On Wellbeing In Education With Navin Amarasuriya

Posted by Audrey Lin on Apr 4, 2021
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It's been a week since the Compassion in Education Pod officially came to a close, but we are still riding the waves from the shared learning journey. In our closing call, we had the joy of hearing insights from guest speaker Navin Amarasuriya's journey in nurturing values of contentment in education, and some invisible elves have transcribed it, below!

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Navin: Good evening from Singapore, everyone. I feel like I’ve come into someone’s house, and there’s this beautiful family having dinner together; and I’ve actually come bearing a gift. The gift that I have is that as each of you were speaking, I tried to feel into what resonated with me. So I’ll go backwards with some stories I wrote down that each of you already expressed, and it’s all linked to the theme of tonight as well.

Starting from the last share, Kristen was talking about compassion to oneself. One of the really great metaphors that I heard on cultivating self-compassion is that it’s kind of like tuning a guitar string. If the guitar string is too tight, and you’re always focused on self-improvement, when you play that song, the string snaps, and that tension doesn’t really serve. On the other side, you have unconditional self-acceptance, which in an extreme form could be laziness, or just an unwillingness to change. But that tension of the guitar string -- of tuning it between self-improvement and unconditional self-acceptance, is that beautiful sweet spot where we can kind of balance this idea that we’re all here to improve ourselves. We’re all here (together on this call) to learn something new. But we’re also all fine just as we are; and inside us is everything we’ve ever needed, everything we’ve ever been searching for.

Next, still on the theme of compassion, for those of you who used to fly [before the pandemic], I always thought the airplane safety announcements could be like the mantra in years to come, which echo through time: “When the oxygen mask drops from the overhead bin above, please attend to yourself first, and then the child.” To all the educators here, that piece of advice may be something that we hear again, if we start flying. But it’s so true, right? If we don’t have oxygen and we pass out, we can’t serve not just the child next to us, but the children all around us.

Of course, children, themselves, in a way serve us more than we serve them, at least for me. I was in a classroom once, and the teacher was an amazing listener. She threw an inquiry into the classroom, which asked: “Is Singapore a clean city?” We kind of have a reputation for being a clean city; and there was this one girl in the back of the class who was really quiet the whole class.

The teacher asked her, “So, do you think it’s a clean city?”

She doesn’t respond. It’s silent.

And then, very, very quietly, the student says, “I think Singapore is a great city in cleaning.”

I was just observing this class, and my mind was blown at the level of subtle observation of this child. Sometimes, the more we know, the more we get blinded by our own ideas, and fail to observe what’s right in front of us. So I’m very grateful for this young girl, for teaching me this priceless lesson.

I think somebody talked about the interconnected wholeness of things as well. When we think about what it means to be educated -- literacy, mathematics, sciences, linguistics, all these ways of interfacing with the world are important. A friend of mine who was a very frustrated environmentalist said, “If the people I talk to realize that they don’t just breathe with their lungs -- that the only reason they are able to breathe with their lungs is because the trees are filtering the carbon dioxide into oxygen, they would realize they are part of an interconnected whole.” I thought that was mind-blowing: trees as a part of our lungs.

There was a beautiful quote Wakanyi shared: “The root does not get to see the flower.” I would set as an intention tonight, that may we all plant seeds for trees under whose shade we know we’ll never sit.”

With that, I’ll jump to the first question. :)

Question: You had various turns along the way, how did you land up in the field of education?

Navin: My grandmother was a teacher for 50 years of her life. On one side of my family was all business people. And for a long time, the narrative was that the businessperson was the most visible. But my grandmother very humbly taught five days a week at school, and volunteered teaching kids on weekends as well. Two years ago, she went into a coma and then passed away. We found out that a lot of her old students got together to write memories of my grandma. Someone printed it all out in a giant book. She never got to read it, but like in nature, "the root doesn't see the flower". We want to help foster the conditions for wellbeing -- for qualities like mindfulness, community-mindedness, self-curiosity, and contentment -- to take root in our collective humanity.

All of life is an iterative process; the dots connect looking backwards. I was involved in trying to lead an examined life as a person working in a company. I once worked with a very close friend, who's a factory manager. I managed to convince him that if we related the amount of waste we produced in this factory to the output, then we could make the argument that if we had less waste for the same or more output, it would be a more efficient factory. But, actually, my agenda was that I wanted to live more lightly on the world. They did it, but I realized they were only doing it because of a personal relationship to me; not because they necessarily felt compelled by a lighter footprint.

It hit me one day that it's very difficult to care about the air, or a river, or a tree, if you don't care about yourself. In a way, all of the systemic work that needs to be done in the world, one can make the argument that, in the end, all of it is self work in some way. It's an internal transformation.

If I'm anything at all, I'm the product of the teachers who have inspired me along the way; and because of their way of being, not because of what they said. They have lit this flame inside me, and that's what allows me to do what I do. So, trying to serve educators and students around the world with scientifically-evidenced practices of wellbeing felt like the most obvious thing to do. I'm very grateful to be able to do this.

Question: As you dove into this work in education, what did you discover along the way?

