Mindfulness at Schools

A conversation with Michael Beckwith and Lori Desautels about mindfulness, education and creativity.

This interview first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit #37, Spring 2014.

This interview first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit #37, Spring 2014.

(by Etan Ilfeld)

The following transcript is from a live interview between Etan Ilfeld (director of Watkins Books), Michael Beckwith and Lori Desautels.

EI: The Agape Center is a pluralistic platform that welcomes everyone and combines new age thought with ancient wisdom. How active is the Agape Center?

MB: We draw from the revelations of all religion, which tend to have similar principles. This perennial wisdom unites many spiritual paths. We have three services during Sunday, including an evening service, and we have classes throughout the week on topics ranging from meditation to Life Visioning. On any given week, we get approximately six to eight thousand visitors. We also have a wonderful bookstore, and are really a community. We also do a lot of outreach, and try to encourage active service as a way of life. We have a diverse demographic from infants to senior citizens.

EI: Lori, how did you get to know about Michael and the Agape Institute?

[span3][margin_10t]Lori Desautels, Ph.D., is a university supervisor for the Indianapolis Teaching Fellows and Teach for America programs, and she is the author of How May I Serve You? Revelations in Education.[margin_10b][/span3] LD: Michael’s teaching about service to others was the inspiration behind a book that I wrote, How May I Serve You?, and he read my book. Michael and I did an interview together and were talking about school reform. I believe that too many schools focus on test scores, but we really should be looking at internal factors rather than external factors when trying to inspire children.

EI: There are so many different paths in education, and it seems like no one really knows what the best form of education is. In Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring, which is based on a true story where privileged teenagers stalked and robbed celebrities, we see the detrimental effects of a materialistic and celebrity obsessed teen culture. How can we inspire kids to live more meaningful lives?

MB: Lori is very interested in studying the neuroscience behind compassion, and what we can do as a society in order to move away from consumerism and materialism. Certainly, the classroom is a space that should help give kids a framework that incorporates love and empathy.

EI: Is the Law of Attraction always used for good?

[span3][margin_5t]Michael Beckwith founded the Agape International Spiritual Center in 1986 in Culver City, California, and is the author of numerous books, including Life Visioning: A Transformative Process for Activating Your Unique Gifts and Highest Potential.[margin_5b][/span3]MB: A lot of people become interested in the Law of Attraction in order to get things rather than for more enlightened purposes, but as you realize that the universe is about more than just materialism, then you will hopefully use the Law of Attraction for positive pursuits.

EI: How do you provide a good environment that fosters and incubates creativity and learning? Also, Lori, you mention that young students suffer from too much stress these days, but can stress also be useful?

LD: One of the things that we’ve learned from mindful teaching practices in schools which integrate a spiritual component, is that we noticed that children are then able to become more positive and awake, and therefore more driven within the classroom. We try and teach kids how the brain works and encourage them to realize that the mind does not function well when we are overstressed. Children with low social economic backgrounds unfortunately are often living a survival mode, which is extremely stressful and detrimental to their development. I try and get them to feel a bit more positive and aware of their emotions by meditating.


EI: Teachers are providing an invaluable service, and a good teacher can have an incredible impact on a child’s life. How is neuroscience and spirituality taught in your classes?

LD: We’re calling it Focused Attention Practice. We focus on middle school (6th to 8th grades), which is a tumultuous time for kids due to hormones and new challenges. What we do is get the kids to just focus and calm their minds for 2 minutes before each class. They can focus on an object or on their breath. We’ve noticed that our working memory can be cleared through this exercise and provide space for them to begin a lesson and actually learn. When you empty out worries and angst (via drawing or other expressive forms) then the kids become more creative and receptive to new ideas.

EI: I love this idea of opening the kid’s minds before each class.

MB: In the NY schools district they’re using my CD which has an 11-minute dance music meditation. A woman brought it into the school system and the kids liked it so much that several principles have now integrated it into their schools. The kids now journal and write about their feelings and have learnt to talk about how they feel, and have the awareness and reflective ability to choose their actions—rather than just constantly reacting. Becoming conscious is all about moving out of a mode of reaction towards a mode of creation.

[span3][margin_5t]If we can get these kids to feel truly awake even for a few minutes a day, then we can change their lives.[margin_5b][/span3]LD: I’d like to add that teaching kids to be in the moment is key. 20% of kids in the USA are living in poverty, which is not just about their economic condition but also about their emotional well being. If we can get these kids to feel truly awake even for a few minutes a day, then we can change their lives. These kids are often hungry and unable to afford healthy food, and stressed by so many survival issues that they often feel overwhelmed, as do their teachers.

MB: If the teachers feel overwhelmed and are not awake then they won’t have a chance to inspire the kids. So it’s also important to nurture teachers and remind them how much we appreciate their unique service, and to teach them tools ranging from mindfulness to meditating.

