This is a guest post by my new friend Steve Rowley. Steve got in touch with me after reading my recent piece in EdWeek on mindfulness. Steve is a former superintendent and mindfulness practitioner who lives on Bainbridge Island, in Washington. Here he writes about how that which seems unpleasant or threatening may actually be the thing that spurs us to deeper practice.
I learned a valuable lesson in cultivating mindfulness by visiting a site of mass murder. Earlier this summer I traveled to Oradour-Sur-Glane, France, where in 1944 the German SS burned alive over six hundred villagers (mostly women and children), desecrated their bodies, and then strafed the village–in retaliation for local French resistance. After the war, local survivors left the village untouched as a remembrance. Today you can see the region’s history of Nazi terror in the village’s memorial museum, and then walk through the charred remains of the town, including the church where the victims were rounded up and incinerated beyond recognition.
The ironic contrast is that I made this visit to Oradour during a week-long silent, Zen-oriented writing retreat with author and teacher Natalie Goldberg . I don’t think anyone in our retreat group expected to be so jolted by what we saw and felt at Oradour, and the experience dramatically changed the remainder of our retreat, as our writing dove deeply into the theme of war and conflict. After the Oradour visit and into the next day we filled our retreat space with painful stories of loss and devastation, and strong emotional reactions from our personal experiences and family histories emerged. Haunting feelings and many memories of painful experience swept through our minds, while we tried to get regrounded in our sitting practice for the remainder of the retreat.
Learning to use an experience as powerful as the one at Oradour to cultivate mindfulness was startling, yet clarifying. During turmoil was when Natalie’ Goldberg’s teaching came to life. The lesson she had already impressed on us was that we can use those things that distract us: sounds, smells, and cues from the outer world that upset the flow of meditation and writing as a drive to deeper practice. We can learn to use distractors, such as the sound of a chainsaw in the distance, or the horrific indelible image of a pile of burned bodies, to refocus our awareness and to bring us back to the here and now.
Our teacher emphasized that the practice of mindful mediation and our writing are forms of work, not relaxation. It’s a discipline and mind training. Learning to “let go” of our thoughts and feelings is easy when white billowy thought-clouds lazily drift by on a sunny day. But when those happy thought-clouds have vaporized and the mind becomes a turbulent storm of rain, wind, and utter chaos–this is when the practice gets real and is simply hard work. That’s when the discipline of just abiding with the continual stream of internal distraction gets tough, but is most important.
What I took away from my experience at Oradour and mindfulness practice there is learning to use distractors and even unpleasantness as a part of a larger practice. This also applies to my work as a leader in public education. In the past when I’ve been irritated or distracted by the incessant noise and interference that comes with the job of leading a school or an organization, I’ve thought of these interruptions and distractions simply as obstacles that get in the way of what I have to accomplish. I look back now and realize how hard I’ve had to work just to keep myself in a solitary vacuum to get my “to do” list done, leaving me mentally and emotionally at odds with the common and very human stuff of life: upset feelings, complaints, schedule changes, pushback on change, disagreements, unexpected events, and unintended outcomes.
Though mindfulness practice I better understand that the seeming distractors of our work as leaders can be used to cultivate our mindfulness, literally on the job. We can practice the discipline of incorporating distraction into our work to bring us to the here and now, the world as it is in the moment. We can use this discipline to better understand ourselves, and be to open to new possibilities with others. Like sitting and writing in the presences of profound turbulence, good leadership requires an everyday discipline of mindfulness to be fully present, all distractions included.