The Political Power of Tithing

Last night, I was reading an essay titled Blessing the World by Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Ann Parker. In her essay,  Parker discussed the practice of tithing in the Christian church. In a traditional sense, tithing means that parishioners give away 10% of their income to their church. According to Parker, most evangelical Christians and socially conservative churches continue this practice while most liberal faith-based institutions do not. This means that evangelical churches have a lot of money which they can donate to conservative political campaings or other right-wing causes. Ultimately, tithing is a major reason why the religious right has morphed into a powerful political interest group.

In contrast, progressive advocacy groups are often sorely underfunded and disorganized. In my graduate school classes, we often lament how liberal grassroots movements have been largely ineffective at pressuring policymakers and holding Democratic candidates accountable while the religious right continues to impact policy and influence Republican congressmen.

Last night, as I was reading Parker’ s essay, I wondered if the practice of tithing could also empower progressive grassroots movements and advocacy groups. If large numbers of liberals committed to donating 10% of their income to progressive grassroots causes–could we too build powerful interest groups capable of influencing social policy in America?

Take a moment to think. Would you consider donating 10%, 5% or even 2% of your income to a progressive cause in the coming year?

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Does Cathleen Black Have What it Takes to Run the New York City School System?

It’s official; Mayor Bloomberg has appointed media-mogul Cathleen Black as chancellor of the New York public school system. Apparently the mayoral takeover of the public schools is also a corporate takeover. With Cathleen Black as commander in chief, Bloomberg is enlisting his multi-millionaire cronies in full-scale coup d’ etat on the public education system.

Perhaps I sound a bit dramatic. It’s just that Black’s nomination has left me feeling wary. The new chancellor attended Roman Catholic schools and sent her children to elite private academies. Black has never stepped foot in a school as a teacher or administrator.

I’m briefly reminded here of a conversation I once had with a parent activist and leader of a Chicago-based advocacy group. This parent reflected, “you know, the politicians, the mayor, the alderman—they all send their kids to private schools. I’ve never once met one that that sent their kid to a CPS school. They can’t really understand the problems in our schools because they haven’t spent any time there.”

Personally, I agree with the words of this parent. After working as a teacher in an inner-city high school I might be a bit biased—but I feel like experience counts for something. As Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country, Ms. Black will be making decisions that affect the life-outcomes of millions of poor and working-class children. How is it possible that Ms. Black will possess the necessary empathy, understanding, and passion to make the right choices for these students? Can Ms. Black descend from her penthouse apartment and build rapport with principals in Harlem or parents in the South Bronx?

I’m worried that for Ms. Black the students of the New York public school system will merely be a series of numbers, statistics and dollar signs. When you are looking at numbers in columns—and not thinking about the real kids sitting in classrooms—it is easy to slash budgets or try out experimental policies without really weighing the consequences. I think New York Times columnist Bob Herbert summarized my uneasiness the best his column yesterday titled “Winning the Class War”. Herbert writes:

“Ms. Black will be peering across an almost unbridgeable gap between her and the largely poor and working-class parents and students she will be expected to serve. Worse, Mr. Bloomberg, heralding Ms. Black as a “superstar manager,” has made it clear that because of budget shortfalls she will be focused on managing cutbacks to the school system. So here we have the billionaire and the millionaire telling the poor and the struggling — the little people — that they will just have to make do with less.”

I’m nervous about the parallels being drawn here between managing a business and running a school system. Mr. Blooming argued that Ms. Black’s managing expertise and experience serving customers have prepared her to lead the school system and to work with parents and children.

Schools are not businesses. Preparing students to be thoughtful, well-rounded and productive citizens—despite the formidable obstacles presented by poverty is a much more complicated enterprise than making a profit. Student achievement is harder to measure than annual revenue. Not to mention, there is a lot more at stake when educating millions of New York children than there is selling magazines. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see how being a successful business manager is any indication of how one might perform as a school chancellor.

