‘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.

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.