REFLECTIONS ON THE MIDDLE WAY AND RENUNCIATION AT THIS TIME OF YEAR by our Head Teacher

I would like to wish all of you good wishes and enjoyment in all the traditional and contemporary celebrations and events that you may be engaging in.

These include Christmas, Yule and New Year, and you may (or may not) celebrate them in different ways; they are an opportunity for some families and friends to get together, sing and eat, play and mark them in some ritual way.  I am, however, fully aware that this time of year can be a difficult and confronting time for many people, and for a whole host of reasons. This Head’s Up is an offering to everyone, no matter how the season is upon you.

Growing up, I could not understand fully the pleasures and deeper sweetness of Christmas. I was blinded by my own excitement and desire for presents, food and great TV. The chaos of overindulgence and consumption often felt devoid of meaning and left me numb rather than connected to those around me. As an adult, in response to these experiences, I felt the need to go ‘underground’, to rest, recuperate and reflect at this dark time of the year. I wanted to reconnect and somehow sanctify this time.

I began to take myself to a retreat centre over this holiday. At first, for a few years, I went to a silent retreat centre. Later, and after some years working full-time as a teacher, I found that environment too austere and instead, spent a week on retreat where there was less silence, but much connection with the earth through walking and gardening, and with others through talking and cooking together.

In my own way, I was exploring a ‘middle way‘, and adjusting the conditions to enable me to engage productively in meditation, and reconnection. From the Mahavagga, an early Buddhist text (part of the Vinaya Pitaka):

There are two extremes which should not be followed, bhikkhus, [monks] by someone who has gone forth: Devotion to pursuing sense pleasure, which is low, vulgar, worldly, ignoble and produces no useful result;

And devotion to self-denial, which is painful, ignoble and produces no useful result.

Avoiding both these extremes, bhikkhus, the Middle Way that a Tathàgatha [a Buddha] has Awakened to

gives vision and insight knowledge, and leads to peace, profound understanding, full realisation and to Nibbàna. (Mv 1.6)

Although I am not a nun, I clearly felt the need for temporary withdrawal from my life, especially at this time of year and one of the qualities that I still feel moved to explore and develop in my own life is that of renunciation.

As a monastic, where there is a lifestyle of simplicity and restraint, renunciation is easy to perceive. The role of renunciation in the lives of lay Buddhists is not so easy to understand. We are not asked to renounce money, sex, or a varied wardrobe, or to shave our heads or to not eat after noon. Renunciation tends to get a bad press in the Western world, conjuring up images of depriving ourselves and unhealthy repression. We do not want to give things up!

However, renunciation is one of the ten ‘paramis’ in Buddhism. The ten virtues – or perfections – (paramis) are related to manifesting peace, understanding and loving-kindness. Nekkhama, or renunciation, has as its central aim, greater happiness and this is initially not that easy to understand with our (should I say, my) mindset. It means letting go, unburdening and releasing, both material and mental things that are toxic in our lives. Another parami, discernment or wisdom (panna) is important here: we should know what it is that we need to let go of.

We need to let go of whatever gets in the way of our deep happiness; that is, objects and patterns of attachment, aversion and ignorance. But how do we know what they are? In our culture, and at this time of year, we are actively encouraged to feel attraction, desire and excitement. Because this time of year is so extreme, I do feel it is easier to perceive the tension and suffering in these states. We could, perhaps just ‘watch our attraction and desire’ and remain still. Through openness to experimenting we can take time to reflect; does this mental or material thing actually lead to my deep happiness?

The practice of renunciation does not generate more suffering. In fact, it has a freeing quality. The Buddha recommended that his lay followers observe day-long periods of temporary renunciation. These were traditionally on the new-, full- and half-moon days. During these days, lay followers were to observe eight precepts (which added to the five precepts); celibacy, no food after noon, no watching of shows or listening to music, no use of perfumes or cosmetics and no use of luxurious seats and beds. This was to place some restraints on all five of the senses. The days are then devoted to studying the Dharma and meditating.

I am surprised at how contemporary and applicable these precepts are! Less easy, perhaps, is to free up whole days and align them with the lunar calendar. Nevertheless, there is room here for me to experiment with renunciation and its relationship to happiness.

Since I have had my daughter, the winter breaks have got decidedly more festive and the practice of renunciation harder to access. How valuable to her, though, for me to choose (for the sake of my own happiness) a middle way of moderation, both in terms of my interaction with objects and my behaviour or habits?

I wish you a joyous and contemplative break!

Who so has turned to renunciation,

Turned to non-attachment of the mind,

Is filled with all-embracing love

And freed from thirsting after life. (Anguttara Nikaya 5.55)

 

Love – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

One of the four heavenly abodes in Buddhism is ‘loving kindness’ or metta in Pali, (the others are compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity).

