Sacred Space Learning

Often we are required to take time out in our lives to move into sacred space. For many, these moments are forced upon us in the form of illness, change of jobs, having to take care of a child or aging parent, managing a trauma. Sometimes, we have to muster up the courage to demand sacred space for ourselves and we put in a request for a sabbatical, ask for a leave of absence, walk out from a toxic situation, schedule a vacation. Regardless of the circumstances, finding sacred space is necessary for personal and social transformation. It is also necessary for learning.

Sacred SpaceThe last time I experienced sacred space was when I moved to the country and I was unemployed. During that two-year period of time, I discovered myself and the world around me through nature and painting. Currently, I am in sacred space again. This time, I find solace in fiction writing, meditation and painting. Applying colors on a canvas seems to be an integral part of my sacred space experience. In doing so, I access the right side of my brain where imagery and our ability to see new things live.

What can we learn from sacred space? During these moments of deep introspection, perception of time is warped. Everything seems to go slow and daily life routines appear dreamlike and upside down. In this warped time and dream-like experience there is deep inner work happening. The Ego is acting out, belligerent. The heightened duality of the self, as well as our detachment from routine leads to a sense of discomfort and novelty–both essential in learning and initiating transformation.

Eventually, we come back onto the world stage, taking with us whatever metamorphosis occurred. We have learned that we can manifest our inner selves outwardly and this manifestation may take the form of art, altered states of being, modified behavior, a new home, a new work environment, a change of heart. However it happens, we emerge new and rejuvenated. We have altered our vibrational energy and now we are ready to pour ourselves into the outside world to impact the totality of our collective experience.

Here is a simple formula to describe this phenomenon

Space + Time = (Spirit) Consciousness = Creation


Space + Time + Creation = (Spirit) Consciousness

The following are definitions to clarify terms:

Spirit refers to a sense of deeper purpose, that which exists beyond our own understanding, that which pertains to a non-material world, all that is subtle, nuanced and abstract.

Consciousness is a state of awareness.

In modern day society, we fail to legitimize sacred space as being essential to our personal and collective wellbeing, especially in the field of education when everything is about data, science, logic and efficacy. Therefore, in my work I explore creating, building and implementing sacred spaces, for individuals and groups to learn.

Some of this work entails asking these questions:

  • What makes a space sacred?
  • How much time can we realistically set aside for sacred space learning?
  • What materials, resources or facilities are required to provide sacred space learning opportunities within the work place?
  • How can we manage our schedules so that teams are productive and also allows for flexibility?
  • How can we leverage what we learn from sacred space?
  • How can we channel sacred space energy in ways that support our vision and mission?

When was the last time you found yourself in sacred space? What came out of it? How did you apply the new insight of self and the world around you into your teaching and leading?

Ash Wednesday School Shooting

Repentance: A radical change in mindset and heart, a promise to do better, surrender, a confession filled with remorse

griefIn every school or education organization there must be people you can trust. In spite of bureaucracy, complacency, high-stakes political frenzy, we must guarantee a safe space, a place where anyone can find the rhythm and pulse of our collective humanity. Maybe it’s a kind eye, a warm embrace, a second chance or a genuine asking. Or maybe it’s a quiet individual who finds clever ways to make things fair, who listens to truth, who reminds us of the right-minded pathway.

When a tragic incident occurs such as the Ash Wednesday school shooting in Broward County, Florida I think about all the inside people who were perhaps too busy, preoccupied or turned the other way. How could a teenage child be so lost and unfound, so unseen? How could there be such a wide open, emptiness of space for such violence to occur when schools are so micromanaged, organized and contained? What are we looking at in our schools if so many children are lost, lonely and afraid, left to slip away in the fury of desperation, hate and insurmountable shame?

There is something to be said about the loss of humanity inside our schools and education organizations. There is something to be said about our stubborn blindness. This is yet another cry out for change, a desperate plea for us to reconcile with ourselves, our true purpose in education and our moral obligation to design schools that are responsive and sensitive to the inner lives of children and adults.


