Sunday, April 12, 2015

Teaching Mindfulness Across Cultures (interview)


image courtesy Ronit Jinich
Ronit Jinich is the Educational Programs Advisor & Senior Facilitator for Mindfulness Without Borders, which offers educational programs in mindfulness-based social and emotional learning that help individuals to flourish socially, emotionally, academically and professionally. Since 2007, Mindfulness Without Borders has served more than 4,000 youth in 60+ schools and given professional development workshops to over 1,500 educators, in countries including Canada, the United States, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Israel, Jamaica, and Botswana.


How does your performing arts background influence your mindfulness teaching?

As we grow older, our ideas get set and we tend to think we have nothing new to learn. Mindfulness and the performing arts are both ways to tap into “beginner’s mind.” As Suzuki Roshi put it, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.”

We all see the world from our own particular lens. Mindfulness and the performing arts allow us to practice by dropping the lens and learning to see from a different perspective.

When you’re a performer, especially in dance, you learn to think sideways and upside down. You’re lying on the floor, or carrying someone, or someone’s carrying you. You hold a point of view and then drop it and go to the opposite side of the stage. 


When you practice mindfulness, you get very familiar with the particular ways in which you organize and codify the world; in other words you get intimate with your judgments about yourself, others, and the environment. In time and with practice, you realize that your point of view is just that; a point of view in a sea of other points of view. You can drop it and go to the other side of the stage to hold another point of view, only to drop it again! 

Also, I belief that at the heart of mindfulness, as at the heart of the arts, there’s a spirit of dissent. Art-makers, as well as mindfulness practitioners, have a little rebel inside them. The best kind of rebel, one who’s questioning the status quo while remaining part of and giving back to the community through their art. A bodhisattva.

Artists and mindfulness practitioners have deep questions about life. For those of us who teach, these questions often take the form of how to best nourish the next generation as they face the world.

The world is asking us and our students to not stop, to keep consuming, to keep moving, to keep the machine blindly going. At the heart of mindfulness practice is the desire to stop, to calm our bodies and to rest in the here and now so that we have a a chance to heal our personal, societal and environmental wounds.

To take the time to breathe consciously is already an act of defiance and creativity. When I’m with students, I often quote B.K.S Iyengar: ”We enter this world with our first inhale and we will leave it with our last exhale.“ Isn’t it interesting that we rarely pay attention to the breath? Doing so can be a radical act because it grants us the freedom to imagine life in a new way and not as a memory or a fantasy of the future.



image courtesy Mindfulness Without Borders

 
Is that spirit of rebellion why you like working with adolescents?


I love working with teenagers because they’re such incredible beings. They are rebels at heart. They have so many questions. What is this culture offering me and do I want to take it or not?

Teens are hungry for teachers willing to help them explore these questions from a place of honesty. What I mean here by honesty is vulnerability. Students are hungry to discover who their teachers are and the wisdom that their life experience has granted to them. However, most of our educational system is asking teachers not to be vulnerable, for teaching to be a transaction. “I asked you to do A, B, and C, and you did it, so now I can give you a grade.” Over time, we’ve forgotten about the human exchange.

I was observing one class where 80% of the kids were fidgety during the delivery of our Mindfulness Ambassador Council – where social-emotional learning is introduced to students through mindfulness based practices. When the teacher shared a personal story about her upbringing and her difficulties as a teenager, for a moment all the fidgeting ceased. In its stead, real curiosity emerged. I attribute this to the power of honesty and the courage of the teacher to drop the role and be vulnerable in front of her students.

When something meaningful is shared, attention and concentration happen spontaneously. When we teach mindfulness practices to our students, we are only helping them access and stay in that place of attentiveness and curiosity for longer – hopefully to the point where it becomes their nature.

Working with teens is a privilege if we’re willing to meet them where they’re at, listen deeply, and stay in the conversation with them all the way. 



image courtesy Mindfulness Without Borders


Mindfulness Without Borders provides training to people from very different cultures and backgrounds. Do you use the same activities, or do you make changes depending on the context? 

I live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. There are classrooms with ten different nationalities working together, but everybody connects to the basic teachings of mindfulness.