Bloomberg’s bad appointment certainly reveals the downside of a Mayoral takeover of schools. In Chicago, the story is similar. When Arne Duncan was appointed the Secretary of Education by Obama, Mayor Daley appointed Huberman a former cop and a long trusted employee in the Mayor’s office as the Chicago Public School’s CEO. Like, Black, Huberman had no experience in education but was a part of the Mayor’s inner-circle.

Perhaps it’s natural that Mayors looking to consolidate power will place trusted cronies in top positions. However, this strategy does not put kids first. I believe that effective administrators are as important as effective teachers. If we want to make our public school systems better, way may want to re-think an arrangement that gives our Mayor (one individual—inevitably guided by his own self-interest) the unchecked power to choose educational leaders.

Can Computers Replace Teachers? What Should the Role of Technology be in Education Reform?

When I began teaching four years ago, differentiation was a major buzzword among school administrators. For those of you who have never taught in a classroom, differentiation is the idea that a teacher should tailor his/her lesson to meet the needs of different learners. Advocates of differentiation believe that it is not enough to “pitch to the middle” of the class—teachers need to find a way to challenge the kids at the top of the class without losing the kids at the bottom. Teachers who differentiate will make sure their lesson caters to visual learners, auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, and special education students.

As a new teacher I was told “Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate”—but few administrators or even education professors bothered to specify how I was supposed to differentiate. When I tracked down special education teachers in my building and asked them how to better accommodate my students with learning disabilities they told me to simply have the kids complete fewer items on class assignments. I felt frustrated– giving some kids less work than others hardly seemed to fit the concept of differentiation.

Essentially, differentiation is wonderful in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. Most teachers I knew were already overwhelmed and did not have time to develop multiple lessons plans to meet the needs of different students. Furthermore, it seemed like although everyone agreed that differentiation was important—there was a lot of confusion among educators around what differentiation was actually supposed to look like in the classroom.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a “Freakeconomics” podcast about a new educational pilot program in New York City called “School of One”. School of One is a computer program developed by TFA alum Joel Rose. Put simply, the program crafts individual learning plans for each student, depending upon that child’s needs. Students can use the software to engage in online lessons, group work, or independent practice. Best of all, the program collects data on each student so that a tech guru back at the School of One office can monitor the progress of every kid.

I was intrigued by the “School of One” project because it seemed that this program could be a valuable classroom tool for teachers looking to differentiate for their students. The program accomplishes what no single human being can—it specially designs an individual learning “playlist” for each student. (On a side note: it was refreshing to see an innovative technology applied to solving social problems. I often lament how so many of our latest technologies, the Ipad, Facebook, Groupon etc, are solely geared towards making a profit.)

We all know that large percentages of teachers (especially in urban schools) fail to make expected gains with their students. The creators of School of One argue that we’re already recruiting plenty of talented and motivated teachers to work in our public schools. The problem, according to Mr. Rose, is an issue of design. In other words, we need to think differently about the way we structure the job for teachers. Perhaps having one adult lecture a room full of thirty students isn’t the most effective way to get kids to learn.

Personally, I think Mr. Rose has some pretty valid ideas. Teaching can feel like a Herculean task sometimes. Teachers must find ways to manage inappropriate behaviors, communicate regularly with parents, form meaningful relationships with students, plan stimulating lessons, secure funding for classroom supplies, interpret classroom data and find ways to motivate kids. As a teacher I was faced with the daunting task of engaging students who could not read in the same High School Spanish classroom with students who were college-bound. Perhaps Mr. Rose is right to think that we have not organized the job of teaching in a way that sets teachers and students up to be successful.

I think the “School of One” program offers some insightful suggestions on how we might re-think the role of teachers. I think one of the most impressive aspects of the program is its ability to collect and summarize lots of data on student achievement. It is difficult for educators to collect meaningful data on daily student progress. (Believe me, I’ve tried it.) With the School of One program, educators can easily track the progress of students and identify which kids are mastering the material. This way, teachers can step in and make sure a kid understands the material right away—rather than waiting until a student fails a quiz in order to take action.

One of the most important adjustments we can make in teacher training programs is to make teachers data experts. Right now, schools of education rarely emphasize the importance of data or teach educators how to collect and use data. The result is that few teachers are able to keep track of whether or not their kids are learning.

