Ablaze: A personal story of igniting my heart aflame

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My second poetry collection, Ablaze, sheds an honest light on my raging desire and passion to consummate the dream that beckoned me to abandon my home and blaze a new trail here in Central America, amongst rural villagers in isolated tropical jungles, amidst a backdrop of ancient cultures enriched by traditional customs for which I have deep respect. Having been forged in the fire of my heart’s desire, I am now faced with the opportunity to make choices that could determine the course of my life for many years.

Parama sitting on couchThe flames are burning bright, and I cannot escape the heat.

Five years ago, before I first arrived in Belize, Central America (a tiny country just south of Mexico), I was living and working as a schoolteacher in the U.S., when I had a vivid dream in which my Buddhist master teacher, Geshe Michael, appeared to me and told me that it was time for me to leave my home country, that it was okay to go… “The same thing happened to me,” he declared in the dream, while I extended my hand to touch a slow-motion panorama of tropical plants, flowers, and coconuts….

When I woke up, I recalled the dream as if it had really happened, and I was emboldened: I resigned from my job, booked a plane ticket, and packed my bags. Waiting in the airport, I earnestly prayed and (heard God?) tell me, “You will almost die down there. But you will be saved. I am with you.” … While this may seem crazy to my readers, perhaps it is worth mentioning that I seem to be endowed with a gift of clairvoyance, whatever that means. I honestly can’t explain it, at least not scientifically. I don’t know whether to consider it a blessing or a quirky talent that comes from a rare genetic mutation… or both.

bird of paradise flowerForewarned by the somewhat alarming message that my life would be endangered, I forged ahead nonetheless, bolstered by the support of the man who was then my husband, mutually inspired by our shared vision to purchase a small parcel of fertile land in a rural area where we would build a small-scale permaculture farm and develop a vocational education center for the benefit of our local community.

In the U.S., I had established over ten years of a successful career in special education as a consultant in public and private schools; in addition to earning certification and practicing professionally as a Licensed Massage Therapist and yoga teacher. I earned a Master of Arts in Education and gained a wide range of experience working with children and adults who were diagnosed with developmental and learning disabilities. I enjoyed working in the field of education, but I felt deep dissatisfaction with what I deemed to be a restrictive, top-down model that limited my creativity and freedom to design my own curriculum.

Parama w studentsI became disillusioned with the public school system in the U.S. and envisioned an innovative approach that involved outdoor, experiential education on an organic farm. I wrote and published my first two books that became bestsellers in experimental methods in education. When my husband suggested that we move to Central America and purchase land for our own school, I was forced to choose: Do I stay with what is familiar, or do I take the risk of trying something completely new? . . .

I chose to leave behind the security and convenience of my comfortable, middle-class life in the U.S. I took my innovative ideas with me on the road – south of the border. As I was about to expose myself to an entirely new life in a foreign country, I felt a high degree of anxiety mixed with a deep inner conviction that I was doing the right thing, and everything would work out, somehow, eventually….

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We arrived in Punta Gorda, a small agricultural and fishing town in Southern Belize, Central America, surrounded by Mayan villages and ancient cultural ruins. Instead of falling into the typical tourist routes, we … blazed our own trail. We immediately focused on establishing community liaisons and connecting with local people who were living the way we had envisioned: off-grid with minimal resource consumption and growing food on their own land.

Parama harvesting bamboo copyFinanced by our own meager savings, my partner and I knew that we needed to secure an ongoing income to support ourselves. We discovered that we could work locally as English teachers, earning a small but adequate salary. We traveled and found temporary work assignments in Guatemala, where we lived and volunteered on an organic farm while simultaneously purchasing one acre of our own land in Punta Gorda, Belize, beside other neighbors who shared our passion.

At that time, I did not expect that I would soon end up alone, following through on our project, after my partner became too ill to continue living in Central America. After many months of trying the best I could to help him recover, I determined that he required specialized therapy which was unavailable in Central America – impoverished, third-world countries with limited infrastructure and resources. He refused to seek adequate treatment and suddenly left me while we were living in the mountainous region of Chiapas, the southernmost district of Mexico.

