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.

‘What we think, we become’ – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

In this blog, I want to touch upon the vast topic of ‘focus’; a huge subject and a worthy one for consideration, in terms of generating the motivation to develop the practice and in exploring ways of teaching it to children both in school and at home.

In all our literature – and as part of our recent winning submission for the ‘ISA Award for Excellence and Innovation in Pupils’ Mental Health and Wellbeing’ – we mention that we teach focus along with kindness, collaboration and awareness of our bodies, minds and each other.

Focus, or concentration, is the capacity to direct our attention and maintain it on an object or person at will.  Easy to say, but in practice, it is not so simple. The old adage, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’ applies here.

As a school, we have a clear aim to teach mindfulness in the context of our Buddhist ethos. Buddhism offers an expanded view of mindfulness which places it in an overall coherent vision of human life (the Dharma).

There are in fact three components to mindful awareness in Buddhism:

  1. Present moment attention
  2. Awareness of purpose
  3. Wise attention

People often hear about the first one, but not the other two.  The second one is paying attention or focusing ‘on purpose’. Mindfulness involves a conscious direction of our awareness. For example, knowing that you are eating is not the same as eating mindfully. With mindful eating, we are deliberately noticing the sensations of eating and our responses to those sensations. We also notice the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back: We are training and shaping our mind.

Here is a story about the third one, wise attention:

A wise old Chieftain was sitting with his granddaughter at the fire. In the dark, they were enjoying the play of the flames. After a long silence the old man said: “You know how I feel sometimes? It’s as if there were two wolves struggling in my heart. One of them is aggressive, vengeful and cruel. And the other is caring, gentle and affectionate.”

His granddaughter asked him, “Which of them will win the struggle for your heart?”
The Chieftan replied, “The one that I feed more.”

So how do you feed a wolf in your heart?  You give it your attention, you give it energy and you let it have its way. How do you starve a wolf? You ignore it, you see through its tricks but you don’t try and fight it (as that gives it energy).

Whichever wolf you feed – that’s who you will eventually become, according to the Buddha.  Soren Kierkegaard, existentialist philosopher of the 19th century, echoes this:
‘Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts’.

With wise or wholesome attention the overall effect on the mind is always positive, so you can tell if you are on the right track in terms of what you are focusing on and how you are doing this. Whenever you are upset or angry, it means that improper or unwise attention is involved. And of course, children do not necessarily know what is wise or not and therefore it is important to direct or advise them (and not always necessary to explain why).

It is important to be consistently gentle and appropriate with not only the subject of your attention, but with how you focus. If focus is a lens, skilful means is adjusting the focus from tight to wide, or back again, taking the whole picture of mind and body health into account. For example, trying really, really hard to focus is likely to lead to stress which, again, is counterproductive. If you are tired, stressed, hungry or feeling unwell, it is going to be difficult to focus; you are going to have a fight on your hands, and that, again, is not wise.

It is, however, essential that we do support our children in the development of focus, concentration and mindful awareness. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span — ‘the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted’ — was 12 seconds in 2008. Five years later, it was only eight seconds — one second less than that of a goldfish.

This is indeed a worrying trend and one that I return to frequently in these blogs. There are always conditions that we can do nothing about, but setting up habits of expecting fairly instant gratification from media, gaming and other technologies will work against the development of concentration as will a lack of physical activity. As some Buddhist teachers have frequently told me, perhaps experiment with some of these ideas and see what the results are.

Softening our responses – by our headteacher, Clare Eddison

Brighton and Hove City Council have been experimenting with adding on an extra week to the  October half-term holiday and taking it off the next summer break, thus half-term has come around very quickly! In planning for the term dates 2018/19 (which are now on our website) I have tried to mitigate the negative effects of this, by ensuring that we at the Dharma Primary School get a longer summer break.

Thank you to those of you who have returned the Parents’ Questionnaire – it feels very important to maintain a dialogue around parents’ experiences and what the school is hoping to achieve through its ethos. In many ways, this is represented by the learner and social profile of our pupils on leaving the school in year 6. In asking you as parents and carers for feedback, the aspiration is to remain open. We welcome your positive comments and reflections and take any suggestions for improvements seriously and constructively.

In some ways, this is Buddhist practice in action and an approach worth modelling to children, albeit in a softer way.

Taking that into relating to external stimuli – be that having a conversation with another, seeing a visual image, hearing something and so on – I have been noticing my somewhat predictable responses and wondering how I might go about changing them. I either tend to draw closer to the stimulus or want to push it away. Always responding to a certain person or stimulus in the same way becomes a habit and, as I get older, I see that these habits become increasingly ossified and difficult to change.

I want to change some of my habitual responses; I find them rather dull and not who I want to be. I don’t want to get more entrenched in my viewpoints as I get older and I am noticing that this could happen! A way to change this is to notice how much tension is locked into this way of thinking; I ‘should’ be someone else, do something else;  I am ‘bad’ or overly ‘good’ when I react in a certain way and so on. I am anxious, tight and worried.

A possible way through is given from Buddhist practice; one can become interested in sensing where the tension is, in the moment and what it feels like. Even with the uncomfortableness that comes with it, if I can give it my kind attention, gradually it will soften, open and transform. The tightness and clinging can loosen. Although the thoughts might be taking me into the future, staying with the tension in the present moment will transform and change the future.

Here at school, we facilitate the seeds of this approach as we do various forms of mindful movement, dance and yoga, all ways of connecting with and meeting the body. In terms of tension in the mind, we skilfully introduce meditation and mindfulness in age appropriate ways.

As to responding skilfully to things we might shy away from, as parents and educators, modelling is the way forward. We can’t help our initial reactions, but we can remember to give space and attention to the tension produced and go forward in that way.