Contemplative practice in education

For the second time in the last four years I am embarking on an educational journey at St. Bonaventure University. Yesterday and today were my first classes at the Franciscan Institute. I’m taking a course called “Retrieving a Franciscan Philosophy for Social Engagement.” This class leapt out of the catalog in March and after two days I’m not surprised. Our professor, Keith Douglass Warner, OFM is an engaging friar who has put together lecture and readings that invite us to explore and retrieve an authentic Franciscan approach to social engagement. Dr. Warner is a scholar who comes from Santa Clara University in California.
Franciscan philosophy emphasizes praxis before abstraction and in this course already we have explored both contemporary and medieval models of that engagement. All of this has re-energized me with ideas about how this can help both educators and students in contemporary education.
In the past few months I’ve been reflecting on a reinvented self and a redirection of my life journey that respects and honors my own experience while at the same time reflects personal growth and an effort to bring innovative approaches to problems faced in our educational communities today.
Stress is at an all time high and it’s fracturing communities of all descriptions and especially educational ones. The old formulas and approaches aren’t working as they used to. Therefore a new approach that features principles of mindfulness, yoga and other healing practices are becoming increasingly relevant.
I wrote an essay four years ago which earned me the “Dean’s Scholarship” at St. Bonaventure University enroute to a masters degree in educational leadership. Now, I have a chance to bring that heart and theory into a practical application that unites and heals. Namaste.

Love your neighbor as yourself

The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:31

These are word easily read but not easily practiced for me. They are words whose point I missed for much of my life and to this day I have difficulty loving and caring for myself. I frequently put myself down. It is a false humility, a pride in reverse that invites me to think less of myself. Today I was having a field day judging myself harshly because something went wrong. We were reimaging computers, dozens of them, when suddenly I realized that we needed an older version of Internet Explorer installed. Immediately my gut began to churn, I stopped living in the present moment and instead began to recriminate myself and pity myself. Neither of these is healthy activities. When I engage in this mindless behavior I also violate the principle of ahimsa. For many years I have admired Mahatma Gandhi and the principle of ahimsa, but it was not until I began to practice yoga that I realized that “non-harming” applies to self too! Tonight following dinner and in the gathering twilight I began with a forward bend, downward dog, mountain and a couple lunges. I began to return to my breath and to love and care for myself as yoga teaches us. Once again I saw the union between this ancient practice and my prayer life. I lift my eyes and my arms toward heaven and touch the cosmos and feel the warm healing energy flow in my body and spirit. It is in these moments that I sense a connection with the cosmic Christ, the alpha and omega of the universe. God is love and he expects us to love each other and ourselves too. As C. S. Lewis says, “humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.” There is a divine paradox in that axiom.

Yoga for teachers

In the past year I’ve discovered that there are many teachers who are stressed about a variety of things. For many it involves high stakes testing and tying their evaluations to the results of those tests. For others its a combination of raising a family, higher fuel prices, uncertain futures, children in college and more. I’ve been taking yoga classes locally and one at Bikram Yoga in Tempe, Arizona when I was on vacation this past February. I’ve found in all of this a relaxation and stress relief that not only works but also invites others to respond the same way. There are some in our society who classify Yoga as a religion and some go so far as to insinuate sinister forces in operation at its core. Those assertions are not grounded in reality but they do keep some from seriously investigating this practice and applying it to their own lives.

My approach to this discourse has been Franciscan. I have let my activity, actions, reactions and other people’s reactions to me be the testimony of my practice. I’ve found other Franciscans who practice Yoga too. Of much greater importance is a natural method to deal with stress and improvement of one’s life and the lives we touch each day. Who among us doesn’t witness the reactions of our pupils to these incessant high stakes tests. Add to that the normal stresses of growth and maturation and you have a climate that invites bullying and other negative behavior.

This year I used some simple practices like mindful breathing to reverse these conditions with students. Each class period we began with six deep breaths. This mindful moment focused the children and calmed them too. It provided a natural break between the excitement of passing from class to class to the learning environment and it brought more oxygen into their blood which helped them to be more alert and focused too.

Each day prior to class I spent a few minutes in downward facing dog and forward bends along with mindful breathing to help me relax and prepare for my time with the students. I know that this was reflected in my teaching and my other interactions with them each day. Recent interactions with some of my peers invited me to consider how I could share my experience with other teachers and encourage them to consider yoga for themselves and their students too.

Evidence of Yoga being good for your brain

I read a piece on a blog tonight while eating dinner that featured recent research that indicates that yoga is good for your brain. The entire article is linked here.

“While practicing yoga, you are focused on your breath and mindfully aware of your postures,” said study author Neha Gothe, an exercise psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “These mental exercises seem to affect the way you think and focus outside of yoga practice. The practice also reduces anxiety and stress, and that in itself can lead to better cognitive performance.”

I’ve found that I am more relaxed as a result of my yoga practice. I probably am more alert too. Being more relaxed is conducive to learning. One of the practices I’ve learned in yoga is alternate nostril breathing. I’ve found this to be an effective way to focus, relax and unwind. I’ve done it while driving. I’ve done it before class too. I find that just a few minutes of yoga in the middle of the day give me the relaxation and focus I need to stay alert and engaged after lunch.