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Heartbroken, devastated and discouraged, I almost returned to the U.S. and my previous career as a schoolteacher. Instead, I chose to make Central America my new home and community. I resolved that I would continue what we’d started, because I did not want to let anything derail me from realizing my dreams….

Parama at KikimundoNow a young, single woman in a somewhat dire situation, I had unintentionally become a “woman at risk” and found myself desperately seeking a means to support myself while living in the third world, where job opportunities are limited and rarely offer any benefits beyond a small wage.

My persistence allowed me to support myself by establishing friendships within my local community as well as creating my own work opportunities wherever I traveled, looking for safety and security while still recovering from the loss of my partner’s companionship.

I discovered the importance of resourcefulness in order to survive as a single woman in Central America. Looking back, I realize how much courage and persistence it took for me at the time to continue seeking and finding opportunities, and now I can honestly claim that I am grateful to my beloved former partner for leaving me with no choice but to dig deep within myself to find my inner strength (Thank you!)…. While I wrote and published a series of books, I worked in many different communities as a massage therapist, yoga instructor, English teacher, and house-sitter. I lived for periods of time with host families in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. This proved to be an extremely challenging opportunity to grow and learn while immersing myself in the various cultural traditions of Central America.

door colorful copyEven though I do have the privilege of a broad educational background and qualifications, I learned first-hand what it must be like for local women who have little or no formal education to become caught in a “cycle of poverty”, to be taken advantage of, and, unfortunately, to be abused. Although I could speak fluent Spanish and interact with the locals in the marketplace and at work, I experienced many incidences in which local men, seeing that I was vulnerable and traveling alone, tried to take advantage of me in different ways.

I gained a deeper understanding for how “at-risk women” find themselves in precarious situations where they are endangered and oppressed. In spite of many dangers and challenges, I persisted and continued to pursue my dreams, relying on my own skills, faith, as well as the help and support of caring friends, near and far.

Parama crouching at pyramid copyYears later, I am proud to have stayed true to my own heart, despite countless moments in which I just wanted to give up. Now, I want to believe that I am “living my dream”…. Yet, something feels incomplete, like there is some surprise waiting right around the corner for me, if I could only muster the courage to be vulnerable and open my heart, even as it still heals from the pain of my past….

Since I arrived in Central America five years ago, I’ve been an intrepid solo traveler, exploring and living alone in many different places in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. I’ve learned a lot about myself and discovered my own inner strength….

Like the “locals”, I have worked hard and saved up enough money to recently break ground on the construction of my new home – an off-grid, thatch roof hut (in process!) – on my one acre of land in southern Belize, where I would like to expand my infrastructure and… eventually… open an innovative school and community center for the locals.

Parama's house

For many years I have persistently held the intention for The Farm School project in Central America to help women achieve their dreams and goals, whether they are single, have intact families, or are struggling, single mothers. The Farm School is a vocational, experiential training center that promotes health and wellness within the local community, especially for women, while supporting them to become more self-sufficient by learning practical skills.

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My heart burns with raging passion to create something that has never been done before. I hold fast to my vision to help at-risk women in need of support, encouragement, and opportunities to make their own dreams come true. Yet, I perceive that I have arrived at a crossroads. My vision may need to take shape in a different form, for now…. I wait and wonder and marvel at the mystery of the fire.

sunrise in AntiguaFive years later, after countless adventures, meeting new and interesting people along the way, nearly dying at the hands of those who would wish to do me harm, I have survived many dangers, overcome personal challenges, and learned what it means to be a warrior dedicated to a mission that can only come from touching the flames of burning passion within one’s heart, enlivened and inspired every day to keep blazing the trail….

Fire must be fed to stay alive. The strength of the flame is derived from a dynamic interplay of elements. Passion can be recognized and shared between two people who are uncontrollably drawn toward one another in a mutual desire to burn in the conflagration of hearts united and ignited. The flames burn and rage, transforming the landscape of the heart, regenerating the soil, making it fertile ground for new growth.

