Our blog features breaking program and event updates from each of our initiatives. This year, the Garrison Institute celebrates 10 years of bringing together leading contemplative teachers, great scientific minds, and people working in the field for positive social change.
Please join us in our work to build a more compassionate, resilient future.
As we welcome a new year, it is a great pleasure to introduce myself as the new Director of the CBR Project and update our supporters and alumni at an exciting moment in our history.
As you know, the CBR Project was designed to help aid workers in the field and at headquarters build up skills and practical tools that help them become more resilient to the stresses and strains of their important work.
What you may not know is that in Spring of 2015, the Board of the Garrison Institute approved a proposal to move the CBR Project into a new phase of growth. Based on overwhelming positive feedback from three years of delivering training programs attended by over 100 participants across three continents, the Board agreed that the Pilot Phase of the CBR Project had been a success. As a result, they unanimously approved expanding the program, hiring new leadership and moving into a new phase of growth and scale. The first step in that process was to bring me in from the aid industry as a full-time Director and to hire a Program Associate, Hadley Griffin. (For more on my professional history, click here.)
In this first communication with our growing community of supporters, I want to talk principally about three things:
• Why I couldn’t resist this job
• Results from 2015
• Plans for 2016 and our longer-term ambitions
My Story: Why I Am So Passionate About The CBR Project
I love London. It’s where I grew up and I loved the team I was working with at the Nike Foundation. I was relieved to finally be in touching distance of my friends and family after years working overseas. So when the CBR role came up, I told myself it wasn’t for me. Trouble was, I kept waking up at 2am, turning on the light, picking up a pen and writing things like, “Well I am not going to do the job, but whoever does it needs to think about the following five things…” After two weeks of interrupted sleep, I knew I had to apply and soon after, I had the great fortune of being offered the job and started looking for apartments in New York.
Aid workers who dedicate themselves to humanitarian work know the toll it can take, both mentally and physically. Isolation, distance from family, tough living conditions, insecurity and simple office politics can all create huge stress – and that is before we even consider the effects of witnessing and struggling to respond to the acute humanitarian needs of the populations we are there to serve.
Since 2005, I have been involved in the aid industry including eighteen months in an isolated area of central Democratic Republic of the Congo and over two years living in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Throughout that time, in tents, in huts, in bars and in white Land Cruisers bumping along terrible roads, I have heard friends use the catch-all term “burnout” to describe how they often feel. In recent years, a growing body of research about aid worker burnout has emerged providing us with hard data to support what everyone in the industry knew from watching an ever-increasing number of friends and colleagues breaking down, leaving missions, leaving aid organizations and eventually leaving the industry in frustration.
In November 2015, research commissioned by the Guardian newspaper revealed that 79% of aid workers surveyed stated they have experienced mental health issues. What’s more, over 50% had experienced or been diagnosed with anxiety; 44% had suffered with depression; and over 20% cited experiencing panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
I know for myself what it is to burn out. I know what it is to feel inexplicable anxiety, even while safely back home, to feel bouts of depression, to have a panic attack creep up on me in an open-plan office in London and not know how to explain it to friends and colleagues around me. Happily, I also know what it is to come out of those experiences feeling strong and understanding why it happened. For that happy evolution, I have the CBR Project to thank.
Sitting in a trusting environment in a quiet retreat setting during the CBR training in Ireland in 2014, I found myself with other aid workers and talking openly for the first time about what had happened to me after Congo and Haiti. We were guided by the faculty through discussions about the psychology and physiology of chronic stress, and about how normal it is to feel that you are losing empathy, or that you are feeling anxious, depressed and traumatized.
The CBR training for me was a beautiful, cathartic experience in the company of wonderful peers from across a range of aid agencies. Hearing other people's stories of burnout and recognizing elements of my own was a powerful thing in itself, but importantly, the course moved us beyond our war stories towards positive coping strategies and practical tools to bring back to the field.
It was after the CBR Project that I went to work for Nike Foundation in London and subsequently returned to working for the UN in Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes. Put simply, I benefitted enormously from the CBR Project and I want others in my industry to see the same benefits.
Results from 2015
Along with the decision to hire full-time staff, 2015 was an important year for the program for a number of other reasons. As the culmination of her huge contribution over the last few years, before leaving her role with the CBR Project in the summer of 2015, Teri Sivilli did a huge amount of work with the lead faculty to refine and codify the training curriculum into an invaluable resource. We are so thankful for all Teri brought to the program.
Also in 2015, we were fortunate to add some exciting new faculty, putting in motion the first steps of our plans to move to greater scale. Chia-Ti Chiu and Ola Witkowska join our existing faculty, which will continue to grow as we expand our training programs. Finally, the incoming team ran a four day training for 25 people in New York in November which you can read about here.
Plans for 2016 and Call to Action
As we look at the year ahead, the possibilities for the CBR Project are incredibly exciting. After a successful Pilot Phase over the past three years, the Board have been very clear in supporting an ambitious agenda to move the CBR Project to a new scale. The benefits of the training program are clear. Our plan now is to grow and to focus efforts in three ways:
1) Expand and deepen our relationships with progressive aid agencies who recognize their staff need more support;
2) Grow our voice as advocates for more focus on mental health and promote the transformative effects of the contemplative tools of mindful movement and meditation;
3) Fund our work by expanding our donor base to include more institutional donors as well as more support from individual giving.
As an industry, we can do so much better looking after the mental health of our people. We can and we must create a more resilient cohort of happier, healthier aid workers to continue their amazing work.
I feel incredibly privileged to be at the head of the CBR Project as we grow and do our part to contribute to the industry’s transformation. Here’s to an exciting journey ahead in 2016 and beyond.
In November at the Garrison Institute in New York, the CBR Project held its first training under the leadership of newly-arrived Project Director, Emmett Fitzgerald and Program Associate, Hadley Griffin. Participants responded overwhelmingly with positive feedback, characterizing the training unlike anything they had previously attended. One commented in the feedback process, “I left with a profound sense of connection, calm, and purpose … It was a transformative experience.”
The group attending this training raised the same issues of high stress, inadequate institutional support from aid agencies and a culture of silence around burnout.
For many participants, this training was the first opportunity in a professional setting to openly discuss the mental health consequences of experiences in the field. In aid agency offices across the world, stigma still surrounds the discussion of mental health issues, which can lead those suffering to associate anxiety with weakness, shame and inadequacy in the face of the inherent challenges of aid work. As one participant from a large international agency noted during discussion, “there is simply no room to stand and say ‘I’m overwhelmed and need a break’ during an emergency. And it’s always an emergency.”
A Personal Journey
Using his personal experience with the specific goal of creating an environment of trust and openness, Emmett opened the training by explaining his personal journey through burnout, anxiety, PTSD, writing for a year and, finally, coming to the CBR Project. This openness set a precedent and led to a remarkable amount of frank sharing from other participants. One participant commented in the anonymous feedback process, "Emmett’s story was powerful and touching, and brought an authentic vulnerability to the group space…I think Emmett and the team accomplished the most important thing: you created a positive, safe space, where people were able to connect."
The next step in building participants’ comfort levels with discussing their mental health came through the work of the psychologists Maximilien Zimmermann and Ola Witkowska who were able to show from medical research that aid workers’ emotional reactions to chronic and acute stress are not abnormal, but rather are normal physiological and psychological consequences of their work and their environment. Elements of what we call burnout are, Max emphasized, “a normal psychological reaction to an abnormal situation.”
