Wednesday, December 7, 2011

We Teach by Our Presence: The power of practice merged with presence in cultivating and flourishing compassion in our children and our world

By Molly Rowan Leach

The foundation of compassion’s growth in our world starts with our children—but even before that, with ourselves. Although I am a strong proponent of pedagogical practices and the power of education, I would also like to invite us in this blog to consider that it may be our presence and quiet actions that have equal if not greater value to our children. In this blog I’d like to cover what I have discovered in both realms with this in mind.

Just a few years ago a few of my close friends were integral in hosting His Holiness The Dalai Lama in Seattle, for a week-long event called “Seeds of Compassion”. As with most of HHDL’s events people turned out in the hundreds of thousands to hear dialogues and receive practical insights in a specific set of key modules, including a panel on raising healthy, compassionate children. The Dalai Lama and the panel emphasized “seeds” such as:

• Listening
• Nonviolent Communication
• The Power in Storytelling
• Presence
• Boundaries & Clear Guidelines
• Providing positive reflection and reinforcement

There is much use of the adage “Be the change you wish to see in the world” that was coined by Gandhi, and we know that underneath this koan of sorts is a much deeper relevance than may first meet the eye. So the practices/principles above—for which there are others but for the purposes of our sharing here together today I’m focusing on these—must be both understood and conceptualized and then brought fully forth into being. We know that people—especially our children—have a sixth sense about them that can immediately detect when there is not authenticity in the room. We know that our nonverbal realm is much more rich and robust with constant communication than the verbal. So in principle in order for us to convey to our children what we wish to see out-pictured in our world, we must essentially start with ourselves.

How does that apply to teaching our children, you might ask? If theory and practice do not merge, there is lessened authenticity. Truly understanding ourselves and where our own buttons get pushed and charges are helps us gain a much greater scope of qualities that add to a powerful wisdom and centeredness that we can bring to our children. In fact, it is often our children who are waiting for us to catch up to them. And I’m not saying that we don’t have a responsibility to ourselves and to them to learn and teach, to continue to learn, and never stop learning and implementing best practices. I’m saying that our children ultimately are our guides back to the place where compassion and empathy already flourish and are simply waiting for us to regain that space within our own conscious awareness; and thus, in daily life and our teaching practice and presence.


There is an egregious underestimation of the power of true listening in our Western culture. We are so eager to be right, prove ourselves, get our point across and win an argument that many miss the jewel within the great stream of human interaction: that true listening opens up windows and actually shifts the biochemistry of the brain in each participant of a conversation. When I am listening deeply to you, my biofeedback and resonance, as measured by recent scientific studies, is the exact same frequency as the Earth’s. It’s called the Schumann Resonance. What does this mean? It gives striking evidence to the fact that when we are present in a way that allows the other to transmit their view, story, or whatever it is that is “up”, we optimize the other’s sense of being heard, and not only that we uplift the possibility of mutual connection and thus, if conflict is present, deep resolution. In the case of parents and teachers relating this way to children, there is no difference. When a parent pauses from all the ‘ten thousand things that rise and fall’, all the distractions of the days that seem to pass so quickly, and truly stops to listen—mind you while also emptying his or her mind of what my friend and colleague Leroy Little Bear calls “tacit infrastructures”…magic happens. From that “ground of being” that my colleague James O’Dea so eloquently speaks to, one can set the framework for clarity, resolution, empathy, and even healing to occur. And what is so key and critical for our children is that unspoken direct and deep connection that silently says, “I hear you, you are safe and you are truly seen.”

Now in this practice I am not saying we should let our children streamroll us or that we do not have boundaries especially when engaging with them in charged situations—however, it is almost inherent that if we are coming from a space of deep listening we will likely be disarming any defenses built up—especially with our teen youth.

Deep listening requires again a tending of our own inner garden and invites us to get in touch ever more closely with what might prevent us from feeling and experiencing our own inner peace. It is helpful if we can engage this process with, of course, self-compassion and as Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron so simply states, “start where you are”. This helps us become malleable and open to our own wounds or blocks and allows us to also remove judgment of ourselves in preparing to bring our best foot forward when working with, and parenting, our beloved children. And thus it also in turn disarms the charge of judgment of others and capacitates a clear perception of what really is at hand.

