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Meena Srinivasan: Spirituality and Education

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Meena Srinivasan: Transmitting Peace in the Classroom

                                   "Turning on the water
                           Water comes from high mountain sources.
                                 Water runs deep in the Earth.
                            Miraculously water comes to us and
                                        sustains all life."

This beautiful reflection was written by a young student from Meena Srinivasan’s sixth grade class in Oakland, California. Meena is a different kind of teacher. She begins each morning by inviting the bell to sound in the tradition of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The pleasant sound of the bell invites Meena’s students to mindfully breathe in and out with her as part of their morning meditation before they begin their day together! It’s truly amazing, particularly when you learn of the long term impact that these practices have had on a few of her students. On last Saturday’s Forest Call, Meena even led us all in a peaceful meditation practice over the phone, so you can guess the power of her presence in the classroom:).

One student from Meena’s last academic year was having a particularly difficult time fitting in. At the end of the year, she wrote Meena a note to say that she didn’t know how she would have made it through each day without learning about mindfulness and having the space to practice it. The practice changed her spiritually, inspiring her to count her blessings everyday.

What exactly is “mindfulness”? The term itself has become sort of trendy these days, easily tossed around in coffee shop conversations. And why is it important to teach tools in mindfulness to children and young students? In its essence, mindfulness is about being present in every moment.

Meena describes mindfulness in education as an approach that welcomes learning not just focused on thinking, but also learning that empowers educators and students with skills to manage and work with their emotions.

“Some indicators of the success of mindfulness in education in a classroom or school are a peaceful, focused, curious, fun, energetic, supportive, honest, caring, and connected classroom community where everyone learns from each other.”

Teaching tools like mindful breathing can be a tricky practice in a culture that might link it to religion. Meena explained that in the West, it helps to use neuroscience as an entry point. The Hawn Foundation’s MindUp program creates classrooms lessons in mindfulness that are anchored in cognitive neuroscience and that employ the use of skillful decision making.

With the aid of a glass model filled with water and glitter, Meena demonstrates to her students how the amygdala part of the brain acts up when they are stressed out, and as the glitter settles to the bottom, illustrates how breathing calms the amigdala, allowing them to make more skillful decisions. At this young age, Meena’s students are learning that in every moment they have an opportunity to make a skillful choice or an unskillful choice.

But as Meena explains, mindfulness is for more than just stress reduction and performance in school or work. In the West, partly because neuroscience is used as an entry point, this has been the main importance given to the practice. While reducing stress is good, being completely mindful has more to do with how we live in every moment of our lives and understanding how the choices we make in our microcosms impact the macrocosm. How does consuming any particular product impact our ecosystem and the life of another child half way around the world? Meena believes that when you’re mindful, you realize that everything is connected and nothing exists independently.

“I believe that bringing mindfulness into the lives of children is the most important thing educators can do. Doing so helps children cultivate the awareness that comes with mindfulness practice, which provides a strong foundation for creating real, lasting change in the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on mindful living have deeply influenced Meena’s life and insights as a teacher. Last week, for example, she noticed issues that were arising as a result of student gossiping. Meena responded with a lesson on mindful speech and integrity. She explained that through these lessons, her young students really understand that mindfulness isn’t just about reducing stress, and that it’s also about kindness and community.

One of her favorite mindfulness activities from the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition is called pebble meditation. Meena just practiced this on the eve of International Peace Day with her students, who call their pebbles “peace rocks”. They use pebbles to help cultivate wholesome qualities through mindful breathing. Each pebble represents a quality of freshness, solidity, clarity, and freeness, and is accompanied by an image that symbolizes these qualities.

For example, a flower can symbolize feelings associated with freshness, such as energetic and joyful. A mountain can symbolize solidity and feeling strong, focused, and confident. Many of the children use the pebbles right before a test or before falling asleep. They’ve told Meena that it’s helpful for them to have something to hold onto. Also the qualities of freshness or solidity or clarity or freedom can seem as abstract and the pebbles make them a little more concrete.

There are a lot of different programs and blogs aimed at helping children become more mindful, including Meena’s blog “A Year of Mindfulness in the Classroom,” which has become a teaching tool for mindful educators worldwide. She was involved in the creation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children”.   Different tools will work for different environments and circumstances. Meena notes that mindfulness isn't a panacea and when applying different practices, we need to also be mindful about what the needs are of that population/student group.

"Whichever population you go into, try to understand the suffering of the population as best as you can, trust your own wisdom and trust in the practice that you’ll share what’s needed.  Are your intentions noble and have you really tried to understand the suffering of the population? The more anyone does to understand that specific population and their needs, the better they will be able to share this practice. There is no one size fits all mindfulness technique."

But ultimately, Meena has learned that you cannot teach peace, you can only transmit it.

“One of the things that Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes about peace is that it’s your way of being. You don’t teach peace, you just are peace and that can come across in so many ways, including the way you greet students in the morning. If not for my practice in mindfulness, I wouldn’t notice how beautiful my students are!”

Before beginning to teach in Oakland, Meena spent five years learning about and sharing practices in mindfulness. Those years rooted her in her practice, allowing Meena to share her inner peace with others. One of the groups she worked with was the Dalit community in Nagpur, which had converted to Buddhism in order to transcend caste. Born into a Brahmin family, which is the highest caste in the hierarchy, Meena’s time spent with this community that is considered the lowest caste was quite profound. She remembers one instance in particular when little girls asked her what her surname was and Meena asked why. In India, your surname, or your last name, is associated with your caste. Meena looked at each of them lovingly and replied, “I’m Buddhist like you; I have no caste.”

The following is an excerpt from Meena’s reflections after working in this community:

“For a community that converted to Buddhism to transcend caste, I was shocked by how frequently Dalit Buddhists in Nagpur asked what caste I belonged to! When I shared this with my fourteen year old Dalit interpreter, she told me that people from her community never say, “We are Buddhists. We don’t have any caste.” Instead they say, “We are Mahars,” which are the untouchable caste in the Hindu religion. She then introduced me to a Marathi saying, Jzaat manathun kadhi nahi jzaat, which means “caste never leaves one’s mind.”

According to this fourteen year old girl, “Conversion does not actually change you. Though you are converted, you need to struggle very hard. In Buddhism there is no caste system; we are all free, we are all equal, but we have to put that in our mind first, and only then can we tell society, convince them about this.” In other words, conversion is a step in the process of changing your mindset about caste. The more I understood the situation in Nagpur, the greater my efforts to stress the importance of using the Buddha’s teachings to move beyond caste and embrace Interbeing.”

The story of what brought Meena to India to teach for five years is also interesting. While in graduate school at the University of California Berkeley, she woke up in the middle of the night with a burning sensation that she had to move to India. Soon after arriving in Delhi to begin her teaching job at an international school, she met the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. In one of their first encounters, he asked her,

“Who is your best friend?” Meena was perplexed and responded with people close to her. Gandhiji’s grandson replied, “No, your best friend is your breathe. It is the last thing that will leave you.”

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