As a Teach for America teacher, I was required to keep data on my students. Essentially, this meant recording whether or not students mastered various objectives on quizzes and tests. While this data was useful for motivating kids (they were eager to achieve 80% mastery), I often wondered whether or not this data was actually meaningful. How did I know if I was testing the objectives in the right way? What was the correct measure of mastery? Furthermore, what does it mean when a student masters the academic material but then fails my class because he/she missed too many classes or failed to turn in important assignments? Is there a difference between mastery and preparing our kids for adulthood?

My point is, that teachers need to be taught how to do more than record data. In order to evaluate lessons and practices, educators need to be taught and encouraged to think thoughtfully and critically about what data means. The “School of One” program does not solve this problem—but it might be a useful tool for getting teachers to engage in data about their students.

“School of One” could be a great classroom aid for teachers (that is, if we could afford to provide laptops for students citywide). However, I believe this sort of program should assist—NOT replace teachers. One of the most important aspects of a teacher’s work is forming relationships with their students. Computer programs can’t express compassion for a kid whose parents are going through a divorce, or notice if a kid is coming to school everyday without breakfast. The discretion, empathy, passion and charisma of teachers will always be an important part of any quality education.

Note: To access the Freaknomics Radio podcast on the School of One use this link: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/freakonomics-radio-how-is-a-bad-radio-station-like-the-public-school-system/

No Trauma Centers on the South Side?

In late August, Damian Turner an 18 year old resident of Woodlawn was killed by a stray bullet. The corner where Damian was shot (61st street and Cottage Grove) is one I know well. As a  graduate student at the University of Chicago I often drive by that intersection while looking for a parking spot on the mornings before class.

The Grov Parc apartment complex where Damian lived is only four blocks (perhaps a 15 second drive) from the University of Chicago Hospital. However, Damian could not be rushed to the University of Chicago Hospital because it does not have an adult trauma unit. For this reason, Damian was taken to the nearest adult trauma unit at Northwestern Hospital. The trip took about 10 minutes.

Did those extra ten minutes cost Damian his life?

We’ll never know, but it is an injustice that we are left  wondering this question.

Trauma units are designed to treat emergencies caused by shootings, stabbings, and other acts of violence. Currently, that are no trauma units on the South Side of Chicago–despite the fact that incidences of violence are alarmingly high in this region. Trauma victims must be transported to either Northwestern Hospital in the Loop, or to a hospital in the Western Suburbs.

This morning at 11 am, residents of the Woodlawn community and members of the South Side organizing group STOP gathered for the second time outside the University of Chicago Hospital to voice their demand that a new adult trauma unit be built.

Although the University Hospital used to have a trauma unit– that program was discontinued. Hospital officials remarked that the program was simply too expensive to run, and that the hospital was swamped with trauma victims from the entire South Side of the city. (It is worth noting here the Hospital’s concerns about costs. Victims of violence are disproportionately young, minority males. These patients are more likely to be Medicaid patients or to be uninsured).

Last fall, I worked as a social work intern at the University of Chicago Hospital. I can say with confidence that the hospital operates a number of costly and impressive programs. There is a first class treatment center for patients with cystic fibrosis. The hospital is the only in the city to perform lung transplants. One of the doctors in the transplant unit is qualified to do bloodless transplant surgery– one of only a handful of doctors to possess this qualification in the entire country. While I was working at the University Hospital I noted that it drew patients (especially in the transplant and oncology units) from all over the state and all over the Midwest.

Needless to say, the hospital makes choices about what kind of research it will conduct, which diseases it will treat, and how it will spend its money. A recent article in the New York Times reports that the University of Chicago Hospital is in the process of building a new 700 million dollar pavilion.

All of this invokes the question–who do hospitals have a responsibility to serve? Do hospitals have a responsibility to serve the communities where they are situated?  Or, do hospitals choose which types of diseases they will provide treatment for–and expect that patients with these conditions (regardless of where they are located) will come seek their services out of necessity?  Clearly, the University of Chicago Hospital has made a choice to provide certain kinds of treatments (and to privilege certain populations) over others.

