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After Charleston: Spiritual and Emotional Health to Rebuild Togetherness

In the aftermath of the racially charged killings at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, people are turning introspection into extraordinary public displays of empathy and understanding. We have a long way to go together by any measure, but anecdotal as well as scientific evidence suggest that the composite of reflection, mindfulness, grace, honesty, and clarity we are seeing portends something bigger.
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GREELEYVILLE, SC - JULY 1:  People pray near the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church July 1, 2015 in Greeleyville, South Carolina.  Federal and state agencies are investigating a recent string of church fires in the South that have occured since the church massacre in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Mt. Zion AME was burned twenty years ago by members of the Ku Klux Klan. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
GREELEYVILLE, SC - JULY 1: People pray near the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church July 1, 2015 in Greeleyville, South Carolina. Federal and state agencies are investigating a recent string of church fires in the South that have occured since the church massacre in nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Mt. Zion AME was burned twenty years ago by members of the Ku Klux Klan. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the racially charged killings at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, Americans are engaging in collective reflection that feels different than after other similar tragedies in the past. People are turning introspection into extraordinary public displays of empathy and understanding -- change is happening.

We have a long way to go together by any measure, but anecdotal as well as scientific evidence suggest that the composite of reflection, mindfulness, grace, honesty, and clarity we are seeing portends something bigger. As our separate-but-intertwined stories suggest, a new movement for spiritual and emotional health is moving from the margins to the mainstream in America. We believe this movement will advance our healing process and help us break through on some of America's most intractable social challenges.

Lisette's Story:

The Charleston shootings struck very close to home for me and my daughter Sarah, whom I adopted out of the foster care system when she was 11. Sarah is a biracial girl who looks just like me, her white mom, and everyone assumes she is my biological daughter. After the terrible events, Sarah's Aunt Laurie and Uncle Anthony from South Carolina called to tell her that Anthony's cousin, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, was among those killed.

The news left us reeling and set off a complicated period of reflection. When I adopted Sarah, I became family with her family, including her aunt and uncle who had taken Sarah into their home during some of the most challenging moments of her life. I raised Sarah in Massachusetts, but she and I both shared ties to the South and its complicated history. I was a white girl, born to a 16-year old mom in Arkansas and taken care of by my black "mammy" Emma as a baby. As a child I lived in many poor neighborhoods, in both the North and South. Often, I was the only white girl in my class. Over time, my family moved to richer, whiter suburbs. I got a great education and have been able to build a successful career. I know that too many others who grow up poor aren't so lucky.

With these experiences in mind, I've tried to help Sarah navigate the dynamics of race, class, and privilege in this country, but every parent knows that's a daunting path. I remember driving Sarah to Aunt Laurie's house, near Charleston. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as we were passed by a white pickup truck with guns in back and a Confederate flag on the license plates. Being from Arkansas originally, I have a visceral reaction to such a scene, but Sarah's connection to it was more distant. That changed with the Charleston shooting. As I sat with Sarah on the night we heard about Rev. Middleton-Doctor's death, I kept asking myself, "What do I do now?"

I support those whose answer to that same question has been activism, but my path was inward. Having just attended a conference on "Contemplative Education" at the University of Virginia, and having practiced meditation seriously for many years, I started to think about how contemplation builds bridges across differences, and how it can help diffuse hatred and racial divide. A simple meditative refrain that was shared at the conference ran through my head: "May I be happy, may you be happy, may we be happy."

I started to look more into how meditation and other similar practices are being applied against some of the tragedy and turmoil we have experienced, and I saw more and more examples popping up. In April in Baltimore, after the killing of Freddie Gray and days of unrest afterwards, the Holistic Life Foundation led meditations with children impacted by the violence. I read a quote by Andres Gonzalez, one of the founders of the group, which struck me: "The aftermath is what's really going to hit these kids soon...in their schools [and] programs. They [need a way] to go inward and find that place of inner peace away from all the atrocities."

From the organizations doing this work on the ground to the compelling and growing body of research on the benefits of contemplative practice, my belief in meditation as a wonderful personal starting point for healing and well-being has been affirmed. Moreover, the larger implications for kids in school have also started to come into focus, which made me think of Shruti Sehra, whom I had met at the aforementioned conference in Virginia.

