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
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.

On Loving Kindness – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

Loving Kindness

‘Come sit down beside me
I said to myself,
And although it didn’t make sense,
I held my own hand
As a small sign of trust
And together I sat on the fence.’

– Michael Leunig

There are many prescriptions for living a good life but none resonate as much as those I take from my Buddhist practice. Practising mindfulness leads to cultivation of insight around the three characteristics of existence (interconnectedness, unsatisfactoriness, impermanence/change). There are also meditative practices which purposefully incline the mind to developing four key positive qualities – those of friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity.

As an educated Westerner, I have always been struck by this quote by H.H. 14th Dalai Lama:

No matter what is going on
Never give up.
Develop the heart.
Too much energy in your country
Is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart.
Be compassionate,
Not just to your friends
But to everyone.
Be compassionate.
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world.
Work for peace
And I say again
Never give up.
No matter what is going on around you
Never give up.”

Loving-kindness meditation (‘metta bhavana’), which develops friendliness, can be used in conjunction with mindfulness practice to help keep the mind open and compassionate. It provides balance, connection and grounding, allowing us to develop the mental habit of selflessness, or altruistic love. With practise, it acts as a way of healing the troubled mind, freeing it from pain and confusion.

So how do we apply this to our children? There are of course, many ways. But in terms of loving-kindness meditation, we need to be able to model and feel it ourselves, and to use skill in teaching it to our young folk. It is very important to introduce this meditation at a pace that is in accord with your child or children. As is the approach at school, the practices that we do should be fun and joyful, not arduous and a chore. Children need to want to do them; in fact, we do too.

I want to briefly describe this meditation practice and offer a reference to an essay by Gregory Kramer, in which he describes practising loving-kindness with his children over a number of years:

The traditional formulation for loving-kindness meditation is to start with what comes fairly naturally, which is to direct the intention towards oneself. Some people can , however, find it hard to start with themselves; all sorts of self-hatred and loathing can come up, obscuring the meditation and sending it off track. In this case, you could start by sending out unconditional positivity to a benefactor (someone in your life who has loved or truly cared for you) as expressing gratitude to our benefactors is a natural form of love. The rule in loving-kindness practice is to follow the way that most easily opens your heart.

Let’s say you are starting with yourself; the idea is relax into a comfortable meditative position and say phrases silently to yourself, such as:

May I be filled with loving-kindness.

May I be safe and free from fear.

May I be well in body and mind.

May I be happy and at ease.

Being patient and kind to yourself are important here, as is persevering. This is, after all, a form of concentration practice. As you repeat these phrases, you can picture yourself as you are now, or perhaps as a young and beloved child. You can be creative and skilful, adjusting the words and images in any way you wish that best opens your heart to kindness. And repeat. Over and over again, letting the feelings permeate your body and mind.

When you feel you have established a sense of loving-kindness for yourself, you can then expand your meditation to include others. You can picture this person and carefully recite the same phrases:

May you be filled with loving-kindness.

May you be safe and free from fear.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be happy and at ease.

The traditional formulation is to work from the easiest person for you to direct your friendliness towards, to the most difficult, as your sense of loving-kindness gets stronger.

This order is: yourself, a benefactor, a dear friend, a neutral person (somebody you know, but have no special feelings towards, e.g., a person who serves you in a shop) and finally someone you are currently having difficulty with. You can also be creative and direct it to, for instance, ‘all people in Sussex’, then expand it outwards, to ‘all people in Britain, Europe, Asia etc.’

Applying the practice to daily life is about cultivating a friendly attitude and an openness towards everybody you relate to, without discrimination. One of my teachers told me that, as this was a concentration practice, it was about directing the mind rather than assuming that these feelings would just passively arise.

To finish, there are two key features of this meditation; the phrases that you say and the people that you direct them to. With children, it is possible to skilfully direct their minds to, for instance, their siblings, their school friends and their teachers. As a caring adult, this also gives you an insight into who matters in their lives, who they feel naturally drawn to and who they find more challenging. Patiently, we are developing the facility in them of undiscriminating friendliness.

Directing loving-kindness towards animals, in particular beloved pets, is also a good idea, as children generally love them. This may provide a strong basis for positive action as children often feel strong love and connection towards animals, nature and the planet. With care, it is possible to adjust the phrases to suit each child, to allow their hearts to open and strenghten.

