HEART-MIND 2014: Setting the Stage

By Matthew Clarke

The Conference began on an idyllic Vancouver spring evening. Opening the festivities was a performance by a Vancouver based youth dance collective aptly named, “The Heart Mind Body Collective.” They gave a passionate performance to a spoken word piece called “Instructions For a Bad Day” by acclaimed and ever-inspiring spoken word poet, Shane Koyczan, which was underscored by a driving, uplifting musical score. 

The collective took to the stage one member at a time, each sporting a word or phrase from the poem on their pink t-shirts, while they danced in a way that embodied the poem’s innate belief in hope and love and also its defiance and struggle against the onslaught of negativity the world throws at us.

It was a powerful start to the conference, and a fitting setup up to a thru line of the weekend, one that balanced the event’s scientific, sometimes heady concepts with more artistic, spiritual, visceral moments and experiences. These kinds of moments, which I’ll talk about more shortly, included meditations, exercises, performances, and they were vital to the event. They allowed us a way to let these ideas and concepts settle into our bodies, so we could know them better than if they remained simply as sound bites or scribbled down notes.

Following the dance performance was an Opening First Nation’s Blessing by local elder, Audrey Rivers (Tiyatelot). This was an important ritual for everyone there. It gave mindfulness to where we were and the history of this place.

Then our host for the weekend, the ever-charming Maria LeRose introduced the opening keynote speaker, Mark Greenberg. Mark set up a context and framework for us all to approach the conference. Kindness can be hard to define and there are words like “Love,” “Compassion,” and “Empathy” that often share space with it. He posed a number of questions that would be addressed over the course of the conference.

To properly summarize his talk would probably take about 7 of these blogs, and while it’s hard to distil my 8 pages of notes from his talk down into a paragraph, there were a couple ideas that especially struck me and I think best set up what was to follow:

- In order to raise kind, compassionate children, there are 4 contexts that must be there to support it: 1) Early attachment. 2) What kids see adults do. 3) What values are promoted by parents, teachers, etc (World view). 4) What skills kids learn and have the opportunity to practice.

- Attachment is a very powerful thing. It leads to more altruism in adulthood. It has such a strong influence on compassion that in a study Mark has conducted, even simply priming someone with a memory of attachment led them to act more compassionately. Attachment relationships help shape the development of the regulatory circuit of the brain.

- Social-Emotional skills are the bedrock of human development. Emotional regulation is the key to resilience. Having a contemplative practice can help this and many other things such as encouraging thoughtful dialogue, managing conflict, showing empathy and compassion, making ethical choices.

- He spoke about the difference between empathy and compassion. Compassion involves the compulsion to do something about the suffering of others, to ease it. It also includes wisdom, so it makes judgments of care and concern.

- There was also a strong emphasis on the importance of mindfulness in adults, not just children. Modeling this behavior and setting a strong foundation for kids is extremely important. Also, there have not been any significant studies on the direct long-term affects of mindfulness exercises in children. We know the benefits for the kids while they’re doing it, but there’s no data yet on what the effects are down the road a few years. What we do have an understanding of are the benefits of mindfulness practice in adults and the subsequent long-term benefits to children.

The stage was set.

To be continued

Matthew Clarke is a Vancouver-based filmmaker, songwriter, musician, writer, father of two awesome children, and a proud out -of- league husband.  His latest short web-series, "Convos with my two year old," has become an internet sensation in it's first season and is available on YouTube .




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