“That’s the Flight Attendant!”

So, I was flying home this past week and noticed that the flight attendant working my section of the plane looked familiar. I had been moved to a seat at the front of the plane and so she had just a dozen of us to tend to which meant I saw a lot of her. I also heard a lot from her once she got to talking with a White man in his late 50’s (a doctor) seated in the row in front of me. As they chatted I heard her first make a critical comment about the Affordable Care Act (“I would never be a doctor today given what Obamacare has done to our health system”), and then I heard her say that she is very involved in politics and would like Ted Cruz to win but if Trump gets the nomination she’ll vote for him because of his immigration stance.

Mind you, I was sitting there working on an upcoming race, racism and whiteness training and so this did not jive well with the mind-space I was in. Immediately I started judging her and her politics and could feel the gravitational pull of my own politics want to say something. I did not speak up, but if I’m honest I did shoot a half-hearted glare in her direction as she continued her very loud political commentary. I also heard her say that she has been working at the airline for 36 years and has so much seniority that she flies internationally for only a handful of months out of the year and then takes long periods of time “off”. This exacerbated my frustration (and judgement) because the reason she can do that is completely based on the fact that she is in a union. If there were no union supporting her, the airline would have fired her long ago in favor of newer workers with less seniority whom they could pay less. And yet, given her politics, I imagine she hates her union for its “lefty, liberal-ness”.

Her politics are not the reason for this reflection. Those ideas are a dime a dozen these days. What I want to focus on is my reaction. The more she talked, the more disturbed I became inside. After about 10 minutes I finally noticed the tumult of my internal landscape and paused to take some slow, deep breaths while I said something to the effect of “the love in me sees the love in you”, a phrase I heard a colleague say a few days prior, so it was in my head. I wanted to feel compassion for her. I wanted to be okay with her, despite how starkly divergent her views are from mine, and how dangerous I find them to be. I wanted to be able to meet her energetically with calmness, generosity, and a love for her as a person while still strongly disagreeing with her. I wanted all of that because it is wildly hypocritical of me to advocate for social justice but then only extend the core characteristics of it to those who agree with me. There can be no peace when kindness and care are selectively allocated, and in this case, when my self-righteous view of the world is used to determine how I afford various folks their humanity (or not). I was in a workshop two years ago (as a participant) and the topic was the importance of compassion in our social justice work, and one woman said, “I just can’t and won’t do it, and I don’t think I have to”. On one level I got where she was coming from – various forms of oppression have been dogging her throughout her entire life and so to extend compassion in moments connected to them was a heavy lift. But on another level, I felt myself wonder how we can afford to not be compassionate? The delusion, it seems, is that we actually have a choice in the matter.

Thus I wanted to ground into kindness and compassion toward her, and at one point was able to actually manifest some of it…that is, until I remembered that she was the flight attendant I got into a verbal altercation with on a flight in late September of 2014. I was flying home from the New York City climate march with my friend Karen and this flight attendant started bashing the march, loudly proclaiming to two other passengers that there is no such thing as climate change because she has read the research and it doesn’t exist (she explains the warming by the “natural solar cycle theory”…a theory that has been thoroughly debunked), and that those people in NYC are just losers, trouble makers and “idiots”. Yep, I lost it. I thought for sure that I was going to get put on the no fly list, but I didn’t care because that was an absurd thing to say. Thankfully it was a short interaction because we were arguing as the plane was starting to land. I was fuming as we disembarked but didn’t say anything else to her.

And here she was again, right in front of me, talking to the doctor for over 25 minutes or so about the Republican party, health care, how much they hate President Obama, foreign policy (those Syrians are wrecking their country), and the like. Though I was now even more triggered, the grounding in paved the way for no verbal altercations, no raising my voice, and not even the passive-aggressive shaking of my head and judgmental chuckling that I unfortunately do sometimes to show disagreement. I just returned to my mantra with a little more zeal – “the love in me sees the love in you”. I had to because I genuinely wanted to be different with this woman this time around. There is always a choice in moments like these and to be honest I choose to “react” more than I care to admit. Driven largely by my fear that we will not change in time and a heavy sadness I sometimes feel about how we treat each other, I often jump too quickly into the mix. Stepping out and strongly speaking up is not wrong of course, but when it is driven by fear, sadness and self-righteousness the result is usually the spreading of more the same. And so I wanted to meet her from a wiser and more grounded space knowing that it would not change her politics nor make her even stop talking so loudly, but it would change me, and that was what I was going for. If I cannot express love and care and a desire to hold those I so strongly disagree with in positive regard, I am not really that much different than the afraid and angry folks at those Trump rallies. Sure there are stark differences on the surface, but under it all, I’m coming from the same place.

