of letting go:  sitting with it, moving with it. Reflecting on it. Experimenting with how it looks in teaching a yoga class. What does it mean to show up with knowledge you are tasked to share but to do so in a way that creates space rather than takes it up, in a way that invites others to the process. What role and responsibility does one have in sharing what one has? It is not so simple as showing up and doing nothing. We have to do something. We have to engage. Sometimes withholding information is limiting. I think of a friend, a massage therapist, finding a hard lump in the armpit of a client and grappling with what to do– she had knowledge she needed to share. How should she share it?

There is a tension, a paradox in the crossing of these lines. There seem to be no hard and fast answers, just an invitation to be present in each moment, again and again, and to train the heart and mind to stay with the moment as it changes into the next.

In the last year, I found myself in the center of this tension as a leader in the school I co-founded three years ago. Tasked with being the one to keep an organization financially afloat, a family stable, and a sense of honoring myself and those around me, I started to feel overwhelmed. The business role kept bringing up the question: How do you create space around business deadlines and bills to be paid that invites the whole person to the process–myself and those I worked with?

A dear friend and mentor often tells me “ grief is cumulative.”  I felt this in my struggle to run a business. I felt how my struggle with leadership grabbed on to every moment before  in my life that had ever made me feel trapped, and I found myself stuck underneath it all. And yet of course life was going on, business needed to be done, children loved, friends supported.

What got me through it was nothing so profound. It was just returning again and again to sensation:  ’I am overwhelmed.’ ‘I am totally sad.’ ‘Here is my son’s hand, and his voice, “mama, looking: me do trick now.”’ For the first time in the deepest realest way, I really had to be right in the moment, just to get through the place where I was.

In the muck of it, sometimes I got stuck in negativity, and I would fixate on something , that wasn’t working. I started trying to actively stop that fixation. To move instead– and again and again —  to the sensation. So , for example, I might feel overwhelmed by the number of tuition payments not in, and the need to pay bills that were due. Habit and exhaustion would push me to think things like “ They didn’t pay again. Why do they have to be reminded every time? Don’t they realize this and that…. and on very bad days I made it all about me– “they don’t respect me” “I am not capable of this; if I was this wouldn’t happen.” and on. So I started stopping that. I literally would say, “stop Traci, breath. Feel that frustration. Feel the sad.’ “feel the X, Y, Z.”

With time, the practice really started to work. I suddenly would end up crying instead of fixating, releasing instead of holding on.  I started to have a deeper understanding of the spiritual traditions I study– I started to see that the way we face each moment trains us for the way we face all of our good byes.  It reminds me of one of my favorite poems from W.S. Merwin:

Waves in August by W.S. Merwin

There is a war in the distance

with the distance growing smaller

the field glasses lying at hand

are for keeping it far away

I thought I was getting better

about that returning childish

wish to be living somewhere else

that I knew was impossible

and now I find myself wishing

to be here to be alive here

it is impossible enough

to still be the wish of a child

in youth I hid a boat under

the bushes beside the water

knowing I would want it later

and come back and would find it there

someone else took it and left me

instead the sound of the water

with its whisper of vertigo

terror reassurance an old

old sadness it would seem we knew

enough always about parting

but we have to go on learning

as long as there is anything

 © Traci Childress, 2013.