Interview with Dawn Jarocki, Co-Author of Once Upon A Tree
Join us for a conversation with Dawn Jarocki as she shares about the journey she has taken to arrive here in this present moment as a mother raising her young son, living as a homeschool mom and teacher, outdoor educator, student of Thich Nhat Hanh and beautiful, spiritual being. Dawn is the co-author of the newly released Once Upon A Tree co-authored by Soren Kisiel and illustrated by Jessica McClure out on Parallax Press. Dawn was interviewed in Ojai, California by Dharma Mamas Founder Leslie Davis.
Dharma Mamas (DM): You do powerful work empowering children to connect to their higher selves through nature. Can you tell us about this amazing work you do with children?
Dawn Jarocki (DJ): The goal of our nature-based children’s empowerment program is to re-ignite the human spirit one child at a time. It is based upon the four core values of Wakanyeja (Lakota for “Sacred Little Ones”), Kuleana (Hawaiian for “sacred responsibility or purpose”), Honor for all of life, and the idea that Joy is our teacher and guide.
Children are born with big, bright spirits, in harmony with their inner nature and the wisdom of their hearts. Their creativity, joy, limitless thinking and playfulness are a precious gift to our world. All they need in order to thrive is to spend plenty of time in nature and to have the unconditionally loving presence of one adult who believes in them.
Our children’s empowerment program helps children to stay big inside. It helps them to trust their own inner wisdom, to be brave enough to let their voices be heard, to understand their own unique expressions in the world and the ways they contribute to community. And it empowers them to begin to share their gifts now in ways that bring them joy.
We give them access to tools such as nature awareness, emotional intelligence, self awareness and compassionate leadership skills, so that they can meet our modern world with the capacity to live successful, happy lives while also creating new possibilities for the future, positively impacting the world even just by simply being who they are each moment from a place of radical self love and authentic expression.
DM: Why were you drawn to this work and how did you get started?
DJ: Looking back, I can see that the seeds were already there even when I was a young child. It just was who I was, who I am. I had a deep knowing that this would be my path.
I think the desire to advocate for children was reawakened when I became a mother. My son reminded me of so much that I had forgotten and started me on a journey back to myself.
Re-establishing my relationship with nature played a big part in that journey. I used to take refuge in nature as a child. Nature was where I could return to a state of inner peace, return home to myself and to the natural world.
Our nature-based children’s empowerment program was born from a pilgrimage that my son and I went on together after I was diagnosed with severe hyperthyroidism. I went on that journey determined that I could find a way to heal if I could only listen deeply enough inside.
As we traveled, people began to notice the effect on my son and started to ask me what I was doing. I was hired to travel with a couple who led transformational retreats and lead their daughter through what the children affectionately began to call “nature school”.
That was the birth of Little Bear’s Nature School. And the vision continues to grow and mature. Right now, we are working on our most exciting idea yet. One that I believe will have a hugely positive impact on future generations of children and our society.
DM: I understand you wanted to ordain as a Buddhist nun before you became a mother. Can you tell us about that monastic yearning and why you chose to become a mother and not follow that path?
DJ: I was married for seven years. In the period of one year, I lost my closest uncle, my dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer, my cat died and my husband announced that he no longer wanted to have children, which led to our divorce.
After my divorce, I spent a year visiting Deer Park Monastery in southern California almost every weekend, attending retreats, speaking with the monastics and immersed in a deep daily practice as I considered whether or not ordaining as a nun was a good path for me. Immersing myself in my spiritual practice and sharing the merit of my practice with others felt like a wonderful thing. My aunt had been a Catholic nun and it was a path I had considered since childhood. I used to tell people that when I grew up I wanted to be a nun or a mom.
I took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Deer Park Monastery and received the dharma name Compassionate Journey of the Heart. I even established a meditation community and mindfulness center in the heart of Los Angeles called True Circle Center with two other young adults who attended Deer Park. We meditated for five hours each day, observed daily periods of silence and hosted days of mindfulness on the weekends.
My intuition told me that if I were going to ordain as a nun I should have no doubts that that path was the only path for me. But I did have one doubt… I could not release this desire to be a mom. But I was divorced and older, with no relationship on the horizon. It seemed like an impossibility to become a mom. So I prepared to take one last trip around the world with the intention of stating my desire to ordain at Plum Village that summer. I met Elijah’s father in February. Elijah was born exactly one year later.
My child needed my mindfulness and my mindfulness needed my child.
DM: What is your meditation practice look like now that you are a mama of a young one?
DJ: Well, it looks very different than my days of sitting on a cushion for hours at a time. Haha! As a new mom, it was difficult to find time to shower and eat, much less to sit and meditate for hours. But I knew I needed to find a way to do both. My child needed my mindfulness and my mindfulness needed my child. I was committed to Sacred Parenting, the belief that parenting is its own spiritual and transformative path and that my son was my best teacher.
