On Loving Kindness – by our Headteacher, Clare Eddison

‘It is very important to generate a good attitude, a good heart, as much as possible. From this, happiness in both the short term and the long term for both yourself
and others will come.’

 

– HH The 14th– Dalai Lama

 

Welcome to the new term and warm wishes to our new families and children! We also welcome Claire Moody, our new Bursar, who will be in school three days a week. She comes to us from the Towers Convent School, Upper Beeding, where she was Finance Manager and Assistant Bursar. I am extremely happy to have her in post.My last puja was around the subject and practice of kindness and friendliness, and the more I pick up from the news (in the guise of information) the more I am reminded of the essentiality of consciously developing positive traits.

In Buddhism, developing unconditional loving kindness (metta bhavana) is a concentration practice. There is a distinction between a meditation practice that develops concentration and absorption – such as metta practice – and insight practice (of which mindfulness is an important part) which cultivates the arising of insight into the true nature of all things and events.

In mindfulness practice we pay attention to whatever arises in awareness, in the present moment, and make that an object of meditation. In metta practice, we choose phrases such as ‘May I be happy’ as the object of meditation, holding those phrases in our hearts the way we would hold something precious and fragile in our hand. In other words, the development of metta is posited as a conscious activity, one which requires effort and care.

Practising kindness is part of our Buddhist ethos. As a school, our aims are:

  • To guide pupils to develop mindfulness, kindness and understanding, and apply these practices in their daily lives.
  • To provide an excellent academic education which enables children to develop positive learning dispositions, and to be challenged in ways that accord with their needs and potential.
  • To promote self-esteem by teaching emotional literacy and problem-solving skills, enabling children to reflect and learn from all their experiences and to transform conflict.
  • To constantly strive to create a nurturing environment in which positive, respectful relationships are developed among and between all tiers of the school: children, staff, parent community and trustees.
  • To give students positive experiences of nature and the outdoors, inspiring curiosity, wonder and respect for the environment.

What is also wonderful about developing kindness is that neurologically the evidence is that happier children learn better and that brains, especially young ones, are ‘plastic’. In other words, young people’s brains are extremely affected by outside stimuli and hormones that get released in response to those stimuli, positive or negative. Particular neural networks are enhanced and others are ‘pruned’ so that new behaviours, attitudes and actions occur. This is a process that happens all the time throughout childhood and beyond.

Experientially, we know that children readily mimic behaviours and attitudes and this can be put to good effect in the classroom or at home by ‘modelling’ whatever behaviour or attitude we would like them to develop. As children do not generally engage in substantial periods of meditation practice (one can hope!) the development of kindness and appropriate friendliness happens often in relationship with others, and through guided reflection.

It is important to have a nuanced approach with young children and it is worth enquiring of ourselves: What is the kindest thing I can do in this situation right here and now? It may not be ‘giving in’, it may be a firmer approach. In terms of neural development and the development of habits, a longer term approach is probably more beneficial.

At school we have an array of creative methods to encourage children in developing these positive attributes and we have a behaviour policy which promotes positive discipline and is not punitive. We take the view that poor behaviour is a form of communication and that children want to behave well.

Our ethos and approach is being recognised by other organisations; at the end of last term, we entered the school into the Independent Schools Association (ISA) Awards 2017, in the category for ‘Excellence and Innovation in Pupils’ Mental Health and Wellbeing’. I am very happy to announce that we have now been shortlisted for this award along with two other schools and the winner will be announced in November.

Everything Changes – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

‘Everything changes and nothing stands still’ – Heraclitus

Anicca (impermanence in Pali) is one of the foundational premises of Buddhism and it asserts that all physical and mental events (including ourselves) are not constant or permanent. All events, in the widest sense of the word – physical and mental – come into being, dependent on conditions, change and finally dissolve or decay.

Welcome to one of the big challenges of being human!

I wrote about something similar this time last year and, in a cyclical way, feel drawn to revisit this theme at the end of this school year. And why not? ‘Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?’ wrote Mary Oliver in her poem, The Summer’s Day.

It is so beneficial to take time to feel and be with change, especially through those transitions that are big, multifaceted and perhaps initially difficult to digest. It is necessary to gently and kindly inhabit the present transforming moment so that our understanding has the potential to deepen, and to become whole and thoroughly embodied. We can experience change not just intellectually but fully – emotionally and physically/somatically.