Espousing peace and social justice needs to be a more deeply lived experience for me and this was a chance to try and meet this flight attendant with compassion, extend grace to her just as surely as doing so extends it to myself, and see what the power of love can really do in moments that feel intractable. The result was that I genuinely and with an honest curiosity began to wonder where her beliefs stemmed from and what kind of safety they gave her. I was reading some Marshall Rosenberg just before this flight and I started to wonder what needs her beliefs were meeting and if there was a way that I could join her in that space while not having to sow hate and fear. Said differently, is there a way I can help her feel deeply “okay” while simultaneously questioning her specious claims rooted in ideologies that are historically and currently connected to systems of oppression?

I’ll end this blog with that question – one that seems to resonate in all moments of addressing these issues. I’m not talking about pacifism; I’m talking about not reproducing the violence that has led us to so many painful places individually and collectively, and instead trying to find some grace and wisdom born out of our collective desire for safety and peace. Too often I hear social justice advocates reduce this conversation to either a) having a strong social justice critique and seeing compassion as “too soft”, or b) being rooted in compassion but letting go of some of the strength and clarity of a critique. I believe that the challenges of our time as they relate to social justice require a deep understanding of both – a fierce social justice lens and the capacity to never lose sight of the humanity of those we’re confronting. I don’t claim to have a handle on this, but I did want to share this moment with “that” flight attendant where I was able to catch a glimpse of it and its efficacy in this work. And as this election year ramps up I have a feeling the ever-louder levels of vitriol and attack will give me lots of chances to practice this process. Despite the tendency to try and justify it, human history has repeatedly shown that we cannot effectively fight violence with violence. That does not mean we sit back and let oppression happen. There is a third option of addressing violence and moving through moments of great conflict, and it is through the lens of kindness, compassion, fierce commitment to justice, and love. Not easy, but necessary. The delusion, again, is that we think we have a choice.



A Compassionate Education

I wasn’t feeling 100% the other day so stayed home to rest and do just a little work (hard to stay completely away from it) and over the course of the day read The Wisdom of Compassion by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan (2012). One of the things I so appreciated about this book was the storytelling nature of it – Victor writes from the perspective of accompanying His Holiness to various places around the world and recording the interactions, comments, and teachings of the Dalai Lama. Through this lens a beautiful balance is achieved between the awe inspiring elements of the way His Holiness moves through the world and touches the lives of so many, and the very human and humane aspects of his everyday engagement with the most subtle aspects of life. I found it inspiring because of how accessible the Dalai Lama’s humility makes him.


While so much of the content of the book is relevant to social justice and equity work, I was particularly struck by the mention of how notions of compassion, empathy, and mindfulness have been applied to P-12 educational settings. The Dalai Lama states, “My hope and wish is that, one day, formal education will pay attention to what I call education of the heart. Just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness (p.93).” It seems that many educational researchers have taken up this charge by His Holiness. Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, for example, in her work at the University of British Columbia has developed mindfulness frameworks for both students and teachers which have had far-reaching impacts. In another quote from the book it is stated that, “In 2010, U.S. researchers analyzed 213 studies involving nearly 300,000 students in elementary and middle schools. They found that those students who received social, emotional, mindfulness instruction scored 11 to 17 percentage points higher on achievement tests, compared with those who did not receive such instruction. The students also felt better about school and behaved more positively. The result? Fewer incidents of alcohol and drug use, violence, and bullying (p. 160).”


In everyday life it should be obvious that when one is more compassionate and caring, they will be happier and that, in turn, will have substantial impacts on all areas of their life, including school. And yet, in all the work I have done in schools over the years I have not encountered one single institution that integrates mindfulness in their in-service training for teachers, their curriculum, their counseling practices, or their discipline practices. Not one.


How is it that we, who pride ourselves on our expertise regarding teaching and learning, so thoroughly miss this simple fact and as a result deny our students a range of skills that have proven for millennia to be emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and socially beneficial? There could be a range of answers to this: the focus on standardized testing, overcrowding in our schools, a teacher education and preparation system that has not kept up with this research, or perhaps good old-fashioned xenophobia about anything that can be affiliated with a “religious” perspective that is not in line with U.S. Christian hegemony (on occasion I have been told not to say the word “meditate” when I do my training ground-ins because some staff will think I’m talking about devil-worship or cult practices). In my teacher education work at St Cloud State, however, I began using excerpts regarding mindfulness from Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (2007) and then later Davidson and Begley’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012) and it really struck a nerve with students; they felt the truth of the content as much as they cognitively understood it. This also bore out in the first class of the semester when I would ask students to, “List the qualities of your favorite, most impactful P-12 teacher” and invariably they would list characteristics that were connected to the principles of mindfulness, compassion, empathy and care.


