Safety as a Value? I think not

I walked down to my favourite beach on a beautiful sunny winter day a few months ago when I ran across a woman I’d sometimes see at the beach. I guessed she was in her late fifties or early sixties, with long blonde hair and always tanned. I asked her what she was reading and she told me, “A Failure of Nerve. It’s about leadership.” I filed the title away in my head and last week got my hands on a copy.

The author, the late Edwin Friedman, is a master at discussing how we live in emotional systems and what leadership that moves society forward actually looks like, whether you are a parent, teacher, business owner, manager, or politician. And what that leadership looks like may not be what you think it is. It’s a truly compelling read.

Here Friedman talks about our propensity to grab onto other issues, such as safety, kind of like a dog with a bone, rather than putting the time in to take responsibility for our own condition and to develop self, strength and personal integrity:

Today the issues most vulnerable to becoming displacements [things we choose to focus blame onto] are, first of all, anything related to safety: product safety, traffic safety, bicycle safety, motorboat safety, jet-ski safety, workplace safety, nutritional safety, nuclear power station safety, toxic waste safety, and so on and so on. This focus on safety has become so omnipresent in our chronically anxious civilization that there is real danger we will come to believe that safety is the most important value in life. It is certainly important as a modifier of other initiatives, but if a society is to evolve, or if leaders are to arise, then safety can never be allowed to become more important than adventure. We are on our way to becoming a nation of “skimmers,” living off the risks of previous generations and constantly taking from the top without adding significantly to its essence. Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization, including the discovery, exploration, and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety.

What values are we imparting to our children about life and leadership when we invoke these endless admonishes to play safely and when we curb their natural risk-taking?

Gratitude at the Bottom of the River

How is it that gratitude can be so hard to sustain on a continual basis? We know intellectually to be grateful but so often this seems to disappear in a wave of frustration, complaining, or wishing things were other than they are. What is the key to releasing the gratitude that is inside us? Because tied to gratitude is our joy at being alive.

Certainly taking a moment to say something you’re grateful for helps set the mood and bring gratitude out from the depths.

And reducing your reliance on consumer culture definitely helps open the springs of gratitude. There is something about too much stuff that simply makes us unhappy. It’s as if keeping track of too many things starts to erode our natural joy and turns us into worriers. When my son gets into a spiral about what toy or thing he lacks, most times I’m able to stop the tidal flow of these negative thoughts by telling him, “We have everything we need because we have each other.” That may not work so well with a thirteen year old though!

Believing everything happens for a reason also helps to focus on the blessings hidden even in things that are trials. What did you learn when something difficult happened? Can you feel grateful for what you learnt? Can you see it as an opportunity for learning? Time will reveal what to be grateful for, and maybe we can withhold judgement until time can show us what this is.

Can we also see life as a story not to take too seriously? Can you enjoy things as if you are an actor in a movie? If we are so attached to outcomes, then are we fully enjoying the process? Appreciation is the second cousin to gratitude, and if we can start with appreciation, then that is a step towards embracing gratitude.

And time… can we slow down our daily life? The pace of modern life often doesn’t open the window to having gratitude come in, because there simply isn’t time.

But there is another side to gratitude, that gratitude is like a river running through us and all around us. It’s only our ego that may stop us from putting our feet fully in the river. Our ego that wants to be right, or feel important, or is scared, or feels like a victim. Because the world is full of incredible beauty and connectedness between all things. Yes, bad things happen, but so much of that is from ignorance and confusion. And when things are stripped away, when clutter and noise are dispersed, then we can fully feel this river running through us. And at the very bottom of the river, like the rocks that the river runs over, we can feel the gratitude that comes just from being alive – and that this gratitude anchors us to the world and to each other.

Growing the Seed of Peace

If self-knowledge is the seed for peace and harmony, then how are we helping children to know themselves if we turn kindergarten into a learning factory and free play into scheduled activities?

One of the greatest gifts children under seven have is their imagination. To see a child weave a web of stories and in a flash turn an object into something else and then something else again with a free flow of metaphor is a beautiful sight. This is them uncovering what is within themselves. Children should have up to age seven to focus on play and on practical things like planting seeds, riding a bike or sewing. To start sitting them down with pens & writing & math before this time is imposing an outside world of logic upon them and it may come at a cost of losing self-knowledge of who they are.

