Friday, August 8, 2014

Mindfulness, Simplicity, Fear and Quaker Workcamps

I just finished reading the book "Mindfulness" by Harvard professor Ellen Langer.  The premise is that mindfulness is much more than a meditative state of consciousness; it is an awareness of choices, and that things have different meanings in different contexts.  One of her main themes is that we often live mindlessly, having assumptions about people, places and things because of the way we have been raised.  We can see this in the divisive nature of our culture and the assumptions we make about people with differing opinions.  We see it in the way we are led by polls and community conversations that give limited options, leading us to think these are the only options.  Her research supports that when people are actively engaged and have many options, they are more likely to stay engaged, to be optimistic, to be healthier and to even live longer.
Much of her writing is in sync with what we strive to accomplish with Washington Quaker Workcamps.  We talk often about options and opportunities, instead of problems.  We talk often about the importance of the journey, not the destination.  A guideline is that there are not mistakes, only opportunities to learn.  By walking to places, we encourage practicing mindfulness about our surroundings.  Through reflection and action, we change the context within which we see ourselves in the world.  All of this is intended to create safe spaces for participants - mostly youth - to see the world as one of opportunities to be embraced and for them to see their own gifts in embracing them.

Two common challenges we run into when planning and running Workcamps that are also reflected in Langer's work are fear and control. They usually go hand-in-hand, and the result is that they often lead to more mindlessness rather than mindfulness.  The desire to create and follow a set schedule blocks our ability to engage in what is going on in the moment.  The fear of upsetting parents can lead to limited options of service - revolving around perceived needs or around false senses of security such as only doing service that guarantees nothing bad can happen.  Not only do these limit the experiences and learning opportunities of the participants, I think they are also doing a disservice by not allowing the youth to actively look at options and make (or at least influence) decisions by engaging in the process of weighing factors such as personal hunger and personal risk.  It does not adequately prepare them to deal with these things as they head off to post-high school lives where the supervision is far less.

In 1 Peter 3: 13-22, the message is about not letting fear stop us from doing what is right, but to also have good reasoning for doing what is right.  At Washington Quaker Workcamps, we do not shy away from conversations about the role that fear and control play in guiding daily action, and how these can lead us to be negligent in our responsibilities.  A fear that a teen may hurt him/herself by climbing a ladder or using a power tool does not adequately prepare that youth for when he/she is no longer at home.  Likewise, concerns that a parent might be upset because his/her youth has to wait 2 hours for dinner while preparing food for homeless people is not a reason to avoid the important experiences and lessons about justice and privilege that are at the root of so many service programs, and a fear of being in close proximity to homeless people who may have mental illness should lead to conversations about how we make assumptions about people and things we have not experienced rather than not going to a fellowship breakfast of mostly homeless folks.

The Quaker Testimony of "Simplicity" is one of the ways to break down some of this fear and control.  "Simplicity", in this context, is in the Benedictine tradition of striving to let go of assumptions of what we have been told about other people or places so we can be open to seeing what is with our own eyes.  When we tell people that certain neighborhoods in our own town are unsafe (even though we may send them to places just as unsafe in other cities or countries), we perpetuate closed assumptions rather than open wonder. When we engage with something or place that is new to us, our eyes are open. The right thing to do is to engage, create, collaborate, and inspire curiosity, not to perpetuate fear through assumptions. It is not only right for the benefit of Quaker Workcamp participants, but it is right for bringing greater justice and peace to the world.

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