A Compassionate Curriculum Part A: Teaching Our Nature

Mindfulness and compassion practices are wonderful, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school and the curriculum. So, how do you do that? What needs to be included in a curriculum so students are more likely to graduate as compassionate human beings?

 

A curriculum that teaches compassion should start with “big questions,” especially those chosen or verbalized by students. In that way, students will feel heard and thus more inclined to listen. They will then look at the school as part of themselves, not as something totally separate. As discussed in an earlier blog, creating a curriculum out of big questions gives students not only an understanding of issues they consider important but the sense that they can figure out for themselves how their actions can serve a useful purpose.

 

Next, the curriculum needs to directly face a question that students in several of my classes often raised: what are we humans? What is it in our nature to be? We say things like, “it is just human nature to do x, y, or z.” What could that mean? Students often assume that humans have a “nature” and having a “nature” means that you can’t help but enact that nature. Your nature is fixed, in your DNA. But what exactly is fixed? And what would having such a fixed nature imply? Since there is so much violence and suffering in the world, how can it be our nature to be compassionate? This question is a mirror of another old philosophical question: If God is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

 

One book that could be a resource for a secondary school curriculum on compassion is The Compassionate Instinct. This book explores scientific evidence and philosophical arguments for compassion. In the first essay, Dacher Keltner makes the point that “human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature.” When you assume something about your nature, you act in accord with that assumption. To talk about human nature is to talk about who you are as a person, who you are as a friend or loved one, parent or child. It is not simply an intellectual question. It affects the whole way you relate to others and live your life. Students need to look for the larger dimensions and implications of their questions, and teachers need to understand the implications of the material they teach and their pedagogy.

 

Keltner argues that compassion is “rooted in our brain and biology, and [is] ready to be cultivated for the greater good.” It is in us, as a possibility. It can be developed—or subverted. Our brains are plastic in that they are continuously rewiring to some degree. We change according to our experience and education. Learning means change. Even the expression of DNA depends on experience. Maybe how we think about our nature is both a result of our nature and at the same time helps form that nature.

 

How do you relate to suffering, or to the awful, the holocausts, genocides, wars, and death? When students, and teachers, read about something awful like violence, murders and even the devious manipulations of political leaders now or in the past, they might say, “Ah, yes. Just what I expected.” Others, “I don’t want to hear about it.” It is difficult to allow yourself to be in the middle between assuming the worst of people and wanting to hide.

 

In history, it is easy to overemphasize the horrors that humans have perpetrated and to leave out the good. To talk about Hitler and forget Asoka. The good is often seen as inconsequential, banal or everyday; yet without this everyday counterweight to what we consider evil, we could not go on. This is not “inconsequential” but the most consequential. For example, students in one of my classes claimed that humans are not cooperative. I then asked them, how did you get to school this morning? Why didn’t all the cars on the road crash into each other? I continued: Name all the different people you can think of who contributed to making your lunch. In our school, this was a very visible subject as one group of students helps cook the lunch for the school and another grows some of the food. Students went on and on, surprising themselves with the result, naming teachers who instructed students on how to cook the food, farmers and truckers and people who made the forks and spoons. After just a few minutes, it seemed that everyone and everything contributed to their lunch. Instead of disconnection, students learned about interdependence, which in turn opened the door to the possibility of compassion.

 

Teachers might claim they value compassion and have empathy for their students and others. Yet, if they teach that selflessness is a myth, that we are born to put competitiveness and greed before other ways of being, they undermine that claim. For example, take science or social studies teachers who discuss evolution and have students read portions of Darwin’s  The Origin of Species but not The Descent of Man. Psychologist and evolution theorist David Loye points out that Origin spells out the theory most people associate with Darwin, that through random variations in genes and “natural selection” the best organisms are picked out to survive while the rest are discarded. Such a choice has led to theories about humans being naturally aggressive, that competition is necessary for survival, even that there is such a thing as a “selfish gene.” In Descent, Darwin applies his theories to human beings and, I think, leaves us with a very different message than he did in Origin. He speaks more about “mutual aid,” ethics or morality, and love than about “the survival of the fittest.” He speaks about helping others, even the weak, out of “sympathy.” So, should we teach both books? And which book gives us more incentive to act in an ethical or a compassionate manner?