Many emotions accompany change – for example, there can be a restless sea-sawing between fear and excitement. It can be very hard to remain present and connected when the mind jumps forward into a series of ‘what if’s?’ Often, we want everything to stay the same, but at the same time, we crave variety and sometimes we recognise our need for growth. We grasp tightly to how we think things should be and, simultaneously, admire and want something new. Often there can also be grief, as we mourn the loss of the old situation and we are waiting for a safe space to be felt and expressed.

Impermanence, then, is often a source of uncomfortableness, unease or dukkha. How does change really feel for you? I believe that it is possible to soften and relax into the inevitable movement of change and that the particular environment and practices of our school help children navigate this. By stressing the importance of emotional resilience, kindness and mindfulness throughout their time here, we set up habits of mind that can soothe and guide during transitions.  It could be a transition from one class and teacher to a new situation, or indeed leaving our school and moving on to secondary school or elsewhere.

We – as staff, parents and carers – are also in a constant process of change, although this is more obvious with our children. Tangibly they are changing, developing and growing up. So we can guide them, with love rather than fear; we can encourage them to find or make space, helping them to come back to the breath, the body and nature, helping them to surf the change moment to moment.

I wrote this poem as a reflection on the process of transition for our Year 6 students:

Everything Changes
Transition into increasing complexity –
Early adolescence.
From safety into less holding,
From the known to the less known,
From the old to the new,
From the small to the bigger pond,
From the oldest to the youngest (again),
Through uncertainty and out the other side,
You are ready! You are ready to leap!

The risk may feel great but there are invisible hands holding you,
A leap of increased choice and independence.
You can trust yourself here,
Though you may be worried,
Though you may be frightened.

We are a safe harbour
Of saying yes, in hope,
Of opening in your own unique way and at your own unique pace,
Of following your arrow (wherever it points),
Of kindness to yourself,
Of winning some and losing some but of having a go nevertheless
Of putting one foot in front of the other –
The present and the next present moment
Of being perfect enough as you.

As we race towards the end of term (while also trying to experience every moment of it) I would like to thank all of you for being such a supportive and fun community of parents, carers and staff. It has been a delight to experience this over the past year and also to receive your frank views, generosity, wisdom and commitment. Sadhu sadhu sadhu! (And have a super break).

 

[image courtesy of www.infinitehealing.com]

Science and the ‘Seeing that Frees’ – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

I have been reading Rob Burbea’s book, ‘Seeing That Frees’, subtitled ‘Meditations on Emptiness and Dependent Arising’. I want to share my excitement about this book, how I am connecting with it and how it links into a direction for the school.

This is the sort of book that really excites me because I get very tired of my own habitual or ‘stale’ ways of perceiving the world, myself and others. Dipping into this book has invigorated and freshened up my world and I look forward to reading more.

Rob has been the guiding teacher at Gaia House meditation retreat centre for many years and has some concentrated Buddhist practice under his belt. His book focuses on the development of insight which is the ‘seeing that frees’. He does not define insight precisely, but loosely as ‘any realisation, understanding, or way of seeing things that brings, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha’. Dukkha is often translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, or ‘suffering’ or ‘dis-ease’, and is something perceivable by us, the practitioner, so that we know and feel that decrease in dukkha for ourselves. (This insight is not necessarily dramatic in nature, it may be a slow unfolding).

I can relate to the personal, individual nature of insight and how it is the lens through which I see the world. Some of the ways I look at things are not helpful to me, yet many of my deeply habitual and more structural behaviours pass under the radar of my awareness; I don’t even realise that they are there, disrupting my peace and my chances of greater happiness.

Each of us can examine our own particular assumptions and beliefs about the way life is. For instance, as I grew up I believed that it was much cooler to be into art and music than science and, that as a girl, it was important to be pretty, or wear particular clothes. There is an insight that I had – of course by accident – through studying science which I will attempt to recount, though it was many years ago and it may lose something in the telling.

In my first year of university I was studying Special Relativity. Eventually, and with hard work, I began to understand it using logic and maths. At that point, I realised that the way I had been looking at the world was not as it was. It wasn’t ‘the reality’, true, or even right.

I also realised that my entire scientific training had been a series of opening doors to a more realistic and complex model of ‘reality’, or the ‘world outside’, and this was yet another opening. First there were the simple Newtonian equations, then there was adding in friction and eventually we got to the fact that force only equals mass x acceleration because here on planet Earth we are working with centimetres, metres and kilometres and fairly slow speeds and rates of acceleration.

If we start approaching the speed of light, then this equation no longer works. In fact, it is just a special case, a reduction of a much more complicated and more beautiful equation that more closely fits the way the world is. In turn, this equation is itself a reduction, a simplification, again and again, like a giant fractal.