Undoubtedly, no hospital can specialize in every type of care. However, I worry that hospitals will frequently avoid specializing in the treatment of conditions that disproportionately affect the poor and uninsured. Trauma units are just one example.

Is equal access to healthcare a human right in America? If so, we need to find a way incentivize (or require) hospitals to provide services for the poor. The way things are, hospitals (such as U of C) can strategically choose not to offer services that are likely to be used by high number of Medicaid or uninsured patients.

Note: This post draws heavily from the following NYT article for factual information: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/03/us/03cnchospitals.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

What “Waiting for Superman” Got Wrong

“Waiting for Superman” is the latest documentary about the educational achievement gap in America. The film follows six students from poor neighborhoods that are seeking entrance into exemplary charter schools. The movie also features interviews with some notable education reformers (such as Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools).

I felt conflicted about seeing “Waiting for Superman” because I was told the film was “anti-teacher” and largely pro-charter school. (For the record I am not entirely opposed to charter schools—but I worry that charters are not a sustainable solution for America’s educational problems.)

Now that I have seen the film, I will acknowledge there are a few important truths that it got right.

Truth #1: There is a serious aspiration gap in America.

What I mean by this is: poor kids don’t want to grow up to be barbers, or construction workers or waitresses. If you ask these kids—by and large they want to go college. The movie interviews kids who like math, who want to be doctors, and who are serious about school. The kids featured in “Waiting for Superman” defy the stereotypes that claim poor kids can’t or don’t want to learn. The heartbreaking truth is that most of these kids are stuck in a broken school system and will never get the chance to pursue their dreams.

Truth #2: Poor families DO value their child’s education.

There are some seriously tough, determined, Moms in this movie. We see parents calling teachers, helping their kids with reading, and working extra jobs to pay tuition for their kids. Too often poor parents are wrongfully portrayed as disinterested in the education of their children.

HOWEVER…Despite the film’s positive aspects—I worry that the film presents an overly simplified view of educational inequity.

In one scene—an education reformer states that if we could remove the bottom 6% of teachers in the United States—our educational outcomes would be equal to Finland— the country with the best educational system in the world.

It is true the great teachers can affect substantial change. However, it is extremely hard to predetermine who will make an effective teacher. Our question should be: What is Finland doing to produce great teachers that we’re not doing?

My hunch is that Finland (like Sweden and other Baltic Countries) values teachers more (and pays them better) than we do in America. “Waiting for Superman” points out that doctors, lawyers, CEOs and other professionals are held accountable for their job performance in ways that teachers are not. (Only 1 in 2400 teachers has his/her certificate revoked). However, we also pay doctors, lawyers, and CEOs much more than we pay teachers—and we confer these professionals with much higher status. (It is likely there is some sexism involved in this—other female-dominated professions like nursing and social work often get treated the same way).

If we want better teachers, let’s face it—we’re going to have to make the job better. We ought to demand more from teachers—while also ensuring that they are well paid, supported, mentored, and work in safe places. I often think of pictures a friend once sent me of the Google workplace. The photos revealed an office space complete with a five-star dining facility, on-site masseuses, a gym and other amenities. I wondered—how can we convince enough of our brightest and most talented Americans to work as educators in our toughest schools—when large corporations such as Google can offer them generous salaries and so many job-related perks?

The central “bad guys” in “Waiting for Superman” are the teacher’s unions. It is true that unions have often protected outdated tenure practices at the expense of children. (Although recently unions in D.C. agreed to a proposal that included merit pay for teachers who give up their rights to tenure– a fact the movie omits.) However, to target unions as the root cause of educational inequality is completely misguided.

We live in an extremely capitalist society. Where the gap between the rich and the poor has become vast. That fact that the achievement gap exists is symptomatic of the fact that we live in a deeply segregated and unequal country. Property taxes pay for schools. Hence, schools in wealthy suburbs with high property taxes get lots of money. They pay teachers more—and tend to attract the best ones. Schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get very much money. Therefore, they often cannot hire sufficient numbers of teachers, tend to attract young and inexperienced staff, and often can’t provide basic resources for students. (I once volunteered at a school in Detroit that couldn’t afford enough toilet paper for students.)

