I hope you’ll forgive me for the click-bait title but I think that sometimes you have to say something bold in order to be heard, and today I have something I’d like to shout out to the world. I actually started this post last year and left it aside because I wasn’t sure I was finding the right words to express what I’m thinking and feeling, but I decided to put away my fears of being misinterpreted and try to share my message anyway, because I think it’s time, given a conversation I was part of today.
As we know, the world seems to have become incredibly sensitive to the opinions of others. There is an epidemic of “being offended” that is permeating the online word. Terms like “privilege” and “triggers” and “appropriation” and “-shaming” are being thrown around in comment sections like confetti. I think those words have their important place, but I fear that too often they are distracting us human beings from a more important truth: we can choose not to be affected.
Now hear me out. I can already feel you drafting your comment of outrage about victim blaming, and I am o.k. with that, because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe you have something helpful to add. But I’d like to explain myself further before you do. I don’t think what I’m proposing is victim blaming at all; I think it’s victim empowerment, and I think it’s time we start considering it more seriously.
Before I go any further, I should clarify that I am never talking about physical bullying, which is actually assault, and needs to be dealt with by the judicial system. I’m talking about the more common forms of bullying that take place at school, which are verbal, social, and emotional – the kinds with invisible fists. When it comes to peer-to-peer relationships, where there is no power imbalance due to an age difference, I think that a student can absolutely choose whether or not to be a victim. And I think that if there are instances of non-physical bullying, they of course still need to be addressed, but I think by empowering students with resiliency and mindfulness, the bullies will slowly lose their purpose.
I think that schools have currently got it backwards because they naively believe that bullying can be cured. In my opinion, they’re putting a lot of time, money, and human resources into a very futile endeavour. Why is bullying still so prevalent? Why is it so hard to figure out? We’ve been trying to “fix” this bullying for a very long time, but yet it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In fact, things are pretty grim. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 in Canada, preceded only by accidental death. It’s more likely for youth to take their own lives than to become terminally ill. Clearly, whatever we’ve been doing to help children and teenagers feel loved and safe has not been overly effective. In our Board we take the “Pledge to end Bullying” every year. But if it’s a pledge, why do we constantly need to renew it? Why does bullying persist? Some have suggested that this is because bullying can’t go away; it’s a millennia-old facet of social hierarchy, hardwired within our biological makeup. My personal opinion is to agree that it’s not going anywhere. At least, not without a very radical shift in thinking, which I’ll touch on below.
During my teaching career, I’ve participated in several workshops that focus on curing the bullies. The message always seems to be that if we can community circle the crap out of things, then maybe we can get these tortured, sad, bully souls to become self-aware and change their ways. But the article I linked above argues that bullies aren’t actually sad, tortured souls at all. I’m sure that some are, but I’m also sure that many enjoy the perks of high self-esteem and social status. I’ve personally witnessed both kinds in action, in the classroom and in the world. Do you really think that Donald Trump has low self-esteem? That guy is the epitome of self-adoration. So our attempts to make bullies feel loved and accepted are often hugely misguided – many already feel pretty damn good about themselves. That being said, I do think there is value in community circles, but only if we make a radical shift in the focus of those discussions.
I can remember one workshop in particular where we were shown a diagram of how bullying in schools has been on the rise since the year 2000. The statistics show that reported incidents of bullying have been steadily climbing, maybe as the result of students becoming more aware of what it looks like and feels like and feeling safer to voice it. The presenters then promptly handed us an “anti-bullying” resource kit that was developed in the year… 2000. I really, REALLY wanted to ask why we were being given a kit whose existence was, according to that graph, doing literally nothing to decrease bullying. But I didn’t think that asking the question was going to accomplish anything other than to force everyone to stay in the workshop for ten minutes longer while the presenters explained that it was “better than nothing”, so I headed back to the front lines with a box filled with yet more lessons about sharing and caring and all that fluff. Why do they waste their money?
In regards to what I think the focus of our community circles, or any discussions about interpersonal relationships should be, I’ve been having a really hard time finding the right words to try to properly express what I’ve grown to understand about how humans react to life. It’s hard to summarize over ten years of studying Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and two mindfulness courses (plus another I am currently doing), but here goes nothing. As a long time follower of these schools of thought, I believe that we alone have control over our emotions and our reactions to events. In fact, practising Taoism has radically changed my relationship to life. I no longer consider myself to be the person who both bullied and was bullied in elementary school. I don’t have the need to participate in either. According to Taoism, life is a constant process of letting go: of situations, of people, of feelings. It’s about letting life move through you like water, resisting nothing. When you cling to something negative, you choose suffering, and when you don’t, you choose freedom. Although we don’t always realize it until we are taught it, the choice is actually always ours, and therein lies our personal power. This may seem like a very passive way to be, and in a peaceful way it is, but in another, it is the most active way that you can live your life. To live this way you have to constantly bring your awareness back to your emotions and willingly choose to let things go, rather than absentmindedly following them down the rabbit holes of rumination and conjecture and ego. Once you become aware of how you are reacting to a situation, to another’s negativity, you suddenly have the power to decide how you will respond. You aren’t “triggered”. And it is entirely possible to not respond at all, to just let it move through you. I know because I’ve learned how to do it. (… Sometimes. It’s a lifelong process.) This image of Byron Katie’s conveniently showed up on my newsfeed today and hope I don’t get in trouble for sharing it (I don’t think my blog is that important):
Byron Katie is an American writer who teaches a method called “The Work” to undo what we believe about ourselves and our lives. I think this type of thinking is incredibly important to help empower the students on the receiving end of bullying. Our roadblock is that we have been preoccupied by the bullies: how to help them, how to understand them, how to empathize with them, how to stop them. My gut feeling is that those bullies aren’t going anywhere, no matter how much we get them to journal about their feelings. The Americans just elected one for president! Our devoted attention to bullies only justifies and encourages and glorifies their existence. We continue to remind them that they have an impact on, and therefore an importance (albeit detrimental) in the school community. We perpetuate a victim mentality by insisting to the recipients of bullying that they have been wronged, dammit. We encourage them to speak up about this wrong, to wave flags about this wrong, to seek help for this wrong, to attend conferences about this wrong, to make posters about this wrong, to own this wrong. But when we step out of our stories about how we’re being wronged, we have more clarity to find solutions, and more ability to act peacefully. Often our emotional reactions distract us from taking effective action. It is possible to fight against sexism without hating men. It is possible to oppose Trump without taking him personally and letting him pollute our daily peace of heart. I think we need to switch our focus from obsessing over the bullies to instead teaching the “victims” to view themselves as agents with the ability to choose their emotional reactions. To begin with, calling them “victims” is only encouraging the belief that those who are receiving or witnessing the bullying have no power in the situation. This is the greatest disservice we could be doing them.
