Meet Daniel Rechtschaffen, Author, Mindfulness Teacher, and Founder of the Online Program Mindful Education

Interviewed by AJ Urquidi

I’m so much happier when I’m not trying to force life to be different than it is, or wanting my wife to be different than she is, or wanting my students to be different than they are. I get to love the beautiful tragedy as it is.

 
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The boundless landscape of the internet presents no shortage of overwhelming advice on relaxing, focusing, and adapting mindfulness to classrooms, the workplace, and personal lives; navigating the twists and turns of what works and who knows best can sometimes feel like a Sisyphean task. Luckily, around many of these corners, you'll find Daniel Rechtschaffen, an influential author, organizer, public speaker, and educator. Whether he is “Cultivating Compassion” or instructing on the “Five Literacies of Mindful Learning” and “What to Do When Your Mind is Spinning,” Daniel can be found leading the pack of results for basic “mindfulness education” searches on Google or YouTube, to name just a few examples of where to spot him.The author of such useful guidebooks as The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook, Daniel is also a licensed marriage and family therapist with an array of insight and experience that he is happy to share with the world.

When he is not busy traversing the country and hopping the globe to teach, Daniel is known for putting together the Mindfulness in Education Conference and Teacher Training at the Omega Institute each year, as well as for founding and directing the Mindful Education program. Designed for educators to expand their skill sets with understanding, mindfulness, and social-emotional learning, the Mindful Education system boasts a host of big names in its faculty and an innovative approach to teacher training. In addition to all this, Daniel released a documentary film a few months ago that captures his past experiences mentoring and collaborating with young students. Fortunately for us, Daniel kindly paused it all for a moment to provide his thoughts and observations on the mindfulness field. 

You are curating a new online training program called Mindful Education and you have help from influential names in the mindfulness and youth development worlds. With Susan Kaiser Greenland, Morris Ervin, Linda Lantieri, and Daniel Siegel on your faculty, what can trainees expect to take away from this training? 

This training offers both personal and professional development. There is a thorough training for educators to develop their own mindfulness practice through guided audio practices and videos of mindful movement and other practices. There are also regular webinars where teachers can discuss practice and work with mindfulness experts to help them with any difficulties and in developing in mindfulness.

There also is a full curriculum training that helps teachers integrate mindfulness and social-emotional learning (SEL) into their schools and programs. Experts in mindfulness, neuroscience, SEL, nonviolent communication, and much more bring their expertise through video and audio exercises. We also use worksheets and webinars to train teachers to become experts in this field. A real community is built where educators can come together in the process of becoming mindful teachers.

As an introduction to Mindful Education, you recently released an informative film directed by Steven Schecter and produced by Russell Long. What lessons are you hoping viewers will learn from this video? Do you have any surprising behind-the-scenes stories about shooting the film or working with its subjects?

This film was shot many years ago and is just being released. I got to travel all of California with the Alameda High School basketball team, helping the players relax and focus. I would train them in attention, visualization, and stress reduction. We would practice silent sitting in locker rooms at halftime and in practices. It was profound to see how the players would use the skills to become more focused and skilled on the court but would also come in saying how the practices helped them fall asleep, study for tests, and work out disagreements. The coaches at first were skeptical and said we could only keep teaching mindfulness if their field goal percentage went up. Luckily it did, and slowly the team and coaches started seeing the magic of mindfulness. We went to the Northern California Championships, further than the team had ever gone before. Our team even had the privilege of getting to meet Coach Phil Jackson, who gave us some wonderful mindfulness advice.

A big thing I learned from the basketball team is that just teaching focus is not enough. Unless we are teaching compassion and emotional balance, it is not truly mindfulness. The players became more focused at first with mindfulness, but they hadn’t built the skills of being kind with each other and shaking off losses. As the season went on, we needed to learn more about letting go and feeling compassion, even for the other team. Of course, the coaches were skeptical about developing kindness for the opposing team, but it helped.

You're known for is organizing the annual Mindfulness in Education Conference with the Omega Institute. Can you describe what goes down at this conference, and some highlights from past conferences?