Mindful Movement and Meditation
Having created a safe environment and normalized the way those present had been feeling about their work by discussing some of the common signs of burnout, participants were then guided through how the particular stress they are under can be effectively reduced through mindful movement and meditation.
Guided by professional yoga teacher Chia-Ti Chiu, participants were shown how the physical consequences of stress require a physical outlet to be released. Yoga and other forms of mindful movement are particularly helpful because they require limited space and, as we know, some of the most stressful situations for aid workers coincide with being in security situations which limit movement and therefore make normal exercise routines impossible.
Likewise, one of the great gifts of meditation is that it is always available to us, in spaces large and small, in long moments of quiet, or in short moments on an otherwise out of control day. Faculty member Hugh Byrne led the group in a variety of forms of meditation, introducing over half the group to meditation for the first time.
Both movement and meditation were deliberately used to punctuate the training at regular intervals, particularly after discussions of difficult events and hardship experienced by those present left the group feeling tense as they recalled anxiety from the past. This strategy of intervening at such moments proved successful, as one of the group commented, “Hugh led us through a meditation that completely transformed the room from tension to calm.”
Importantly, this training showed again the extent to which peer to peer support is critical to the program. One participant noted, “this was the first time in ages I’d felt so connected and understood and safe with a group of people I just met. It was such an unexpected and beautiful surprise.”
Another participant wrote, “CBR has literally changed my life, so you should be very proud of where you are and what you are doing. Your work has changed me in a way I was not expecting.”
Reflecting once the training was over, Emmett commented that “running the program for the first time was an intense but amazing experience. I can’t wait to bring the benefits of this program to more aid workers who need support so that they can continue to do their great work in the field.”
As recent research by The Guardian has shown, levels of anxiety, depression and PTSD are running at epidemic rates among aid workers who colloquially refer to crises of mental health as “burnout.” As the new Director of the CBR Project, Emmett will lead a new phase of growth, bringing to greater scale the existing successes of the CBR training program that helps aid workers to recognize signs and to combat burnout by learning tools including meditation and yoga.
Emmett began his career as a management consultant with Deloitte and has subsequently worked in the field of humanitarian response and development for over ten years. He began his international response work by spending eighteen months in DR Congo leading emergency health programs in seventy health centers and hospitals, and most recently was deployed to Nepal after the 2015 earthquakes.
From 2010 until early 2014, he was involved with the earthquake response in Haiti, first as the manager of a camp of 25,000 displaced people, then as a UN policy advisor to the Government of Haiti, and subsequently as an independent consultant to the World Bank.
In 2011, as part of a team of six people from across the UN working directly with the Government of Haiti, he directly managed the design, fundraising and implementation of a $70 million dollar program which has thus far rehoused more than 35,000 people. In parallel, he led a working group of cooperating agencies that together refined a program methodology and advocated for policies which have thus far helped to rehouse 120,000 people left homeless by the earthquake.
Emmett has also worked for the Gates Foundation in an advocacy role, and for the Nike Foundation, which addresses the needs of adolescent girls living in poverty, where he was part of the co-Investment team fundraising and creating programmatic partnerships with private and public sector organizations.
Emmett has an undergraduate degree in Theology from Oxford University and received a Fulbright scholarship to attend Columbia University where he earned a master's degree in international affairs. For fun, he spent a year writing a book, which involved living three months each in Ireland, London, France and San Francisco.
We’re delighted to announce that Chris Marblo is the Garrison Institute’s new Executive Director, effective November 2, 2015. He’s led diverse arts and educational organizations and spent over 30 years as a teacher and administrator with a longstanding interest in creative thinking and curricular innovation.
Prior to joining the Institute, Chris was president of the Arts Center in Troy, New York, an organization serving over 40,000 people a year with classes, exhibits, and programs in the arts and creativity. During his tenure, the Center added new programs, including a series on creative thinking, and markedly boosted class revenue and individual giving.
As Head of The Town School in New York City, he launched a new creative thinking program and “innovation lab,” and led an endowment campaign that raised $9.3 million. He also served as Head of The Kent School in Maryland, Head of Middle School at both the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia and The Albany Academy, in Albany, New York, and was a Klingenstein Visiting Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University in 2003.
“The board unanimously chose Chris as the right leader for our new, transformative decade,” said Garrison Institute board chair and founding president emeritus Diana Calthorpe Rose. “He’s a highly regarded executive with calm, insightful leadership skills and an impressive track record leading successful institutions. Those qualities, along with his lifelong interest in creativity, contemplation and spirituality, make him a wonderful fit for us.”
Chris has a self-designed degree in Literature and Human Thought from the College of St. Rose in Albany and a master’s degree in Humanities from New York University. He studied religion as part of both degrees, visiting monasteries in the US, France, Japan, and China. He describes contemplative and spirituality as “core passions,” and has a particular appreciation for the work of Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr. Chris also composes and releases ambient electronic music, which, he says, "in a real way, is part of my contemplative practice."
November 13, 2015
Garrison Institute’s “Insight + Impact” Benefit
583 Park Avenue, New York City
6:30pm – 10pm
The mission of the evening will be to continue to make the Garrison Institute’s innovative transformational programs available to a broader global community; support its growing number of scholarships to programs and retreats and advance the mission of the Institute in the next decade.
The event will honor Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, and a beloved, internationally known meditation teacher for more than thirty years and author of 9 books, including New York Times best-selling Real Happiness and Lovingkindness. Sharon leads retreats every year at Garrison Institute, including her very popular annual retreat with Sylvia Boorstein. It will also honor Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), who was selected as one of the 50 most influential rabbis by Newsweek magazine in 2007 and again in 2012. Her pioneering approach to Jewish spirituality is reflected in her multiple retreats at Garrison Institute including co-teaching with Sharon Salzberg and Norman Fischer. Her recently published book, Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit will serve as the foundation for an interfaith retreat at the Institute next spring.
There will be performances by Golden Globe Award winning composer Philip Glass, Grammy Award winning musician Shawn Colvin and cellist Zoë Keating.
We hope you will attend this joyful celebration of our gathered community, connecting friends old and new.
In her new work, HABEAS CORPUS (October 2-4 in the Park Avenue Armory’s Drill Hall), artist Laurie Anderson has partnered with former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed el Gharani to explore the story of his seven years of being interrogated and tortured at the prison camp. The work features an installation and performances, and fuses different elements of film, sculpture, music, and video.
Since all ex-detainees from Guantanamo Bay are currently barred from entering the United States, el Gharani will appear as part of this installation live from West Africa, beamed into the Armory drill hall via advanced streaming techniques and three-dimensional imaging. It will be the first real-time meeting between a former detainee and American audiences.
There will be installation viewing hours from 12 p.m. - 7p.m. and performances in the evenings by Laurie Anderson, Merrill Garbus, Shahzad Ismaily, and Omar Souleyman. During the daytime viewing hours, visitors are encouraged to use the drill hall as a place to meditate on time, identity, surveillance, and freedom. And, if visitors are so inclined, they are also welcome to use the space to actually practice meditation. “I think meditators are the people who will understand this best,” Anderson says.
You’re going to beam an image of el Gharani into the Armory’s Drill Hall?
Yes. He lives in West Africa now, so he’ll be sitting in a studio there, without moving, for three days. His image will be wrapped onto a very large statue of him, the size of the Lincoln Memorial. It will be like a living statue.
The Armory’s Drill Hall is a huge, cavernous space. What we’re trying to do is create a meditation space. My dream is that groups of people will come and meditate there. I think it’s a good way to express a kind of solidarity with el Gharani.
Why do you want meditators to come?