This isn’t rocket science. It may not be politically palatable to ask the wealthy to redistribute tax dollars so that poor schools can get a bigger piece of the pie. But we ought to at least acknowledge the unequal funding structures are a large part of the reason why so many inner-city schools are “failure factories”.

Furthermore, we ought to acknowledge that educational inequality has been caused by decades of racial oppression, redlining, white-flight, city-wide corruption, and racist policies (especially post-World War II Veteran provisions which provided student loans and affordable mortgages to whites and denied them to blacks) that have facilitated white ascendancy into the middle class while keeping racial minorities locked into poverty. Not to mention our current political system is heavily influenced by powerful corporate interest groups and has little need to be accountable to the poor. In other words…there is some monstrous inertia behind the achievement gap. If we are going to devise solutions to this issue we had better be clear that bad teachers are only one part of the problem. Moreover, “Waiting for Superman” suggests that teachers exist in a vacuum. Let’s not forget that school culture, administrative leadership, city politics, dysfunctional bureaucracies and educational policies all have the power to set teachers up for success or for failure.

Poverty, Fear and Social Isolation: Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Older Adults in Poor Neighborhoods

Much of the previous discussion on this blog has focused on the hardships of inner-city children. I have talked about the consequences among children of poor nutrition, unequal schools, inaccessible health care, and youth gang violence. However, it is important to acknowledge that poverty—and especially the experience of living in a poor, segregated and isolated neighborhood—have catastrophic effects on the health and wellbeing of adults and older adults as well.

As a social work intern working at the University of Chicago Hospital my job was to check in on patients and to assist with their discharge planning. During this time, I spoke with many elderly patients—the majority of whom were African American and lived in impoverished South Side neighborhoods surrounding the University of Chicago.

As I interacted with these patients and gently probed for information about their home life (it was a part of my job)— their stories began to unravel.  I’ll never forget one woman, a frail but spunky African American lady in her mid nineties. When I asked this patient (we’ll call her Ms. Price) how her stay at the hospital was going, she retorted, “well, now I know why Obama is sayin’ we need health care reform.”

Ms. Price had lived in the same Chicago neighborhood since she arrived from the South at age 18. Since her husband died from cancer thirty years ago, Ms. Price had managed the upkeep of her home on her own and led a largely solitary life. Overtime, Ms. Price’s neighborhood became more dangerous and depopulated. The sidewalks were cracked and littered with broken glass. Drug dealers hung out in vacant buildings, and neighborhood shootings were common.

Fear held Ms. Price hostage. She worried that if she left the house she would trip on the crumbled sidewalk or be caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting. She stopped going to church, visiting friends and attending community socials for seniors. Ms. Price only left her home to buy groceries and visit the doctor.

When I asked Ms. Price if she had any friends or family that could help care for her after her surgery, she answered wistfully, “No…I just always take care of myself. You get to a certain age and all your friends are dead. I used to have a friend who called me once a year, but this year he didn’t call…I think maybe he died.”

As I continued my internship at the hospital, I continued to meet more people like Ms. Price— black and Latino senior citizens living lonely, isolated lives in poor neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides. For many of these people, safety was a major concern. I found that many senior citizens were afraid to leave their homes—and often ended up severing important social ties and connections to their communities. Too often, fear prevented senior citizens from attending community events, getting fresh air and exercise, seeking medical help and leading active and fulfilling lives.

I later learned while reading an excerpt from Eric Klineberg’s book “Heat Wave”, that one of the leading causes of death during the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave was social isolation among the elderly. Older adults, who were afraid to leave their homes during the heat wave, were less likely to seek reprieve in air-conditioned public spaces such as shopping malls. They were also less likely to seek services that might be provided by community organizations and nearby churches.