There is this mirror between the world and me.

Standing upright I hold it one foot away.

It is this distance that reveals, or rather—

Conceals the sadness and the shame.

It is this distance that keeps me from feeling pain.


Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897


Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.


How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Offering Refuge

In my last post I spoke about the importance of Setting the Tone after an event like Charlottesville. Pubic acts of hate can divide and distract us from our work in building coalitions across race, religion and class; from creating loving, equitable and holistic learning environments for all children. I encouraged readers to refuse to engage in hate and instead, practice Conscientious Engagement— which can look like a daily morning ritual or whole school assembly where we gather together and communicate the importance of shared responsibility and a reverence for all human life. Only through everyday practice can we renew and cement our commitment to our true purpose in education.

Since then, a catastrophic flood devastated Houston. Shortly following, Trump rescinding DACA terrorized thousands of young people across the country. Today, we watch hurricane Irma as it wreaks havoc across the Caribbean towards Florida. This week, I was in Chicago and like some rare form of schizophrenia our professional conversations were punctuated with human conversations about politics, race, class and the relentless question: What can I do? How can I make a difference that matters?

I’ve noticed that people who feel safe (because of race, gender, privilege, circumstances of geography) are also anxious and uneasy. This is because of association, confusion, guilt, fear and wonderings like—should I take responsibility? Some are questioning their identity, searching for the right language or a sign that ensures them that they are not failing as a human being. Others, who are feeling less fortunate are asking questions too, albeit with a different kind of urgency. Anger, pain, sleeplessness, suffering. We are not well. We are not at peace. We are not feeling safe at all, are we?

During my morning meditation today, I felt so calm and safe that I started thinking about the importance of Refuge.

Refuge means safety, protection, shelter. It can be physical safety, like providing shelter to someone who is trying to escape a heavy storm. It can mean safety from the brutality of an abusive family or a national regime. It can also mean social, emotional and spiritual safety like when we find refuge in a genuine embrace.

When I think about refuge I think about Edwin Ng who I interviewed for my book. He had already been thinking about this topic long before me. In his article, Making Refuge: ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Happiness’ are Distractions from our Moral Responsibility he surfaces some important points that influence my thinking as I consider moving from mindfulness to action. He writes:

“By refuge, I am trying to invite collective mindfulness about a certain promise that hosts a basic fact of our lives. The choicelessness of vulnerability comes to all of us. We don’t choose vulnerability, but we can decide how to respond. The co-inhabitants of this precarious world must invite from and gift to one another conditions of safety to grow and thrive as communities and habitats. Without this promise of caring responsiveness, how could we possibly encounter refuge, create space for refuge, or even understand what refuge is?”

What does it mean to offer Refuge at a time when it’s easy to feel insecure, unsafe, paralyzed or despairing? What does it mean to offer refuge in schools and learning organizations knowing that feeling safe is a basic human need?

Here are some beginning suggestions for the practice of Refuge as part of our work for Conscientious Engagement:

  1. Provide a safe, accessible space for rest and tranquility.
  2. Bear witness, keep company.
  3. Ensure a person’s value by standing up for their growth and well-being.
  4. Relieve them of a burden by paying, giving away or forgiving.
  5. Share information that will open new doors and windows.
  6. Welcome with open arms, patiently, carefully and unconditionally.

I imagine this will be a growing list that we can all work on.










Setting the Tone After Charlottesville

There is a candle light vigil in Charlottesville now. Instead of violence and the obscenity of a rare vitriolic war dance reminiscent of our tribal past, there are hundreds of human beings standing together holding tiny flames of light, side by side in peace, standing for peace, quietly and gently, taking a stand for love, for brotherhood, for unity, for everything that keeps us together. If you haven’t yet, watch the video clip and narrow your eyelids. It will appear to be a sea of moving lights, angels, stars or spirits. This is the vision that keeps us waking up in the morning and sending off our fragile children to public schools in neighborhoods across the country where they will be in the vulnerable care of other human beings that are not family at all, but who have chosen a life of service.

