School violence: Can this Buddhist practice make a difference?

Could the Buddhist practice of metta, or lovingkindness meditation, make a difference in school violence? Teacher Russell Evans says yes.

Russell Evans
17 January 2013
Photo by Matthew Henry

By the time that I became a teacher in 2005, school shootings had become a regular topic on the news. I remember a staff meeting when our school’s police officer told us that it was no longer a question of if something awful would happen, but when. And then it did.

I was studying how to apply Buddhist practices in the classroom when the attack happened. I didn’t see it — I was in my room and heard, “Lock down” over the intercom. We turned off the lights, locked the doors, and waited. After twenty minutes the kids asked me if this was a drill. I said that I didn’t know, and tried to hide the quiver in my voice. Then we got a message: A student had her throat slit a few feet from the Principal’s office. One of my students.

Fortunately, grace prevailed that day. Dozens of people came together in that moment to save her life. She was on the operating table five minutes after being cut, back in school a month later, and now, has nearly graduated from college. Yes, she still bares a scar. She also smiles often. The attacker was caught and is now in prison.

I grew up in the age of modern school violence. My roommate in college was from Columbine High School. He had left the library just minutes before that attack and some of his closest friends were either killed or wounded.

In the days after the attack at my school, parents demanded more security, people pointed fingers, and everybody was either trembling or numb. I was pretty shaken up myself, and I couldn’t do anything besides show surf films in class. My nightmares persisted and I began seeing a therapist.

At the time, I was also exploring Buddhism in Naropa University’s Contemplative Education Program. We had been taught loving kindness meditation, or metta, and I had read stories about monks in war zones who acted with compassion while the world was, truly, blowing up around them. I wondered if it was possible for a novice meditator like myself to practice loving kindness at our school, it being an environment so scarred by trauma. Both my teachers at Naropa and my therapist encouraged me to try.

I began by practicing loving kindness for forty-five minutes every day during my planning period at school. I would sit, first calming my mind with shamatha or breathing meditation, then repeat the mantra, “May you be happy, healthy, and free from danger.” I would begin by “sending” myself kindness, then extend that sense of goodness outwards — first to loved ones and friends, then to acquaintances, and finally, to those whom I struggle with. Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, and Trungpa Rinpoche are among the many teachers who say that the more we are able to practice this gesture, the more it manifests spontaneously in our everyday lives. Scientific researchers like Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman have also documented and compiled evidence of these changes neurologically in their book, How God Changes Your Brain (2009). After about a month into my practice, I began to see that they were right.

Example: a student told me, in front of the class, that her mom was dying of cancer. I had heard about my student’s suffering before, but usually on a private basis. Nobody had ever been so open and vulnerable in my classroom before that moment. Instead of trying to escape or move on from the situation, I embraced it. I do not know how long I sat there, but when I spoke, I noticed that I had been crying — just as she had been.

Other than such brief moments, most of my life continued as normal. I didn’t look at random students with abundant kindness everyday or treat them with compassionate wisdom all the time. I just noticed myself taking small steps forward and felt like it was enough. I also noticed an openness with myself that I hadn’t experienced before. I began to envision loving kindness in the same way that a parent holds her crying child: The infant is crying out for comfort, while the mother offers her tenderness. I found that there was a crying child in my heart, terrified and shaken by what had happened at school. There was also my practice, which was able to cradle that ache. It was monumental to discover that I could hold two such different emotions in my body at once: love both from myself, and to myself.

There are a number of studies documenting a steady increase in stress and a decrease of resiliency in nearly all school environments. In my thesis research, I even came across studies showing how inner city teachers showed the same PTSD symptoms as combat veterans. So I wanted to see if I could share my practice with my students to give them some tools for their own resiliency. I was aware of the Garrison Institute’s C.A.R.E. program, which is dedicated to Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education through mindful practices–particularly by teaching Loving Kindness to teachers. There are also some progressive, private schools on the coasts that have successfully introduced mindfulness practices into the classroom. At the time though, in our rural and conservative community, I found only one tiny organization that offered a curriculum of secular mindfulness practices that could be used in any classroom: Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth, ( based in Australia, was formed by Lama Zopa and a group of students after the Columbine Tragedy. Their goal was to simply encourage kindness among all students. Their website offered (and still offers) a free Be Kind Day Classroom Kit, which was a set of basic practices that anybody could use.