Given the above-stated research evidence, personal experience and simple human truth, I invite anyone involved in education to more intentionally integrate mindfulness and the development of skills regarding compassion, care and empathy into their educational work. In particular, for schools and districts addressing issues of equity and social justice, a commitment to developing mindfulness is even more critical. Equity in our schools simply cannot / will not be achieved without a deeply felt sense of compassion and care for each other. Racism, sexism, classism and the like all serve to divide the human family, prey upon our fears, create imaginary “others” and lead us down a path of division, derision, and struggle. Compassion, care, empathy, and love, however, do just the opposite and make schools and society safer and more productive.


Genuine compassion, as it is discussed in another quote from HHDL, is, “based not on our own projections and expectations but rather on the rights of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop a genuine concern for his or her problems (p.1).” Given this perspective and the intense complexities our young people are facing today, it is clearly time for our schools to set a new course in education, one that prepares our students to be successful in school and life with respect to both their minds and their hearts such that they are able to act upon and within the world with wisdom and compassion.


H.H. Dalai Lama and Chan, V. (2012). The Wisdom of Compassion. New York: Riverhead Books.

Hope for the New Year

As one who consults on, writes on, trains on and focuses on social justice and equity issues on a daily basis, here’s what I hope for in 2013: that we learn to breathe. More specifically I hope that we can grow in our ability to just take a moment, slow down, and breathe deeply. Sounds simplistic, I know. My students used to quietly refer to this as “human relations hoo-ha mumbo jumbo”. But as I continue to develop training tools and ways to reach wider audiences, I am more often beginning each training, conference presentation, and even key note address with a “grounding in” that has us all breathing deeply and remembering to be here now. And while participants in a training or workshop may have different lives, struggles, and ways of viewing the world, underneath that is a common body of hopes and needs – we all want to be safe, we all want to feel loved, and we all want to contribute to our communities in some way. And I have found that if we pause to breathe deeply, slow down, and take the time to listen and connect with one another, we can see those common hopes reflected in each other and thereby better connect across that which divides us.


Lest you think this is hyperbole, Sylvia Boorstein suggests that breathing deeply does two critical things for us in times of difficulty: first, it relaxes the body. Just as the mind has an impact on the body (stress leads to tightness), so too can the body impact the mind. Thus, breathing deeply and slowing the body down relaxes and slows the mind down. And, it is from this space that we stand a better chance of listening and connecting. Second she suggests that deep attention to the breath stops “the story” for a minute and allows for the possibility of truly hearing someone else over the endless din of the old lines we have running in our heads. In this way, we are able to suspend our old beliefs long enough to see an issue from another point of view. Both of these are essential elements for successful social justice training and why I use them in every training I conduct.


In my trainings and workshops, I see how deeply afraid some folks are when confronted with issues of equity. But I can also see that underneath those fears and often-defensive responses lies the hope that somehow we really can all be okay and all get along. In every tradition, in every heart, in every home there is actually a desire to “get along”. And yet, despite the countless gains throughout U.S. history, our society still tends to lose its way in so far as various equity issues are concerned. But losing one’s way is not the same as having no way at all, and so in this the beginning of a new year for some (acknowledging that not everyone follows the same calendar) I am hoping that we can awaken the common hopes that lie within, breathe and allow them to rise, and in the process let them carry all of us back to what we know to be true – that we are all in this together and that at our best, we are creatures of community not isolation, of compassion not derision, and of love not hate. Many of the world’s best thinkers support this: Jeremy Rifkin, in his RSA Animate video, suggests that we are actually soft-wired for empathy, Karen Armstrong asserts through her  “Charter for Compassion” TED talk that we cannot possibly have peace in this world without it, and the Dalai Lama  continually teaches that love for one another is an essential aspect of a truly enlightened person. But empathy, compassion, and love take presence, and presence takes connection to the here and now, and connecting in this way is powerfully facilitated by breathing deeply and paying attention to the breath. And thus my hope for this year is that we all learn, myself included, to work toward connection, presence and compassion by taking the time to simply and more deeply b-r-e-a-t-h-e.

© 2013 Hackman Consulting Group – Do not reproduce part or all without permission.