Perhaps we should let them keep their wildness until age seven, for, as Osho says, “What you see as innocence is nothing but wildness. What you see as clarity is nothing but wildness.”

We also can’t learn about ourself when we’re running around busy. If young children have school, then scheduled activities several days after school and on weekends, where is their time to sit, do little of anything and absorb who they are?

Leaving a child under seven free to fill their world with play gives them the time they need to start developing self-knowledge. Self-knowledge gives you clarity and inner harmony. And once a person has greater peace and harmony, this then spreads to greater peace outside themselves and to touch others. This is how you grow the seed of peace.

Shining the Light

Do you have a child who shines a light on everything that needs healing within your family? I do. These children stretch us and challenge us in ways that are unimaginable when we first hold them in our arms. (For some though, it starts with the day they are born!)

It can be very exhausting while they are busy being their little search-light self. It seems no stone is left unturned by these children. They will challenge you in ways that seem like they will break you, and they will challenge every assumption you hold that needs refining. You may have no idea what that assumption is, but they will not let up until you find it.

And none of this is done directly. You cannot ask them why they are behaving this way or that way. They are simply being.

A challenge for parents is to try not to carry the message “you are too much for me.” These kids can often easily feel rejected, as they do not let people close to them coast. They are prone to having people react to them – strangers, acquaintances and family.

Nature is a wonderful place to take these children to give them rest from who they are. The trees will ask nothing from them, but will only give a constant reassuring stability. A flowing creek or ocean will show them the impermanence of everything – that all will change and nothing stays forever. Seeing birds, bees or squirrels will help take their mind off themselves and their needs. Surrounded by nature, there is nothing to negotiate or fight for and nothing to be evaluated. There is only seeing.

What is Worse: Suffering or the Fear of Suffering?

Lately I’ve been thinking about suffering and more specifically, the fear of suffering. How much we dislike to suffer and how much we’re hoping to have things flow smoothly, yet this expectation causes more suffering for us. When bumps in the road happen, we can spend a lot of energy wishing they hadn’t happened. If we can listen to ourselves, we’ll see that this is sometimes the very first thought that comes into our mind – “I wish this hadn’t happened.” This resistance creates more suffering for us as we’re then wishing things were different from what they are, instead of accepting and being able to move on to deal with what is in front of us. This resistance creeps up on you and can be hard to spot, especially when it involves someone’s else behaviour. We can find ourselves wishing another person was behaving differently. This consumes our energy that could be used to move forward in our life and live with more freedom.

How do you get to the point when you’re able to accept what happens and accept other people’s behaviour, rather than turning away from it, or complaining about it or getting angry or frustrated? If you can accept what is happening, then you can create a window within yourself to deal effectively with the present, with reality, with how things really are, and to work towards change within yourself, instead of creating more resistance. If you want to wake up and live with more freedom, this is essential to free ourselves from the endless chain of reactions and to experience more joy.

The first step is to have a reservoir to draw on…. a reservoir where you simply have time to deal with the unexpected things that happen and have got your bases covered with enough sleep, food and downtime. Meditation also helps. Then you need to fully believe that you can only control and change yourself, and make a conscious choice about how you will react in each situation. Maybe your underlying beliefs about the situation are causing you to suffer. Can you choose to see the situation differently? Maybe you are reacting with fear stemming from your past and perhaps this fear has less bearing on the reality at hand than you might think.

For myself, a difficult issue for me is how others treat my children. I want to see my children treated with respect and love by everyone in their family, and when I perceive they are not, it’s very difficult for me to put the brakes on my emotional reaction. I understand intellectually that sometimes treating children with respect and love is not always possible – perhaps because family members themselves simply don’t always have the capacity – yet I don’t understand it emotionally. But if we can’t protect our children from the negative emotions swirling around, then we can give them a context to understand these emotions and help them understand that many times people’s emotions have nothing to do with the other person.

And regardless of what everyone else is doing, what can your example show? What can children learn from your example? When everyone is falling apart around you, can you act with strength, calmness and humour and show that you believe we will all be fine and that we will learn what we need to? Can you show them that you trust and believe that they will be fine too, that they have resources and inner strength that they can draw upon, just like you do?

