Wisdom 2.0

“We do not fight the darkness.  We are farmers of the light.”  Jewel Kilcher

Inner Explorer was chosen to speak on the People’s Stage at the recent Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, CA.  I was asked to accompany my teammates to the Palace of Fine Arts and share in the opportunity to make contacts and engage in conversation with hopes of furthering our efforts of bringing mindfulness into classrooms.  I had no idea what to expect.
I am very much an observer.  My brain works best when I can watch people’s interactions and conversations.  My strengths lie in percolating thoughts and piecing them together to form new ideas and directions to enhance our current methodology.
Wisdom 2.0 was not a meeting of brains; this was a meeting of hearts.
I found myself face to face with people who were making a positive impact in this world by raising awareness of the importance of mindfulness.  There is nothing more energizing than charismatic souls joining forces to serve the greater good.  An urgent feeling of action pressed me forward from the comfort of the background and into introductions and conversations with like-minded individuals. I found myself fueled by other’s own enthusiasm, questions and ideas to deepen connections and provide details about Inner Explorer and the impact we have in the classrooms that use our program.  Specific examples of situations where children have shared their stories of how mindfulness has impacted their lives surfaced in every interaction with conference attendees.  There are so many stories to share; we have had beautiful feedback from students of all ages that highlight the importance and growing need of better social and emotional learning tools to break through the toxic stress that so many children are exposed to regularly.  Each and every one of these stories is authentic, touching, and inspirational and emphasizes the importance of continuing to meet Inner Explorer’s goal of reaching One Million Mindful Children.  Every story was received with empathy and a passion to help.  There is so much love and concern for teachers and students; each encounter was heartwarming.

There is a variety of other work in the field of mindfulness to help raise awareness of the benefits of a daily practice.  I had the opportunity to witness expert speakers, see and hear presentations of other efforts working with different audiences, and learn about future collaborations that will continue to emphasize the importance of mindful awareness.  The highlight of the conference for me was witnessing the telling of her life story by the musical artist Jewel. One of my biggest takeaways was when Jewel mentioned that she signs every email with the quote “We do not fight the darkness.  We are farmers of the light.”  This message encapsulates the idea of the work we do at Inner Explorer; we cannot destroy substance abuse, poverty, or the unhealthy living environments of every child.  But we can work each day to reach tens of thousands of children and give them the tools they need to survive stressful situations.  Let’s give our teachers peace and cultivate hope in our younger generation.  Let’s help our children develop a greater sense of self-worth and an enhanced sense of empathy and compassion for others.  Most importantly, let’s empower our teachers by creating an ideal environment for learning with a daily mindful awareness program so the students of today can break through the barriers that restrain them and replace them with an abundance of opportunities.  Let’s inspire an entire generation to become “farmers of the light.”

Multi-tasking vs. Mindfulness

I used to boast about my ability to multi-task, proud that I could get so much done simultaneously. Performing numerous activities at one time seemed to energize me and keep me more aware. I just didn’t know what I was missing and it never struck me that the anxiety and depression I struggled with had anything to do with the way I was living my life.
One of my favorite quotes by Jon Kabat-Zinn is “We are human be-ings, not human do-ings.” At that point in my life I was living like a human do-ing.
Now, as I drive and talk business on the phone, or when some other tasks converge at the same time, I notice an almost imperceptible disturbance. It’s a very subtle awareness of how I am not present in all that I am doing, and I don’t like it. I have felt I can feel this disturbance in my brain, although I thought I was imaging these sensations until I read this quote by neuroscientist Sara Lazar in the article Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain: 
“We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.”
I believe that the disturbance I describe above is actually recognition of my senses being overwhelmed as well as a diminished quality of my experience. So, while there are still times when I multi-task to some extent it is rarely to the Olympian standards it used to be and when anxiety or depression creep into my life I take time to sit with these states of being, which then quickly pass, instead of becoming larger than life, swallowing me up.

Combating Stress

There is a critical factor that influences academic outcomes….that has nothing to do with academics……and even nothing to do with school.  That factor is stress! Extensive research suggests that stress (caused by poverty, trauma, technology overload, violence etc) significantly inhibits learning…….and is likely the root of the achievement gap and academic failure in at-risk communities.

From a neuro biology standpoint, when students come to the school with chronic stress, their cognitive resources shift from higher order thinking in the prefrontal cortex to lower order “fight or flight” in the limbic system. They become more reactive and less likely to be able to pay attention. The best teachers, best curriculum, best facilities will not get through. A child may be sitting in a seat in class, yet isn’t ready to learn

Our mission at Inner Explorer is to reduce stress so that students are ready to learn!  A daily mindfulness program helps to unlock academic success and foster well-being for millions of children.  Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally, and when done every day, it helps students build the capacity to focus, to be more self-aware and more resilient. 
Inner Explorer is designed to help facilitate the daily practice in just 10 minutes a day, 10 minutes a day.  Mindfulness has been shown to improve grades and test scores, to reduce suspensions, detentions and bullying, and maybe as importantly, to increase compassion and collaboration. (Parents even tell us that their kids don’t fight as much with each other at home).  Think of these practices as mental fitness to optimize brain function.  We relate this to brushing your teeth, you brush your teeth every day to keep them healthy and strong, same logic goes towards practicing mindfulness…you practice mindfulness every day to keep our minds healthy and strong. 

I’d like to tell you a story about a boy in Cleveland.  He was not a high achiever, in fact, you could say he struggled a bit with academics.  He and his mother and sister had just moved into a new housing unit when a drive by shooting had taken place.  His mom’s rented car got hit so she had to report the incident to the police.  The next day, this boy had come home and his mom was not there, she had been in the emergency room due to a visit from the shooters and a bottle broken over her head.  The following day in school, he had taken an exam and did pretty well.  His teacher, knowing his situation had asked him how he managed to do so well with all the stress he had at home and he said “mindfulness helps me to focus”.

Laura and I started this non-profit 5 years ago with the thought that if every child practiced mindfulness every day throughout their pre-K through 12 years, they would improve their academic success and their life success. The achievement gap and school to prison pipeline would be things for the history books. We believe, and initial research is showing, that mindfulness could be the most impactful social justice and peace initiative of our time.