Shruti's Story:

The last year has been full of eye-opening experiences for me, not just not just because of Ferguson and Baltimore and Charleston, but also because of my experience running Reimagine Learning. A key aspect of our initiative is to help all children, particularly those who have experienced poverty-related adversity and/or learning and attention issues, develop the social emotional skills they need to thrive. As Lisette noted above, this is one of the intersections between the meditation and mindfulness movements and child development and education.

Young people face huge barriers to learning: 50% of our public school students live in poverty and 20% of students struggle with learning and attention issues. The zip codes children grow up in have become destiny, trapping too many in inter-generational cycles of poverty. Our disconnection from each other is being institutionalized geographically and through our education system.

I, personally experienced a childhood which in many ways epitomized the American Dream. Coming to this country at the age of one with my family and not much else but the clothes on our backs, we were fortunate - we were able to take advantage of the many things our amazing nation offers to those with significant educations. And despite that, I experienced the feeling of being an outsider. As one of the only brown faces around during my grade school years in Indiana, I had a glimpse of what it feels like to be judged or categorized by nothing you've said or done - not your accomplishments, not your character - but solely by the color of your skin. This paradox of being able to experience the American Dream with an awareness of the backdrop of systemic racism still prevalent in pockets of the country is something that characterizes our nation's history. And I believe this is something that we need to - and are ready to finally evolve past. And I, like Lisette, see meditation, reflection, and the like as a clear component to spur this evolution.

We know that students don't experience learning in a vacuum. Their lived experiences - the violence and discord in their homes, communities, and the larger world itself; and their stress, trauma and neurological processing - are all part of the mix. But too few learning environments take a holistic approach that focuses on social emotional intelligence alongside skill building and cognition.

Reimagine Learning is offering a way to change that by bringing marginalized children out of the shadows and into the light. A core tenet of this work is recognizing that school leaders, teachers, and students are most successful if they have compassion, self-awareness, and social emotional learning skills.

Our Shared Conclusion

Our two roads have brought us together. Scientific research has shown that these mindful practices of compassion and kindness neurologically change the wiring in our brains so that it reduces the sense of "otherness" -- the difference we put between ourselves and others -- and enhances compassionate action. Evidence is on the side of those who choose reflection and compassion. While there has been mounting research that mindfulness improves academic achievement, Harvard University researchers have gone as far as to identify that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation literally changes the grey matter in the brain and shifts the way that our mind processes. This year, The American Journal of Public Health found that children with more social awareness in kindergarten commit fewer crimes as young adults and have better educational and employment outcomes.

The "Kindness Curriculum", led by the University of Wisconsin's Center for Healthy Minds, teaches very young children to have more social awareness through meditation that teach kindness and compassion for others. This way of being is something can be taught. We can spread altruism and reduce suffering for individuals and society through engaging in these kinds of contemplative practices.

The strength of this ongoing research and the strength of the committed community of educational activists dedicated to this work is growing and stronger than ever. Even traditional schools of education are taking this up; Patricia Jennings of the UVA School of Education just published a book "Mindfulness for Teachers". And there are ways everyone can get involved in this work. You can engage in contemplative practices yourself that reduce that sense of "otherness" and promote personal and social well-being. As a starting point, here are a few opportunities you can adopt in your daily life:

• Go here to engage in a relaxation that can bring your focus to the heart and enables heart-centered reflection
• See Sharon Salzberg's site for guided meditations and positive resolves that can increase your capacity for compassion
• Experience "Equalizing Self and Others after Charleston" on www.surya.org to heal and reduce the sense of separateness and develop a sense of oneness

We are hopeful in the wake of this terrible tragedy. We stand together and work together towards a better future. If you find yourself struggling to regain your foothold and believe that the majority of folks are committed to others, ask a young person about their vision for the future, or turn to the beautiful example of compassion led by the families in Charleston. Have no doubt; there is a quiet movement in America, a movement towards wholeness, towards compassion, connecting, and towards peace.