Please click here to download my second poetry collection, Ablaze

Radical reform: How and why I created The STAR Method

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I vividly remember the day one of my first-grade students, a boy diagnosed with childhood depression, came into my classroom with a sullen expression and announced, “I hate school.”

I empathized with his feelings.

After a decade of teaching in a variety of settings, I had realized that schools were highly stressful places. Outcomes that were measurable by filling in bubbles and marking checkboxes seemed to be paramount to everyone’s health and happiness.

I had learned, with a sense of despair, that the education system was failing our children.

As a full-time special education classroom teacher and consultant in public and private schools across the US, I have taught in a variety of settings to students of all ages who are diagnosed with moderate to severe developmental disabilities and learning disabilities; including autism, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD). I hold a Master of Arts in Education with a specialization in Special Education. My jobs in Special Education have been demanding and, at times, exhausting.

One of the most notable features of participating in the education system was the high degree of stress that I observed in my colleagues and students. Teachers came to work frazzled, fatigued, and bogged down with endless paperwork. Students exhibited stress, anxiety, frequently came down with colds and other sicknesses, and held negative attitudes towards learning in general.

I developed my own routine for staying healthy, fit, and energized while holding down a challenging full-time job. By the time I started working in Special Education, I had already become a Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher. I continued to study and practice a variety of holistic modalities and techniques extensively. I was determined to use the tools I had learned to maintain my own health and wellness and manage job-related stress.

I would wake up by 4:00 AM every morning before school to do my morning exercises: meditation, yoga, deep breathing, jogging, swimming…. By the time I arrived to work at 7:45 AM, I had sweated my butt off, expanded my lung capacity, and found my inner peace for the day.

As I personally witnessed how my students were detrimentally impacted by high levels of stress, I started to use proven, therapeutic techniques with them in the classroom. As a Certified Massage Therapist and Yoga Teacher, I found practical ways to integrate my background in health and healing into my teaching curriculum. To help my students relax and concentrate better, I taught them simple breathing exercises and physical movements that were proven to improve academic performance. I offered yoga classes to my colleagues after school in the multipurpose room. I received encouraging, positive feedback and support from my school administration.

The STAR Method began to take shape as I applied practical stress management techniques in my own classroom and leveraged my Master’s degree studies to dig deeper into the current research. I discovered very little educational policy and scholarly research to support stress management training for teachers. Yet, my own anecdotal experience in the schools clearly indicated that job-related stress was a problem for teachers and administrators. The STAR Method was born out of what I consider to be a largely ignored aspect of educational policy: Our schools should not be stressful places.

Teachers are required to manage their students’ behavior through approved behavioral interventions and techniques, but are students learning how to manage their own behavior? Are teachers being trained to effectively manage their own stress, so that our children are spending most of their day with peaceful, calm, balanced, healthy adults who can mentor them properly?

With the expert guidance of my graduate degree advisor and co-author, I published my first article about The STAR Method in 2006 in a peer-reviewed online journal, Teaching Exceptional Children, entitled “Stress Management for Special Educators: The Self-Administered Tool for Awareness and Relaxation (STAR). I originally published The STAR Method as a program to help schoolteachers manage stress, prevent job burnout, and increase self-awareness of the impact of stress in their professional lives.

I used The STAR Method in my classroom and offered training workshops to other teachers and professionals within the education system. I endeavored to share the tools and techniques of The STAR Method on a regular basis with my students and colleagues. During this time, I became enthralled with the idea that all schools should have quiet rooms for meditation and ample, clutter-free spaces in which students and teachers could learn stress management techniques, like yoga and therapeutic touch.

But I knew that this wasn’t enough.

There was something missing.

For years, I couldn’t figure out the missing piece; regardless, I kept on trying to help.

One of my jobs was in a public school as a specialist for preschool children with multiple disabilities, including autism. Many of my students exhibited severe behavioral problems; for example, when they were upset, they would frequently hit, scratch, and bite themselves or other students. As a Special Education Teacher, my school district required me be certified in “Physical Restraint Training” so that I could learn how to properly restrain my behaviorally challenged students before they injured themselves or someone else.