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Although older adults living in poverty may face many challenges (unsafe neighborhoods, health problems, social isolation, costly medications—to name a few)—people of all ages can be valuable assets to their communities and agents of positive change.

Last Saturday, I attended a leadership-training workshop for Black and Latino older adults. Gamaliel Metro Chicago (a local chapter of a nationwide community organizing group) and the AARP ran the workshop. The aim of the workshop was to train older adult leaders to be community organizers and to advocate for issues important to older adults on Chicago’s South and West sides.

When the doors opened at 9 am, there was already a line of chatting, silver-haired participants waiting outside. By the time the training started, there was close to ninety people clustered around circular tables in the conference room.

I hadn’t anticipated just how inspiring this event would be. As the participants shared their personal histories, I learned that many of them had overcome unimaginable personal hardships before becoming formidable leaders in their communities. One remarkable woman I met recalled her childhood growing up in Louisiana. She remembered walking on a dirt road each day to a one room school house with the other black children in her neighborhood—and watching when a school bus carrying the white children to a different school rattled by them each day. This injustice gnawed at her deeply. When she finally came to Chicago as a young woman, she felt disheartened that things didn’t seem much better here than they were in the South. Black and Latino children were still attending deeply segregated and unequal schools. Since that time, she told me she’s spent a lifetime working or volunteering for education reform. When she spoke about the limited ESL services available for immigrant children at her community school she remarked, “Oooh, it just burns me up. One thing, I know I’ll be working on this til I die. I just know it.”

Many of the other workshop participants also held impressive leadership positions within their communities. One man I met ran a food pantry, and other man described a mentorship program for high school students he started and coordinated on his own—after he was denied at job at Burger King because he didn’t have a college degree.

Like Ms. Price, many of the seniors were concerned about safety and community services for other seniors. After some questioning, one woman told me that she had decided to come to the event after an elderly man at her church been beaten to death in the street. “He was such a gentleman”, she recalled fondly, “he was always helping the old ladies down the altar after communion—even though he was an old guy too.”

Throughout the training, it occurred to me that like young people, older adults are also in a unique position to help their communities and to foster positive change. Unlike many middle-aged adults who must balance the demands of work and parenting, most older adults have an abundance of free time.  Furthermore, many older adults have a reached a point in their lives where they have accrued a lot of wisdom and have developed an acute sense of compassion and a desire to “give back”.

It is important that we begin to bring more awareness to the struggles that older adults in poor communities may face. This demographic is vulnerable but if organized, they can also be powerful. Older adults deserve to live in safe places and to have social services that will allow them to be fruitful and productive in the final chapter of their lives.

My First Meditation Retreat

Buddha Statue at IMS Retreat Center

My first meditation retreat was far less glamorous than Elizabeth Gilbert’s turn as a yogi in “Eat, Pray, Love”.  For starters, there were fewer self-revelations and spiritual epiphanies. There was no swooning over lost loves and no friendships with wise, rough-around-the-edges guys from Texas. There were no visions and alas, no enlightenment.

All of this might sound like a let down, but the week I spent at the Insight Meditation Society’s (IMS) retreat for Young Adults was fruitful, challenging, and (appropriately) insightful.

The retreat I attended was a silent retreat. This means talking, eye contact, books, journals, cell phones, IPods, laptops and all other forms of amusement or distraction were forbidden. Yogis were even asked to take the plunge and deposit their cell-phones into a large wicker basket at the start of the retreat. (Confession: I kept mine and may have sent a text message or two).

When I signed up for the retreat I had been practicing Vipassana style meditation for almost two years. Although I spent fifteen minutes dutifully meditating each day, I often worried I wasn’t “doing it right”. I felt I needed instruction and I was ready to deepen my practice. Signing up for a meditation retreat seemed like a logical way to go about it.

Although I was initially excited for the retreat, as the date approached I started to experience doubt, regret, and eventually terror. I even dreamt that I arrived at the retreat only to discover it was actually a prison.