I have personally found this practice really transformative and liberating. It is a blessed relief to be able to drop the heavy burden of negativity which is dislike, or hatred; these are habits of mind that do not serve me. One book that I would recommend is Sharon Salzberg’s ‘Loving Kindness, the Revolutionary Art of Happiness’; the title is no exaggeration!


Guarding the sense doors – by our Headteacher, Clare Eddison

This Precious Human Life

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.

I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.

I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”

– His Holiness 14th Dalai Lama

Happy New Year!

In the spirit of this quote, my first blog of 2017 is tangentially about a practice that I first learnt at Gaia House many years ago. As with many practices that ‘swim against the current of our present culture’, I need to remind myself of it time and time again.

Whilst studying the Satipattana Sutta, which is the original teaching from which our practice of Mindfulness stems, the Buddha talks about the six ‘sense doors’ of experience. These are: sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and ‘what the mind takes hold of’ (your mind’s knowledge of ideas). The Buddha advises restraint or ‘renunciation’, with respect to experiences (monks are often referred to as ‘renunciates’) . The Western brain is often resistant and reactive towards the idea of renunciation!

As a lay person interested in a holistic, engaged way of being, one can begin by being more aware of what we are letting through these ‘sense doors’ and operating with some discernment and reflection. This is not easy to do when we lead such busy, full lives and and have a ton of stimulation. For this part of the practice to be effective, we need time to reflect and that requires an amount of space in our lives. In itself, this is a useful reflection because it opens up the idea that if we want to be aware and more in control of what we are inviting through these sense doors, we may need to make decisions about how much stimulation is good for us; how much, and of what, we want in our lives and, in the context of this Head’s Up, in our children’s lives.

‘Realize that you’re not a passive receiver of sights, sounds, etc. The mind actually goes out looking for sensory stimuli. And often it’s looking for trouble. There are times, for instance, when there’s nothing in your surroundings to inspire lust, but lust arises in the mind and goes looking for something to nourish itself. The same thing happens with anger and all your other emotions.’ Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Through conversations with teachers and parents in our community, I feel it is important for me to initiate a conversation about the use of screens, and in particular computer games and the internet as it pertains to the children in our care. Whilst acknowledging that there are may be some good educational computer games, it is my understanding that allowing our children regular access to more aggressive ones, risks undermining what we are trying to achieve in our unique and special school with a Buddhist ethos. This is a rapidly changing area and there is also the question of how age-appropriate some of these games really are. For advice, I direct you to the recently updated document I have compiled about Online Safety on the school website.

From my experience both as an educator and meditator over the years, I feel that we need to ‘guard the doors of our children’s senses’ no matter how unpopular that may temporarily make us (or me). This means being aware and discerning about what our children are exposed to and how much.

Why? There is the reflection which is simply about ‘screen-time’ and then another to do with the nature and content of the interaction with the screen. In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which develops throughout childhood but, perhaps not surprisingly, the most crucial stage of development is in early childhood and is dependent on authentic human interactions. This is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions, learning how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs—facial expression, tone of voice, and more—that add colour and depth to real-world relationships. It also includes the ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention and to build a large vocabulary. It is in this corner of the mind that we empathise with others. Frontal lobe development largely determines success in every area of life—from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.

So what is ‘excessive’? To some extent we can look at research, and also to our direct experience of the child as their parents, carers and teachers. Do they suffer from sensory overload and a hyper-aroused nervous system? Do they struggle with lack of restorative sleep? Are they impulsive, moody and unable to pay attention? Could this be connected to what they are doing when they are in front of a screen?

As a school team, we are passionate about the process of developing positive key qualities and a sense of wellbeing that will serve children for the rest of their lives; compassion, positive self-regard, kindness, focus, calmness and concentration. We offer this ethos with the understanding that it will only be successful if carried out in partnership with parents who support our approach.

In addition, research on video games has shown dopamine (a key component in reward processing and addiction) is released during gaming. This produces feelings of pleasure and in turn, craving and urges for more. This cycle, mapped out in Buddhist thought, can get tighter and tighter and out of our control; craving or urges for gaming produces brain changes that mimic drug or alcohol cravings. Dopamine hits in the brain can feel addictive, and when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, she or he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.

Some of these behaviours, we see in some of our children, particularly in unstructured play situations, and I find it worrying. On the one hand, as Head, I welcome games that are ‘make believe’, but on the other hand, if those games are violent, leading to children being less caring towards each other, then I feel I have to draw attention to that.