Navin: Just touching on that point -- that you can’t care about the world if you don’t care about yourself -- I was someone who was very cynical -- kind of watching the world heading into oblivion. There’s a lot of information to support that view, if you chose to. But, I think, ultimately, cynics are simply idealists who have seen their hearts broken. And, so, this work of healing oneself is ultimately giving you the tools and perspectives to endure in the simplest of acts -- to be on a sinking ship and still, yet, bale out water with a smile. And do it with love, and communion, and harmony -- not for you, but for an idea larger than yourself. The power of that can’t be underestimated.

One of my favorite writers, Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, was a concentration camp survivor who basically discovered that it wasn’t necessarily the optimistic, pessimistic, or religious people who could endure an ordeal like that. But it was this little old woman who found a weed at the corner of her cell, and who gave a little bit of water to that weed over the course of winter, keeping it alive. That simple act of caring for this thing outside of herself gave her everything she needed to survive that ordeal. And then Victor Frankl, himself, gave himself to trying to help people discover what it means to live.

So the ultimate question is that all of us on this call, all of us, have an invisible timer ticking down above our heads. I used to think: What do we have to do for our lives? But a different question I would like to ask is: What idea would you like to give yourself to? And it could be different for everyone -- but in the act of giving ourselves to these things that are beyond our lifetimes -- just like the root that does not get to see the flower, we do it with joy, we do it without accepting any kind of transaction or exchange, and that’s the beauty of life. (By the way, Nipun I’m going to call you out, man. You’ve always been an inspiration to me in this respect.)

Question: What idea have you given your life to? Or, at the moment, what do you feel most called to dedicate your life to?

Navin: I kind of landed on this idea awhile ago, and it’s evolved a bit -- It’s to leave people and places better than I found them. That was the first idea, but now it’s a bit different. It’s to create the conditions to leave people and places better than I found them. Because, at the end of the day, I can’t control the outcomes of what happens or doesn’t happen. I can only control my subjective experience of that, and I can only control my effort. That’s all I really can do. I haven’t really figured this out, but it’s sort of like, if the purpose of music was to get to the end of the song, then we would miss the beauty of the dance.

Question: So how do you translate that into sharing this with students, or even in your day to day? How do you say: “Look at the music of this spreadsheet?”

Navin: There’s a lot of music in spreadsheets. :) The idea of separation of work and life, or study and life -- I think all of these separations, when you look back at tribal communities, I don’t think there was a very clear distinction between leisure time or hunting time or nesting time. I was just reading something last night about the !Kung Bushmen in Africa. Back when anthropologists first discovered this tribe in the 1970s, they wrote that these people don’t have access to surface-level groundwater, they don’t have any possessions, they’re living in abject poverty. Of course, there was some exposition on that.

But fast forward forty years later, the field of anthropology had gotten more sensitive, and they started to understand that the lens through which they looked at these people was actually clouded. They realized that !Kung Bushmen had a communal material system, which means that all the objects that they had were actually shared. So no one actually owned anything, but it didn’t mean that anyone was poor. They had amazing technology to get water out of the ground and they used it very efficiently, so they didn’t need very much. But to someone on the outside, it looked like “these guys are suffering.” But they were flourishing in ways that we couldn’t understand.

So, going back to the idea of being blinded by our own hubris, I think part of this work of trying to let go of ideas we hold so strong is like trying to break out of an invisible prison, which is the hardest prison, because the walls and boundaries are not very clear.

Question: What would you recommend to, say, a school system where you sometimes feel trapped by so many constraints. You have worked in so many different school settings. What are some examples you’ve seen of people turning educational settings around, if you take that as a microcosm of the larger world?

Navin: With the Contentment Foundation, we run our programs in seven countries around the world. It started a couple years ago at Yale, but now we’ve spun off into our own nonprofit. I think one of the unique things that we do is that we don’t start with solving problems. We start with trying to hold space for teachers who are naturally altruistic people, who constantly have things done to them and not with them. At the very base level, can we just create space for people to be?

And can we also look at cultivating -- how do we create interest? How do we light a fire instead of trying to fill a vase? How do we try and help people want to serve themselves first? So our curriculum is broken into two parts. The first part really focuses on teacher education, but not in the way that might come across. It’s more like: if you can take one minute to breathe (like we did at the start of this call), how did that change the energy of the meeting? Did you notice a change? Is it useful to you? Maybe a minute of breathing is not useful. Maybe 30 seconds is enough. Or maybe 2 minutes is better. Or maybe we should all be standing. It changes. So we have schools in New Zealand, in Singapore, in Bhutan -- and these practices are different depending on the context of where they are.

The CEO of the foundation is a guy called Dan Cordaro, who’s an amazing guy. I hope all of you get to meet him one day. He’s a cross-cultural psychologist, so one of the things that he’s really taught me is that we cannot be the nonprofit that thinks we have the answer to everything. We have tools, but we don’t understand the challenges that each school in each country and each district faces. So the biggest thing we can do is listen, as much as we can.

Question: Wowza. Everyone has had such depth in this pod; I’m truly moved by what people have shared. Navin, the work you’re doing sounds phenomenal. How do you approach schools or systems to launch your projects or work? I’m in the U.S. and this is all needed. How do you cross-culturally connect to your organization to learn more?