 

We need to let the light in. Especially when the subject is difficult, we need to hold the reality, even the difficult and painful reality, in our arms for a second; to listen to what has to be said without jumping to a conclusion or running to hide.

 

There are specific characteristics of being human, for example, our shape, the fact that we normally have two legs, two arms, and two eyes. Our brain and senses obviously allow us to do some things but not others. We can walk on our own two feet but not fly with (just) our feet. Most of us can perceive a variety of colors but none of us can perceive ultraviolet light. If we could see ultraviolet, just think how our experience might change. But is our nature something different from a description of what our mental and physical equipment makes possible? Or should I ask: Does our physical and mental equipment make it possible for us to have meaningful choices in how we act? Is the most important thing about our nature the possibility that we have a choice about how we use our equipment? That we can choose to be either compassionate or hurtful?

 

The question of what does it mean to be a human being is a crucial question for students to raise in our classes and for teachers to address directly. Hidden in the question is the recognition that who we are is about who we choose to be. Who do you choose to be? What would you choose to teach?

Sharing Compassion

It is fairly easy to be kind and compassionate to those we care for. It is not too difficult to be kind to strangers or those we just met. To be kind to those we don’t like or actively hate feels like a contradiction. We often imagine that kindness is only for those we want to embrace, not those we want to yell at or never see again. But to be kind to those we dislike changes our whole way of responding to events in our life. When we allow ourselves to simply notice the feeling of “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like you,” without holding on to that feeling or automatically acting on it, then we can break conditioned behaviors. We can just recognize the thought or feeling and move on. We become flexible in our thinking and less burdened by hurtful feelings.

 

How do we share this with our students and ourselves? Here is one practice. The idea is to develop the ability to imagine, “feel with” and care about another person’s inner state. Alfie Kohn said that compassion is not just to imagine what its like to be in another person’s shoes but “what its like to have their feet.”

 

Start, as with other mindfulness practices, by calming and focusing the mind.

 

Sit up, near the edge of the chair, so your back is straight but not rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully. Then turn your attention inwards to your breath. Exhale, noticing how the diaphragm works to push out the air. Then notice the inhalation, how the diaphragm expands downwards on its own, and air comes in. Just notice this. Notice what it feels like to breathe in, to refresh yourself. And breathe out, focusing on the breath and letting go of thoughts or images.

 

Notice the quality of your awareness and attention. Is your mind clear or foggy? Focused or wandering? Awake or tired?

 

As you breathe in, let a friend or someone you get along with well come to mind. Just imagine him or her, or let descriptive words about the person come to you. Notice their face, mouth, hair, eyes. Notice how they look at you, their expression.

 

Then notice their whole body, how they stand, their shoulders, hands. Do they stand straight?  Are they relaxed or stiff?

 

Then go inside. What do you think this person is feeling? What clues can you get from their expression and from their posture about what they are thinking or feeling?

 

In this subtle way, you can teach students about reading another person, reading their body language and facial expression, which is one form of empathy.

 

Now imagine giving a simple gift to this person. The gift is merely a wish for the person to feel kindness, peacefulness and joy. Just say it to yourself: I wish this person kindness, peacefulness and joy. Imagine the person filled with this kindness, inner peacefulness, and joy. Notice how it affects them.

 

Standard compassion practices start with someone you are comfortable with or close to. Then you go to someone neutral. Then to someone you don’t know. Finally, you imagine someone you dislike or are angry with. Then you give the gift to yourself.

 

Just sit for a moment with the sense of kindness, inner peacefulness and joy being all around you, filling you.

 

You could end right there or you might add this visualization:

 

Imagine a ball of light appearing above your head, a beautiful light, maybe white, or golden, like sunlight. The light begins to flow into your body, from the top of your head down to your feet. It fills your body with a warm, healing light. Then it flows out from your feet to the feet of the other person. It flows from you to the person you imagined, up her or his feet, through their body to their head and out to the ball of light above your body. Imagine the light filling both you and the other person, connecting you both in a circle of light. Enjoy the connection for a moment.

 

You can have the light flow from you, or from you and the imagined person, out to the whole class.

