Sick of the Messed Up World We Live In? Let’s Mindfully Change It Together

Michael Ashley
Dec 2, 2015 · 10 min read

So much of the information we receive is negative. Whether you turn on the news or scroll through your phone to the latest story, the result is the same. You receive a depressing narrative that seeks to disenfranchise you with the overwhelming conclusion that everything is rotten, people are evil, and worst of all, nothing can be done about it.

Don’t believe it.

A positive revolution in thinking is slowly building momentum. At its core is the empowering belief that a radical consciousness shift can bring about transformational change, beginning with the most open-minded thinkers of all: our children.

Influential thought-leaders, such as Doug Lerch, founder of Seeds of Awareness, a San Francisco Bay-Area 501-C3 non-profit organization, are quietly changing the world by positively shaping young people’s hearts and minds.

Practically, Seeds of Awareness provides mindfulness-based school services, service learning initiatives, sliding-scale community counseling, and nature-based social skills groups, summer camps, and therapy sessions. More than that, however, it proves through tangible real-world results that it’s possible to manifest positive results through encouraging children to think compassionately.

In Doug’s own words, “Seeds of Awareness is a movement to change the paradigm of the world we live in, one community, one school, one child at a time.”

I conducted the following interview with Doug to understand how encouraging empathy in youth through social/emotional learning and immersive, nature-based activities can have hugely powerful consequences for co-creating a better world. What I learned was deeply inspiring.

Q: Could you please explain what Seeds of Awareness is, what it offers, and how you came to create this organization?

A: Seeds of Awareness is a movement to change the paradigm of the world we live in, one community, one school, one child at a time.

We are a collections of change makers, of psychologists and therapists utilizing the powers of mindful-awareness and empathy to raise the emotional intelligence and well-being of our communities.

Our counselors are different than regular school counselors. We teach classes in emotional well-being and mentor children on the playgrounds. We do the important work of individual and group therapy as well, but we also support the community at large, hosting parent support group breakfasts, leading mindfulness activities in teacher trainings, and taking children on field trips to be immersed in nature.

We value inclusiveness and diversity: racial, cultural and neuro. Because we specialize in working with marginalized populations, our staff is recruited to represent the diversity we serve. Candid conversations in our organizational culture are paramount to discuss privilege, racism, and sexism. We wish to self-consciously promote diversity within as well as with the structures of the schools we partner with.

Q: Your mission is to “transform schools and communities by cultivating empathy, connection and awareness.” Why are these three elements so important for facilitating meaningful change?

A: Well, let’s start with awareness, because that is where it all begins.

Awareness is the act of paying attention to something consciously. So much harm occurs when we as humans are unaware. If someone is suffering and no one sees it, they are left alone in their suffering. They cannot ask for support or advocate for themselves, and the pain can build and build and build, and, at worst, explode into violence. Or if groups of people are marginalized or their rights are infringed upon, without awareness, society does not and cannot orient around this problem and it perpetuates and festers and grows. Awareness allows the suffering to be seen, heard and felt.

More importantly, awareness has the ability to change everything. When we truly become aware of another person’s suffering, it becomes possible for us to support them and care for them. When we become aware of our own experience, we have choice. With awareness comes empathy.

It is very simple and very complex. Our work in the schools, in the communities, and in our organization is to help to develop new neuro-pathways for awareness, empathy and connection. By helping people slow down to expand their consciousness, they notice things they did not notice before. That awareness creates opportunity for change. When we are able to be truly aware of another’s experience, without defensiveness, empathy can develop, choice can open up, and change can occur.

It is my belief that humans at their very core are caring and empathic. We find this again and again, especially with young children. When they see pain or suffering in their friend, then empathy often develops. When empathy does not come naturally, and there is something in the way, we work with individuals and groups, to help build that empathy. The beauty is it is an upward spiral. Once we start to create these pathways in the hearts and minds of ourselves and others, the pathways become well grooved and become the new normative.

It’s important to note: empathy is not just looking through the eyes of another, it is feeling into the heart of another with our hearts. Before doing this, we have to know what our hearts feel like. That is why awareness is the cornerstone. Once we have developed this muscle in ourselves, we can extend it to our friends and others. Empathy is an extremely powerful tool, and, I believe, it can truly heal the world. With empathy, we can say to someone, I see your pain, and feel it with you. It undoes aloneness. It takes a power struggle and dissolves it. It transforms ME vs. YOU into WE. Empathy builds connections.

Q: I understand you offer mindfulness-based methodologies, such as social learning initiatives and nature-based summer camps. Could you explain what mindfulness is as a technique and how it differs from other educational approaches?

A: Mindfulness is a shift from the dominant paradigm of solving and fixing the problems. Mindfulness is rooted in awareness; paying attention to what is truly happening with acceptance and curiosity. This is a totally radical methodology and very different from how most schools, institutions, and families are oriented.

We are not rushing and putting our will onto another. We are not trying to change anybody. We are not using behavioral techniques to trick someone into behaving differently. We are looking at “problems” very differently at Seeds. We are looking with a very open and curious lens to understand what it is truly happening. We are connecting with a curious, non judgmental perspective. We are inquiring into what the experience of another truly is. The mindfulness technique is best understood by a gestalt concept of “the paradoxical theory of change”. It states:

“That change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.” -Arnold Beisser, M.D.

We teach children and adults to be curious and pay attention to things they did not see before. And the results are nothing more than stunning!

Q: What inspired you to create Seeds of Awareness and why is it your passion?