Consider three students: Students A, B and C. Student C has the characteristics of a bully and starts teasing student A once again during independent work time. Student A becomes incredibly annoyed and responds to Student C by calling her a name. Student C enjoys that she has “gotten” to him and continues to tease and taunt Student A until he sinks down into his chair and glowers. He stews about the interaction and then becomes sad, because he doesn’t understand why he is being picked on, and he is frustrated. He finally goes to the teacher for help, who scolds Student A and tells her to “be kind” and then turns back to whatever five hundred things he or she was doing. So then Student C moves on to Student B, by teasing him in the same way. Student B couldn’t care less and just glances over at her indifferently and then back to his work. Student C makes a few more attempts, but Student B just calmly tells her, “Stop,” and once again returns his focus to his work. He basically treats her like a puppy that’s tugging at his pant leg.
What is the difference between Student A and Student B? Probably many background factors, but the largest of which I will argue is resiliency. Student B has plenty while student A has little. I’m not at all suggesting that Student A is at fault for this lack of resiliency (I was a Student A in my youth, about as resilient as a wet paper towel), but instead I’m suggesting that I believe that Student A can learn to develop his resiliency, making him less prone to internalizing the negativity of others. I believe it because I’ve done it.
What if, instead of focusing on the futile task of ridding the world of bullies (if you watch the news, then you know why I say futile), we focus on teaching resiliency. What if we focus on empowering these “victims”, who, in Buddhism, wouldn’t be called victims at all, but rather witnesses. They are simply human beings who are witnessing negativity being directed at them, but they are choosing not to engage. They know how to let it pass through them without letting it become a part of them. What if, in essence, we could teach students to just not give a flying f*** about what other people say and do? Isn’t that a frame of mind that many of us naturally embraced by our thirties after years of learning the hard way that in the end it usually doesn’t matter at all what other people think and say and do? What if we taught it to children as soon as we could? Could that be a much more effective approach than trying to convince the bullies to be nice?
What I think this would take is time dedicated every single day to teaching mindfulness and self-awareness; to teaching children and teenagers how to witness the behaviours of others instead of immediately internalizing them; to learn that there is a point of choice between the moment of witnessing and the moment of reacting to another’s behaviour. This choice to allow negativity in or not offers incredible self-empowerment. I can already hear you wondering just where in our already jam-packed days this could possibly fit in, but I would argue that since suicide is currently above obesity on the causes of death list for young people, perhaps we need to do away with D.P.A. for the time being and in its place have daily mindfulness sessions. And second, to boost physical confidence, I would make self-defense a part of the physical education curriculum. For many kids, self-defense would be a more useful skill than playing badminton (although I do love badminton), if only to boost their confidence. In the Japanese martial art of Aikido, the main principle is to never attack another, but instead use an attacker’s energy for defending oneself. The idea is that an attacker makes him or herself vulnerable in the attack, and a person can use the momentum of this attacker to his or her advantage in self-defense. I think this is not only an excellent physical skill to teach children, but also a beautiful metaphor for our orientation to life.
I know that I can’t make revolutionary change in education overnight, but I can make small changes in my classroom on a daily basis. One thing I’ve stopped doing is focusing so much on negative behaviour. For example, a student will come to me because someone called her stupid. So I’ll ask her, “Well, are you?” and she’ll think about it and say, “No,” because she knows it’s not true. Then I’ll say, “So why do you care? They could call you a flying squirrel and it doesn’t make it true.” You can see the lights go on for a child when you approach negative energy this way. It doesn’t mean I don’t address the issue with the child who is being mean, but chances are, I’ve already tried to address it countless times. And if a child were to say “Yes, I do think what they said is true,” then I will tell them that together we will find a way to turn this negative belief into a more helpful one. But I’ll tell you, since I’ve started this practice, I haven’t had one single student say that they believe what is being said about them is true. Another practice I’ve started is what I call “mindfulness minute” and during the day, usually after a break, we engage in a mindfulness activity like trying to think of a pink elephant for a whole minute (and putting your thumb up when you realize you’ve stopped thinking about it), and several other little tasks that teach children to witness their thoughts rather than be their thoughts. There are plenty of mindfulness ideas online.
A Buddhist saying goes, the night the Buddha was to become enlightened he was attacked by the arrows of others who wished to disrupt his enlightenment, but with his awareness he caught their arrows and he turned them into flowers. This is of course metaphorical. If we have children who are resilient, we will have adults who are resilient, and hopefully a new generation that is capable of making real change instead of being perpetually victimized. Instead of trying in vain to convince the bullies to stop shooting their arrows, let’s try teaching our students the way of the Buddha. (Without calling it that so that no one gets upset.)