Meditators are well-suited for holding the complexity of a situation like Guantanamo and making up their own minds. And meditators practice looking into delusion and it’s delusional what we’re doing. The war is delusional. The endless War on Terror is delusional. What do you do in the face of chaos and fear? It’s a big question for meditators. Do you up the security or do you try to have a more open attitude?
As a Buddhist my response is always to try to do what my teacher Mingyur Rinpoche says, which is, “try to feel sad without being sad.”
What does he mean by that?
The world is filled with sadness and suffering. And if you try to push it away, you will be very unsuccessful. It will come and bite you. So you can try to accept and feel it without becoming it. I think meditators are extremely well equipped to understand el Gharani’s story.
Is his story going to be told there or is he just going to be sitting still while his image is projected onto a statue of himself?
Yes, he’s going to speak. He’s going to be taking breaks—because, as every meditator knows, it’s very hard to sit for that many hours. And during those breaks we’ll go to playback where he’ll be speaking about some of his experiences. In an adjoining room, there’ll also be a film of him talking. Initially this was going to be a silent witness project, but because he’s so articulate, I thought, “Whoa, he has to speak.”
If your primary goal is telling el Gharani’s story, why didn’t you simply write it down? Is the statue, space and music really necessary?
Sometimes a giant, blue painting will give me of the feeling of freedom in a more immediate way than a long essay about how to be free. As an artist, I believe in intuition and the senses. I'm afraid of rhetoric.
When you go into a big, giant, empty drill hall and you see something the size of the Lincoln Memorial that’s living and looking back at you in real time, that’s a very different confrontation than reading words on a page. And sometimes, because we’re so tapped into all of this information, we think we know stuff. But you forget to feel overwhelmed, you forget to experience things for yourself.
For me, the most inspiring teaching of the Buddha is: Don’t believe anybody, including the experts, even if they’re angels. Open your eyes and look for yourself.
For tickets to HABEAS CORPUS, visit www.armoryonpark.org.
Dr. Tish Jennings is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is an internationally recognized leader in the field of social and emotional learning with a specific emphasis on teacher stress and how it impacts the social and emotional context of the classroom and student learning. As Senior Director of the Initiative on Contemplative Teaching and Learning at the Garrison Institute, Dr. Jennings lead the faculty team that developed the Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE for Teachers), a mindfulness-based program for teachers designed to reduce stress and promote improvements in classroom climate and student academic and behavioral outcomes.
We caught up with Dr. Jennings at the recent CARE for Teachers Summer Retreat at the Garrison Institute.
We knew that the CARE program was good for teachers, but there is new data that suggests that it’s also good for the students in their classrooms. Tell us about that.
We have done two major studies, but most recently we have been working with 36 schools in New York City that are primarily located in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. In this study, what we were really interested in was: If you improve teachers’ well-being and mindfulness does that translate into a better classroom? Does the classroom function better? Is the teacher able to manage their classroom better? Is the teacher able to provide better emotional support to their students?
We coded the teachers’ classrooms using a standardized measure of classroom environment. And we showed that the teachers who were randomly assigned to the CARE program improved in the areas of emotional support and classroom organization compared to the control group.
This is a really revolutionary finding because nobody has ever been able to move the classroom in this way simply by focusing on the teachers’ well-being and mindfulness. So this is a really important proof of concept. We have involved 224 teachers and over 5,000 students in elementary programs in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. We are currently examining the student data to see if CARE has downstream effects on their behavior and learning.
Why do you think CARE for the teachers ends up helping the students?
One of the big findings that we see time and time again is that we are reducing what we’re calling “personal distress.” It’s a combination of depression, anxiety, burnout, and those variables of just general overall stress. We are seeing a significant reduction in that.
When you’re feeling distressed, it's very hard to provide emotional support for others. When your buttons are getting pushed and you don't have any skills for dealing with your own emotional experience, it’s easy to misinterpret student behavior, imagining that it’s intentional, and that increases that sense of distress. If a student is doing something you don't like, and you think that they’re doing it intentionally, to bother you, it heightens that emotional reactivity. It also interferes with your relationship with that student.
When teachers are able to regulate themselves in those contexts, they can respond better to students who are doing things that they don't want them to do, and that improves the classroom environment because students are more responsive and there’s less conflict between the students and the teacher. When that happens, the students are more engaged in learning, and they are more productive.
Do you advocate for mindfulness in the classrooms for students?
I think today it’s tricky to integrate mindfulness into the classroom for various reasons. One is that there is very limited time to do extra-curricular activities. However, one of the things I'm working on with my colleagues at the University of Virginia is a mindfulness-based health education program that would actually fit into the existing curriculum as a replacement for health and PE that meets the national standards for health and PE education.
So what we’ve done is we’ve looked at health education through the social-emotional learning lens, which involves self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and decision making. All of those elements of social-emotional learning are really great lenses to look at health in general. We include mindfulness, we include nutrition education and other practices, as a way of helping kids learn to regulate themselves not only emotionally but also physically. “Where’s my body in space? How do I balance myself? How do I notice the sensations of my body when I'm hungry or thirsty? And when I eat certain foods, how do I feel?”
There are a lot of other people doing mindfulness in other ways in schools, but I am very happy to be working on this particular project, because I feel it meets the schools’ needs more than any other project I've seen so far.
Interesting. What’s the project called?
The Compassionate Schools Project. It is the largest research study of a mindfulness-based program that’s ever been conducted. We’re going to be working with 50 schools in Louisville, Kentucky, to test this curriculum we’re developing in the elementary schools. This is particularly exciting in Louisville, Kentucky, because the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, is a leader in the Compassionate Cities Movement. The Compassionate Schools Project is part of his flagship Compassionate Initiative for his city, so we’re really exited to be a part of that.
Next year's CARE for Teachers Summer Retreat will take place at the Garrison Institute on August 1-5.
Jack Kornfield is one of the key teachers to introduce Buddhist mindfulness practice to the West. He holds a PhD in clinical psychology and is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock Meditation Center. He is the best-selling author of many books, including After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, and Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are.
Kornfield recently led a retreat at the Garrison Institute, where we spoke with him about bringing together personal growth and social transformation.
Tell us about the relationship between personal spiritual work and social justice work.
We live in a society that has divided things into separate spheres. We take care of our body at the gym, we do our work in our offices, and we take vacations at the beach. And then we do our spiritual activities in the church or a mosque or a temple and so forth. They’re all in separate places, and often characterized by an absence of the sacred.
This false division in our society plays out on the world stage through warfare, continuing racism, and environmental destruction. We’ve also separated our inner and outer lives. The outer developments that humans have now created so miraculously—nanotechnology, biotechnology, space technology, the worldwide internet—have to be matched by an inner development of heart and mind, and the understanding of interconnection. Without that, we create enormous suffering because we’ve divided our lives.
What’s true, however, is that it’s all of a piece. The sacred can’t be separated from the rest of life. So the whole notion that we’re going to separate spiritual work and social justice is a mistake.
Many activists and caregivers are often stressed out and experience burnout. What can they do to avoid burnout so that they can continue doing the work that they love?
It’s critical for them to have a contemplative practice or an inner way of regulating themselves. We have this mistaken notion in Western culture that compassion means caring for someone else. “Oh, that poor person there.” We feel compassionate for them because they’re suffering and we want to do something to alleviate that suffering.
However, if you look at the language of Buddhist compassion in its traditional Asian roots, the word compassion always includes one other person: yourself. And so the key question that an activist has to ask is: Am I being compassionate for myself? Otherwise, it falls into a kind of codependence or caretaking, which is unsustainable. And part of the beauty of contemplative life is that it connects us with something more vast.