It also starts with having deep trust in the world – that there is everything at hand to teach you and guide you to your next level of development.

I was remembering when I was 31 and was interviewing to work as an in-house copywriter, and one company after another told me I came in second in the hiring process but they couldn’t offer me a job. Finally on the last time anyone told me that, I was biking home after the interview and cursing to myself that now I would have to give up looking for an employee position and become a freelancer. I was so mad – I felt that life was clearly telling me I wasn’t going to be hired and now I would have to take the harder route. I was convinced it would be much harder to work for yourself than for a company. I cursed all the way home. Of course, the moral of this story is that I became a freelancer and never looked back after that. What I was afraid of turned out to be nothing to be afraid of.

Somehow we get through these things that we are scared of, and looking back, usually what we remember is everything we learned along the way, not the fear. Can we learn to remember that there is nothing to be afraid of even while it happens.. that we are capable of dealing with whatever comes our way. And if what we fear the most happens, tears are a wonderful way to deal with life before you decide what to do next.

Learning to Live with Pure Trust

I was watching an eurythmy performance the other week – which is a beautiful art to watch and one in which many ideas come to mind as you watch the flowing, harmonious movements. One of the eurythmists began to recite a poem. I’d been thinking about fear the day before and what she spoke was exactly the answer to my questions. This is what she spoke:

We must eradicate from the soul
all fear and terror of what comes towards man out of the future.
We must acquire serenity in all feelings and sensations about the future.
We must look forward with absolute equanimity to everything that may come.
And we must think only that whatever comes is given to us by a world-directive full of wisdom.
It is part of what we must learn in this age,
Namely to live out of pure trust
Without any security in existence.
Trust in that ever present help of the spiritual world.
Truly, nothing else will do
If our courage is not to fail us.
And we must seek this awakening within Ourselves
Every morning and every evening.

Rudolf Steiner wrote those words more than 100 years ago. He was a true visionary, but his name does not appear much outside of Waldorf/Steiner circles.

To live with no fear is quite something and takes a tremendous level of spiritual growth. I think about his line “Without any security in existence” and wonder what most people would say about taking away all government security.

To live with trust that the world will and is delivering everything you need – for learning, for growth, for life… that is quite something. My naturopath also spoke about this when she told me no matter the hardship or challenge in your life, say thank you. And if you don’t feel it, say thank you over and over again until you start to believe it.

It’s also worth noting that Steiner says this is something that you must continually renew – in fact every morning and every evening.

And certainly, the “fear of” syndrome can sneak up on you… when you find you’re making choices that are mainly because of fear of something, instead of what you want to see. The universe does not work well with negatives and instead tends to make more concrete the thing you are fearing. We need to visualize what we want instead, and then contentment & courage can return.

Stay Away from the Children’s Menu!

If your children can’t yet read, then be sure to never introduce them to the beast known as the Children’s Menu in restaurants. There they will meet food that is as dry and tasty as sandpaper and comes only in beige. Don’t be fooled by the lure of free crayons either.

If they can read, then you will have to do your best job of quickly disposing of the children’s menu – either tossed onto the table behind you or stuffed into your purse. Nowhere is the food as bad as on the children’s menu. While you dine on delicious fresh salad leaves with a dressing of subtle flavours or beef bourguignon with caramelized pearl onions or Moroccan chickpea stew, your offspring will be chewing beige wheat-covered food items with a surprising resemblance to the carpet your feet are resting on.

Where did we get the idea that real food is abhorrent to children in a restaurant?

Learning the Foreign Language of Children

I continue to be amazed at the innate spiritual knowledge that children carry. Every so often they will tell you what is true and beautiful about the world in an incredibly interesting way. Yet if you question them about what they said, it is shining too much intellectualism upon them and the moment vanishes in the ether.

It is as if they are steering you as the adult in how to grow and develop, yet the message can never be said directly and you must listen so carefully without straining or asking too many questions, almost as if you are learning a foreign language. You can’t stop and question every word, but must go along with the flow so that you can have some semblance of a conversation.

Many describe this as children being our mirrors and indeed they are. Of course, this does not mean that you’re not also their alpha guide and role model. The learning needs to flow in both directions, from child to adult and vice versa.

