Friday, October 16, 2009

Cultivating Our Inner Capacity for Compassion

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to attend The Mind and Life Institute’s, “Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century,” conference with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in Washington D.C. It was two full days of mind-expansion and personal conviction. There were many highlights, but for me, the following three points emerged to the fore-front.

1. I love the Dalai Lama! His Holiness (HH), as everyone called him, possesses a unique combination of qualities that makes him immediately endeared to your heart. A “humble monk” is how he often describes himself, as if his opinion should not matter any more than the next person’s. And yet, the level of humility he embodies engenders extraordinary respect by all those around him, including highly influential Ph.Ds. Humility, combined with extreme compassion, gives him a joyful innocence that demands that you smile when he smiles and laugh out loud when he does. He has a way of bringing out the joyful child in all those around him.

His innocence and humility may create a deep level of rapport with his audience, but it is his words that challenge your mind, heart and life. His theme is compassion but should you think that this is some esoteric, feel-good message, think again. He quantifies it in ways that challenge you to think differently and live a better life.

Specifically, His Holiness described two levels of compassion; the first of which is a natural tendency to love and appreciate your family and friends - those that give you life and nurture you in your life. For most people, loving those who love you is natural and easy. But, HH explained that the second level of compassion is for those for which caring might not come as naturally. This level of compassion takes thought, understanding and practice. One must internalize the reality that all 6 billion of us, the inhabitants of the earth, are really one. In fact, the Dalai Lama mentioned this over and over again. “We are the Same,” “We are really One.” What we do affects all the rest of the world. He cited global climate change and the global economy crisis as particular examples of our interconnectivity. "We all want to be happy."

To really understand the reality of our connection to each other, we must continually practice and cultivate our compassionate minds, which in-turn helps determine our emotions. Since we were in the presence of prominent neuroscientists, multiple research outcomes were cited regarding how the mind learns, retains information and changes from early child-hood through to adult-hood. Notably, there appears to be specific time periods when the brain is more “plastic,” which allows it to grow and develop at accelerated rates, though overall the brain is more malleable than once thought. Finding ways to take advantage of those specific time periods, especially by teachers and parents, was discussed in detail and will, no doubt, be the foundational inquiry of multiple research projects to come. As for me, a non-scientist, I was stuck by the simplicity of the idea that we can learn, change and develop throughout our lives; that the brain is more pliable than scientists once thought and that we need to incorporate compassion into what we are learning during those periods and throughout our lives. The fact that we can learn and change was not something new, the fact that we should care more for each other is certainly not new,. But to combine these two concepts in a single conversation with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and multiple leading scientists and for them to propose that this combination will in quantifiable ways rescue our youth and potentially our future, was quite enlightening and is still sinking in.

Personally, I was challenged to “practice” compassion more. The word cultivation was used often, especially by His Holiness. As an avid gardener, I thought about how much work and continual evaluation of my efforts is required to bring to harvest the quantity and quality of fruit and vegetables I cherish. How many other endeavors do I cultivate with such thought and on-going effort? As an American, I have often fallen prey to our society’s addiction to fast and easy. If I cultivated compassion for all other human beings, all other life, with such consideration, reason and concentrated effort over time, would my life not be notably different? What if all of us did so?

2. Teaching children emotional self-regulation and compassion should be part of the curriculum and must begin very early in a child’s development. Therefore teachers must be part of the global strategy to cultivate compassion within the minds and hearts of our children. I purposefully have put the mind before the heart in this text because I believe, like the Dalai Lama, that we must mindfully and purposefully choose this line of thinking before it takes root in the heart. In other-words, it might not come naturally, but must be cultivated, with thought, purpose and practice. Our emotions will embody our habitual thought patterns. And our actions will personify those consistent emotions. This is why meditation and other contemplative or mindful-awareness practices are so very important. These practices illuminate our habitual thoughts, emotions and actions and give us the ability to control those habits and to reform them into new more healthy ones.