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg is well-known internationally for his incredibly relevant work in creating and offering Nonviolent Communication (NVC) practices. The core and heart of nonviolent communication is based in recovering our own natural humility and reverence for life itself while creating a safe space for there to be clear dialogue. Rosenberg was once in a very tense situation in a war zone, and in order to diffuse the situation carefully, he made even his physical form humble to this aggressor by turning his head to the side and asking, “what do you need me to understand?”

When we invite understanding into the room and allow that to foundation our verbal exchanges, it shifts the whole ‘game’ of communication and listening. NVC is a rigorous and practical program that provides practical tools that support the clear verbal cues that support the unfolding process. Often a person will reflect back to the other what he or she has just heard, to convey a deep sense of understanding and to invite any further clarification. With children we can employ this practice in a joyful way, engaging the imagination and allowing our discourse and sharing with them to also feed creativity and as parents to send silent and powerful messages that, indeed, we are there with them, and that they are encouraged to flourish and open. This is also a powerful practice of course when there are fights or disruptive behaviors, as it allows the child to understand that he or she will be given a full opportunity to share his or her story and view, and be fully heard, while the parent or teacher takes part in turn and directs the course of the dialogue towards resolution.

I cannot emphasize more the power of the non-verbal realm in our conveying compassion and empathy to our children, and in the verbal realms, NVC is one—if not the most—powerful practices that rearranges the entire landscape of how we communicate in just a few simple, refined and very successfully practiced ways.

The Power of Storytelling

Although this “seed” was not, as far as my knowledge goes, covered specifically in the Dalai Lama’s time at Seeds of Compassion in Seattle, I added it because it is one of the most powerful platforms for conveying compassion while also eliciting the other qualities mentioned such as deep listening, presence, and so on. We know that our children love stories, and we know that reading to and with them has a great influence on their inner world and beyond. Storytelling allows us to step away from the thousands of other distractions in our world and come back to the original evening news: the campfire and the verbal traditions. When we share with our children either by reading a book with them that exemplifies the power of peacemaking or by inviting impromptu “made up stories”, we give them a window into a world that is filled with the great gift of diversity, with the power of differences, with the unity of our interconnectedness, and this helps keep our children’s “gateway to imagination” open, which is a powerful thing to keep.

It also provides a creative platform to discover commonalities—to realize our “inescapable web of mutuality” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so beautifully put it. By hearing others stories we realize we are not alone, and quite in fact, share very common and similar experiences of our world. This facet of discovery is one of the primary factors that melts unforgiveness, hate and the cycles of violence. By allowing stories to be shared, and by combining this with true authentic listening, many experience a new sense of interconnectedness which affects their consciousness in a very expansive, calming, “a-ha moment” kind of way. For children, it helps augment the foundational safety they need to feel in their world and helps them to feel a greater sense of empathy for others when they are hurt or wronged-because they can venture into the greater story behind why that person may have hurt them or another. Storytelling is one of our world’s most powerful platforms for understanding and compassion for these reasons.


So much has been said and studied about presence—so what is it, really? Is it possible for us to be truly present with our children when our minds are elsewhere, concerned about bills or tasks, distracted by again those feisty ten thousand things that rise and fall? My son once said, “Mom, your computer is not your son.” That statement hit home to my core and woke me up to the fact that I was doing the very thing I so wanted to not do for my own children: to be physically present but mentally elsewhere—and thus not fully present. Now this is a constant vigilance that gets more and more subtle the further you go into committing yourself to Presence with a capital “P”. Isn’t that ironic? It’s no wonder that so many turn back—we have been so infiltrated by surface distractions and patterning that tells us not to dive into our own ‘stuff’ that it is no easy feat to commit to this—and yet, it is the most powerful gift you can give to your child and youth in your community. We often say the greatest gifts are not things. This is what I am getting at here with presence. And to not stop at the surface but to dive in, again with that self-compassion and non judgment of where you are on your journey, so that you can better serve to exemplify this very state of being for your beloved child and children.

