Musings On A Reunion, Dreams, and Compassion

For too many students, schools are like factories, large institutions where they are inspected, tested and rated until they are passed on to other schools or employers where they are further tested and rated. But for others, at least many students from The Lehman Alternative Community School, school was a place where dreams were born, where the education of the capacity for imagination, for feeling that life was alive with possibilities, had a place along with the capacity to think critically. This insight was inspired by a graduate of LACS, John Lewis who, when still a student, created a mural of Peter Pan characters whose faces were those of students and staff from the school, youthful dreamers dreaming.


Two weeks ago, LACS had its 40th Anniversary Celebration reunion. I went to the reunion thinking about all the dreams that students had had for their lives, thinking even about my own dreams, and wondering how many saw their dreams realized or felt happy with their lives. How many would remember the school, and me, fondly and think we had prepared them well for the world? As soon as I opened the door to the beautiful guest house where the first event was held, I had my answer.


But first, think about dreams. There are so many different. even conflicting, ways we use the word ‘dream,’ some positive, some negative.  Start with night dreams. They arise out of a mystery, or they often feel like a mystery, and arise when we are most vulnerable. They can feel like an expression of what is most intimate to us, unknown not only to others but even to our own conscious awareness. So, we often push them away. Many of us remember few dreams even though we have four or five cycles of dreams (dependending on how long we sleep) each night. So we live our lives surrounded by a largely unknown territory of our own making.


Then there are day dreams. By daydreams we can mean those moments when we drift from the reality of now into flights of fantasy. Or we can mean imaginatively exploring possible courses of action or the meaning of what we think we truly desire. We can use the mind like a chalkboard or play movies of our own creation in order to explore scenarios of what might be. We set our mind free.


How well we use our capacity to dream depends on how much we are aware of what we’re doing. After a night-dream, we might think of our self as the hero or heroine. But that can be very deceiving. We perceive or experience each scene in a dream from either the perspective of a character in the dream, someone who looks like us, or from a “godlike” perspective looking down on it.  We can take this person who looks like us for the self, but I think that is a mistake. I think that each dream image is ambiguous, probably in several ways, but one way is that each element of the dream is yours. You are not just the central character or any one character but the whole scene. When you have the nightmare of being overwhelmed by a flood or wave, you are not just the being overwhelmed but the force of overwhelming.  When you are hugged by the love of your life, you are hugged by yourself. You need to take in the whole perspective as revealing something about your self, not just one element of it.


And this gets us to the reunion. The reunion lasted from Friday night to early Sunday evening. Saturday included an ASM, an All School Meeting, as part of a Symposium on Education. At our school, once a week the whole school meets to discuss some issue or proposal or to share an event together. So this was a poignant blast from the past for many graduates.


Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding father of the school and first principal, brought a proposal to the group. In our school handbook (we call it a footbook, to tell us where we are going) we define the school’s mission as creating global citizens, persons of character who strive to be caring, kind, sensitive to others, trustworthy, recognizing when there is bias, and such. Dr. Dave proposed that we add compassionate. Quoting the Dalai Lama, he defined compassion as “concern, affection, and warm-heartedness;… the essence of compassion is the desire to relieve the suffering of others.” To take action to relieve suffering. We ignore our own inner lives—and the inner lives of others—“at our own peril.” The motion passed overwhelmingly.


In her introduction to the ASM, Diane Carruthers, the present principal, quoted Septima Clark as saying that “education is freedom.” I’d add, to go along with Dr. Dave, that the recognition of interdependence is freedom. Compassion is freedom. A graduate, Megan Hanna, helped develop this connection. She said that compassion for others begins with compassion for oneself. We are too often miseducated into thinking that our welfare is opposed to that of others and so we often feel torn, bound, isolated. Like in a dream, recognizing that the whole dream situation and all the characters in it are you is liberating. Compassion is liberating as it wakes us up to how important other people, relationships, our surroundings and the quality of our experience are to us. It allows us to open up in inconceivable ways. We ignore this truth at our own peril and the peril of our planet.


Certainly, one of the tasks of childhood is to bounce against boundaries. We test out where we end so we can discover where we begin. We begin this homework assignment as children but our education in this subject continues throughout life. We start life with no notion that we, or our needs, end, but soon we start thinking of the skin as our boundary, that we end at our skin. But one of the main functions of skin is to feel the world. And certainly, as teenagers, we feel. What we think of as our end is thus a beginning. We realize our own capacities not as much by opposing what is “outside” the skin but by contacting it. Only then can we know it. Even to fight something, we need to first know it. Our end, the skin, and the “rest of the world,” or, in reality, our capacity to feel, is thus where we begin.