Somehow, (perhaps because I’m too embarrassed to quit something once I publicly tell people I going to do it), I forced myself to go. When I first arrived at the retreat center, I was enamored by the stately brick building and the charm of the 50-something bohemians who worked there. The place was a kind of eco-hippie utopia: there were no locks on any of the doors, all of the food in the cafeteria came from local farmers, and every scrap of left over food was composted.

However it didn’t take long for my fears to be confirmed. When I saw the week’s schedule I felt like someone had dropped an anvil on my chest. Between walking and sitting meditation session it included about 10 hours of meditation a day. I could barely meditate for 30 minutes let alone 10 hours! Briefly I was reminded of the previous longest week of my life—a Christian summer camp my parents shipped me off to at age ten. I have a very vivid memory of wanting to stick my head into the campfire while the other kids sang Bible hymns for the 3rd night in a row.  I wondered if this week would feel even longer.

During the first day I struggled with a mix of sleepiness and boredom. At the 6:30 am meditation session, I learned I could drift off to sleep sitting down, standing up, and even with my eyes opened. No matter how hard I tried to focus on my breath I began to fall back asleep within a few moments. During the afternoon sessions I found myself constantly peeking at my watch, waiting impatiently for the time to go by.  Each hour felt like an eternity. There was simply nothing to do except to follow my breath. I contemplated packing my things in the middle of the night and jailbreaking out of the place unnoticed.

For some reason, I stayed.  I kept meditating from dawn until dusk and when I felt I couldn’t meditate anymore I drank a cup of tea and watched the wind move through the trees. There were times I felt bored and times I simply longed for pizza, beer and loud music. However, those low points were more and more frequently punctuated by subtle revelations. I noticed just how much I missed “doing stuff”—even mindless activities like running errands or cleaning my apartment. I reasoned that perhaps in a society where we are constantly moving and keeping busy, we identify much more with “doing” or “achieving” than with “being”. Removed from my normally active life, I noticed I felt lost without my daily to-do list and the satisfaction of completing the tasks lined out ahead of me. During a dharma talk, one of my teachers commented, “movement disguises pain”. After hearing this remark, I reflected that perhaps all the constant busyness in American society makes it easy for us to avoid contemplating deeper questions about what it means to be a human being. I reasoned that the retreat experience may not be pleasurable, but it was certainly forcing me to terms with the “real me”—that is, the real experience of having a human mind and body that are normally hidden by the distractions of my day to day life.

With the guidance of my teachers, I practiced being mindful of my thoughts and emotions. When I felt sleepy or bored, I explored the physical sensations those mind states produced, and the thoughts that came with them. As I paid closer attention, I noticed that my mind moved through familiar, well-worn paths. I began labeling and observing each state of mind. There was my “desire mind” where I often fantasized about future vacations in elaborate detail, or thought about the clothes I wanted to buy for the fall. Then there was also the “planning mind” where I unnecessarily planned out details for the near future—such as deciding when to go get a cup of tea, or where I would go do my walking meditation. In addition there was the “judging mind” (where I alarmed myself by making all kinds of nasty judgments about other yogis as they sauntered by) and the “catastrophic mind” (where I worried incessantly about loved ones ending up in car accidents or plane crashes).

My thoughts seemed to amble randomly between these states mind, traveling the same familiar paths over and over again. Before long, I realized that most of these paths were not very interesting places to go, nor did they have very much do with real life. I began to understand that many of thoughts were only seductive illusions and that they were mostly a waste of my time. After a while, when I found myself slipping into a familiar mind state—perhaps planning a trip across Africa in my desire mind—I began to ask myself, “do I really want to follow this thought?  Is it better to be with this thought than be with the present moment?”  If I was honest with myself, the answer to that questions was usually “no”.

I’ll be honest I didn’t leave the meditation retreat a transformed person. Some days I watch TV for an extra half hour instead of meditating. Sometimes I forget to listen to others and I often end up lost in thoughts. However, there are also times when I remember to stop daydreaming and to reconnect with the present moment. In some cases, I wake up just in time to see something beautiful—like a string of preschoolers walking while holding hands or a bone-white plane cutting through a cloudless blue sky. For me, that’s enough to make the whole experience worth it.