When we talk about the basic steps that bring you back to essence or true presence—and you may know that feeling that I’m talking about—it’s that sense of such calm, centered trust and great love—it’s a deep and complete peace that rises up from a source that is so a part of each and every one of us. It is joyful and grounding all at once. Perhaps it is elicited when you are with someone whom you know on the very core levels sees you for who you truly are, or perhaps it surfaces when you are near the ocean. In our day to day lives, naturally this feeling will disappear from our experience, and is brought back to the forefront by simple practices that we can share with our children—regardless of spiritual inclination and/or affiliation:

• Breath as a tool to connect us to our hearts.
• Heart-awareness; placing attention on one’s heart (Check out The Institute of Heart Math for some great science games and tools that measure your heart’s resonance.

• “Keiki Reiki”: affirmations coupled with EFT therapeutic practices (“Keiki” means children in Hawaiian; “Reiki” is energy, life-force)

• Meditation pauses throughout the day. Simply sitting with a candle (children love, with close supervision, to light the candle and this empowers and draws them to this simple yet profoundly helpful practice), watching your heart and breath. If you are a teacher, consider starting the day with this practice.

• Read a book about peace. There is such a great array of “peace books” for all ages available in our libraries. By telling the stories of compassion and love in our world we counterbalance the heavy attention to its opposite by our culture, government, and media. (Check out “Peace and Pancakes”, a wonderful story that illuminates the victim behind every perpetrator, and gives children a powerful conveyance of the power of courage, compassion, and hearing all the stories)

• Re-engage daily with Mother Nature/Outdoor education and awareness. (My personal favorite here is Jon Young’s program based in the NW that has curriculum for K-12 plus adults in naturalist and wildnerness awareness

Ultimately the journey here is more important than the destination, and yet by employing these consistently one might find less and less gaps between true presence and a feeling of losing it. The journey of Buddha, Jesus and many masters has always had this quality: to strive to stream only that consciousness of true presence.

So these are a few ideas that I’ve seen employed in classrooms and that I do my best to employ myself as a parent. The things in our lives that could be most helpful to us often seem the hardest to enact—so starting simply, and with compassion for oneself and not feeling a rigid grip on “having to do it that way” is a good plan.

With each of the above ideas we weave a fabric that is a powerful mirror for our children. Nobody can argue that we have too little coming at us every day—from media to video and television to the quality of the news and its choice to focus on the contracted and darker parts of the world—we truly and actively counteract these effects by making choices to place our energy and focus on exploring activities such as the above that naturally deepen our ability to be present. I like to think of life as a benevolent warrior’s or hero’s journey back to this place and ideally, that if we are skilled enough, we can lessen that need for a long journey back to that center for our own children.


I hope that this blog has been insightful for you and although I am not an expert in much anything I have enjoyed sharing my humble wisdoms gained from experience and teachings from some great beings I’ve had the fortune to know on my own journey.

Molly Rowan Leach has lived a life that she hopes has left both a subtle and not so subtle imprint for the better upon the heart of humanity. Working at IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) and overseas at the Center for Graduate Research and Education/Economics Institute in Prague, she began to set in motion the independent and activist voice that resides within her quite deeply.

Her publicity and production company, Mali Rowan Presents, was founded in 2009 after it became clear that she was already broadcasting, connecting, and sharing good works and great people and organizations for over a decade. She is currently hosting leading-edge dialogue series for Evolutionary Lawyers and a series on Restorative Justice and Social Healing in the US and beyond, featuring the powerful work of colleagues James O’Dea, Dr. Judith Thompson, ABA Bestselling Author J. Kim Wright, Riane Eisler, Sharif Abdullah, Matthew Albracht and many others.

She has produced major conferences, “Living in the Fire of Change: Sacred Activism and Social Transformation”, which she co-founded with James O’Dea, a colleague and fellow voice in Restorative Justice and Social Healing. She has worked closely with O’Dea over the past 3 years on production of his first published book, Creative Stress: A Path for Evolving Souls Living through Personal and Planetary Upheaval (2010) and is his Events, Outreach and Production Manager. They also are collaborating in creating a Social Healing Institute with Dr. Judith Thompson, Belvie Rooks, and others.

Upcoming for 2012 Molly will be writing a book based on her background and experiences in Restorative Justice and human-based Prison Reform, as well as continuing to move forward the great works of the Social Healing Institute and rolling out virtual training opportunities with leading voices in these respective fields.

For more info please visit her official website at: twitter: @malirowan | facebook: Mali.rowan1

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