I remember when my daughter came back home after a few days away at a cabin when she was almost 11. She returned so happy at having had so much freedom and time in nature, and also from escaping the heavy cloud of worry in the house, which we were carrying with her younger brother’s illness. As soon as she stepped into the house and saw her brother, she told me, “It’s an honour to take care of Aaron.” I was floored at her depth of understanding and perspective. To be able to see something that her parents thought of as so difficult as a gift of service was astounding. Of course the very next day she complained bitterly of the deprivations she felt she’d undergone in having a brother with health issues! Because, after all, we all need to keep both feet on the ground, her Mum included.

Sitting on Large Blocks of Time

Whenever we take a plane ride, I’m greatly relieved when there is no media (a common theme on this blog!). It means instead my children will have the gift of figuring out how to entertain themselves. Granted, this is very different when you’re traveling with children three and younger who are wired to move almost continually and can’t understand why they must remain in a chair for five hours. (I’ve tried that and it is similar to outright torture.)

I apply the same thinking when they’re ill. Illness is difficult, but it’s much easier when you accept it as a time to stay home and rest. The hours of boredom are good for them. Sometimes I will read to them and it becomes a special time of reading out loud for a lot longer than you normally would, or at least until your voice conks out. It’s tempting to use media as a distraction, but perhaps this is merely teaching children to not look upon illness as a time to rest from the world. With media, they are still experiencing the revved up energy of the world, instead of the different state of mind that illness brings.

Often, after an illness like flu or strep throat, there is something slightly changed within the child – a quality that was hidden before comes closer to the surface. You have to look very closely, but it is sometimes almost a deepening of their understanding of humanity, or a strengthening of their empathy. Illness can bring many gifts if we have the space to allow it.

What Does a Spiritual Education Look Like?

If you are seeking a spiritually enlightened education for your children, take a look at Waldorf schools (also called Steiner schools in Europe). The curriculum, filled with music, handwork, drawing, theatre, movement, poetry, festivals, singing, cooperative games, sports, communal chores, and of course academics, seeks to balance thinking, feeling and willing within the child. The founder Rudolf Steiner believed that these three capabilities of the soul needed to be equally trained to raise creative and free human beings.

There is also no media used within Steiner schools as a teaching method until high school. Some people love this; others may wonder if children will be left behind in the modern work force. Considering that many of us learned computers after high school, I think this is not an issue. The danger instead is that too much time spent on learning technology when in elementary school could produce a house of cards: that technology will continue to change at quite a rapid pace, meaning for example that when you were learning PowerPoint in Grade 3, it becomes redundant years later and what do you have to show for that block of time spent learning? (Waldorf schools have other reasons that they don’t use technology though). Instead, if you learn drawing or singing, that is a gift you will have your whole life. And who can deny that technology is easy to pick up at any stage in your life, as we all have.

There are so many layers to the Waldorf school curriculum it is difficult to choose where to begin first. Perhaps with the singing. Every day, every single student sings. They are taught to sing high notes, which has become neglected in today’s music classes, oriented as they are towards popular music and its lower notes. The children have such sweet high voices and to hear a Waldorf class sing is a gift. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with singing low of course, but for children to begin singing low, they are missing the chance to learn and delight in the entire range of their voice.

The painting techniques are also an interesting place to stop upon. In kindergarten, they start by giving the children one primary colour to work with, say yellow. After a few weeks, they will be given a second primary colour to work with, perhaps blue. Using watercolours on damp paper, the colours blend together and the children experience for themselves how colours combine to create another colour – in this case green. For weeks they will continue with just two colours, content to fully explore the blending of yellow and blue and the creation of all the shades of green. In my son’s kindergarten, not one child asked for another colour after weeks of using only two colours.

When my daughter first began at the Waldorf school, she joined the kindergarten in May after leaving her other school. When it was painting day, she sat down to paint and made sure that none of the colours she used touched each other. At the end of the morning, the teacher showed me her painting compared to the other children’s. Hers was a mass of separate blobs across the page, because she had never been taught to experience the creation of colour, while the other children’s watercolours merged in a free flow of colour creation.

I freely confess to having drunk the Kool-Aid when it comes to Waldorf schools. It is my wish that in the future, all schools will draw something from the ideas of teaching that Steiner developed. The depth and clarity of his vision for a conscious-raising education for the children of the world is truly inspiring.

As he said himself:

“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.”