Metta is sometimes translated as ‘compassion’, though in this formulation, it is distinctly ‘loving-kindness’. This is because karuna is used to describe ‘compassion’. The Pali language makes this distinction between metta and karuna:

  • Karuna connotes active sympathy and gentle affection, and a willingness to bear the pain of others.
  • Metta is a benevolence toward all beings that is free of selfish attachment. By practising metta, one overcomes anger, ill will, hatred, and aversion.

In his letter to his daughter, Albert Einstein says:

‘If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.
Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet.

However, each individual carries within them a small but powerful generator of love whose energy is waiting to be released.
When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life.’

How lovely that a great mind such as Einstein, so much a scientist, clearly encompassed the emotional and transcendental aspects of what it means to be a human being. Throughout my adult life I have found great comfort in reciting the Metta Sutta to myself or with others and I invite you to do the same.

Here is a translation (from Amaravati) of this sutta, which has its origins in very early Buddhism, and is said to have been spoken by the Buddha:

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who seeks the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,

Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.

Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.

Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,

The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!

Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:

Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.

Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this mindfulness.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.

By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

It does feel a bit like a ‘love bomb’! If I am slightly out of sorts and out of contact with the softer, deeper parts of myself – and others – the metta sutta reawakens the deep aspiration I have. Tangibly, I can feel my heart opening as I say it, as I appreciate its existence and the noble tradition from whence it has come. I feel something similar when singing some hymns and carols from the Christian tradition, or even in the beauty of Sufi poetry. All spiritual traditions point to these eternal truths and it is so vital to be in contact with them at this time in history.

Let their spirit shine through – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

Several years ago, at a meeting with a group of Western teachers, the Dalai Lama expressed astonishment at the degree of self-aversion and feelings of unworthiness reported by Western students. In fact, when asked about self-hatred (by Sharon Salzberg, a senior teacher in the Insight tradition), he did not know what it was, and needed it explaining.

There is a vast, often hidden area of Western human experience and that is the experience of shame. I have, in the last couple of months, become very interested in this, both with regard to myself, and professionally in relation to the school; as a parent and as a teacher. I want to begin sharing some of my reflections on it and have no doubt that this is the beginning of a much longer conversation.

Shame manages behaviour by persuading children to feel bad about themselves for needing, feeling or wanting something. It comments on what the child is, rather than what the child has done and the result is often a shrinking away from potential, from themselves.  And yet, we all have needs, so the basic message of shame is, “Your natural way of being is not okay; to be acceptable you must be different from the way you are”.

There is also a deep human need to belong, to relate to others. To feel isolated produces what the Buddha described as ‘self-centred suffering’, in which we become the ‘owner’ of whatever occurs.

The fear of failure and rejection from the group, family or community is a powerful and unseen driver and results in isolation at various levels. This in turn feeds addictive behaviour, in an effort to join in and belong, or to cope with the isolation and confirm the feelings of worthlessness.

Already, I am presenting a delicate balance – allowing children to ‘be’ and yet finding ways for them to become fully part of the society that we live in. This is for me a central parental and educational concern; how am I to manage these two, potentially incompatible strands?

There are ways we can behave as parents and teachers which enable us to navigate these choppy waters, but we need to do it authentically as children are smart and shame is often felt as a powerful undercurrent.

Not only do we need to (attempt to) be the person we want them to be, but we can also treat our children as though they are already the person WE want them to be. They are already brave enough, good enough, smart and kind enough etc.

By contrast, many of us have grown up with messages about where we fell short and how we should be different from the way we are. We can experiment with different perspectives and behaviours around this.

We all make mistakes. For me, there is much work to be done on forgiving myself, as well as my daughter. I need to keep remembering how young she is, and that this is why she speaks and behaves in particular ways, or irritates me sometimes. If she is out of line, it is my role to lay down a boundary in a non-shaming way; focusing on the behaviour, rather than on who she is. I don’t need to compare her with siblings or peers or even with her at a previous time if it is shaming. When engaging with children it is so important to be as forgiving as possible and to let their spirit shine through.

I present this as an ongoing enquiry. Do come and tell me if you want to share your experiences in this realm!

 

New Year’s Resolutions – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

Happy New Year to all! May you have a healthy year, full of peace and love.

I always enjoy the inexorable change of the seasons, in a bodily way; it is a true reminder of my animal self. We are already past the longest night, moving towards Imbolc and thence to Spring. Imbolc (1st February) is a traditional Gaelic or pagan celebration day marking the beginning of Spring and there are indeed signs of new awakenings in the school grounds – the snowdrops and winter flowing cherry.

At the opening puja of the year, I spoke to the children about New Year’s resolutions and some of them have now written their declarations on paper stars and added them to the tree in our foyer. A resolution can be thought of as setting a goal or direction, which is different in some way from the past and ‘resolving’ to stick to it. It is, as most adults know, much harder in practice to stick to the resolution than it is to set it. If we are thinking of helping our children with their New Year’s resolutions we have to help them in both stages – the setting of the resolution and the sticking to it.