And this is what the reunion showed me. Leaving the school was an opportunity for graduates to learn the meaning of their dreams, which includes learning the meaning of their schooling and community. We are always embedded with others in a world, like a dream character is embedded in the whole of the dream. Students said, both in the ASM and in private conversations, that what LACS did for them was allow them to be themselves. It gave them the freedom to trust and thus discover themselves and to speak from that process of discovery. It did the same for me and for other staff members. We staff members knew we were doing something meaningful for others. We trusted (with some careful watchfulness) and tried our best to nurture others and in turn were, as much as we could be, nurtured. What we gave we received.


I came to the reunion hoping to hear that every student was a success and their dreams realized, but students made clear to me I had an outdated notion of success. Success is not really about worldly recognition. The mark of a successful life is how we live, and how much we feel we play an important role in other people’s lives and they play a role in ours. It is how we deal with our struggles and the world. This all ties in to the mirroring quality of compassion: how we live with ourselves is mirrored by how we live with others. We are all, as John Perkins said, dreaming the world together. And in recognizing that, I think most of our students are clearly a success, or they’re on the way to it.

Have You Noticed That You Are Getting Older?

If you look at your body and you’re over 70 or 60 or for some, 40 or earlier; all of us perceive aging differently and think of ourselves as “getting old” at a different age. And you see wrinkles and you feel aches and pains which before you never knew existed. And you wonder if you have some illness. You might have an illness. But the malady you’re experiencing, if you think of it that way, is aging. Is change. Is impermanence.


Aging is an illness only if you fear it. Only because you label or were taught to label wrinkles as something to fear, or pain or change as something to fear. But then, the fear is of fear itself. You fear your own sensations. You battle with your own body. And this can be awful. It makes any pain you experience feel worse.


You might have this idea of yourself. But the idea you like best is of a young woman or man. Our culture teaches that youth is beauty. So the aging self is seen as a younger self decaying, falling apart. So you never see your self as she or he is, now. You see only falling apart. And, truthfully, even that image that you had of yourself back when you felt young—that wasn’t very real, either. Do you think any image, any abstracted idea of a you, could encompass all that you are? You knew back then that your reality exceeded your idea of you, so even in your twenties or teens, you were nervous about your self and who she or he was. Even as a young person you suffered from thinking of change as something to be feared, and you labeled parts of your self beautiful or handsome and others as awful or not-to-be-perceived. You walked even then with a shadow.


So, what do you do? Understand this. Look back and perceive all the changes you have gone through and know that everything changes. If everything changes, even your fear and ideas can change. Notice what is deeper in you than your ideas. Your thoughts, that sensations of aging are symptoms of illness, are there primarily to reveal how you are thinking and how you are creating a sense of suffering. When you feel sensations of fear, when you start sweating and your stomach tenses and feels like the contents of a castanet played by some hyperactive child, these sensations are telling you about themselves, not you. They are saying: you are holding fear, but you are not fear. You can release it and put your attention elsewhere. Notice it. Greet what arises with as much openness as possible, then let it go. When you are open to whatever arises, this means you stop fighting your own life. You feel freer, more joyful. Is it easy to be open to change or to others? No. But noticing how this emotional process works is important.


And there is no way to age “correctly.” There is only doing it honestly, with kindness and the recognition that everyone—everyone, hopefully, goes through this. Look around you. We are all wrinkling.


When I was 66, after practicing Karate for 37 years or so, I felt that I was finally beginning to understand how to practice Kata—not that I could put this understanding into words very well. A Kata is a pre-arranged series of movements, each of which has meaning in terms of self-defense. Katas are at the heart of traditional martial arts practice, yet the part that I had the most difficulty doing well. Suddenly, there was good focus in my practice and a feeling of flow of movement. The judge who used to sit on my shoulder and make snide comments had, for the most part, disappeared. It was just the Kata. And I enjoyed doing it. There was pain, but it was just part of the practice. It is so wonderful to move in a way that accepts whatever shows up as just something new to perceive and greet. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, I love it.


And to do this in a class, with teenagers—to discuss aging, discuss how we look at our selves and our bodies—can be liberating. To discuss what we fear most means that even what we most fear can be faced directly. Now that is an education.



*Next week: Dreams and reunions.