What does it connect us to?
When we quiet our minds and open our hearts we sense that we’re part of a vast unfolding that’s timeless. This allows us to plant beautiful seeds, knowing full well that we may not be there to see the results. Our gift is to be able to plant a garden—whether it’s in our family or community, whether we’re raising a beautiful child, teaching in a school, planting a garden, creating a conscious business, or working on the frontlines for justice between nations.
We don’t get to choose how it comes out, but we get to set our intention and then act from our deepest and best values. To meditate allows us to connect with something that’s vast and timeless and then use that energy of connectedness to move through life in a way that serves ourselves and others.
When we use the word compassion, in one way it is a word that touches our heart deeply. We feel that it somehow takes our breath completely to think about it. On the other hand sometimes we use the word compassion so much that it begins to numb us. We lose the value and the meaning of the word, and instead of taking our breath away it becomes some kind of lukewarm water. I think that is our problem. The essence, the bottom line of Buddha’s teaching, boils down to two things: one is compassion, the other is wisdom.
Compassion is such a wonderful tool, such a wonderful way of not only improving ourselves, but also improving everybody. If it becomes lukewarm, it is not good. So we have to take care that it does not go that way. Buddhist teachings normally say the buddhadharma is what really makes one’s mind kind and useful. We say it is the best method to tame our wild, crazy mind. But when that best tool, that best way to tame our mind, becomes lukewarm, then it becomes difficult to make any progress. Judging from our way of thinking, when the word compassion becomes that way, it may be harmful for us, because compassion is the thing that lets us feel the pains, miseries and sufferings of people—mentally, emotionally, physically.
Compassion is something wonderful, but if that word is overused it becomes just a buzzword. That is what Allen Ginsberg told me once. I did not know what the meaning of buzzword was at that time. We were sitting on a stage. Something like 4,000 people were watching. I just sort of smiled a little bit and tried to get out of the situation, but the moment we were off the stage Allen said, "I do not think you heard what I said; I said, buzzword. I said, "Well, I heard the sound, but I do not know what it means." He said, "I thought so." So he gave me a long history about the origin of the word. He said it comes from Brooklyn, and this and that. He was very kind in that way.
At every opportunity Allen tried to explain to me each English word—what its equivalent is in Latin, what it means, and how it was picked up in English. When I regretted not having learnt more, it was too late. That is how life is. We all do that anyway. When the opportunity is there we cannot take it. When we finally realize it, it is too late. That is why, before I use the word compassion too much, I want you to know that it has to be heartfelt compassion. The ultimate unlimited unconditioned compassion and love is what Buddhists call bodhimind: the mind that seeks total enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
When I say bodhimind, I am referring to the mind that wants to be perfect. Bodhimind is unlimited, unconditioned compassion and love. Why do I say unconditioned? Because that mind does not raise the question, "What is in there for me?" That question comes out of our ego, our selfish thoughts, our self-interest. I am not saying we should ignore ourselves completely, but we shouldn’t give undue priority to self- interest. That is why compassion and love should not be conditioned in a way where you think, "If you do this for me, I will do that for you."
We have a lot of limits, but bodhimind should not be limited. It should be for all living beings. That is almost impossible, right? Yes, it is almost impossible. However, the capacity of our mind is such that we can make every impossible thing possible. The human mind is fantastic. There is no equivalent. This is not a modern statement: it is what Buddha showed us 2,600 years ago and is continuously showing. When we are able to use it, there is no limit to what our mind can achieve. If we have the know-how and the will to do it, then unlimited, unconditioned compassion is possible for our mind. It requires that we put effort in. All these meditations, all these practices are meant for this.
Please join us for a special retreat with Gelek Rimpoche on August 29 - September 4, 2015.
Learn more here.
Excerpt from The Four Mindfulnesses by Gelek Rimpoche, From Jewel Heart International’s Digital Dharma Archives
During the recent Mind & Life Summer Research Institute at the Garrison Institute, neuroscientist Richard Davidson presented on the neuroscience of fear and anxiety. He discussed new findings that suggest that mindfulness and other contemplative practices can make a great impact on the recovery from fearful stimuli. Before Davidson’s presentation, we spoke with him about his recent research.
Can you tell us a little about your work on resilience and the brain?
To paraphrase a famous bumper sticker, we all know that “stuff happens.” We all are subject to adversity. And one of the keys to resilience, if not the most important key, is the rapidity with which we recover from adversity. So we’re particularly interested in ways of measuring that ability to recover in the brain, by looking at specific neurocircuits.
From there we ask whether different kinds of meditation practices may actually modulate that very specific neural mechanism. I'm going to show some data in my presentation today, which is not yet published, which shows that particular forms of meditation may speed the recovery with which we respond to adverse events, and that that rapidity of recovery also predicts how we respond to pain. Also, it predicts certain negative emotional traits. When you recover more quickly, you are less anxious and less neurotic.
When you talk about the rapidity of recovery, what kind of timeframes are you talking about?
One of the cool things is that the timescale we measure is on the order of seconds. However, it turns out that that timescale predicts recovery on the order of minutes and hours. Later today I'll present data from another study where we look at the relation between time on the order of seconds in the MRI scanner, and we have participants use smartphones and we do experience sampling, where we’re looking at the time course of emotional changes in real life. And it turns out that the short timescale that we measure in the laboratory actually predicts the longer timescale that we measure.
Are you measuring recovery from major traumatic experiences—for example, the loss of a loved one—or minor traumatic experience like, “Oh, I spilled hot coffee on my lap”?
Well, in the lab, we can’t create a major traumatic experience, so we do use pain. We have found that how long-term meditation practitioners respond differently to physical pain is that they recover from that pain more quickly in specific neurocircuits. They actually show, in particular parts of the pain matrix, a greater response. So it’s not that their response is attenuated. However, it’s in the recovery period, after the pain goes off, that they come right back down to baseline. Whereas untrained people perseverate in their responses, almost as if they’re ruminating about how bad this is. That’s something that the long-term practitioners don't show at all.
Is there evidence that meditation helps with traumatic events from your deep past? Or are you only able to study recent trauma that occurs in the lab?
That’s a whole other question. I wouldn’t want to claim that the data we’re gathering on resilience, in terms of rapidity of recovery, is necessarily going to be relevant to early traumatic experience. We’ve been doing some work with post-traumatic stress disorder with returning veterans. That’s just really a different kettle of fish and requires different concepts.
What types of meditation are these long-term practitioners doing?
We’re mostly looking at mindfulness and compassion practices. And in terms of the specific measure of recovery from a negative emotional stimulus, mindfulness practice shows the strongest relationship. We also see some effects of compassion practice. And we have a third kind of practice, a concentration practice, that we’re always comparing.
Are there other contemplative practices that might be studied in the future?
Yes, there are many different kinds of practices that are designed for different kinds of people. I often tell people that the word meditation is kind of like the word sports—there are many different kinds of sports that can be performed. This is also true with meditation.
By Tish Jennings
“How’s it going?” I asked Susan, a second-grade teacher participating in the federally funded research project being conducted by the University of Virginia. Susan had completed the first session of the CARE for Teachers mindfulness-based teacher professional development program, and I had called her for a phone coaching session to see how she was doing as she practiced bringing a more mindful approach to her teaching.
“Wow!” she said, “I was amazed this week. Instead of raising my voice, I tried taking a deep breath and calming myself down. I can’t believe how well this worked. The kids actually began to calm down too.” For the past eight years since we developed CARE, we’ve heard similar stories of teachers successfully applying skills they learned in CARE to their interactions with their students.