 

I usually use a singing bowl to end all practices. If you don’t use one, then end the visualization with:

 

Now, return your awareness to your breath. Breathe out—then allow yourself to inhale– and exhale again. As you inhale, return your attention fully to the classroom remembering the sense of kindness, peacefulness, joy and connection.

 

Singing bowls can also be used when the room gets too loud and you want to quiet everyone. Just listening to the bowl sing can focus attention and give people a sense of inner quiet.

 

Students often report that it is easier to imagine giving kindness, peacefulness, and joy to others than receiving it themselves. It is difficult to feel deserving of such gifts. I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that in the U. S. you must be courageous to be happy—or to allow yourself the gift. However, imagining the gift of joy for another bestows it on yourself. By giving it, you receive it. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that the joy you imagine is in yourself. That’s one reason why, as I pointed out in my last blog, there are many psychological and health benefits to being compassionate.

 

Likewise, the more anyone can be kind and compassionate to themselves, the deeper their capacity for compassion for others.  Being kind to yourself is something you can practice each moment. Whenever you realize your mind has drifted or when you become aware that a thought, judgment, or emotion has carried you off, in that moment, you can come awake. You hear your thoughts as just thoughts, emotions as just emotional energy. Instead of judging yourself negatively, you treat your thoughts and emotions kindly and as an experience to learn from.

 

I have so far talked about mindfulness and compassion in terms of what one teacher or student could do in or out of a classroom. There is a deeper question that needs to be asked: What can a whole school do to teach compassion? Ultimately, compassion works best when it is embedded in the structure and culture of the school community and curriculum. What can you do you to embed compassion in your community?

 

 

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

Compassion And Empathy, The Golden Skills

What is compassion? Empathy? I have to admit that I often lump these two together. Some educators have trouble using the word ‘compassion.’ It sounds too “spiritual” to them, whereas ‘empathy’ is something most anyone could support. Both empathy and compassion have the sense of “feeling with” another person, in some way feeling what another person is going through. But in what way do you feel the other? And why is this so important that it is called it the “golden skill?”

 

Paul Ekman defines three forms of empathy, the third being close to what I think of compassion.

  1. Cognition: an ability to discern the feelings of another or to “read” another person and the physical and action cues. A person like a sociopath can “read” another person but not care.
  2. Feeling: Internalize or “feel with” another person, body to body, sense to sense.
  3. Caring: “compassionate empathy” or to have a concern for another and the energy to help.

With compassion, you not only “feel with” the other person but want to act in accord with that feeling; you want to act in a kind, caring manner. You value the welfare of another person like you value your own welfare.  Hidy Ochiai once said compassion is being the other person.

 

With compassion, you do not help others in order to feel superior; that is pity. You do not simply feel a sense of sorrow about what they are going through; that is sympathy. Both pity and sympathy are based on an emotional distance with the other being. With empathy, that distance diminishes. The situation becomes more close up and personal. Compassion is when that sense of closeness compels action. And it is this closeness that the students want. They want to know that other people can act for the good of another person, because they want to know that people can be caring. They want to feel that care themselves, both in the giving and in the receiving.

 

There’s always a group of students who get very cynical. They take a stance against the possibility of compassion in order to dare someone to prove otherwise. They argue that compassion, like altruism or selflessness, is impossible. People act only to get some reward or because it feels good. If it feels good, then it isn’t compassion; it isn’t a selfless act.   They think they have me or have compassion on the spear point of a logical dilemma. I am always gladdened by their recognition that compassion feels good. When you act for the good of another, a sense of joy does arise. There is even good evidence that there are physical and psychological benefits from acting with compassion.  The problem is that the supposed dilemma masks the essential point. When you act in order to get the benefits then you lose the joy of compassion. The key is the intention. The joy comes only when the caring is selfless.

 

V. S. Ramachandran describes how, when you watch someone doing an intentional action, like reaching out for a sandwich, the motor control neurons in areas of your brain fire in a manner as if you were doing the action. You model in your brain what another person is doing. You then respond physically and mentally to your model almost as if it represents a distinct person.  You understand what the other person is doing through reading your response to your model; you understand through empathy. The neuron systems which enable this empathy are called mirror neuron systems. If you see a person experiencing pain, your pain neurons fire almost as if you were in pain. Did you ever flinch back when you saw a person hit? Or smile when you saw someone smile? In this way you become the other person.

