The Restorative Power of Recalling Who We Really Are

"living stone" photo

Photo by Andesine on Flickr

This weekend I attended my first overnight mindfulness meditation retreat and learned about some wonderful ways in which early Buddhist teachings overlap with restorative practices.

For instance I learned from our teacher  (Santikaro of Liberation Park, WI) that the original word currently translated as “mindfulness” has two root meanings:

  • the more commonly understood Western concept of “being fully attentive to what is” and
  • the less well known concept of “recalling to mind”

What is it, exactly, that we are recalling?

Among other things, we are recalling—or bringing to mind—the “heart virtues” that already live within us, including Compassion, Forgiveness, Loving Kindness, and Appreciative Joy.

These heart virtues, Santikaro reminded us, do not need to be “manufactured” in any way; they simply need to be brought forth from within ourselves – so we can more easily recognize and access them, as well as honor and nurture them.

This brought to mind a restorative practice we enjoy in our family, inspired by the  story of an African tribe in which, when a person commits harm, the villagers gather around and remind the person of their beauty (by singing that person’s special “birth song”). The description, which varies from telling to telling, goes something like:

The tribe recognizes that the response to harmful behavior is not punishment but love, and the memory of one’s true identity. When we recall our own song we lose our desire to hurt others. Our song reminds us of our beauty when we feel ugly, our wholeness when we feel broken, our interconnectedness when we feel alone and our purpose when we feel lost.

While the story does not seem to be rooted in any real African tribe or tradition, according to my own searches and those of others, the legendary practice resonated with me when I first heard it years ago, and I adopted it as part of our family’s Restorative Toolkit.

Thus, for example, if my son says or does something hurtful to his sister, I may pull him aside, touch him gently, and give him a “Loving Reminder” (sing “his song” to him). This may go something like:

Hey, sweetie, remember who you are? You are the loving big brother who held your sister in your lap when she was tiny and sang to her. You are the big brother who plays with her patiently and compliments hear artwork! You are the one who taught her how to play soccer, the one who watches over her at grandma and grandpa’s house. You are the one she adores…

This usually has the effect of “softening” him, which I can see as a relaxation of his shoulders, breathing and facial muscles, and in the immediate reconciliatory actions that tend to follow.

After years of doing this (irregularly, as one of several restorative options in our home), I was blessed to be the recipient of a Loving Reminder for the first time in my life last week.

Following a rather divisive, reactive, and angry argument between my now-11-yr old son and me (in which we both said some not very pretty things), I went up to his room where he was supposed to be cooling off, to check in on him. As soon as I entered, he left his perch by the window, where he had been gazing at the sky, and approached me.

Touching me gently on the shoulder, he said:

Mom, remember? You are our loving mom. You are the one who makes us healthy snacks and arranges them in a tray after school. You are the one who cuddles with us and sings us love songs. You are the one who helps us clean our rooms. The one who packs and organizes the whole family for trips. You are the one who loves us.

I felt my eyes tear up and my throat tighten. It was true. I was hearing the notes of my song reflected back to me at a time of anger, uncertainty and isolation. I felt myself softening and re-orienting.

Sometimes we may need mediation, reconciliation, facilitation, family-group-conferences, restorative dialogues, peace circles, and Restorative Circles to help us restore relationships, repair harm and respond to unmet needs.

Other times we simply need to recall who we really are.

About Elaine Shpungin

Elaine Shpungin, Ph.D. is the founder of Conflict 180: an indivualized approach to whole school turn-around. Her writing has appeared in academic articles,, Tikkun Magazine, and edited books on pop culture themes (e.g., The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, House M.D.). Her weekly Restorative Tips newsletter has more than 700 subscribers and can be found at
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4 Responses to The Restorative Power of Recalling Who We Really Are

  1. Elaine,
    I’m going to read your article to my Restorative Practices class today. I loved reading it and I think they will enjoy hearing it. Each student is requested to make a presentation on one thing they think will contribute to living a restorative life. Today we will be discussing compassionate consuming.

  2. Christine, thank you so much for sharing that. It gives me a warm feeling inside to feel connected to a web of “restorative flames” all over the world! And to know that my words are being read and shared. I love the assignment. Maybe that’s an article waiting to happen by them! 🙂

    I am also hoping to write more this fall and have been working on a post which contains an edited “transcript” of a Restorative Circle we had with our kids about “racism in pretend play”. We are also plugging along with looking at instruments to measure RC results for individuals and communities (will share when done). Good to be on this journey with you and others who care about living life this way!

  3. Jasper says:

    Thanks you so much for your lovely text. I had read the text about the African singing tribe months ago. So powerful how you connect this with your own ‘Western’ practice. Thanks for the inspiration! From a loving father…

  4. marissa wertheimer says:

    Elaine: I too really appreciated your post. I often share your Micro-Circles writing with folks and can imagine doing the same with this piece. I once read about a similar practice in communities (I think also in Africa) with couples who are experiencing troubles in their relationship. The couple sits in the middle of a Circle, surrounded by their community and the community supports them as they try to journey back to each other. Thank you for the reminder to feed our heart virtues.

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