With budget cuts and the increasing demands of high-stake testing, teachers’ stress is at an all time high. When you add growing numbers of students with emotion and behavior problems, you can see why teachers are having a rough time. A mindfulness-based approach may be exactly what we need to help us manage the emotional stress and to be better teachers. Research has shown that increased levels of mindfulness are associated with improvements in psychological functioning across many domains. Mindfulness enhances self-regulatory processes that buffer against psychological distress and promote general well being and compassion for self and others. Teaching is an extremely emotionally demanding profession, and mindfulness-based interventions can promote resilience and reduce the emotional exhaustion that precedes burnout. This may promote enjoyment of teaching that may help us maintain our commitment to the profession and our care and compassion for our students.
The CARE NYC federally funded study involving 224 teachers work in 38 schools in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan is showing that CARE not only improves teachers’ well being, but also improves teaching. Teachers reported that CARE improved their awareness and acceptance of emotional states while teaching. This helped reduce work stress and helped them respond, rather than react to challenging student behavior improving classroom climate. Many reported improvements in the relationships with their students, parents, and co-workers.
This summer we are presenting the 9th Annual CARE for Teachers Retreat at the Garrison Institute. Several past participants have called it “summer camp for teachers” because of how much fun it was. Teachers learn and practice a variety of mindfulness-based and compassion practices and learn how to apply them to their teaching through a variety of activities including reflection, discussion and role plays. Teachers learn important information about their emotions and the role they play in teaching and learning. There is plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Garrison Institute and to socialize with others.
Patricia (Tish) Jennings will be presenting CARE for Teachers at the Garrison Institute August 3-7. Tish led the team that developed the CARE program and is leading the CARE NYC study. She is an associate professor Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia where she teaches a mindfulness-based approach to classroom management in the elementary education program. She has over 22 years of experience as a classroom teacher and is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom, part of the Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education.
Journalist Daniel Goleman is the author of many books, including the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence and Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. His latest book, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, is another collaboration with His Holiness, in which Goleman outlines the Dalai Lama’s theory of change and his vision for the future.
What are the broad strokes of the future that the Dalai Lama is imagining?
In order to make a better world, the Dalai Lama encourages us to first manage our own destructive emotions better. That way we don't operate from anger or rage or frustration or fear, but rather we can be calmer and clearer, and therefore more skillful.
Then, he says, adopt a moral rudder of compassion—genuine concern for everyone—and then act. It’s not enough just to espouse compassion and to meditate on it. You have to act on it for it to be real. He outlines a number of ways each of us could act: in terms of honesty in the public sphere; cleaning up corruption and collusion; having a more humane economic system; helping those in need, but not just by charity, but, wherever possible helping them live better and take care of themselves with dignity; heal the earth. He says our earth is our only home, and our home is on fire, and we have to really analyze the links between human activity and the degradation of the systems that support life.
It helps, he says, to take a long view. When we take the long view we realize that, over the centuries, things are actually getting better. We need to keep this in mind as we act.
Yes, in the book you describe the Dalai Lama as a “futurist,” which I thought was an interesting description for an 80-year-old, Tibetan religious leader.
He just thinks over centuries, and he thinks far into the future. It really has expanded my sense of the future that I can have any impact on. He’s more and more interested, he told me, in reaching Millennials and younger generations. He’s less interested in spending time giving, say, Buddhist teachings to the same faces, the same older faces, and more and more interested in meeting with students wherever he goes. Because, he says, these are the people of the 21st century. These are the people in whose hands the future will be shaped. He thinks like a futurist, and he acts that way, too. His whole message is about what can happen in the centuries ahead.
So the first step in that big vision is working with our own destructive emotions. What are the primary strategies or methods that he recommends for doing this?
He doesn’t dictate how we should do this. In all parts of the vision, he only tells us what the goal is. But, like a good parent or a good boss, he doesn’t micromanage. He is not prescribing, for example, meditation. A Force For Good is not a Buddhist book or a Buddhist vision. This is a vision for all of humanity. And he says each of us can find our own methods. It might be psychotherapy for someone. It might be mindfulness for someone else. It might be a very positive, parenting kind of remedial relationship. It could be any number of things. But the metric for progress is how often we find ourselves in the grip of our most disturbing emotions, versus how well we manage them and can put them aside or recover from them.
Paul Ekman, the psychologist, once told me that the definition of maturity is widening the gap between impulse and action. And I think that’s another good measure.
Something we do at the Garrison Institute is explore the relationship between personal transformation and systems transformation. After your conversations with the Dalai Lama, what insights do you have on that?
Well, I think this is implicit in the Dalai Lama’s vision, because he starts at the personal level. He says, transform yourself so that you’re a better tool for transforming the system. His vision of compassion and action is very much the individual acting to change the system in surprisingly assertive ways. For example, when he talks about cleaning up the public sphere, he’s saying, we need to be transparent. Bringing transparency and accountability to business, to politics, to religion, to science. You could say sports, given the recent FIFA scandals. Otherwise, he says, these systems just are not fair. Some people are gaming other people, and we have to stop that. Corruption and collusion is like a cancer. And so he sees that operating at the systems level but from an inner space that is as clear and calm and energized and effective as we can be.
But what about all the ways in which systems make individual change really difficult? Is it even possible to always transcend the system in which you find yourself embedded?
I think our Dalai Lama is pretty much a pragmatist. He says, do whatever you can do, given your constraints and given your possibilities. You might be someone who can talk to other people, who can put a message out on social media, who can mobilize a smaller or a larger group in order to raise awareness by changing a policy or law. You might have access to someone in Congress, and you might be able to persuade them to change a law.
So although we might easily get discouraged, thinking, well, what difference does it make what I do? The growing importance of big data analytics, which looks at each one of us as an aggregate, makes whatever each one of us does quite important.
There’s also the point, for example, when it comes to sustainability, that if any one of us changes a habit over the rest of our lives, particularly when we’re young, for the better, for sustainability, it actually adds up to large, large numbers. So those are two dimensions in which an individual change, which you might dismiss as irrelevant, actually has big impact.
This post was originally published on the Mind & Life Institute blog.
Since 2004, one of the cornerstones of Mind and Life’s programming has been the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI), which was designed to support the growing field of contemplative studies. This unique event is a week-long conference that incorporates academic presentations, informal breakout groups, poster sessions, and periods of meditation, yoga, and tai chi each day, as well as a one-day silent retreat. The hybrid academic/retreat format offers opportunities for deep dialogue across disciplines, as well as inquiry through meditative practices, underscoring the challenges of honoring and learning from ￼first-person experience. One of the broad goals of contemplative studies is to create an integrated way of knowing by combining standard third-person methodologies from the sciences and humanities with first-person modes of introspection that have been developed by diverse contemplative and philosophical traditions. The MLSRI has been instrumental in supporting this community through shared knowledge, fostering relationships among participants, and also through our Varela Awards program, which funds contemplative research projects that often emerge from collaborations formed at the event.
The 12th annual MLSRI once again took place at the beautiful Garrison Institute in upstate New York, perched on the banks of the Hudson River, which year in and year out has provided a nurturing and generative container for attendees. Themed on Fear and Trust in Self and Society, presentations and discussions drew on research in both the sciences and the humanities, including neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, and contemplative studies. Plenary lectures ranged from an overview of attachment theory and its connection to Buddhist conceptions of “selflessness,” to an exploration of the role that social relationships play in neurophysiological threat processing, to examinations of fear and trust from Buddhist and contemplative Christian perspectives. In addition to these kinds of stimulating presentations, as well as the generative faculty-led breakout sessions that followed, we explored the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary dialogue through a panel discussion and small group work. Small groups also provided an opportunity to further cultivate the sense of community that naturally forms over the week.