A: Seeds was founded in 2010. In my previous career as a teacher I soon realized that the needs of so many of our children were not being met by their communities. Children focus 7 + hours a day, for 12–16 years of their lives, without learning about or even talking about the most fundamental elements of being human — relationship skills, emotional regulation, conflict resolution, self care. These are lessons that all children can be learning from Kindergarten on. I further came to realize that these skills were being taught in some schools in a manner that was ineffective. Children were learning didactically, filling out worksheets and watching videos on the topics. But they were not learning these skills experientially. So few schools actually teach the children how to be in relationships by bringing awareness to those relationships.

This is what we sought to do, and what we are doing now. We are working with schools at large, helping all children, and especially children who are suffering the most to learn these vital life skills.

Q: Could you describe what Fiddleheads is?

A: First, let me start by saying, Fiddleheads is really fun. It’s fun for the groups of children who participate, and for our counselors who offer the service. It’s fun, because, at its essence, we are playing and exploring nature and friendship together in beautiful outdoor settings of our regional parks.

Fiddleheads creates a safe and stimulating environment for children to experience and enhance their connections with their bodies, inner worlds, peers, and the natural environment. Formed in 2010 to support children and their families, Fiddleheads is a holistic, heart centered therapeutic approach to social and emotional learning. Taking the stigma out of therapy, Fiddleheads brings joy, nature, and the real life experience of authentic relationships and presence into the healing process. Inclusiveness and acceptance are foundational to Fiddleheads structure. Awareness and respect of neuro, cultural, racial and economic diversity, is at the essence of our approach.

Families attracted to Fiddleheads have children with a range psychological, behavioral and social quirks ranging from shyness, attention deficit disorder (AD/HD), and autism spectrum disorders. We serve the needs of our families by providing a safe and nurturing therapeutic social group experience along with continual parent, and teacher consultation and individual therapy when requested.

Q: What does Seeds of Awareness provide for children that is perhaps otherwise lacking in their home, school or community environments?

A: Seeds of Awareness gives children the experience of feeling unconditionally accepted and valued. It gives children the experience of feeling valued and honored. Seeds teaches children to be aware of their feelings, their needs, and to develop vocabulary to advocate for themselves and communicate effectively with others.

There are societal stresses stemming from financial instability, violence in the community, multi-generational traumas, institutionalized racism and classism, addictions in the home, the list goes on and on. Even in upper class families, parents are overworked and overstressed. Families are disconnected, communities fragmented, schools are overtaxed.

At Seeds of Awareness, we cannot change our society with one broad swipe. Our mission at large is to address the systemic challenges, but on the ground we are providing much-needed support and care for the children and families who are overtaxed or wired differently. We are bringing probiotics into a system that is plagued with ailments. We are boosting the immune system of our communities by embodying care, positivity, and compassion.

Q: Let’s imagine we are able to see 30 years into the future. Could you describe how the world is a better place due to the impact of Seeds of Awareness?

A: It would be ignorant to believe the suffering of the world can be eliminated, or even dramatically lessened 30 years from now. Suffering is a universal truth to human existence. However, I can imagine Seeds of Awareness spearheading a movement that in 30 years will have accomplished something truly remarkable. We will have dramatically enhanced the resilience and emotional intelligence of communities around the world.

In many schools, we start teaching social and emotional learning in Kindergarten, and integrate it into their curriculums. On the playgrounds we have well-trained therapists helping children build positive connections and resolve conflicts peacefully. Children are taught how to recognize their feelings, name what the feeling is, and deal with it effectively — without it taking control over them.

Children who learn these skills will become emotionally intelligent members of their community, and will develop the inner resilience to effectively cope with struggles and emotional challenges without resorting to drugs, violence, and without feeling depressed and disengaged.

Q: What is the most crucial thing you wish to impart to today’s young people?

A: I would like the young people of today to gain the ability to recognize emotions in their bodies, and deal with feelings in a way that is supportive and relieving to them. I want for them to not feel so alone or shut off from their inner worlds.

My message for them would be, “It’s OK to feel bad, to feel hurt and sad. The pain won’t swallow you up. See if you can just breathe with yourself, with your pain and joy, fully, instead of distracting from it. And there is support if you need it and look for it. Developing this as a practice can enhance abilities and potentials we never knew were possible for individuals and societies. Mindfulness and meditation are very powerful practices that can have profound results, and lead us to places we never imagined.

Q: Last, who are some of the individuals that inspired you on your path towards creating Seeds of Awareness and how did they impact your thinking?

A: There are so many teachers I am deeply indebted to. I feel as if I carry a lineage and that my teachings and offerings stem from what I have been gifted by my teachers. John Grim was a professor of Religions at Bucknell University and he first introduced me to meditation and religious philosophy. His class blew open my mind, and I was so inspired to learn after a semester with him. I remember he said, “Pay attention to how the teacher or master ties his shoe, and you will learn everything the master has to teach.”

Duncan Bennett was an important mentor to me for 5 years of my life during my pursuit of a master’s degree and during the period of separation from my son’s mother. He taught me how to feel my emotions in my body, how to be truly present with myself and others. The power of presence. Lu Gray taught me the wisdom of Gestalt Therapy and philosophy. Mordechai Mitnick worked closely with me as my mentor and challenged the perceived limitations I believed I had, freeing me to pursue my dreams. He allowed me to be with my fear rather and stopped me from sidetracking from my visions and dreams.

I am grateful to Doug for this interview. You can learn about Seeds of Awareness at the following website:

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