I proposed an idea to my classes: to practice kindness. First, we would brainstorm ideas of things that we could do that would be nice. Then we would try to do those things the next day, and check in and see how it was going. I also planned to openly invite students to say kind things about one another in front of their peers.

Be Kind Day was one of the most wonderful days I ever had in the classroom. Students began laughing, others cried, and everybody left school feeling blessed. I recorded the actual conversations in several classes to document what was said for my thesis. I have included a few excerpts here to demonstrate the variety of comments which were shared:

I think Kelly is a great person because she is always energetic in class and she makes me laugh a lot. I think if I ever needed her help she’d be there for me — and the biggest thing is — the reason I think that she is a good friend is when I first came to this school, I had no friends and I was all alone in class and she was like ‘Hey- what’s up?’ and it meant a lot to me.” – Ashley

OK — I think Jesse is an all-around good guy. Not only is he funny, but he is sweet and considerate of other people’s feelings. He once dated my friend and she broke his heart, and he is still nice to her and everyone else, I’m happy he is alive.” – Kayla

Later conversations became more heart-wrenching; I won’t print them here. I have to admit that as I was planning this process, I wanted to help dig up some of the trauma that had occurred in the school. My therapist and mentors all warned me against this idea. The fact is that loving kindness can certainly help heal, but uncovering and healing the emotional wounds of others is an extremely delicate task — one that requires lots of training and expertise. So, when the day arrived, I intentionally steered clear of digging, and instead just offered my presence — in much the same way I had with the Columbine survivors. What I found though, was that by offering up a heart of tenderness to my students, whatever healing needed to happen would happen on its own. Students began openly crying in front of their peers. And instead of being ridiculed, they were embraced. Kids told one another stories about feeling alone and scared, while others added, “I feel that way, too.”

When I began this journey, I made the assumption that I could actually teach and model kindness. I now know that this is only partly true. Yes, by using the Be Kind Day curriculum and drawing on my own practice, I could make some helpful suggestions and hold the space. What really happened though is that my students already possessed abundant kindness and were just waiting for the opportunity to practice it.

Later that spring, I was in class and it was the last period of the day. “Luis,” who was new to our school, came in and paced around the room. He refused to sit down, even after the bell had rung, and muttered words while waving his arms out in front of him. The other students looked at each other and then made glances at me, wondering what I would do. When I spoke to Luis, he looked in my direction but his words were gibberish. Conversely, when I edged away from him and towards the phone to call for help, his behavior became more skittish. I tried every strategy that I knew of to calm him down and nothing worked. When a note arrived from the office, I saw an opportunity and said, “Oh, I have to make a phone call.”

Luis suddenly focused and looked me straight in the eye. He said, “Yeah right. You have to make a phone call. Sure.” His movements suddenly became focused and smooth. He removed a pencil from his pocket, clenched his fist around it like a shank, and strode towards me. I was not sure if he was going to stab me or not, but I was terrified. Then something happened which I cannot take credit for — but came through me nonetheless: I surrendered.

I felt an incredible sadness wash over me, and had to sit down. The pain wasn’t about me, but rather a connection to something in Luis. Tears came and I said, “I’m so sorry. That must hurt so bad.”

He stopped, relaxed his hand and said, “Yeah.”

He was just looking for somebody who could relate, somebody to help him share the burden of what he was carrying. The best intellect in the world couldn’t have provided him with that. Tenderness was the key to de-escalating the situation and it did.

A few minutes later I took him out into the hall and an assistant principal helped me find out what was going on. Luis had just found out that his older brother was being sentenced to prison. His closest relative was going away and he was taking it pretty hard.

As public school teachers, we are encouraged to model empathy and kindness, but in all of our training, we are rarely taught how to intentionally cultivate an open heart of kindness — particularly through contemplative practice. Fortunately, there is a growing number of programs which are making steps in that direction. It is my prayer that it is only a matter of time before we all practice more kindness.

Until then, I know that if teachers can practice loving kindness with themselves, it will transform their classrooms. It will change how they choose to act in all circumstances. I also know that you don’t have to do much. You just have to show up, be kind, and love will do the rest.

Russell Evans

Russell Evans

Russell Evans is the director of Transition Lab, a school that teaches people realistic ways to take radical steps toward creating a more just, fun, and beautiful world. Transition Lab powers this work by meeting basic needs through relationships rather than money. Its students develop ways of living that allow them to use their gifts to create better livelihoods for a new economy.