This year, the MLSRI was infused with a new freshness, as the majority of attendees were joining us for the first time. We are heartened to see that word of this interdisciplinary approach is spreading, as students from both established and emerging labs, universities, and research centers across the world brought enthusiasm, new ideas, and an overall eagerness to be part of this work. Additionally, thepresentations and dynamic conversations that ensued seemed to herald a maturation of the discourse at large, as the overarching issue of “context” became an important thread interweaving many of the discussions. Historically, the brain—and by extension, the mind—has been treated as an isolated object of study explored only through third-person scientific and academic means (such as through neuroimaging research, or scholarly textual analysis). Stemming from the vision of Francisco Varela, one of Mind and Life’s founders, it has been a goal of this field to expand the investigation of the mind beyond the brain and into the body and environment by integrating diverse first, second, and third person perspectives. This movement has gained momentum thanks to the ongoing diligent work of our numerous individual and organizational partners, both near and far.
It is an honor to be able to support the field of contemplative studies through this program. We look forward to continuing the conversation at next year’s MLSRI, which will once again take place at the Garrison Institute (June 11-17, 2016).
Above: Karma Lekshe Tsomo gives a keynote speech at the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women.
By Teri Sivilli
June 23, 2015
The iPhone has failed me. It doesn't update the date and time on wireless networks, only on cellular. And so my phone was still on Tokyo time when I went to bed in Yogyakarta on the night of the solstice. Which means two things: it wasn't 1 am when I went to sleep last night, merely 11 pm, and it is now 5:30 am, not 7:30 am, and I am 90 minutes early for breakfast. But I am happy to see the soft shadow play of dawn.
I have come to Yogyakarta for the 14th Sakyadhita Conference on Buddhist Women to present a paper on the Garrison Institute's CBR Project. It has taken two days of mostly hassle-free travel from the U.S. to get here. I haven't attended this conference before, and this is the first time the Institute will be represented. The other U.S. participants know of the Institute, and I answer questions about programs and retreats during meals.
It's not just the mix of monastics and lay people that makes this conference unique, but also that it is not strictly academic and yet still adheres to a high level of rigor in the presentations. It's a delicate balance to strike, between process and outcome, inclusion and rigor. Oh, and that this is a conference about women, produced by women, attended mostly by women. In contrast to many similar events, almost every presenter and participant is female. The multiplicity of traditions is expressed most vividly in the robes of the nuns: Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Indonesian. A few men attend the conference, often accompanying their partners, and a few will present. They look adorable carrying the pandan bag that the conference provided: it's tied with a batik bow.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect, coming here. While I myself practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I work at the intersection of secularized practices and science in the United States. I am only one of a handful of presenters at this conference working in this area, rather than in Buddhist studies. As a group, we are educating the others about the spread of secularized meditation practices in the west. In return, I am taking a deep dive into Buddhist scholarship and the ways that the dharma is applied in a variety of settings, including health care, education and prisons, in countries where the Buddhist origin of the teachings is appreciated.
This is a gathering of scholars and practitioners, seeking to learn from each other. That women are struggling for full equality within Buddhist traditions is a given. There's no point in debating the reality of history. We're here celebrating the role of women in Buddhism.
Yesterday I sat with a professor from the U.S. who said she had avoided this event for many years, fearing it would be too "woo-woo." It's anything but "woo-woo." And in contrast to many conferences, where people tend to stick to the tribe they came with, people are genuinely interested in reaching out, being welcoming. No one sits alone for long.
The conference days are long: presentations begin at 9 am, and the bus back to my hotel won't leave until 8:30 pm. Thoughtfully, a rest area has been provided.
At the opening ceremonies, in the Governor's Residence, Karma Lekshe Tsomo noted that 1,000 people have gathered from 40 countries for the conference, representing all of the Buddhist traditions, working together in harmony. "Never in the world have we been more in need of the qualities of compassion and social justice, as intolerance, violence, and cruelty increase."
"All spiritual paths help us curb the darkness inside, and to cultivate the good," she continued. "No spiritual tradition does not inculcate goodness. When we adopt the form of spiritual practice without working for inner transformation, the essence is lost."
"When we have 1,000 women together, let the voice of sanity and compassion be heard. In this century, finally, the voice of women is being heard."
In her keynote address, she explored what we mean by compassion, what we mean by social justice, and how these two are related.
Buddhism defines compassion as the wish for others to be free from suffering, while love is the wish for other beings to be happy. The first step in generating compassion, clearly, is to be aware of the suffering of living being. This is the first connection to social justice: understanding that a great deal of the suffering in the world comes from the simple fact that we don't all have equal resources and opportunities. According to the UN, 60% of the work in the world is done by women, but they only hold 20% of the world's wealth, and 1% of its land.
Economic justice is an aspect of social justice. We will need just governments, just processes, and to have women's voices represented equally in governments.
Many Buddhists are compassionate and generous, but social justice isn't about giving rice to the poor. It's about changing the structures that keep people poor. No one knows exactly how many people in the world practice Buddhism; the estimate is 600 million, which means there are 300 million female Buddhists. That's a huge potential force for good.
Photo by Oliver Adam
Vidyamala Burch is the founder of Breathworks, an organization offering mindfulness and compassion-based approaches to living well with pain, stress, and illness. Living with a chronic back condition due to spinal injuries and partial paraplegia, Vidyamala knows how distressing it can be to live with ongoing pain. She also knows that it’s possible to manage pain, and to flourish while doing so.
Her most recent book is You Are Not Your Pain: Using Mindfulness to Relieve Pain, Reduce Stress, and Restore Well-Being—An Eight-Week Program. We recently spoke with Vidyamala about her personal path and Breathworks' programs during her recent retreat at the Garrison Institute.
What is your personal experience with chronic pain?
I was a very fit, healthy girl in New Zealand in the 60’s. It was a very outdoorsy culture. I was very athletic, but one day, when I was lifting someone out of the swimming pool during lifesaving practice, my back started to hurt.
It wasn’t a big dramatic collapse, but it was more an insidious onset of quite debilitating pain. So I had all the tests, and it turned out that I had a condition called spondylolisthesis, which is basically when you get a fracture within a vertebrae and then your spinal column moves forward on the one below. It’s actually quite common. About ten percent of the population has it and doesn't even know they’ve got it. But I had it quite severely.
The following year I had a fusion surgery when I was 17, which is young to have that kind of surgery because I hadn’t finished growing completely. So that’s been problematic. And then after that operation, my leg became paralyzed.
So then I had a further operation, and they removed the whole back of the vertebrae. So really by the time I was at the end of my 17th year, I was living with chronic pain. Then when I was 23, I was in a car accident. The guy who was driving went asleep at the wheel, crashed into a telegraph pole, and I crushed another vertebrae in the middle of my back.
I’m 55 now, so that’s 39 years that I’ve had chronic pain.
What kinds of methods for working with chronic pain were available to you in the 70s? How did you discover mindfulness?
My initial approach to my situation was frank denial. I just tried to pretend it wasn’t happening—and that’s very, very common. When something catastrophic happens, you think, “I’m just going to try and get on with life as normal.” I managed to keep that up for about ten years, and then I had a big crisis when I was 25 and I was in the hospital. I was in an intensive care ward—we don’t need to go into all the details—and I went to the edge of madness. The pain was really, really intense.