 

These neurons enable humans not only to empathize with others but to be sophisticated imitators. We mirror mostly unconsciously. We are so good at it that we need mechanisms in our brain and in our skin to prevent us from constantly imitating others. There is even a condition where people can’t stop their imitating; it is called echopraxia.

 

The ability to imitate in action and imagination facilitates learning and understanding. You learn through imitating the sound of a word, how to hold a hammer, how to write a formula—or solve a formula. As I said in my blog on imagination, you understand a character in a novel by creating a model of the person in your mind and then “reading” your response to the model. You can understand a time in history or how riding in a spaceship might affect you by creating a mental model and then reading your own response to the model.

 

Empathy and compassion facilitate thinking and communicating. In talking with students about how to write an essay or story, teachers often say “know your audience.” Without knowing your audience, it is difficult to write a coherent, focused piece. You know what to say only to the extent that you feel and imagine the people you are speaking with or writing to. Communication is not just expressing yourself, not just saying what is on your mind. You have to understand, to some degree, the mind of the other person. What does expressing yourself mean? If no one hears you, have you had a conversation? ‘Con’ means ‘with’, ‘vers’ means ‘turn’, so a conversation can mean “turning with another” or turning together. What is on my mind changes depending on whom I am with and where I am. So, improving my ability to read, feel with, and care about another person aids my ability to communicate more clearly.

 

Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness strengthens the insula, which is an area of the cerebral cortex of the brain. It is  deep down, near the temporal, parietal and frontal lobes. It is  very connected to the limbic or emotion system, and to the mirror neuron system I spoke about earlier that is involved in understanding the emotion of others by experiencing the emotion in your self. The insula is also involved in the arousal of energy and focus. Compassion practices not only make the insula stronger; they ready you to act in a compassionate, kind or helpful manner.

 

Thus, teaching mindfulness and compassion practices can contribute to improving the environment in schools. It can improve learning, thinking and understanding. It readies students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they will feel the pain of being bullied, yet have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.

 

So, when you feel a push to speak or act, especially when you are upset or angry, use compassion. Think about how you would feel hearing what you think you want to say. If you pity the other person, or feel very distant, what happens to understanding? Only by an empathetic or compassionate modeling and reading of another person’s intent do you understand what they meant to say and what you mean to say to them. Now that is a golden skill.

 

Next week: empathy and compassion practices.

Critical Thinking Part Three: The Process of Critical Thinking is Creative

In 1992, I saw a PBS television documentary called “The Creative Spirit” and it brought so much together for me. It proposed four steps in a process of creative thinking: preparation, frustration, incubation, and illumination. Just learning the techniques of an art is not enough to be creative. You have to develop a creative mind and attitude. I realized that critical thinking is also a process like creativity. You can’t just learn techniques and a vocabulary of “rational” thinking or problem solving and expect be a good critical thinker. You have to develop a whole process of living with a question or problem.

Here is an outline of the steps I propose for thinking critically about a question or problem:

1. Carefully construct and define the question or topic.

2. Prepare by immersing yourself in relevant material. Question sources, theories and assumptions. This is an area teachers know very well. As I described in an earlier blog, empathy and imagination are very helpful here. Define a thesis or first answer to the question, then confront that answer with an opposing antithesis.

3. Mindfully face your frustration, your fear of mistakes, or your anxiety when you realize your old ways of viewing the world won’t solve the problem or answer the question. Transform this energy into a broader focus on the task. Accomplish this by reflecting on your process. This requires monitoring what you’re doing, thinking and feeling, learning from mistakes, and directing the process accordingly.

4. Incubate: take a break, sit in silence, relax and let go of the whole question so it doesn’t overwhelm you, exercise, meditate or even “sleep on it.” Allow your mind the space to grow into an answer. Incubation can be the key for transforming frustration into the energy needed for persisting until a solution is created or discovered.

