Finding Balance & Space

There are four different spaces that make up the canvas of our lives:

  • personal, when we are alone;
  • interpersonal when we are in relationship with another;
  • community when we are part of a group with a shared purpose;
  • spiritual which can exist within each of the other three spaces or all of them combined.

On the coldest day of the year, or so it felt to me, I ventured into the warm and beautiful Kadampa Meditation Center in New York City, a spiritual space and refuge for those of us who wish to explore Buddhism and meditation. As part of my ongoing commitment to the practice of conscientious engagement, my purpose is always twofold: to experience and to study the phenomena of that experience. This is in a nutshell the nature and nurture of my own consciousness, as well as the pathway I have chosen to better understand how to develop consciousness in the world.

Unlike my other posts, this one will be brief. I wanted to take a moment to quickly share what I learned on my visit, which included approximately forty minutes of guided meditation in a room with about fifteen participants.

The first thing that was revealed to me was just how important it is that we engage in all four spaces that make up our human experience if we are to experience wholeness and well-being—in other words, balance.

Second, this experience revealed the enormous impact of how we design our spaces, via architecture or process structures such as when we design a school building or even a learning experience divided into modules, protocols and time.

Each detail of a space (the external and the internal elements) communicates value of purpose. For example, if we work in a place where the only common area is the size of a cubicle, what does that say about how our company culture values interpersonal relationships? Similarly, if we omit access to one of the four spaces entirely (as we often do in education) then how are we to experience holism and well-being? An example of this is designing a school entirely centered on personalized learning at the expense of community building. Or, creating schools in which no space is allotted for teachers and students to explore philosophy, ethics, the nature of our existence or the spiritual dimensions of consciousness and its impact on cognition.

There was something very beautiful and uplifting about sitting in meditation with other human beings as compared to sitting alone in my living room. Not to mention the open, simplicity of the architecture of the space, the room was large and spacious, with crystal clear windows and natural light and we were not cramped on top of each other. The voice of the instructor was soothing sending energetic frequencies into the space, and I knew we also transmitted energy to one another in our meditation. The space transcended the space itself.

I need to do this, I thought. And more often. I also left wanting to share these insights with my education colleagues who spend so much time cramming teachers into tight spaces teaching from curriculum and instruction designs that lack careful attention to the mind-body-spirit balance and the three spaces we need to communicate a value for the whole person. All of this refers to education spaces that meet the needs of the whole child. No wonder we we struggle with innovating the public education!

As such, I decided this experience deserves greater exploration. Some of the questions I will be thinking about over the next week are:

  • Do all four spaces require an equal amount of time for well-being? Is this the same for each person, or does it vary?
  • What is the difference between experiencing spirit alone as compared to being in a group?
  • Are we optimizing our energy/learning/well-being when we engage in experiences that integrate all four spaces or domains?
  • How has modern day living and technology coopted our access to space and what has been the impact on our consciousness?

 

Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1]According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.

The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.

In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?

The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allowpeople of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?

There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?

Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.

At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.


[1]Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)

Raising Children to Believe or Not to Believe

I was at Ikea yesterday buying my daughter a desk. Upon our arrival, my husband and I looked at each other and frowned but quickly got into the Ikea “I’m-cute-even-though-I’m-cheap” mode we loved when we were just starting out. I suppose the initial frown was the reality that twenty years later we might have hoped to be shopping somewhere else, where the furniture is made of solid wood, for example or where we wouldn’t have to come home and put it together. I like Ikea, don’t get me wrong. I liked going there and enjoyed putting my daughter’s desk together with her and my husband even more. It was nice to close the windows on a hot and humid day, put on the AC and do something physical. In the evening, I hugged my daughter as we both stared at the desk and hutch and said, “How exciting is this, huh?” She smiled with happy sleepy eyes and I left her room satisfied. But there was a huge lump in my throat.

Let’s go back for a minute to Ikea so you can understand the lump in my throat.