Though this realisation came from studying science, it had ramifications far beyond my studies; for a while the entire way that I perceived myself and the world began to open up and to appear incredibly beautiful and magical, just with this small understanding of special relativity. Time was connected to spatial dimensions in ways that intuitively felt right and full of potential and I was part of it.

From here, with a bit of a leap, I can make a case for the importance of teaching our children how to use the scientific method, not just to have insights such as the one I have described above, but to give them the tools to be able to explore their world. I want them not just to know facts about the world but to be able to go deeper and deeper into understanding it.

These are the tools of both formulating precise hypotheses (stemming from their questions and curiosity about the world) and also constructing experiments that will prove or disprove these hypotheses. The diagram above is called the Scientific Method but it might as well be called the Artistic Method or the Life Method because, really, it is about how to get the questions you are interested in answered and how to persist in asking them.

The Buddha said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourselves’ by which he meant that, rather than blindly adhering to beliefs and behaviours, shine a light inwards (cultivate insight) and discover what lessens your suffering; enquire as to your own personal experience of what decreases dukkha. When there is insight, dukkha is eased and this is a felt and understood experience by all of us.

Staying present to experiences, embracing difficult emotions – by our Head Teacher, Clare Eddison

What a thrilling end of the Spring Term it has been! There was the fantastic, well-attended Family Mindfulness Day and, on the following Tuesday, I was amazed at how well the children from our small school performed in the ‘Let’s Dance’ celebrations. We hardly paused for breath to mark Red Nose Day and raised a little shy of £400 in the process.

It feels that we are a generous and friendly community. Sometimes this also means guarding ourselves and reflecting on our reactions.

I was thinking about this as I rode along the Lewes Road today on my way to some training. I reflected on how I was feeling. Riding my bicycle is an opportunity to be present and, in terms of safety, it is really important to be so. (The more I think about ways of accessing mindfulness for children, the more I reflect on activities which, by their nature, lend themselves to immersion and present-time. These activities have as qualities…absorbing yet expanding, enjoyable, not stressful or goal-oriented, often embodied and relaxing). Cycling in a wide cycle lane can have aspects of that but then, suddenly, a bus comes too close, there is no chance to think, I just react. Fear! Intake of breath; contraction.

Another day, another situation and I am driving my car. It is pleasant; I am mostly present. I have turned off the radio to allow my mind to expand into the quiet alone space. I have the illusion that I am ‘safe in my shiny metal box’. Someone at the roundabout does not signal and I narrowly avoid a crash. No chance to think, I just react. Anger! As I breath out quickly, I hit the horn aggressively; tension.

My reaction is so instantaneous and so unwanted. After feeling the fear, and my vulnerability, I feel helpless, become angry, go into thinking about the busy city, uncaring drivers…and on and on. After being angry whilst driving, I chide myself for this anger, this becoming of myself into an angry person, and create yet more pressure and stress, and so on.

It gets worse. I tell myself one of my stories. I decide that I am not a good person for being angry, totally ignoring what arose and the wider context from which I created this series of thoughts. In Buddhism, this is known as ‘papañca (pronounced papancha) – the tendency of the thoughts in the mind to proliferate in an uncontrollable and unbidden way,creating a stream of thoughts that we then think are real, because we thought them!

A story illustrates this nicely (thanks to Leigh Brasington):

A woman wants some potatoes for the meal she is cooking, so she sends her husband to the marketplace to buy potatoes. As he walks out the door, she calls after him “be sure to get a good price.” So all the way to the marketplace, the man is thinking about potatoes and what he’ll have to pay. If he buys the very best potatoes, he knows he’ll have to pay more than if he buys lesser quality potatoes. On the other hand the lesser quality potatoes are just that – not so good. In fact he knows he’ll have to be very careful in buying other than top price potatoes because the seller might try to stick him with a bad potato, even a rotten potato. When he thinks of someone cheating him by giving him a rotten potato, he gets really mad. “Why do people have to be so greedy as to stick me with a rotten potato?” Just at this point he reaches the stall of the potato seller and screams at him “You can keep your rotten potatoes!” and walks off.

So, left unexamined, the mind will run off into the strangest places!

Luckily, there is scope to examine this process of the birth of suffering. The model in Buddhism is the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. The diagram below  is a super illustration of what is in fact a universal and impersonal process.