Navin: We’re all living in the time of COVID, and it’s been a medical calamity that's affected millions of people. But it’s been a psychological event that’s affected billions of people worldwide. I mean, we can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. In the U.S., we’ve had a lot of schools approach us. A lot of schools are looking at social-emotional curriculum, which is what our curriculum falls under. What that is is really: How do we look at our world inside to know how to deal with the ups and downs of life? And to know that, while we can’t control what happens to us, we have some agency over how we perceive it, and how we find meaning from it. So, we’re in the fortunate position that people have been coming to us in significant numbers.

Question: Private or public schools?

Navin: Both private and public. By the way, we had a donor who gave us 100 free licenses of the program to give away to schools. Basically, if any of you are in public schools and need this program, it normally costs about $3,500 a year (and we usually use that mainly to pay our tech and curriculum teams). If any of you would like it for free. The donor has requested that 50% of the student population are in the subsidized meal program, or that 50% of schools are from a minority community, and we can share the license with you.

Question: As a follow-up to that question, let’s say you go to a school that doesn’t understand this kind of social-emotional learning (SEL) work. How have you been able to translate, relate, or convince them of the value of this?

Navin: There’s an immense body of scientific literature -- in neuroscience, social science, behavioral science -- that really looks at how we cultivate the practice of wellbeing. You know, this is meditation, mindfulness, compassion training, cultivation of empathy, prosocial behavior; it’s all there, if you look at any journal, you would have this research as well. Typically, we try to share as much of the scientific research as possible, but more often people already know about this. The best principals around the world have already implemented programs like this in their schools, and they share their best practices.

From a school’s point of view, if you can help people regulate their emotions better, you ultimately end up with calmer classroom environments, better student-teacher relationships, better teacher-parent relationships, teachers stay longer in schools (they don’t burn out as much), so there’s even a financial argument to say that this is not nice to have, but this is a tool of operational excellence. So I haven’t met a principal that’s said “no”. The question that comes up more is “We don’t have the time for this.” That’s a very common question.

My answer to that is: “That could be true, but we can also say that we don’t have time to exercise. And the way we could solve that problem is by having surgery when we’re in our fifties or sixties, you know, for the heart condition. So it’s up to you, when you want to solve that problem.”

Question: Can you share a bit about the other parts of the curriculum?

Navin: Sure. We have the teacher’s curriculum; we call it the Four Pillars of Wellbeing. It’s basically cultivating mindfulness, community development skills, self-curiosity (that helps you unpack your biases, your prejudices, your own narratives), and then cultivating contentment and balance (which is really looking at: we are enough, we have enough, how do we act from that place as opposed to grabbing for stuff all the time?). So that’s the teacher’s side.

The student curriculum does the same stuff, but it’s with age-appropriate lesson plans.

Then, the third piece is quite interesting, it’s an analytics platform. So, every month, every school that’s on our platform, for 20 minutes a month, all the adults in the schools (the teachers, the admin staff, security guards, chefs) do a survey on wellbeing that’s co-related to an analytics platform that gives a visual representation of how well a school is. We always say this is just an approximation -- feelings are complex, and you can’t quantify them in that way but the problem with not measuring it is that it gets lost with other stuff that is measured. So most principals can tell you how much they spend on school lunches, but they can’t really tell you how well their teachers are; and that’s just a misdirection of analysis. So the point of this analytics system is to give school leaders a visual representation that, “hey, we have to take care of our teachers first and foremost; they are our most precious resource.”

There’s a fourth part, which is a parents platform as well, which we launched last year during Covid. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a chance to test it, but we hope to share these ideas with parents as well, so educators, students and parents can reinforce these practices. And that’s another thing -- we don’t run a 2-day training course and call it a day and ride off into the sunset. The whole point of it is we have to create a container in which these practices can be cultivated. And, like any cultivation, we plant a thousand seeds and maybe only a couple grow, but it has to be done over a period of time. So, we form wellbeing teams in a school that help create spaces for educators and for students to practice these behaviors, or ideas.

Question: Do you have perspectives on how students are responding to this program? Any perspectives on how the students are seeing the worth and benefits of this program?

Navin: So we don’t collect any data on students. The reason why is that we feel that they can’t properly consent to having data being collected. So that’s just a policy that was setup a couple years ago, which I agree with as well. But, anecdotally, I think, in every class, say you’re sitting with 10 kids in a class, there’s always one kid that’s always a little bit more interested than the rest. There’s always one that’s listening a bit too keenly.

When I watch that kid meditate for the first time, or listen to a sound to try to hold their hand up until that sound ends in a mindful listening exercise, I wonder: What will you be?

I think all of us in some shape or form, all of us are on this call because some teacher somewhere gave us some lesson -- and it may not have been in school. They just loved us into being. So, who knows. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I’m excited to find out.

Originally posted in Cultivating Compassion in Education Pod.

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Comments (1)

  • Rajalakshmi Sriram wrote ...

    Wow!what a delight to see this. Wondering how I missed this pod.. on a theme that I totally resonate with....There is always a next time. Looking forward.