Freedom Of Mind

In 1969, after being in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone for about four months, I was unsure if I was doing the right thing. I felt a personal sense of isolation. The culture was so different from what I had previously known. And I was only 22. I wasn’t sure that I knew enough to teach anything useful to my students. I took a trip one weekend to visit a colleague. There was no public transportation. To get anywhere, you hitchhiked or flagged down a lorry. I was at a crossroads and a man came to speak with me. After greeting each other, he asked where I was from. I told him. He asked how long I planned to be in Sierra Leone. I said that I wasn’t sure. I admitted that I felt like leaving. He said: “You can’t leave yet. You taught us how to eat with spoons. You can’t leave until you teach us how to make them.”


This story is very similar to a quote, of disputed origin, which is popular now but I didn’t know back then. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Instead of doing something for someone, teach him how to do it himself. The quote has also been interpreted in other ways, for example, as speaking about the value of teaching technological or employable skills. However, I think it is primarily about independence of mind. Knowing how to make the spoons you use frees you from dependence on other manufacturers. Knowing how to make your own choices frees you from mental dependence. It is mental freedom that is most important.


Learning a skill, like fixing cars or repairing computers or writing stories can be glorious. Career readiness is important. Many people think, as reflected in the Common Core, that the first priority of schools should be college and/or career readiness. However, without an equal concern with state of mind and social skills, this emphasis can teach students to focus in the wrong place, on some idea of the future instead of on what they are doing right now. Students can feel that being in school is not real living, and thus distance themselves from their own education and actions. If now isn’t real life, why care about consequences? And without the understanding that each moment is both real and important, students might feel that “real life” might never arrive. Learning is a moment-by-moment process, which is obstructed when the future, the imagined product, is valued over the process.


So, what exactly does freedom of mind mean to you? To me, it means having this broader perspective. ‘Freedom’ is the opposite of being controlled by someone else’s interests. It is the opposite of being restricted, stuck, bound or feeling lacking in some way, unless those bounds are mindfully self-imposed in order to accomplish some important goal, for example.  It means you think and act readily and fluidly. You rule yourself. To rule yourself, you need to know your own mind. To know your own mind you need to know how to think clearly and ask appropriate questions. It means understanding and being aware of your emotions and thoughts, so you know when your thinking and perception is distorted and how to let go of that distortion. It means that you can understand and thus better deal with the difficulties that arise in life. It means understanding how you create a sense of happiness and satisfaction. You can have all the academic and job skills most schools teach; yet, what does it matter if you never feel good about or satisfied with your life?


To rule yourself also means that you are free even from your idea of freedom. It’s not the idea that you want but what lies underneath it. An idea is not the same as nor as deep or complex as the reality it tries to describe. As I said in an earlier blog, your description of the taste of an orange is never as delicious as actually tasting an orange. The underlying reality is your ability to know, taste, change, and feel. It is the fact that you are never isolated from the world no matter how isolated you may feel.


Ruling yourself requires that you are attentive to how you influence others and they influence you. This requires empathy and the ability to hear other people’s viewpoints. So, when you find yourself holding so tightly to an idea or concept that your very identity or sense of security is dependent on it, focus instead on your awareness of what you are doing and with whom you are doing it. Realize that freedom of mind is the ability to perceive clearly and act fluidly, adaptively, in a harmonious relationship between your own mind and heart and that of others and the world.


When you combine the limited job situation in the U. S., the debt many college students accrue in order to get a diploma, and the habit of focusing on the future over the present, it is easy to understand why graduates can be filled with fear and anxiety once that future arrives. College graduates having difficulty finding a satisfying, well-paying job might easily feel something is lacking in them, their options greatly limited, or their lives held hostage by debt, afraid to speak out and take chances. A life aimed mostly at an imagined future only teaches you to live an idea, not a reality, and so misses the point of education–to learn how to live a good life, contributing to the reduction of suffering in the world. When you understand your mind, you realize there is nothing lacking in you. Only an education that fosters this understanding of mind is truly an education in freedom. And this needs to be made a central focus of schools and the Common Core.



*The photo is from Maui.


Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, we can have free time once again.


Summer is a time of renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.


This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains. This is it.


When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. I also took classes every summer, in whatever interested me. I just wanted to feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. I wanted to take in what I could and let go of the rest. We all need this. So that even in winter, we know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.


We can notice and accept change. Summer is, after all, just a label. A season is a rhythm of nature. Rhythm is the pulse of change. So, feel that pulse and all the different rhythms of your life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle controlling core body temperature, pulse, blood sugar, motor control and such. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. What other biological rhythms do we have? Menstrual (infradian rhythm). Our blood has tides. Even cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.


Why all these cycles? Maybe they fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sunlight), time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.


One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High school students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. My old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, tried this and it worked well.


The metaphor of a dance is fitting. As T. S. Eliot put it—“…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” So, let’s allow ourselves to enjoy summer and dance with the rhythm nature has given us.