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.

‘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.

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.