Theo Koffler started Mindfulness Without Borders in Uganda and Rwanda. When I was hired to teach youth in Canadian high schools, I asked her how we could use the same curriculum with these kids. How could they be similar to former child soldiers or survivors and perpetrators of genocide? She explained, “People struggle anywhere. These practices help people no matter the circumstances or the depth of the trauma.”

Of course, we do have to make adjustments depending on the context. One value we hold dear is to meet the needs on the ground. We have a curriculum available, but we’re always willing to drop our agenda and meet people where they’re at.

For example, we discovered that it was hard for public school teachers to implement our twelve-week curriculum, so we adapted it into an eight-week curriculum with more interactive activities, including arts and crafts, music, and movement.

At the moment, we’re in the midst of translating our curriculum into Spanish. I learned about mindfulness in English, when I moved from Mexico to Toronto twelve years ago. I’ve realized that I don’t have the exact language in my mother tongue to express these ideas. One particular challenge is to use terminology that doesn’t come across as either Buddhist or Catholic. 

Words carry baggage with them. Sometimes, when using words that seem to be connected to a different religious background, you run the risk of closing hearts, even before they have the chance to get curious. A real effort has been made at MWB to keep our curriculums and language as secular as possible. We want to make sure people don’t misunderstand and think that it could interfere with their faith.

Having said this – our biggest collaborator, the Toronto Catholic School District Board, has helped us create a version of our curriculum that draws points of connection between mindfulness and Catholicism – It has been one of the most rewarding experiences to witness the possibilities that lie in crosspollination and remaining open to other points of view. 


mindfulnesswithoutborders.org


Can mindfulness teaching be compatible with other religious teachings? Prior to joining Mindfulness Without Borders, you taught mindfulness at a Jewish school. Are there any Jewish traditions related to mindfulness?

As a young kid, I loved going to the synagogue. It’s an environment that seemed to be inviting me to concentrate, to be present. I felt part of a community in silence – think about it, there are very few places in our society where you can be in silence with others, alone and yet belonging.

I was reminded of my love for attending the synagogue while watching the faces of the students when in the midst of prayer, or the performance of a tradition – a mixture of excitement and solemnity was present, as if they knew that they were performing an ancient practice. Kids understand that they belong to something greater, perhaps because they haven’t entirely developed the sense of self, of separateness. They enjoy the quiet, the stillness and concentration, as well as ritual when it is presented to them with intention and honesty.

Really, any Jewish tradition, or any tradition for that matter, can be deeply connected to mindfulness. To be mindful is always to be mindful of something – you can do anything mindfully, it really depends on the way you’re relating to it.

If you think about it, there is a strong element of performance in ritual. The actions, movements and words of rituals have been rehearsed and performed in almost the same manner year after year for a very long time, and yet why is it that sometimes the ritual seams so alive that it can send shivers down our spine but other times seems completely devoid of energy? I think the answers lies in ‘the way we are relating to that which we are doing.’ Are we fully present?

Mary Oliver has this incredible sentence in one of her poems that reminds me of this: “This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” Are you paying attention?

My favorite Jewish holiday was Sukkot, when we construct a small dwelling to represent when the Jewish people were wandering around in the desert and had to construct a temporary home every night. That is deeply connected to mindfulness, that space of wondering, of not settling, of remaining in the unknown, remaining in the question, holding space for something other than the known to emerge.

The practice of mindfulness is also inviting us to stop and come back to our senses. During this same holiday, there are four elements or ‘Arba Minim.’ These are four kinds of spices and fruit that are blessed every day and appreciated for their scent, taste, texture, and shape. I rediscovered, through watching my students at the Montessori Jewish Day school, how becoming present can be done in various ways, one of them being through engaging with the senses of sight, taste, scent, and touch.


image courtesy Mindfulness Without Borders


What does "mindful teaching" mean to you? 

I’ve come to realize that I’m holding a precious life in my hands. Even in a short interaction, I have the opportunity to water the wholesome or the unwholesome seeds in the human being that is in front of me. As teachers, we have that much responsibility and that much potential, so naturally we need to sit down for a while to breathe.

We do this because this is our first responsibility—to come back home to our senses, to meet ourselves where we are, and recognize what is our capacity in any given moment. When we do so, more than modeling self-care for our students, we are modeling loving kindness, compassion and acceptance. We can’t teach our students how to practice self care if we don’t know how to do it ourselves, much as you can’t give someone a book that you don’t have.

