My Life Will Be My Message

“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” ~Gautama Buddha

I have meditated for over half my life. It didn’t always look like meditation, and I didn’t always refer to it as such, but the driving need to introspectively understand my universe has been an ever-present presence,.

For a long time, there was a certain guarded nature to my practice. It was intimate for me. I didn’t have words to explain what I was doing in a way that didn’t seem crazy. I didn’t realize that there were other people who were pursuing the same path. And so, I remained solitary.

A series of fortunate events led me to spend the past fifteen years working in alternative education.

I spent thirteen years working with adolescents living with the challenges of addiction. As a result, my practice began to take on new elements. Self-care became paramount, and I used the refuge of meditation to handle the day-to-day heartbreak.

My introspection became a way to get a shore leave from the battle against addiction. And still, it was solitary.

Then one of my coworkers, a wonderful mentor, took a course on mindfulness meditation and began using it with the students. Amazingly, many of them gravitated toward the practice and began to look forward to the time carved out during the day for relaxation and mindfulness.

I stood on the outside, wanting to participate in a more active way but still feeling a sense of almost shame of the weirdness, the apartness that I had unconsciously associated with my meditation practice. When my mentor left he took that time with him. I didn’t feel qualified to continue it. So we let it lapse. I didn’t even offer.

Over the next few years my practice continued to deepen and take on a central role in my personal development. I began to talk more openly about my meditation with my colleagues at first, and then with a few students who I felt close to and thought might be receptive. I invited them to come sit with me during lunch.

Our cafeteria was often an incredibly negative place for both the students and the staff. I thought I would offer an alternative to that. We had recently built a space for teaching yoga that was being woefully underused that fit my needs exactly.

I wish there was a happy ending. That the students came by the cartload and blossomed, and that my colleagues rushed to my side to begin meditating as they saw the infinite benefits of the practice.

Instead, my colleagues politely declined citing their own classroom needs or lunchtime responsibilities, and other than a few students who took me up on my offer a few times and then returned to their regular lunch, I found myself alone… again.

Strangely enough, or perhaps not, what seemed like defeat bore fruit. My solitary lunch became my moments to reach for my own compassion and to try to find the humanity that at times seemed so lost in both those suffering from and those trying to aid people in addiction.

I began to see that not my words, but my life had to be the message. If I truly believed in what I was doing, the way that I comported myself would be far more profound than discussing the effects that meditation had for me.

So I began to talk openly about my practice without reserve whenever it was appropriate. When a student would come to me for advice I would invite them to sit with me while we talked.

I began to try to remain still during my staff meeting instead of squirming and joking with the people next to me. I learned how to try to give my single-pointed attention to those who were with me more often. I began to talk less and listen more to my colleagues.

I began to try to see the middle way in the frequently passionate meetings we would have after school, finding compromises instead of pushing for my point of view. Especially as those meetings took on an increasing layer of gravity and an almost frantic quality as our students began to fall victim to the opiate epidemic. One death after another, sometimes within weeks of each other. Beautiful young lives ended.

I learned about holding grief and sharing pain. I learned about being present in the moment because the blatant reality that the next day was no longer guaranteed was ever present.

I left that job after ten years, with a heavy heart, amidst what felt like an interminable sea of personal troubles that had prompted my decision to leave a community I had quite literally grown up in.

When I reached my new employer the next school year I set up my desk. I put my singing bowl out and hung up my banner with a quote from HH the Dalai Lama. My new students started to ask me about them. I told them quite openly about what they were for and about my meditation practice.

I asked a few of my colleagues if they would let me do a short meditation before they started their class, and for the first few months of the school year I took five or seven minutes to try to teach some of the most basic elements of meditation: relaxation, finding the breath, body position.

Once again, most of the students weren’t particularly interested, and my colleagues quickly reclaimed their “time on learning” for more important things. But I persisted.

My openness brought other colleagues from other grades to me, and we began to have a small community of teachers who not only all had a practice, but all shared the hidden shame and frustration of knowing the impact of meditation but not knowing how to implement it, or how to even discuss it with our students. We found each other.

We began to talk about how to bring this into the classroom and into the school community. I began to offer a short twenty-five-minute class on meditation during a recess on Friday.

I expected maybe three or four students. Those who seemed receptive to our conversations over the course of the year and who would frequently request that I return to leading meditation before class. Instead, I got eight. And to my surprise it was not the students I expected. I had made my own poor judgments. Most of the students at my door that first day were not even on my radar. Over the next few months they became some of my best students.

I left that first class with a deep gratitude. The students were hungry for this. For a time and a place that was unscheduled, safe, and without threat, where they could simply be.

I saw what I had always believed, that these practices were powerful, useful, and practical for anyone who was willing to try, even a little.

I’ll never forget the first time I had a meeting that ran into that time, and one of my sixth graders stomped up to me and demanded to know where I had been and informed me that I owed them a meditation!

This small class turned into a bigger and longer class. I got an official class period once a week and told the specialist coordinator not to cap the number thinking, once again, that I wouldn’t need to. On the first day there were seventeen that came. By the end there were nineteen. I had planned for eight.

I learned about a different kind of at-risk student: High drive for success, high socioeconomic status, high expectations. The achiever. The over-scheduled. The listless and bored. It was incredible to me how infrequently these children got to be children.

The first time one of them relaxed enough to fall asleep during a class I felt like I had achieved something important. They were safe, they were calm, they were able to relax and for a few minutes experience the solace of not being asked to do anything. To be allowed to just be.

What is the point of all this? For me, it was the realization that if I wanted to make an impact on my students, my community, my world, it required the courage of truth. It required me to be exactly who I was.

I have no illusions that my students came to me to learn meditation. The novelty of the experience wears off fairly quickly. They came to me to learn meditation because they saw how I lived.

I own who I am. Waking up doesn’t make you less human. It makes you intensely human. Emotions bloom like flowers and then fade and die. I enjoy the flower. I let the flower go. I live openly and it draws the openness out of others.

I don’t know if meditation will have a place in my students’ lives in the future. I do know that my life has gently jostled theirs in that they now know, consciously or otherwise, that there is someone in the world who cultivates peace and serene silence.

One of my favorite students commented that he had never seen me upset for more than a few minutes. He was a deeply anxious child with tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD.

Without my saying anything he remarked, “That’s because you meditate right?” “Every day.” I replied. He smiled. I smiled. We were present, together for a moment.

About Jake Kessler

Jake Kessler is a longtime special educator and mindfulness practitioner. He has spent his career working with social emotional learning and helping those struggling with the challenges of addiction. He has worked tirelessly to integrate his passions for mindfulness and education to enrich the lives of his students.

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