We were in the ‘Work Stations’ section of the store where you can see all the furniture nicely put together and decorated in neat showcase rooms. The four of us had already spent at least thirty minutes going over the handful of desks and table tops. (We had in all fairness already looked at the one we wanted on line but wanted to be sure and save the delivery fee.) At the last minute, my daughter was considering an alternative style so I told her she could choose either one but should sit at the original desk one more time to be certain.

On the way to the desk, I saw a father and son eyeing the same unit. The son must have been sixteen or seventeen years old and at least six foot three. He was about a foot taller than his father. Both had on flip flops with white tube socks underneath. The son looked like an athlete, or in the very least, an athlete wanna-be. The boy’s hair was straight and slightly oily, his father had the same hair only thinner; the father’s stomach protruding over a similar pair of shorts. I could overhear the father telling his son the unit was perfect and what was wrong with it? The son examined what must have seemed to him a doll sized piece of furniture (that really, I wondered if it was even big enough for my five foot two seventy five pound daughter) while his father described it’s greatness. The son’s face remained straight as his father repeated himself over and over again.

To buy time and give them space, I let my daughter hop around from one unit to another excited about buying her desk for her first year in Junior High. We had given her a budget and had shopped for two weeks on line but after going over all the pros and cons of her small room and the ‘temporal’ nature of the purchase—we had settled on Ikea (she demonstrated just enough enthusiasm to placate any remorse in my mind about wanting to buy something better).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the towering young man with his aging father who five minutes later was still trying to convince his son that this small unit was just the right one. I have to tell you, I felt unexplainably tied to that moment as if we were strapped together by some imaginary umbilical cord.  My heart lunged. I was frozen with deep compassion for the moment, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling a broad spectrum of emotions.  As usual, I was probably staring. I wanted to go over there and take them by the hand and show them a bigger desk, one that was also affordable but was just a little further ahead in the showroom. But I couldn’t so I waited and watched to see what the son and father would do.

A few minutes later without saying a word and not changing the expressionless expression on his face, the son walked ahead and found a slightly bigger desk. The father followed behind and when the son pointed it out, he looked at the small tag that dangled on the side. Seeing that the price was about the same as the first, he nodded and starting talking again, the son listening, not saying a word. I knew the father was relieved that there was another option. I swallowed and stared, feeling a heave in my chest as they stood side by side and considered it together, the whole time, the son not changing the expressionless look on his face but standing right there with his Dad, considering. He knew his father wanted to buy him a desk he could afford and he’d make the best sales pitch around it. He knew he was being given a choice in the small window of ‘little to no choice’ but he would act as if he had all the choice in the world.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this father and son moment. In fact, I’m still reeling from the after effects of emotion and I don’t know why really. Perhaps it’s because it makes me examine my own feelings of grief and gratitude and humility. Examine my beliefs around parenting and poverty consciousness, about how to raise children to believe in the midst of scarcity. About what we do for our children (all parents, all children), about the masks we have to put on, about the games we play in order to pretend we’re moving ahead in spite of not having moved ahead very much at all.

I also can’t stop thinking about how that father couldn’t see the size of his son. I know that feeling– wanting your child to stay small forever so you can shelter them from the world. We have the instinct to protect them and we want them to believe the world is wonderful and exciting and abundant and, and, and, and…. I know what it’s like to want time to slow down long enough for me to catch up because as the adult you want your children to see the greater half of yourself, you want to show them how to move ahead, not stay the same and definitely not fall behind.

But there it is. The first day of school arrived like a clock whether you were ready for it or not. Supplies and desks must be purchased. How do we raise children to believe in abundance when we’re faced with scarcity? How do we act based on trust and in total faith in the silent partner of the universe?
I know that moment in the store where I connected with that family will resonate in my soul for a long time. I was reminded I am not alone. I am in the company of millions and millions of parents in the world. We are raising children at a very precarious time. We are one. We are the same. That father’s pain is my pain, his hopes and dreams for his son are my hopes and dreams. His son is my son. I want him to have a desk he can sit at so he can learn and grow into a thinking man.