Profession: Program Director at Mindful Schools
Location: Oakland, CA
Did you grow up as a Buddhist? Buddhism was embedded in my cultural experience from a very early age. I grew up around a lot of Buddhist “brats”—I went to high school in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury with many of the second-generation kids from the San Francisco Zen Center, and that was where I began my practice. When I was a teenager I had a really sensitive reactive system, and practice was the only thing that was allowing me to access any kind of grounded state. Without it, I think my life would have turned out much differently, and much worse.
After high school I went to New York, where I did a BA in Religion and Asian Studies at Columbia University. But I didn’t go forward in academia, probably because I wasn’t smart enough. [Laughs.] So I ended up on a much different track, working for NGOs. I worked for 10 years at organizations that provided legal and social services to torture survivors, and then for the Mind Body Awareness Project, which equips at-risk youth with mindfulness and life skills training, and now I’m a program director for Mindful Schools.
What are the goals of Mindful Schools? Most institutional environments in the United States today are nuts—the level of emotional dysregulation you see is enormous. You go through a mandated educational system for 18 years. How much of that time is spent learning about the inner life—how the mind and emotions function, how reactions come up, how you engage with challenging life situations? For most youth, the answer is: almost zero. These are aspects of your experience that were with you when you were born and are going to be with you long after you’ve forgotten everything that was taught in school. Yet there is no time during the day to give kids this owner’s manual for themselves.
So the goal of bringing mindfulness training into schools is to restore a kind of basic sanity, to use Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase. It’s to bring in this basic idea: there is a way that our body and mind works, especially in the midst of a really strong reaction, and there are ways of paying attention and other things you can do that will make it better.
I don’t think that mindfulness is a silver bullet that’s going to solve all the world’s problems. That’s ridiculous. But having short moments of basic self-regulation, basic free attention, and basic grounding is crucial, and there are so many things in youth education contexts that can’t be done without that in place first.
There are many people who think that mindfulness is a catchall answer for complex problems—socioeconomic, cultural-historical, psychosocial, you name it. Definitely. Let’s take a school example. Say you’re in an inner city public school, in an environment where a kid isn’t getting breakfast. This idea that I’m going to do some form of attention training that overcomes our lack of ability to provide basic needs for children is fantasy number one.
That’s the danger in this whole thing, because you don’t want mindfulness programs used as a way to get people in a dysfunctional environment to tolerate it better. Overall, I don’t see that happening in our program. Traditionally, mindfulness goes very well with inquiry; as you start paying attention to reality more closely, this leads to a natural questioning of how things are. So my experience of good mindfulness teaching is that it doesn’t teach that we should simply accept our conditions.
I think the “McMindfulness” critics would be happy to hear you say that. I know that there’s been all of this “McMindfulness” business happening lately, and people are asking, “Why are we teaching this stuff? It’s just going to be used by corporate CEOs and military snipers.” But man, you go into a public elementary school in Oakland, and you see the lack of resources and regulation and time, the pile of mandated programming that these educators have to sort through, and then you get some basic mindfulness training up in that joint, and you see a classroom of kids go silent for two minutes, and you feel what’s happening in the room—the cynicism goes away.
Where does your passion for this work come from? With kids and teenagers especially, there is this innate sensitivity that often translates in the world as a sense of “too-muchness.” It’s like they’re constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed. In some cases this can even be spiritual in nature—sensitivity and the development of wisdom definitely have a relationship. But in this culture kids aren’t given any way to manage it. And if you don’t give someone a view and methods to stabilize that sensitivity, they end up self-medicating the emotional pain. That’s definitely been my personal experience. At age 36, I’ve gotten to the point now where there is a natural keeping of the precepts: I go to bed early. I don’t use drugs. Life is pretty quiet. But in my younger years I tried all manner of self-medicating. So I can recognize it with kids immediately, the sense of it all being too much and then wanting to smoke a huge bowl. [Laughs.]
From a developmental point of view, you would think that for a 14-year-old, this is the exact wrong time to try to teach meditation. Hormones are firing. The attention is totally scattered. But it’s strange. Within all the confusion and craziness, there’s a weird opportunity, because there’s still a rawness of experience and a lot of honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. With adults, nobody really admits what’s going on. But with teenagers, they will tell you exactly how it is when it’s happening. And that is incredibly refreshing.
What’s your This Buddhist Life swan song? Okay, here’s my go-on-record statement. In the Buddhist world we sometimes have this point of view, inherited from the Indian Buddhist and non-Buddhist lineages, that the world is slowly going to shit. My response is “maybe.” You hear people declaring the transmission of Buddhism to the West to be a failure when, from any reasonable historical perspective, it has barely even begun. We’re just now dealing with the translation work while at the same time trying to make English “speak” contemplative practice, which is not one of its historical strengths. Personally, I’m optimistic—I think it’s going really well. And young people are going to assimilate the dharma in a different way than the baby boomers did. I have enormous faith in young people.
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