EI: How do you feel about online education, as there are now great resources ranging from the Khan Academy to Coursera?

LD: We tend to be a society of extremes, and I think that it’s important to realize that there is a place for all sorts of resources. Online can never take over actual classroom teaching, but it can supplement it. The Khan Academy has made an incredible impact, but a teacher that is physically present is irreplaceable.

MB: For the collegiate level, online education will probably have a huge influence, but for younger students, it’s really important to have teachers that are off-line.

EI: It’s great to see how online and offline content can complement one another, and to see that the Agape Institute has over 100,000 viewers online from all over the world. Spirituality will probably be influenced through some of these technological advances.

MB: Technology is amazing and your typical teenager will have a smart phone that is more advanced than NASA’s cutting edge technology that sent people to the moon. Kids are utilizing telecommunications networks to create a more connected and globalized world. The potential is enormous and we need to help the younger generation realize all that they are capable of.

LD: Due to Google anyone can get almost any answer, and kids these days know how to access vast resources. We need to remember that educators need to be facilitators and mentors rather than just experts on particular subjects.

EI: How do you feel about multi-tasking and the idea that kids do too much of it?

MB: It’s a double edged sword. Technology encourages instant gratification, but it can also manifest new forms of creativity, and the millennium kids are tech wizards that are living in a post sexual orientation world—the hot topics of the 20th century are things that they take for granted. They are captivated by new ideas and teachers and students have the ability to create a dialogue that will open both of their minds, and in a sense aren’t we all teachers and students?

EI: Do you teach kids how to improve their sleep?

MB: Mindfulness and visioning can help kids let go of their anxiety and help improve their sleep. We should not go to bed worried, which can create a viscious cycle. I love going to sleep, because I enjoy it and know that it will rejuvenate me.

LD: Rest is important for insight. Preparing for a test means studying, but also sleeping well without a preoccupied mind, so that the sleep can allow the brain to process all that was learned during the day. By the way, the sleep cycles of adolescents are wild—they often have to come to class at 7:30 am, which is too early.

EI: A lot of people say that kids should start school only at 9 or 10 o’clock so that they can come to school refreshed.

LD: I wanted to share that many inner city schools in Minneapolis are lacking empathy, and this is a skill that I think we have to teach kids. Without knowing how to imagine how someone else feels, then we are lost. We are wired to be empathetic and happy beings, and this capacity should be developed in all classrooms.

MB: Love and empathy are fundamental, and for kids to learn these skills they need to see the teachers acting in such a manner. Students should feel that their teachers are on their side and care about them.

EI: What is creativity and how do we encourage it?

[span3][margin_5t]Creativity is about tuning in to the inspiration that is abundant in the universe and opens you to see new things.[margin_5b][/span3]

MB: Creativity is different from creation. Each moment is an act of creation. But Creativity is about tuning in to the inspiration that is abundant in the universe and opens you to see new things. In the old days, the teachers transferred knowledge to kids, but the new model is to inspire the student to use their creativity to learn. Memorizing facts is irrelevant, but creativity is an everlasting well.

LD: Imagination is a major part of empathy—as you have to have the ability to see through another person’s perspective, and when a student is able to activate their imagination, then they will also gain empathy. I can’t think of anything that can be more important than realizing that our brain is constantly changing both structurally and functionally and that positive experiences can help our neuro-plasticity transform us into soulful beings. Emotions can drive learning, and soulful teaching is about activating an emotional component with the students. When we teach what we need to learn, then we learn it for the long term, which is why we need to help students teach each other and even encourage them to come up with possible questions for exams.

EI: What does the future hold?

MB: At Agape we plan on building a school, and are currently looking for a campus. We want to develop new structures that can be an example to others of how to build an academy of excellence, both academically and spiritually. Agape is also becoming a destination point, and we have classes all of the time, and are organizing conferences. Many people are supporting our growth and we are very excited.

LD: My passion keeps me awake at night and I am dedicated towards creating new forms of education that advocate mindful teaching practices. I also hope that people read my latest book, How May I Serve You?

MB: I’m also working on a book called SYBD, which stands for ‘Sit Your Butt Down’, which will encourage people to stop their mind from constantly chattering, and get closer to their inner spirit and divine guidance.

EI: How do you ‘sit your butt down’ and take care of you?

MB: When I get out of bed, I pull for 20 minutes which is a technique I do alongside yoga, and then I meditate, and I also go to the gym everyday, and drink a vitamin-rich health shake. I also meditate a few other times through the day, after which, I put my feet up against the wall for 10 minutes as I stand in an inverted position, and finally, I do a bit of Chi Gong. That’s how I rejuvenate my mind, body and spirit.

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