In that I was attending the conference in D.C. with Kinder Associates, the creators of Wellness Works in Schools, I was stuck by how clearly their work exemplified the discussions and conclusions coming from the stage. Wellness Works in Schools this year will visit 15 different classrooms weekly, in three separate Pennsylvania school districts, teaching emotional regulation, self awareness, balance, physical well-being and compassion. By utilizing multiple touch/teach-points - auditory (discussion), kinesthetic (movement) and visioning (guided relaxation and meditation), each child is offered admission into accelerated learning. Since Kinder Associates often works with urban children who regularly experience poverty and violence – their program can literally be life-saving, not only for the specific youths they touch but also the whole of their communities. Nowhere else is the failing of our educational methods so obvious and profound as it is when we take time to notice the dismal statistics of our inner-city youth. I was deeply impressed and moved when Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children's Defense Fund spoke at the conference. If we are all one, all 6 billion of us, then the fact that 1 in 3 African American males will end up in prison dooms all of us and says in no uncertain terms that we have a lot of cultivating to do. Wellness Works in Schools and its proven curriculum (or similar programs) should be in every school. Suburban school children may experience a different social environment but the need for emotional regulation and compassion still permeates their classrooms and homes. We must take advantage of early “plasticity” in the brain and avail the next generation of the tools needed to create peace and compassion in our society as a whole. Our future demands it.

3. Dr. Peter L. Benson stuck me so deeply that I was choked-up during most of his talk. This tall man, who like most red-heads, you couldn’t tell his age, spoke with such passion and conviction that I was both validated in my own work and inspired to continue. Dr. Benson introduced us to his term “Spark.” Which is a fun and “sticky” term for what others have called your dharma, unique ability, gift, destiny, or life’s purpose. Benson’s plan for awakening their spark, gives each child the power to fall in-love with their own lives and with all of life – to not only survive but to thrive. Benson exhorted teachers specifically to ask children about their “spark;” and to all of us generally to seek out and to learn what is our own personal “spark” or purpose in life.

I have long spoken of and written about the dramatic need we have as a society to learn early what we are here to do and to proceed with that purpose with all our hearts and souls. I, and it seems I am not alone, believe that in one generation alone, we could shift the direction of humanity toward a more peaceful and compassionate world - if we were to take this idea seriously. Not only should it be sought out in our classrooms, but it should be talked about in our living rooms and kitchens. Children should not be surprised, as Dr. Benson shared from his experiences, but should expect to be thinking about and exploring their spark. We should be cultivating a generation of unique sparks, throwing fuel to their flames and igniting a new generation of hope. It was pointed out, by His Holiness, that sometimes a child’s (or adult’s) spark might be negative. To which, Dr. Benson acknowledged and to which he determined we must develop tools to help guide those few (very few according to his research) back toward a more positive and rewarding direction.

I came away from those two days in Washington, D.C. with a renewed dedication to practice, practice, practice. But I am reminded that practice isn’t only a means to an end, but a way of life – an occupation, a custom. We need a custom of cultivating compassion. By practicing meditation, I have more choices – in thought, emotion and action. By practicing kindness, I find reward. By practicing compassion, I become a better person and I affect the whole of us. By practicing or living my Spark, I am more at peace, and am more fulfilled. I extend the invitation to practice, to cultivate with reason and purpose, compassion for yourself and for your fellow human beings, no matter their age, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, party affiliation, class, bank account balance, credit report rating, car driven, house lived in, food eaten, weight, height, health or disposition. All 6 billion of us are One.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau

Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century Esteemed Speakers:

• Tenzin Gyatso, the XIV Dalai Lama
• Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.
• Peter L. Benson, Ph.D.
• Martin Brokenleg, Ph.D.
• Ronald E. Dahl, M.D.
• Linda Darling-Hammond, Ed.D.
• Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D.
• Jacquelynne S. Eccles, Ph.D.
• Marian Wright Edelman, J.D.
• Nancy Eisenberg, Ph.D.
• R. Adam Engle, J.D., M.B.A.
• Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.
• Mark Greenberg, Ph.D.
• Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D.
• Takao Hensch, Ph.D.
• Anne Carolyn Klein / Rigzin Drolma, Ph.D.
• Linda Lantieri, M.A.
• Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D.
• Matthieu Ricard, Ph.D.
• Lee S. Shulman, Ph.D.
To order the complete and unabridged DVD of the conference:

Wellness Works in Schools™ was created and launched in 2001 by Kinder Associates. Its effectiveness is proven through nine years’ historical data as well as past (2008-2009) and present (2009-2010) research studies by Millersville University.,

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