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Learning by heart

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National & World Affairs

Learning by heart

A collage of the Colorado flag, Seonjoon at a podium, and a school bus driving towards the rockies, all on a map of Colorado

National & World Affairs

Learning by heart

Seonjoon Young has been everything from a South Korean Buddhist nun to a Harvard Divinity School student, now she's bringing her eclectic talents to the classroom in her home state of Colorado.

Photos courtesy of Justin Knight and from iStock

“In order to maximize learning, you have to maximize the person.”

Seonjoon Young, M.Div. ’17, her approach to working with students, even those who have been affected by trauma, is deceptively simple.

“For me, it’s acknowledging that we, not just students but the teachers as well, bring everything into the classroom,” said Young, an English and journalism teacher at Eaglecrest High School in Centennial, Colo., who incorporates trauma-informed practices in her work.

“Most of us are actually ill-equipped to appropriately and healthily set something [emotional] aside so we can focus on a task,” she said.

Focus can be especially hard for someone who has experienced trauma.

“Trauma is not ‘I had a breakup,’” Young said. “There are the normal challenges and sorrows of life, and then trauma is another layer where there is a shaping or a skewing of worldview, and something that happens to the core sense of self and safety.”

Public health authorities, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, call the kinds of incidents that result in trauma adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), and included within that category are physical abuse, verbal abuse, neglect, abandonment, and the death of a parent.

Young explained that paying attention to this type of trauma is especially important right now because “there’s a mental health crisis with adolescents, and the state of Colorado is in more dire straits than other states.” According to a new report by the United Health Foundation, Colorado had the highest increase in teen suicide rates in the U.S. since 2016. “The school I was in two semesters ago, we had three suicides. There were two suicides in the fall semester of 2018 at a nearby high school.”

Young reading from the Lotus Sutra during Morning Prayers

Audio courtesy of Harvard Divinity School

Transcript
Seonjoon Young: This reading is from chapter four of the Lotus Sutra: Belief and Understanding.

The Buddha's senior disciples spoke a parable, which said, in part:

Then on another day the father saw the figure of his son. The son was weak and emaciated, wasted away, grimy and soiled with dung, dirt, and dust. Straightaway the father removed his necklaces, his fine outer garments, his ornaments, and put on instead a rough, torn, dirty tar-stained garment, smearing dust over his body, took in his right hand a dung shovel. By this means contriving to approach his son, saying, "I am like your father, from now on you shall be like my son."

With this reading today I invite us all to enter a troubling moment in, what is for many of us a familiar parable. The parable of the lost son, from the Lotus Sutra, tells in brief the story of a son who runs away from his home and family as a youth, growing into forgetfulness of himself, his origins, and his parents over time. He becomes miserable, wretched, and impoverished. A stranger to himself.

His parents continue to search for him, remaining watchful and hopeful that one day their lost son will return. When the son returns by pure chance to his parents home his father recognizes him immediately, but the son, having forgotten everything about his past and his family, doesn't recognize his father and is in fact terrified by the opulence and power on display around him.

The episode in the reading comes shortly after the son has been gently persuaded to work, sweeping dung at the estate. He is so trapped in his idea of himself that he thinks he is only capable of the lowest kind of work. The father's heart aches to see his son in this condition, knowing that if he wears his jewelry and rich garments the son will only be terrified, the father takes all that off, puts on rags, and joins his son sweeping filth.

The father can't even go to his son and say, "I am your parent who loves you. Let me help you." He has to pretend he is someone else in order to even speak with his son. What strikes me every time I read this parable is the profound poverty and ignorance at work in this story. The son's forgetting of himself is a poverty at the deepest social, psychological, and spiritual levels. Both the father and we as listeners are aware of the gap between what the son believes about himself and what is real. In that gap is tremendous suffering, and it troubles me greatly.

Do I really know myself and who I am in the world? Who else is suffering with me because of my ignorance. And then I wonder, who might, even now, be speaking softly at my side, trying to guide me to a more liberated state of being. Am I heading the voices in my life that are encouraging me, challenging me to change? This is no small question, not for us at this particular moment in America.

To sense that there is a gap between what we believe and what is real should make us feel anxious. To be challenged in our habits of thinking and acting, to have our very identity challenged, can and should make us tremble. What it should not do is make us shrink back and remain in our familiar ways.
So often I think I'm the father figure, coming in to share what I know to be real and true. What if I'd been the son all along? Unaware of how poor in body and mind I've been. Listening only to my own narrative, and not to what the others at my side are saying. And in the instances when I do serve as the voice of another for someone else, what do I need to set aside in order to communicate and participate in a shared, collective liberation. In this relational activity of listening and speaking we can be called out of our impoverished sense of ourselves and others, to emerge with deep humility into an unknown that leads us home. Our true home of liberation in body and heart.

The parable of the lost son is full of details that catch me up short and trouble me. That offer no easy solutions, but unfold into more questions. This is but one of them. And it's the one that's been working in my heart for the past several months. And I hope that it works in all of our hearts. With it's equal share of the disquieting and the hopeful, the revelatory and the liberatory, and that we too can find our way home together.

I'd like to offer a brief prayer, an adaptation of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi that was given to me by the teacher who first gave me precepts as a Buddhist. "Lord make me an instrument of your peace, when there is hatred let me sew love, where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is suffering, relief. Where there is ignorance, wisdom and liberation. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy. Blessed one, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying, having practiced peace, that we are born again to eternal life. From happiness to happiness, into complete freedom."

What Young brings to the classroom is an eclectic mix of approaches to student engagement that reflect a lifelong interest in spirituality and service. Beyond teaching, her résumé includes time as a bhikkhuni in a South Korean Buddhist nunnery and as a spiritual support specialist in hospitals and universities. While she doesn’t bring religion into the classroom, Young does find that her own mindfulness practice helps her be an adaptable, self-reflective teacher.

“I also did a 15 month teacher-training program for mindfulness through a group called Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (IBme),” Young added. It was there that she went from a skeptic of “secular mindfulness” to an advocate. “I would say that, hands down, the bulk of my trauma informed training came through them.”

These varied experiences led to her current career path when Metropolitan State University of Denver and Resilient Futures, a trauma-training nonprofit in her home state of Colorado, piloted a program to provide training in trauma-informed practices for schools.

The behavioral symptoms of trauma can manifest in a number of ways, including poor self-regulation, trouble forming relationships, and negative thinking. At the heart of the type of trauma-informed learning that Young implements is the creation of a responsive, relaxed, stabilizing classroom that gives students dealing with trauma a calm, supportive environment to turn down the volume on those symptoms and focus on school work.

An example of this commitment to such an environment is allowing students in her classroom access to flexible seating options. If a student feels confined by sitting at a desk, for example, Young can give them clipboards or lap desks, or she can move them to a table.

What keeps this process from turning into classroom chaos is mutual trust. If a student takes 10 minutes to go to the bathroom, for instance, Young addresses it by finding a balance between strictness and leniency, through understanding.

“I say, ‘What were you doing, because it didn’t take you that long to go to the bathroom.’ A lot of times they’ll say, ‘I just really needed to take a walk.’ So I say, ‘Next time, just tell me you’re taking a walk.’

“Not ‘You’re late, no more bathroom passes for you.’ But, ‘Why were you late?’”

Young said that this form of mutual trust not only makes for a functioning classroom, it also helps students be mindful of their emotions outside the classroom.

“The thing about trauma-informed anything is that it’s good for everyone,” Young explained. “If you don’t have trauma, a responsive, relaxed, stabilizing, regulating environment will help you. If you do have trauma, that will [also] help you.”