Why can’t we start every morning with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

I have been thinking deeply about how we should respond to hate in our schools. What do our children need and what do we need for ourselves, as teachers and school leaders, in order to provide safe, nurturing spaces for children and young adults to learn and grow with a sense of moral clarity and shared responsibility for our planet.

I have come up with only one answer. Respond with love, love first and last, always love. But what does that mean in schools and communities when we are focused on instruction and our minds are fragmented and divided, thinking professionally and like academics on the one hand and on the other, navigating the strong undercurrent of our social, emotional and spiritual selves; bombarded with thoughts, images, sensations of fear, rage, confusion, guilt, sorrow, despair and disgust? We have been so over-exposed to hate in the form of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, the idolization of wealth and so on, that we are challenged with settling our hearts and minds.

What would happen if we stood together every morning as One to remind ourselves of the deep regard we have for life, our deeply threaded lives, our peace, our shared community? Like taking the time to honor the crossing guard who takes special care as she ushers our children safely from one side of the street to the other. Or the school nurse who creates a nook in her office to heal an unexpected tummy ache, or the dean who chooses to practice a restorative justice technique by listening first instead of adding more harm to harm by yelling. What would happen if we chose to stand together at the start of every school day with a candle light vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight?

We’d look around and realize just how much we entrust our lives and our children’s lives to strangers every day, strangers who have been adorned (by some magical twist of fate) with a variety of colorful wardrobes— some black, some white, some brown, some olive, some old, some new, some gay. We’d see how some of our divine costumes cover our heads and others hang down, below our buttocks low. We’d see how we are all dressed up in some way or another as Christians, atheists, Muslims, Jews, or Yogi. Perhaps we’d realize that strangely, we have all been expertly designed just a little too tall or too short, or big boned or lanky, male, female or “I’m not sure yet, really.”

So, it really is a miracle that with such a wide variety of garments covering our true souls, that we still choose to send our children out into schools, into the hands of all these uniquely adorned strangers, who we hope will embrace them with warm, loving and capable arms. These are the strangers we rely on to drive the bus safely, open the doors gracefully, sweep and mop the floors daily, read to children, teach them literature, music and social studies, remove pesticides from their fruit, wipe their tables clean, pick up their lost jackets, carefully lay out scissors and crayons, fill out the litany of healthcare forms, write letters of reference, organize a much deserved after school party.

What would happen if we could no longer entrust our children to all these uniquely costumed strangers who make up the fabric of our schools and society? What if, out of hate, fear or frustration—we began to assume, by default, that our children, some children perhaps, would most likely be mistreated or misplaced?

We can refuse to engage with the practice of hate. We can choose to channel our energy into creating loving, kind spaces overflowing with the social, emotional, spiritual and intellectual practice of love and authentic relationships. We can settle our minds and our hearts around a common ground, one rooted in shared responsibility, a reverence for all human life and community.

Every thought that is hate, say, “No.” and gently push it away.

Every word that is hate, gently and kindly say, “No.” And then consider how to replace it. Choose the words you want to fully integrate into your thought space and the thought space of the children and adults in your midst. This does not mean you need to bury your head in the sand when someone speaks hateful things, it means to be mindful of the impact of that speech on your thought space and know when it is time to walk away and, then, how will you replenish your thinking well?

Disentangle yourself from toxic relationships and teams that do not infuse your work and your spirit with love, inspiration, goodness, peace and well-being. If you cannot transform them, walk away.

Be mindful of your energy. Every action we take, every investment of our time and energy must be strategically determined. What do we value? Is this a loving action, for yourself and for others? How does this activity better our school, our community? How am I, how are we working for the benefit of our common good? If you are not sure— stay still and quiet and wait.

How would our schools and communities change if we started every morning with a candle vigil, like the one we see in Charlottesville tonight? What would it say to the world about who we really are, about the nature of our spirit and our belief in our ability to create an egalitarian society?

Set the tone and the rest will follow.