Next year will be our 10th anniversary of organizing a Mindfulness in Education Conference at the Omega Institute. When I began this conference I looked around and only knew of a few people doing this, such as Susan Kaiser Greenland, Linda Lantieri, and a few others. Now schools around the world are integrating mindfulness in profound ways. This year we had educators who are connecting mindfulness to social justice, indigenous wisdom, and with special-needs students. We are lucky to have some good funding so that many teachers can come for free to be able to learn mindfulness and social emotional learning to bring back to their schools. We get many people coming back year after year, and we have a profound community now of dedicated educators.

You’ve made it a point to teach mindfulness through unconventional and engaging means, by playing games or music, for example. What are the most effective of all these techniques? What are the benefits of interacting with students this way, and what can other teachers do to spice up their own mindfulness curriculum?

I always say that we are playing attention rather than paying attention. The last thing we want is mindfulness to be used as a behavioral modification tool where kids are thinking mindfulness is boring and just another way to try to get them to be quiet. So we need to teach in an engaging and playful way. A lot of students love hip-hop and dancing, and so colleagues of mine create conscious lyrics and put them over the beats that they love. I teach through telling stories, creating artwork, being in nature, and other ways where kids will equate being mindful with fun and empowering ways of building our awareness.

What are some obstacles you have encountered?

The greatest obstacle to bringing mindfulness into schools is that this is not some curriculum you can force on teachers and students. Educators need to be genuinely interested in mindfulness in order for them to teach it well. To be excited about mindfulness, you need to be interested in introspection and into learning more about your mind, body, and heart. Mindfulness is a profound journey of inner exploration and outer integrity. We can invite teachers and students on this path and show them how meaningful it is. We can even show them the science of how mindfulness helps us to be more relaxed, attentive, emotionally regulated, and even possibly to make us live longer. But you can only lead a horse to water; you can’t make it drink.

Do you have any other impactful stories about your experiences working in classrooms?

Recently I have been leading something called Animal School. This is a mindfulness group that focuses on ecological literacy. I meet with a group of kids regularly and we learn about one animal. When we learn about deer, we go out in nature and look for their tracks, their trails, and learn about how they live their lives. By learning about deer, of course, we learn about mountain lions, grass, birds, and everything else that the deer is in contact with. After a few classes, the students know so much about the interconnected nature of their ecosystem. We learn through the direct experience of listening, seeing, and hearing in the woods. This is such a profound form of mindfulness. Students do feel more relaxed and attentive from this time, but that’s not the main purpose. I’m committed to supporting students to be connected to their environments, to know their impact on the planet, and for them to know their place in the web of life. Our future depends on this generation cultivating reverence and wisdom in connection to nature.

What books and authors have most shaped your current views on mindfulness? Any recommendations?

I highly recommend the book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, by David Treleaven. This upcoming book is really important for everyone teaching mindfulness, especially in schools. And Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland, of course.

What ways do you practice mindfulness and meditation in your own life?

At the core of mindfulness, we are learning to open our hearts to the truth of the moment. So much of my practice is learning to accept the political, ecological, and social heartbreaks of our time. Sitting practice helps me to cultivate balance and compassion, and then in the rest of my life, I get to test my skills as I read the news, face illness, or be with any other tragedy. Our mindfulness gets tested when a loved one dies or when we see great inequity and cruelty in the world. This is when we stretch our hearts to accept that this is the wild, broken, and beautiful world we live in. When I can accept the world as it is, rather than as I want it to be, then I find I can gain the courage and commitment to work for peace and awakening. I’m so much happier when I’m not trying to force life to be different than it is, or wanting my wife to be different than she is, or wanting my students to be different than they are. I get to love the beautiful tragedy as it is.

What would you most like to tell yourself as a child, based on the experiences you have gained over the years?

Though it’s a total cliché, I would just tell myself, “You are perfect just the way you are. You don’t have to do anything or act a certain way, or dress a certain way.” I would tell myself to take risks and be the special, different person I am.