Along with numerous psychologists in the public domain, I have written about the importance of allowing children to get bored, to see what is on the other side of ‘bored’ once boredom has been passed through. With careful support, my experience tells me that on the other side of the pit of boredom is a creative, fertile, interesting and nourishing place. It is worth ‘guarding the sense doors’ of the children in our care and even reclaiming the middle way of renouncing some of the stimuli that, in the short term only, give us fleeting pleasure.

– Clare

Thanks to Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., an integrative child psychiatrist specialising in children with complex or treatment-resistant mental health conditions and Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. I also referred to research: Koepp, 1998, Kuhn, 2011, Ko, 2009 and Han, 2011.

Primary is primary – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

communityI have, almost unavoidably, been reading some post-US election articles and opinion pieces recently. They are strange and unnerving times we live in, in this ‘post-truth’ world. You cannot believe what you are being told as facts, even on the news, but you can trust your experience. A degree of scepticism has always been necessary, but recently my healthy scepticism has become a more important and indispensable tool. It is even more important now to trust in your own experience, to have that confidence and take a chance on something your gut tells you might lead to somewhere beautiful and true.

Also, in the recent course of my work, I had a fruitful and interesting conversation with Michael Bready, who runs Youth Mindfulness. He trains teachers in teaching mindfulness to young people and has a strong connection, as we do here at the school, with the Wake Up Schools movement.

Both of these musings link with educating our children here at The Dharma Primary School. I was reminded of one of the strengths of our approach in my conversation with Michael. That is, the focus our school has on sangha (community). We have an interconnected matrix of care in the people who work here; the trustees, the parents and carers, the staff and the children themselves. It is a matrix of love and care in the cold and wet of the winter time.

Mindfulness in Education is now a hot topic but, in the process, the delicate art of holding and the interconnectedness that community brings risks being lost. I have written about sangha in a previous Head’s Up – it is a cornerstone of our school’s ethos and of great service to our children.

There is a plethora of articles out there about well-being in school and how to achieve it. What I think gets left out is the essential interconnectedness of all the people associated with a school. I believe that our state schools are now underfunded and undernourished; the staff are straining to hold it all together. These are not the conditions for healthy development of children. According to an NASWUT (teachers’ union) survey, half the teachers polled had visited their doctor with work-related physical or mental health issues, more than three quarters of them had reported anxiety, and 86% had suffered sleeplessness. Mindfulness has the potential to tackle such issues, but I believe it will not work if we do not acknowledge the essential link between inner and outer experience and inner and outer conditions.

lotus-school-preceptsMindfulness does have real potential to contribute to the healthy development of children and to support the adults involved in the school. Yet mindfulness needs to be rooted in an environment where it can flourish. Our school specialises in this holistic approach; it is the school’s ethos and why the school was originally set up.

New brain scanning technologies have revealed that not only does the activity of the brain change from moment to moment but that the actual architecture of the brain itself can change. New synaptic connections can form among brain cells and new brain cells can develop. This is why mindfulness training can cause such profound changes in the brain. Stress can affect the brain function in many negative ways and mindfulness training has been shown to counter this.

What we want is an environment in which we build resilience to these negative experiences early on in a child’s life and schooling. There is some mindfulness research with primary age children showing ‘significant decreases in both test anxiety and ADHD behaviours and also an increase in the ability to pay attention’ (Napoli, Krech & Holley, 2005). Also there is other research in this age group which shows improvements in executive functioning (e.g. the ability to problem-solve, plan, initiate, control and monitor one’s own actions, be mentally flexible, multi-task and employ verbal reasoning).

At our school, because we have a 360 degree, interconnected approach to mindfulness which we have not abstracted from other aspects of Buddhism, we are set up to give children the best start in schooling. There is a depth to our ethos in which we strive to honour the wellbeing of all, in service to our children. This in turn informs the culture and practices of our school to include, for example: outdoor ‘nature’ learning, songs with positive messages, mindfulness practices of many sorts, the Building Learning Power framework, a compassionate approach to behaviour, small class sizes, attentive staff and, crucially, an understanding that play is really independent learning by another name!

To return to the beginning, I trust my own ‘gut feelings’ and have confidence, as the headteacher, that what we offer is the best primary school experience. Leading it is a beautiful and nourishing privilege.