Breathing in and breathing out

It’s been eighteen months now since I began to follow my breath and it has lead me to peace and stillness. I first took a meditation class in 1976. It was Transcendental Meditation. There was a mantra and formal training. There was a cost too. I don’t remember what it was. I didn’t stay with it. Over the years that followed I read and practiced at various times but always I was filled with conflict. Was I doing it right? Is this it? Do I need a mantra? What about Om? What about Jesus or Abba? So what’s different now? I have up the debate and just accepted following my breath. I do it morning and night a d sometimes in the car. Sometimes I follow my breath before teaching a room full of anxious middle schoolers. One of my students asked me if I was a monk. A common thread amongst them all and with me too is that I’m relaxed and at peace and they sense that. I’m filled with energy too. One young man said each day as I shook his hand before class that my hand was warm and it was after a few minutes of forward bends and sun salutations. Even I am impressed with the relaxation and fitness. Yoga class begins in a few minutes and I’m glad to be here. It’s a weekly event that has come to be a good habit in my life. Namaste!

Altissimo Omnipotente Bon Signore

Altissimu, onnipotente bon Signore,
Tue so le laude, la gloria e l’honore et onne benedictione.
— St. Francis of Assisi

Translated from the original Umbrian dialect this is: Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. That was on my heart tonight as I drove away from home and toward my destination. It was a beautiful night for a drive. Temperature hovering at 81 F and low relative humidity. I reflected on the blessings of the day and of year and years. This has been a year of reflection. Yesterday my wife and I celebrated thirty years of marriage. Today it was another memory of an earlier time prior to meeting Diane that had my attention. I’ve been consciously trying to be more grateful. I’ve been following the suggestions of Positive Psychologists and making note of three things each day that have gone well. Originally I noted them here, but have taken to using the notepad app on my iPhone. In any event I am living more mindfully and that is a plus.  It’s easy in the hustle and bustle of everyday to live mindlessly and I do that, but in the past almost 18 months I’ve been living more mindfully and practicing yoga which I’ve found has increased my focus, relaxed me and complemented my contemplative life.

Yoga & mindfulness

Who doesn’t like warm weather? I long for these lovely sunny days we are experiencing right now. This morning I was able to head to work with no jacket. A tie, a shirt and slacks. What a great day! Add to that the sun was shining and that’s not a given here in Western New York. Much of our year is spent under overcast skies. I was relaxed thanks to a morning routine that includes yoga and meditation. It’s been 14 months since my first yoga class. Who would think that some asanas and mindful breathing could provide the relaxation they do. My thoughts too went to those souls in Oklahoma whose lives have been seriously changed and impacted by the recent horrific weather. Pray for Oklahoma!

Yoga in Schools — an alternative that is worth your consideration.

In the past five months I have incorporated a daily practice of mindfulness. Along with this I’ve incorporated Yoga and I’ve been reading everything I can about both topics. K-12 schools are in chaos around the country due to a number of reasons that include high stakes testing, teacher & principal evaluations and shrinking budgets. I recently read Tim Ryan’s, Mindful Nation along with several other books and dozens of websites. I’m recommending that you listen to this Blog Talk Radio Program on Yoga and mindfulness in schools.

Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools 03/13 by Yoga In My School | Blog Talk Radio.

When another makes you suffer

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh

Just what I needed to read today. Another did make me suffer at least for awhile and then reading this tonight put it in perspective. Like Thomas Merton I realize that Thich Nhat Hanh is my brother. This brilliant monk who is now in his 80’s is remarkably in tune and that’s because he is mindful. His whole life is devoted to mindfulness. I love to hear him talk and I have read many of his books. 

When another makes me suffer I’m inclined to want to retaliate rather than absorb the maltreatment. Though I am disciple of Jesus and Gandhi I am inclined not to “forgive them, Father.” Thank you to Shanti Generation for posting this onto my Facebook timeline. Namaste.

All creation is shouting for joy

Gosh, it’s been over 5 months since I last wrote! I’ve been busy. Had my first ever major surgery which scared the heck out of me. I made a mountain out of a molehill. I’m grateful to my surgeon who repaired an umbilical hernia. I’m good for another 100,000 miles now. While I was convalescing I read a book which challenged me to meditate at least three minutes twice a day. That challenge has borne great fruit as I’ve been meditating twice each day since January. My daughter suggested I take a Yoga class. I signed up for Hatha Yoga for men at Yogabetsy in nearby Olean, New York. the combination of yoga and mindfulness has been profoundly quieting and has lead me to read all that I can about how both yoga and mindfulness can help relieve our nation and world of stress.
I’ve even added a bell of mindfulness to my iPhone which chimes every fifteen minutes reminding me to “breathe.” It has invited conversation at my work place too and reduced overall stress. I just took a picture this morning which sums up how I feel today and it is inspired by the words of a song we frequently sing at Mt. Irenaeus. Namaste!

“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and all creation is shouting for joy! Come dance in the forest, come play in the fields. And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!”