Through a process of deep listening, surrendering and being willing to learn from my son, I have discovered a new way to practice. Gone are the days of withdrawing from my senses. Now I go straight into the chaos with my presence and my breath with a sense of wonder and curiosity. I let myself feel the air on my skin, the sun, the earth. I let myself truly see what is around me. If I can’t find my breath, I sing. I pause, and I listen.
Sitting meditation has become living meditation… bringing my breath and presence to each moment, no matter how scary or loud. And now that my son has taught me to begin to master this more difficult type of meditation, I notice that he is turning the tables once again and learning from me. Our practice evolves constantly. It becomes whatever is needed in the moment to come back home to ourselves and to find our balance.
My time at Deer Park Monastery gave me many tools that are always available to me and which I use and share with my son. But the greatest teaching it gave me was the practice of recognizing any place of conflict within myself and the ability to care for those places with love in order to become peace. Elijah and I say this often to ourselves, “Inner Peace leads to outer Peace.”
“Each child is the perfect medicine for his or her parent.”
DM: I like to think to motherhood as entering one of the 10,000 dharma doors to enlightenment. How has motherhood been a dharma door for you?
DJ: I would absolutely agree. There is something very spiritual about giving birth and about parenting. It is going to change you. It is unavoidable. And the deeper you surrender, the more awe-inspiring the effect.
Each child is the perfect medicine for his or her parent. Hopefully our love for our children sugarcoats the sometimes bitter medicine enough that we are willing to swallow. If we are willing to be honest with ourselves and willing to see, children will show us the ugly truth about ourselves that we have ignored or simply not seen. They will also show us our true beauty and teach us how to fall in love with ourselves and all of life.
When I became a mother, I did not just become a mother to my son… I became a mother to the entire world. I cannot see a homeless man or a lost teenager without seeing the face of my son. He has made me more human and more like God with his tiny fingers, his simple, true words, his own vast heart. He has obliterated my identity and reminded me of my true self. And then yanked me right back into the nitty, gritty of the human experience with my heart wide open… where I remain devotedly.
When I became a mother, I did not just become a mother to my son… I became a mother to the entire world.
DM: Dawn, your sharing is so inspiring to me and I’m sure it will inspire many other women and mothers. Feeling as though one mama is the mother to all, to the entire world is a universal feeling that many moms experience. There is a larger social, spiritual and ethical experience of motherhood that is so powerful. The deep work of mothering beyond our own children can happen in so many different ways. So, tell us about the birth of this book! How and why did it come into being? What is its purpose?
DJ: I used to get preoccupied with comparing myself and my life path with others, looking outside of myself for the answers. I would worry and fret and tie myself up in knots inside. I felt like everyone else had it figured out but me.
Once Upon a Tree came to me at a time in my life when I was really questioning WHAT I was supposed to be doing with my life. I was working as a dental hygienist. My father and my husband had convinced me that dental hygiene was a good career for me, but it never quite felt like a good fit. I loved working with the children and would tell them stories while they patiently (or not so patiently) waited for me to finish cleaning their teeth. At that time I called this story “The Leaf Story” and parents would often return to my office telling me how much this simple story of a leaf just trying to figure it all out had had a big impact on them and their children.
One day I called my good friend Soren Kisiel, who is a dad, a fellow mindfulness practitioner, author and award-winning playwright, and said, “I have this story and it is really having an effect on some of my patients. I think it needs to get out there. I feel like there are people who need to hear this story and I feel like it has a life and a path of its own.”
Soren agreed, and we spent the next three years editing the story together. The message remained the same, but the love and playfulness that he poured into the story and its characters took it to a whole new level of beauty. Our collaboration has been perfect in every way from day one. So has our relationship with Parallax Press and their handling of Once Upon a Tree. I think that really comes through in the finished book.
DM: Dawn, you and I both live in Ojai, California and in December we experienced the Thomas Fire surrounding our small town of Ojai and the devastation of many homes in its path. Dawn, I know you and your son lost your home in the Thomas Fire. Would you like to share about that experience? I imagine it was a difficult and important teaching about impermanence.
DJ: Absolutely. It has been a profound experience and has made me even more aware of how important storytelling is in times of transition. Soren and I are now working on our second book for Parallax and it is obvious how my current experience is showing up in the new story.
When I write a story I begin with a question to which I do not know the answer. The story is my way of exploring the question. I never know where it will lead. The characters are alive and unpredictable. Each character is a different part of me or Soren working through some common dilemma that we all face.
In my own life, it feels like I am still in the middle of my Thomas Fire story. I do not know yet how it will end. I’m just trying to make each page as fascinating as possible to myself, asking myself, “What is the best story I can write with my day today?” and bringing my breath and presence to it all as the process unfolds.
About Dawn Jarocki
Dawn Jarocki is a longtime student of Thich Nhat Hanh. She enjoys raising her young son, caring for other children as a nanny and homeschool teacher, and sharing her love of nature and mindfulness with our youngest generations.