February 11, 2016

Family and Meditation

Jana Bledsoe at the Shambala Mountain Center
Each year, Friends’ Schools gives awards from the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund. 

My predecessor, Polly Donald, Friends’ Head of School for seventeen years, believes
that an individual’s personal growth inevitably enriches those with whom he or she comes into contact. In her name, the school created the Polly T. Donald Enrichment Fund, which aims to revitalize, inspire and support the personal growth of Friends’ faculty and staff. 

This year, the award winners were preschool teacher Jessie Vanden Hogan and administrative assistant Jana Bledsoe. Jana oversees our Alumni Association, as well as supports the work of the development, business, and admissions offices and helps to keep me sane and organized. Each received a cash award so they could pursue a passion and feel inspired.

Summaries of Jessie’s and Jana’s experiences follow:

This past summer I was fortunate enough to receive a PTD grant, which afforded me the opportunity to connect with my entire family on a memorable trip to Kauai. With half of my family living in the States (Boulder, CO and Green Bay, WI - go Pack!) and the other half living in Australia (Sydney and Old Toongabbie, NSW), we try to get together every 5 years and this was our summer to all be in one place.

Jessie with Connor and his sister Annabelle
After a month-long traumatic event with my nephew last January (with many complications still ongoing), my family felt a pull towards needing to honor our plan to spend some quality time together to decompress, continue healing, and celebrate life. What are the first words that come to mind to describe your feelings of spending 10 days in the same cozy house with 13 of your family members…as an adult? Believe it or not, my first words are: Rejuvenation, Renewal, Laughter, Love, Fun, Connection, Balance, and even Growth! It was hot, hot, hot and humid, humid, humid, but there was no shortage of connection, fun and love. Everyone had their moment to shine. We snorkeled, cooked amazingly colorful, tasty meals, took photos, told stories, played bar dice, hugged, cried, danced, and laughed.

This gift gave me quality time with my family that fed my soul. It was a therapeutic trip for all of us. I am so lucky to be able to leave my family and come home to my FriendsSchool family. I am so grateful to everyone who contributed to this fund and to Polly who always helped me to think and grow outside of my box. This experience refreshed and reenergized me, as well as inspired me to grow as a teacher, co-worker, aunt, sister, daughter, granddaughter, and friend.
Jessie hugging her 'little' brother
Pieter who lives in Australia
As far as my nephew Connor, his journey and his ability to live by his hero Vince Lombardis quote was a lesson to all of us to persevere…

“Its not whether you get knocked down, its whether you get up.”  - Vince Lombardi

He has taught us all to celebrate life and that is what we were all doing in that cozy house on a tiny island in-between the States and Oz.
Good on ya mate, no worries!



The Polly Talbot Donald Enrichment Fund is a phenomenal gift of revitalization. I chose to use my award to attend a week-long intensive mindful meditation program at the Shambala Mountain Center at Red Feathers Lake. My goal was to do something radically out of my comfort zone. I was hoping for an experience that would shift my paradigm from a “tasking” lifestyle, working 2 jobs and single parenting, to one of mindful awareness, adding more depth and breadth to my life.

I was a bit nervous when I discovered that I was the only participant in the program who had never meditated before. I thought perhaps I should have reflected upon the meaning of “immersion” before registering. The next seven days would consist of 14 hours of meditation….each day. The 14 hours involved sitting meditation interspersed with walking meditation as well as three meals, which were “performed” ritualistically, in silence, on our cushions, using the basic principles of Oryoki.

I actually found the first day exhilarating and remember thinking “oh, this isn’t so hard”. I came to realize that I wasn’t actually meditating at all but instead “thinking” about all of the things that I was grateful for. Come to find out, “thinking” is actually the antithesis of meditating.  I didn’t have a clue. I struggled the next day to try to “clear my mind” which proved to be about as easy as herding 120 cats with a couple pit bulls thrown in for additional distraction. 

In theory, mindfulness meditation practice couldn’t be simpler: take a good seat, pay attention to the breath, and when your attention wanders, return. How could something so simple be so difficult? 14 hours felt like 14 days when it was broken up into 60-second intervals of success before the next assault of “thought” bombarded me like a Star Wars fleet.  The paradox was that when I was able to just be present to my mind and body, the stress would quiet down—but when I tried to quiet my mind down, I would just add fuel to the fire. This realization eventually allowed my intervals of “quiet” to increase. Over the course of the week, I found my entire nervous system slowing down. Every day seemed to bring with it a profound introspection and appreciation for the simplicity of eating, breathing, walking, essentially just “being”.  Every day the practice became somewhat easier, but also more profound. By the end of the week, my eyes had been opened to the richness of simple mindful living, I had a set of tools to work with, and most importantly, my heart was open.

I want to thank all of the members of the Polly Talbot Donald Enrichment Fund committee for giving me the opportunity to “revitalize, inspire and support my personal growth”.  This experience was truly one of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had.  Life happens and I suspect that the journey to living mindfully will be progress not perfection. I am beyond grateful, thanks to this experience, to now have a “touch stone” to serve as my compass. Priceless.

Meditation is not escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to truly help.”  Thich Nhat Hanh


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