At the time, it seemed like a good idea to me: I wanted to be sure that my students were safe in my classroom. But on the first day of training, I was horrified.

I learned that these techniques were adapted from those used in psychiatric wards and high-security prisons.

In the most severe cases, I would be required to follow an exact procedure that involved me and at least one other fully grown adult holding my preschoolers’ tiny bodies face-down on the floor with their hands restrained behind their backs. As stated in the training manual, I would be required to hold my students in this position for as long as it took to calm them down.

I thought to myself, “Holding a child face-down on the ground and pinning their hands behind their backs is supposed to calm them down?”

To me, it seemed like a humiliating, disempowering, brutal, and potentially harmful thing to do to any child, especially to a tiny preschooler. I later learned from further research that “Physical Restraint Training” is currently required by law for schools nationwide as an approved method of behavior intervention.

The instructor of the training session that I attended was a portly, middle-aged man who had used the restraint technique numerous times on emotionally disturbed high school boys. I approached him and asked, “So, let me get this straight. You’re telling me that I am supposed to flip my preschool kids onto their faces, pin them to the ground—the same exact way you do with your fully grown, adult students—and the goal of this technique is to calm them down?”

He replied curtly, “Yep.”

I excused myself from the training session and made a phone call to the supervisor of the Special Education Department in my school district.

“I don’t agree with this approach,” I said, “I refuse to treat my students this way, under any circumstances.”

“But—you are required to be certified in ‘Physical Restraint Training’. You have to comply with this district’s policies,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If you don’t complete the training, then you will be held personally liable for any injuries that happen in your classroom…. This school district will not be held responsible,” my supervisor told me.

This was the galvanizing moment: I realized that our education system had failed our children.

I realized that the modern-day education system was frantically busy trying to force round pegs (our kids) into square holes.

The next day, I signed my resignation letter and quit my teaching job.

I had reached a point of no return. I was unwilling to compromise my integrity in order to keep my foot in the door of a stable job that required me to harm children. I emancipated myself and walked off the plantation. I was completely checking out of what I now believe to be a failed system. I walked away and started investing my time and energy into something new and different. But I wasn’t giving up: I was preparing to follow a higher calling.

I radically transformed my life over the course of the next few years. I used The STAR Method every day and recorded notes in my journals about how the exercises were impacting my life. I expanded my vision for The STAR Method to include more tools and techniques. I practiced, developed, and refined a series of physical exercises and meditation exercises to include in The STAR Method.

I designed and completed a wellness retreat in which I maintained a vow of silence for one year. During this retreat, I meditated daily. I reflected on my halcyon days as a graduate student and first-year teacher, when my naive optimism led me to believe that modern-day schools were places where children could go to learn how to be healthy, happy, peaceful, and self-empowered.

One day, I had an epiphany.

I realized that I couldn’t change a failed system from within the failed system.

I realized that I had to create an entirely new system: A radical reform.

The STAR Method that you now hold in your hands is the first instantiation of this new system. I have since written and published my vision for a holistic, experiential learning environment called The Farm School, located in a rural setting where children can learn how to be healthy and thrive in a self-sustaining community.

I moved to Central America, where I write, teach, travel, and offer seminars.

I am fascinated by the potential for a cultural revolution. By “revolution,” I am not referring to a violent one with torches and mobs of angry people. What I am proposing is a peaceful, quiet revolution—a subtle, yet powerful one—enacted from within our own hearts and minds.

A transformation from within must find its expression in the outer world.

Indeed, I believe that a cultural revolution is imminent. I believe that we are ready for something radically new.

I believe that radical reform is the only thing that can change the course of humanity, now standing at a crossroads between two radically different worldviews.

Now, I wonder: Which path will you choose?

The STAR Method: How to Heal Using Therapeutic Touch is now available on Amazon. Click here to download the ebook onto your Kindle reader.