Then I had these two voices in my head, one voice was saying, “I can’t bare this. I’m going to go mad. I can’t get through ‘til the morning.” It was a dark night of the soul. But another voice was saying, “You have to make it through the night.” There was a back and forth between these voices. And then a third voice came in that said, “You don't have to get through ‘til the morning. You just have to live this moment. You just have to live this moment—and this one, and this one.”
It came from nowhere. I’d never read about Buddhism. I didn’t know about anything spiritual. But my experience radically changed. I went from being tortured to being relatively relaxed and confident. I can do this. I can live this moment.
It reminds me of the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment moment under the Bodhi tree.
I often say that that night was the axis upon which my life has turned, because it made me reframe everything. I started to think that life is all about living in the moment.
And up until that point, I’d not really even considered that I had a mind, let alone that my mind could be a tool to help me manage my circumstances. My circumstances were desperate. I had to give up my job at 25; I was disabled, and in loads of pain. It was horrible. I came out of the hospital knowing that I needed to take responsibility for myself. There wasn’t anyone out in the world who was going to make me better. It was down to me. I had a mind and my mind could be a tool; and I wanted to learn how to live in the present moment.
A very good social worker gave me loads of meditation cassette tapes. This was 1995 in New Zealand, and I didn’t know a single person who worked with their mind. Meditation was considered quite strange and weird. But I had this long period of rehabilitation during which I had the gift of time, and many, many people, they never get time to just lie on their back and contemplate the nature of their own mind. I had that opportunity for months on end, and I really learned how to think. I’d give myself a topic and think it through until the end.
That sounds sort of terrifying.
Yeah, it was really devastating because I’m an active person. But it was also thrilling that I was developing this relationship with my inner world and beginning to see my mind as a tool for transforming my life.
So there was this initial insight that you could have this moment to moment awareness as a way to deal with pain and a growing awareness of the richness of your inner life. How did that turn into the eight-week program that you outline in You Are Not Your Pain?
Well, in 1997, I had another big crisis with my back. I think it was just degeneration with age. I overdid it a bit. I ended up back in the hospital, and this is when my bowel became paralyzed, my bladder became paralyzed, and I started using a wheelchair more.
There was another dark night of the soul. I’d been meditating for ten years, and yet here I was again. I hadn’t seemed to really transform my relationship with my suffering. I was asking myself, “What is it that I’m missing?” And then I came across Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, and another book by Stephen Levine called Who Dies? What I learned from those two books is that you really need to turn towards your experience, even if it’s painful.
Up until then I’d been using my meditation in an escapist way. I was trying to use my mind and my heart to escape my situation and experience higher states. I think it’s a really common mistake, but I’d been basically perfecting escapism for a decade.
So when I came across this idea of turning towards your experience, I thought, “That is the missing link. I need to learn to do that.”
Additionally, I did a lot of reading around pain management and came across this idea of pacing, which is where you learn how to really manage your activities in daily life. So I did that, and I gradually rehabilitated myself again. Then in 2002, I went on a course with Jon Kabat-Zinn and I knew that that his approach was really important for me, the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But I couldn’t come to America—because I wasn’t well enough and didn't have the money—so I thought, “Well, I’ll have to develop my own program.”
What’s the essence of the program that you’ve developed?
Well, the essence, it’s very simple. Really it’s about being aware, being kind, noticing what’s happening, don’t push away the unpleasant sensations, don’t cling onto the pleasant sensations. Rest back and let everything arise and pass. And make choices about what you do with your mind.
Outside of that, the core essence in terms of the model is to divide one’s experience of pain into two components: primary and secondary suffering. In the case of back pain, the primary suffering is the unpleasant sensations in the body. The secondary suffering is what arises when we resist that. Mentally we get involved with the drama about the pain: the anxiety, fear, depression, and, of course, secondary physical tension.
People learn to accept their basic unpleasant sensations and reduce or overcome the secondary suffering that arises because we resist what is already here. And people get that. It’s very simple.
By Teri Sivilli
In a widely shared article in The Guardian on April 29, 2015, Secret Aid Worker (S.A.W.) wrote of fears that the work “is affecting the aspect of my personality that made me want to become an aid worker in the first place: my compassion.”
While not downplaying the personal benefits of a satisfying career, the anonymous writer nevertheless voiced a fear that is all too common in this sector, though rarely discussed openly, in my experience: that we cannot be constantly exposed to the suffering of others and remain unaffected by it.
In more than one hundred comments on the essay, readers – many of them aid workers themselves – discussed their own experiences of working in humanitarian settings, both similar to and different from S.A.W.’s experience.
Few touched on the topic that I think deserves deeper investigation: the interconnected relationships among suffering, empathy and compassion.
First, for transparency, you should know that I manage a training program designed to build resilience among aid workers through the use of contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga. From that perspective, I’d like to offer a framework for understanding S.A.W.’s experiences that may be helpful for him/her, and for others.
S.A.W. talks about being desensitized to pain and suffering, and also notes that “You obviously cannot do your job if you just break down and cry all the time.” Very true. But what we’re learning now is there’s a middle way between those two responses.
Aid workers responding to short- or long-term humanitarian emergencies will experience some degree of stress. How much depends on the situation and their own coping resources.
From the essay, S.A.W. sounds like an empathic and self-reflective person. Emotions such as empathy are part of our make-up as humans; they connect us with others and provide valuable information about the world around us. The ability to recognize nuances in our emotions, and to name them correctly, empowers us to respond to the world appropriately.
As humans, we have the ability to mirror the emotions of others. This can give rise to true empathy, an ability to feel the distress of another person. But it can also lead to emotional contagion, in which we experience the suffering of another – both physiologically and psychologically – as if it were happening to us. This experience can lead us to become overwhelmed by the suffering of others.
I can only speculate here, because I don’t know S.A.W. But I wonder if, after many years of field work, this person has become worn down and overwhelmed, and if his or her natural and important empathy has turned to empathic distress. Distancing ourselves from suffering, as S.A.W. reports doing, is a natural response to empathic distress: overwhelmed by the pain of others, we want (and need) to protect ourselves.
For that reason, what is often called “compassion fatigue” is more rightly named “empathy fatigue.” Ironically, compassion is the solution, not the problem. Compassion is the wish for others to be free from their suffering, combined with the motivation to do what we can to relieve that suffering. Compassion must be enacted with wisdom, which gives us the discernment to understand and accept our own abilities and limitations in any situation.
Inherent to compassion is a move towards suffering, rather than away from it. You see, we can’t selectively shut out some emotions and remain open to others. When we shut down and cut off our ability to feel suffering, in an attempt to protect ourselves from feeling too much pain, we also diminish our ability to feel joy and happiness, and rob ourselves of connection to others.
While working in the field decades ago, one of our CBR training graduates had witnessed a horrific massacre. In an attempt to wall off the memory and cope with the trauma, he had become both physically and emotionally rigid. Ultimately, he was unable to continue working in the field and transferred to headquarters.
At the training, within the safe space created by the faculty, touched by the lovingkindness practices, this aid worker was able to release the deep grief he had carried these many years. With the pain came ease, and the first shaky steps towards genuine connection to others, along with greater trust in his abilities to handle the range of his emotional experiences. When we build and enhance our inherent compassion, we open our hearts to all of our experience, all of our shared humanity. It becomes possible for us to transform suffering, rather than be depleted by it.
In the CBR program, we emphasize compassion training for aid workers not just to help them cope with the inherent stress of their work, but also because it can improve their own health, well-being and happiness.