Mindful teaching also means to identify the missing links in our particular educational settings and having the courage to name what’s missing and do something about it. Many teachers express feeling lonely in their quest for introducing mindfulness-based practices as well as social-emotional learning into their schools. I always like to encourage them by saying that there is no such thing as a small voice – Look around, the conversation is an ongoing one and we need all of us to make the changes we want to see happen.


Is it necessary for teachers to have a mindfulness practice before they start teaching it to their students?

My opinion has changed. I used to think teachers must have a very grounded practice first. But now I think we need to let people start where they are.

Some teachers begin each class by playing our three-minute TUZA breathing recording [see link below], followed by a prompt to encourage reflection. For example, the teacher asks “If you were a weather pattern today, what would it be?” If most of the students answer that they feel like gray clouds and rain, the teacher knows something’s going on for them that makes them feel sad. That could be a good entry point for someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with mindfulness-based social emotional learning.

That said, I’m concerned now that the word “mindful” is everywhere. Mindfulness is a way of being in the world that is grounded in practice, but the word’s being used without people necessarily understanding the meaning of it, and they can use it in a way that’s not accurate. If you keep telling kids, “Oh, you’re not being mindful,” it can be understood as scolding. They may see mindfulness as a form of self-criticism or judgment, and that could keep them from wanting to practice.

Also, teachers will be less effective when they’re just handed a workbook. They feel nervous about teaching something without having the background, and they don’t have the freedom to be creative. When teachers established their own practice, that grants them a lot of liberty in their teaching. They might use just one part of a curriculum or do the lessons in a different order, depending on the needs of their class. They might not even need a curriculum anymore because they will be introducing mindfulness practices and concepts as the opportunities arise; most importantly, they will be modeling and facilitating a mindful way of being through their own presence in the classroom.

We need to honor the good intentions of anyone who wants to teach mindfulness but also be very aware of the need to help them find the appropriate supports to develop their own practices. Building a culture of mindfulness throughout the system should be one of our intentions – In the meantime, having one other teacher to practice with and check in with periodically could be a great starting place. If we plant good seeds, it will generate curiosity in the teachers, and of their own volition they’ll start looking for more.


What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

Every morning I do from fifteen minutes to half an hour of conscious breathing, then I come back to the breath at different times of day, for example when I’m on public transportation.

It’s very important to me to belong to a community of practice, because even at our best, things happen that trigger us, and there are so many habitual patterns that are difficult to undo on our own. If I’m unaware of them, which is the case for most of us, I’ll be constantly transmitting them to my students and my loved ones. What I don’t transform in myself I transmit to the people around me. A community of practice, when at its best, will show you the places that you have been avoiding in your own practice.

We can come back to our community, again and again, and be nourished by the energy of those who have been practicing for many more years that we have. We benefit from their groundedness and experience and they benefit from our enthusiasm and questions.

If possible, I also go on retreat twice a year. I try to go someplace where ancient ritual is practiced. This way I can understand the Buddhist lineage and think about whether we’re doing a good job of secularizing it. What’s working? What’s missing?

These experiences in community fuel my personal practice. Realizing that other people have been able to transform themselves through this practice gives me faith that I can do it, too. That’s the reason I’m teaching and trying to spread the practices, especially to teachers and young people.

Outside of my work with MWB, I’ve started a community of practice called “The Living Room.” It’s called this because it happens in the living room of my home every last Wednesday of the month – it stared as an initiative geared to neighbors who had the desire to practice with others and out of my intention to share what I’ve learned through this practice with others.  


If you are curious about The Living Room community of practice, please contact Ronit at ronit.mindfulness@gmail.com.


You can listen to Ms. Jinich leading a three-minute “TUZA” breathing practice and a six-minute mindful listening practice at http://mindfulnesswithoutborders.org/media/

With permission from Mindfulness Without Borders, next week I’ll post the TUZA (Time to Breathe) transcript, and the following week I’ll post a “quiz” to identify which areas of mindfulness you or your students are already practicing regularly and which ones could use more attention.


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Related posts:

Advice for Mindfulness Teachers and Practitioners (interview) 


Mindfulness and Compassion in West Africa (interview)

Mindfulness for Teachers and Teens (interview)

Teaching Mindfulness, in Irish and English

Teaching Mindfulness to At-Risk Youth (interview)


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