In terms of setting the resolution, I feel the skill is in coming up with an ‘SMART’ resolution. Although originally from the corporate world, ‘SMART’ as a mnemonic is a useful way to look at things:

Specific – a particular area for improvement.

Measureable – some indicator of progress.

Achievable – let’s make this ‘win-win’, so set the parameters so it is possible to achieve.

Relevant – is it worthwhile and does it meet your needs?

Time- related – well that could be the year (or forever).

It does feel quite business-like, but least the SMART mnemonic gets us thinking about these resolutions and how to go about it in a practical sense.

My New Year’s resolution is an acknowledgment of wanting to be more patient. How do I then start changing my impatience and stick to the new direction I have set for myself? This practising can include:

1. paying precise attention to when I am not patient, the situations or conditions that produce that impatience within me, and

2. being kind to myself for not being ‘perfectly patient’ already. It is wise to remind ourselves that we are not born patient and that practising includes making lots and lots of mistakes. I can acknowledge the almost instantaneous judgemental thoughts and feelings and again be kind to myself around these. Change takes time, effort and no small measure of gentleness.

My guess is that if we try to change (or help our children to change) any of the habits that don’t benefit us, or make us or them happy, that we will quickly come back to these two key areas – seeing clearly and precisely, and being kind to ourselves when we fall short.

We can think of this conscious habit-changing as working on our minds; in terms of neuroscience, it boils down to stimulating development of those neural networks that we want to keep and ‘pruning’ the ones that are not helpful.

Although, as adults, our brains less flexible, they are still capable of great change – it is possible. Our children have much more mutable brains and are rapidly changing anyway; guidance and help can only be of benefit. I will leave you with the reference to a most excellent TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, which covers some of this ground, that I am sure many of you are familiar with.   Happy changing!

Talking to children about interbeing this Christmas…and beyond – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

It’s Christmas time, the weather is cold and there has even been some snow! Christmas is a time to give gifts and to have fun, but in all the excitement it is also important for our children to have moments of peaceful reflection, and to consider others who may be less fortunate.

This year I have really enjoyed having a go at the  Daily Kindness Calendar, and many thanks go to Jess and Emily for the Brighton Voices In Exile kindness calendar here at school. Thanks also to the ‘reindeers’ at the beginning of the month! Some were extremely speedy and overtook a ‘Santa’ who was sorely in need of a few more mince pies (see above).

In my puja last week, I began to talk about ‘Interbeing’ (as it is called in the Plum Village tradition). I referred to a flower, and what ‘non-flower’ elements contributed to the flower. Interbeing is a way of expressing one of Buddhism’s core teachings, that on interconnectedness; how none of us fully independent, and that independence is in itself an oxymoron.

When I am thinking about children becoming independent learners, I reflect that it is a very delicate balance. What we are trying to do is to enable them to achieve their potential and learn in a matrix of interconnectedness – their parents, teachers, peers, other adults and the environment. Each child is like a beautiful flower. And so this is how we can talk to children, as beautiful flowers that we are coaxing to stand up tall, on their own, yes, but as a beautiful flower in a field of other beautiful flowers and other beautiful plants, growing tall from good soil and nourished by the rain and sun.

With that in mind, I have been reflecting on what ‘vulnerability’ is about, what exacerbates it and how we can help. To continue the metaphor, I have been reflecting on the elements that hinder the healthy growth of a beautiful flower. In the part of my job which is about safeguarding children, (ensuring that they are safe and thriving at school), recently I have been hearing a lot about vulnerability within the wider context of schools in Brighton and Hove.

Children may feel vulnerable for a plethora of reasons; they may have some kind of additional difficulty in terms of learning or ability or they just may be ‘different’ in some way – ethnicity, gender expression, sexuality, etc. This may make them feel that they stand out, that there aren’t enough companions or ‘people like them’ and so they are vulnerable to feeling isolated or lonely. And isn’t the flip side of Christmas a pinch point for those of us that may be lonely in all the festivities?

In talking to our children and being with them, we want to build a sense of inclusion, and rightness in the glorious diversity of our community and our world, especially, in this context, other children. They may want to ask questions that could be considered rude or not ‘pc’. We strive to create an environment where these questions are welcome and so we are able to steer them through to understanding people that are different from them in a spirit of openness. An example may be a child who does not eat all day during Ramadan. I want our school to be an environment in which it is absolutely fine to ask about this; curiosity about others different from oneself is natural and invariably comes from a place of innocence. If a child feels that there are no-go areas in terms of questions they have about life they might just take those questions elsewhere and censor themselves for fear of causing offence.

In a more existential context, we are all fragile and vulnerable and, especially at this time, it is wise and right to remember this in our interactions with people.

With heartfelt wishes for a merry Christmas and a happy New Year to all in our community.