No one benefits when the sector loses an experienced, skilled person like S.A.W. for preventable reasons. The CBR faculty, many of them aid workers themselves, teach how to manage the challenges of aid work in a healthier and more constructive way. Aid workers who work effectively within their organizations and contribute their expertise working alongside those who confront tragedy in this world should not be defeated by burnout, overwhelm and exhaustion. They can learn how to cope with suffering, avoid burnout and thrive in their work.
The next CBR Training will be held August 3 – 7 at the Garrison Institute, in New York State, USA. I hope that S.A.W., and any readers who want to reconnect to the compassion that inspired their career, will join us.
Teri Sivilli is the program manager for the Garrison Institute’s CBR Project. After observing the persistent effects of the conflicts in Kosovo and Sri Lanka on the mental health of national staff and the affected populations, she became interested in the potential for contemplative-based interventions to heal chronic stress and trauma.
Last week, during “Mindful Lawyering: A Meditation Retreat for Law Professionals and Students” at the Garrison Institute, we caught up with retreat leader, poet, and Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer. Earlier this week, Fischer participated in our event “Mindfulness and the Art of Aging,” as part of the “Garrison Talks at the JCC” series in Manhattan.
We spoke about mindfulness, Zen, and the relationship between personal and systems change.
This week it’s mindfulness for lawyers, next week it’s mindfulness for aging. What is it about mindfulness as a practice or idea that allows it to be useful in so many different contexts?
To be perfectly honest with you, I think the word is overused. For me, it’s not so much the mindfulness of being a lawyer or aging, but rather: Can you look more deeply and clearly at what you’re doing?
Can you do it in a way that is more thoughtful, more inclusive, and more interesting in the end? I do find that when you practice meditation—and when meditation is part of your way of accessing your experience—it gives you a different point of view.
Zen is often described as a goalless practice. Are there meaningful differences between practicing meditation with or without a goal?
Fundamentally, I think it’s the same, but semantic and stylistic differences can matter a lot. In part, I think, it’s more a matter of skillfully asking: Who’s the person who’s practicing this? And if I explain it to them this way, what will happen? If I explain it to them that way, what will happen? Sometimes a difference in semantics can make an enormous difference in the way a person practices or understands their practice.
You’ve been doing these retreats for a few years now. If I had to guess, I’d guess that lawyers are more likely to fall into the “goal” camp. Am I right?
Well, every lawyer is different. But, in general, yes. Legal education does train lawyers to master a set of techniques, skills and ideas. There is a strong element of performance in professional education in general. So, lawyers will be trained to look at something as a problem to be solved, and they’ll apply their analytical capacities to solve that problem.
But I think probably lawyers who are drawn to a retreat like this, see limitations in that perspective. There are advantages in it, clearly, and it’s not something that you need to abandon completely. You need that for your work. But if lawyers reflect on what they’re doing, they realize that there are other, softer skills that are really important. For example, emotional stability subtlety, steadfastness are really important for lawyers, because every legal issue involves interactions with people. Even if it’s one corporation suing another corporation, there are people involved. Your ability to understand where people are coming from and connect with people, is really important.
And then, as a lawyer, you have an emotional life. Sometimes the things that happen in legal matters cause the emotions to go reeling. There could be a great deal of stress or pressure, and it’s important to know how to manage that. I think lawyers recognize that beyond knowing the law, there are other, softer skills that are fundamental to be effective and sustaining a life as a lawyer.
I agree that these soft skills, such as emotional stability, are important. But at what point do you start to ask about the causes of the stress in the first place? Are there aspects of being a lawyer that are stressful because of the way the profession is set up? How does personal work tie into systems change?
We’ve always had aspirations to change the legal education system, to ensure these skills were taught in law schools, which they aren’t now. They barely even exist in law schools. Because of our work and this movement, some law schools are starting to teach these skills. We hope it continues.
But, for me, certainly in our legal work and other kinds of mindfulness work that I do, it’s really a both/and. We have to sustain this work. We have to take care of ourselves. We can’t burn ourselves out and do ourselves in. But, at the same time, you’re right, it’s not just about just taking care of ourselves. Taking care of ourselves is not enough. We really have to figure out how to make the world a better place.
And, for lawyers, let’s make the law a better place. Law is important. Let’s make better laws. Let’s make law schools better. Let’s make the profession better. Let’s change the ethos of the profession.
What does a both/and approach to personal and social change look like?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How does change happen? When change happens in a way that isn’t organic—in a violent way, in a forceful way, in a disrespectful way—history shows that there is almost always backlash. So you end up having this euphoria for five minutes, and then whatever it was you opposed or defeated comes back. Except this time, it’s even stronger because of all the residual resentment that has been built up because it was just defeated.
That’s what happened in the ‘60s, in my view. We were very successful in the ‘60s in doing all kinds of things, but we’ve been paying for it ever since.
Well, because the right-wing movements felt left out in the ‘60s and were disrespected and unseen, when they had their opportunity, they reasserted themselves even more strongly. So the question is: How do you effect social change in such a way that you bring people along sufficiently and you minimize backlash? Or you marginalize backlash; you don't empower it.
How can you do that—especially if you truly believe that the other perspective, say the right-wing movements, is dangerous?
Well, you include the perspective. You don't act on it. You don't set a policy based on that perspective. But you bring the person to the table and you have a conversation that’s large enough to include that point of view.
I'm not suggesting that that’s the answer to everything, but when you bring a contemplative perspective to social change, you might come up with a different road map than one that’s only political. A political perspective only sees power. I think that leaves out a great deal of what’s important. A religious or spiritual perspective is much deeper and more holistic. It includes more and brings a different kind of emotional balance and understanding to social change.
We’re thrilled and honored to let you know that The Huffington Post is shining a spotlight on our work this month as part of their 10th anniversary.
The Huffington Post Next Ten campaign will help incredible causes that will shape the next decade. The Garrison Institute has been selected for “bringing mindfulness and meditation to the masses.” By tapping the power of contemplation, you can become a force for social change.
What is the Next Ten Campaign?
The Next Ten campaign celebrates the 10th year anniversary of The Huffington Post. To commemorate the anniversary, they are turning their focus toward the next 10 years, and looking at 10 areas they feel will be important in the next decade. In each of those areas, the Huffington Post has selected nonprofits that they believe are making real impact.
How can I help?
It would be very helpful if you could like and share the Garrison Institute’s posts on Facebook, share blog posts, or become a fundraiser through CrowdRise. By sharing and liking our posts you’re helping ensure that more people see them, and this will help tremendously.
If you have friends that might be willing to donate, you may want to become a fundraiser for the campaign. In order to be a fundraiser, you can set up a profile on our CrowdRise page and direct your friends, family, and network to it. Any gift amount is helpful, and appreciated!
To sweeten the deal, if you become a fundraiser and your team raises $1,000 or more we’ll welcome you as a guest for a personal retreat at the Garrison Institute!
Where can I do this?
You can find our Next Ten presence at the following:
Follow and use the hashtag #TheNextTen
"In the Spirit" recently interviewed Garrison Institute Executive Director, Robyn Brentano. During this in-depth discussion, Brentano explained how the Garrison Institute has been a pioneering force in spreading contemplative wisdom and practices throughout society. She highlighted the Institute's various programs that are helping to catalyze a seismic shift in society, as recognition of the benefits of contemplation continues to grow.
Want to learn more on mindfulness and other contemplative practices? Sign up for the Garrison Institute newsletter.
10 Steps to Mindfulness Meditation by The Garrison Institute is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/about-us/the-garrison-institute-blog/1999-10-steps-to-mindfulness-meditation.