Back to my examples and referring now to this model: I cannot help the unpleasant feelings arising on contact with the situation (touching, the whoosh of air of the bus close to me, seeing the car driving dangerously). If I have been born with six senses (including the mind), it is their function to sense. I can, however, interrupt the tension that arises as a result of the initial feeling. In the diagram, this tension is the ‘craving’ (in this case, the craving for the feeling NOT to be there.) If I relax at this point, and release the tension, if possible, then I stand a chance of moving on with the present moment.

Another way of interrupting papañca is by using humour and lightness. If anger arises and I laugh, then the anger dissipates, ‘ah! I’ve been caught again!’ Frankly, after this initial feeling – the stories, the justifications, all that papañca is a waste of my time and energy. It takes me away from myself and creates further stories, entrenches further unhelpful habits. The Buddha recognised that the mind’s tendency towards papañca is unavoidable and instead of fighting the inevitable, he teaches us to ride and tame this tiger mind.

This may seem rather technical but I would urge you to experiment with it and model it to your children. There are so many conditions that feed into our everyday experience and it is important to give ourselves a break and realise that the vast majority of them are not in our control. It is in the act of letting go and relaxing, especially around our friends, family and children that we realise the impersonal nature of what is happening to us. Ironically we are all different and also the same. How important it is to do one thing at a time and give ourselves space; our essential goodness is something we all want to pass on.


‘Peace is the way’ – by our Headteacher, Clare Eddison

“There is no way to peace, peace is the way”Plum Village song

Like all of the major world religions, Buddhism is a religion of peace. The Dhammapada, an early Buddhist collection of verses on practice and ethics in everyday life, makes this abundantly clear. Verse five of the text states:

“Hatred is never appeased by hatred.
Hatred is only appeased by Love (or, non-enmity).
This is an eternal law.”

According to tradition, this early text is considered to be a series of answers given by Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, to questions put to him on various occasions. The verse above speaks to us of peace and non-harm, in much the same way that our school’s first precept does:

“I will not intentionally harm people, animals and plants, and any part of our school environment, caring for them in a way I would like to be cared for myself and looking after the school in a way I would like my own belongings to be looked after.”

There are plenty of areas in my life where I do not feel at peace (…yet), where I am not tranquil, where I am disturbed both personally and in my response to global affairs. Some of the events unfolding in the world at large are frightening and bewildering for many of us.

I have been reflecting on how to approach this situation and its attendant feelings: How do I protect my mind and do my best in the face of difficult thoughts and opinions? Should I become more of an activist? What shall I tell my child, now and when she is older, about how I acquitted myself in these times of uncertainty and inequity? How do I come to peace around this? Am I even allowed to be peaceful in the face of the state of the world?

I have been really helped in my contemplation of these complex thoughts and feelings by verse one from the Dhammapada:

“We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our
thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws
the cart.”

(translation from the Pali: Thomas Byrom)

From this, I am understanding that, in fact, there is a veil over my thinking; there may be some ‘reality’, but I am not currently perceiving it with much clarity. From Janice Willis, an American practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism:

We all harbour prejudices of various sorts. There is no exception to this fact. Not one of us is completely freed of prejudicial attitudes. We don’t like certain colours or sounds; we’re annoyed by certain circumstances, behaviours, or styles of doing things. We are harsh critics even of ourselves. Having likes and dislikes is taken for granted…The problem occurs as, unfortunately oftentimes is the case, when our own individual likes and dislikes become reified and solidified; when we not only form inflexible opinions, but take them as truths; when we form negative judgments about other human beings and about ourselves and these judgments become for us the lenses through which we view and experience ourselves, the world around us, and its inhabitants. At this point, we have entered into the arena of prejudice of a quite pernicious sort, the sort which causes harm and suffering both for ourselves and for others. And whether it be friendships and loving personal relationships destroyed, or wars fought over religion or contested territory, or one group of beings dominating another or restraining their freedom of movement, at this point we cease being human beings at our best.”

Returning to the title of this blog, and the beautiful song that inspired it, I can come to a more peaceful place right here and right now. I can do this through the practice of mindful awareness and the development of positive qualities such as loving kindness (including self-kindness and forgiveness), compassion and equanimity. Mindfulness can help to shift us from reactivity, defence and conflict, to the way of peace. Loving kindness, or friendliness, will melt boundaries and soften hostility and insecurity in others.  When we meet others with deep listening, presence and an open mind and heart, empathy grows, and empathy allows compassion.

Equanimity is not indifference, though it can be about seeing the impersonal nature of the arising of events, both in the personal sphere and in the wider world. We are touched by life, but not floored by it. In my explorations, it is important to stay open and present and perhaps from that place, a deeper level of activism – or service – arises, one that is balanced and steady.