5. Insight: Formulate your new synthesis of the material.

6.In creativity, a testing period follows insight. If you create a script for a play, for example, you have to do a staged reading to determine if the play sounds right. In critical thinking, your conclusion must be tested. It is too easy to deceive yourself or get so committed to your old way of answering or solving a question or problem that you lose perspective. Or you can miss the implications of your answer. Use standards to facilitate testing: for example, evaluating the precision and clarity of the conclusion, the depth and breadth of the material examined, the flexibility and fairness in examining opposing positions, the implications of a theory. Test opposing theories to see which answer fits best.

 

Actually, these steps are more like conditions which make critical thinking possible. Each step or condition happens over and over again throughout the process. Questioning sources requires reflection on your process. You come to smaller insights in order to synthesize the material into a larger, more general conclusion.

 

These steps help the student integrate critical thinking into their whole life. The process recognizes, for example, that time off is required. It recognizes that the student’s emotions are part of the process. Without emotional awareness, students can get lost trying to figure out a complex question or complete an in-depth project. They lose the internal focus on understanding and shift to an external focus on being judged. Their drive to meet expectations, both their own and the perceived expectations of the teacher, can spiral into great anxiety. Mindful reflection gives the student the ability to recognize the early signs of anxiety. They can then step out of the spiral and return their attention to creating meaning out of all the information they are evaluating.

 

I think many teachers don’t recognize just what self-reflection requires. For example, in my school, we often ask students to reflect on their learning process. For students not familiar with mindfulness, sincere and skillful reflection is difficult. After one or two mindfulness experiences, I ask students “how many thoughts did you have?” Most students say they have few or no thoughts. They have little awareness of all that is going through their mind because they don’t know how to look. They need to learn a methodology of inner awareness. If they are unaware of what is going on in their mind, how can they self-reflect? And how can they use self-reflection to monitor and direct their critical thinking?

 

One example of an in-depth critical thinking project I used in some philosophy and history classes was a personal essential question project (PEQ). This gave students a way to shape their own education. A PEQ was a “big question” related to the course material requiring the formulation of a general conclusion or theory as an answer. The student chose their question, one which interested and/or intrigued, frightened, upset, excited them. It required research, analysis and synthesis. They would then present their research, reasoning and conclusion either in a lengthy essay or, occasionally, through a multiple-media presentation. This project usually took about four months to complete. Students undertook the project in addition to the regular classwork. Each student had a support group of other students. Every few weeks the students would get feedback on their progress either in person or through written comments on research summaries, drafts, etc. from me and/or their support group.

 

Defining the question in a way that a possible solution could be found was the first tricky step. Some questions could not be answered, only understood better. It was also tricky to pinpoint what the real question was which a student wanted to answer

 

Student essential questions varied greatly. They had questions about the environment, political systems, ethics, gender roles and power, the causes of anti-semitism, racism, the nature of bias, truth, suffering, violence, how to deal with their awareness of death, even what factors determine what’s fashionable. The project was like an intellectual rite of passage. It told the student that meaningful personal questions could be answered. It taught the student about applying critical thinking to their daily concerns.

 

Students theorized that culture helped people deal with death. That fashion followed what rich people did. That the way women were treated was correlated with the religion of the culture and with how the environment was treated. That there was such a thing as truth, but its not what most people think. Their conclusions were often creative—new to them, new to me.

 

Our intellectual work might seem to be about doing well in school or formulating ever deeper and wider generalizations or theories—creating intellectual gems. But as I said, it is not ultimately about those gems. Our ability to think critically is part of our larger ability to learn from and live our lives more deeply and thoughtfully. It is about improving our ability to better integrate information, synthesize conclusions, and reflect on our beliefs, actions and decisions so we can better understand the effects of those actions and decisions on others and our world. And to use emotion, empathy so we can also be more ready to act appropriately on what we understand.

You Don’t Teach Mindfulness, You Share It.

Bringing mindfulness practice into a classroom is one of the most productive and helpful things you as a teacher could do for your students and yourself. There is so much that mindfulness can teach you, about your own mind, about the relationship between your mind and the environment around you, you and others. So don’t even think of mindfulness as something you are teaching students. Instead, think of it as sharing something you enjoy and find beneficial. Think about it as something which facilitates a positive educational relationship between you and your students.

 

When you lead students in the practice, make leading your practice. Only introduce in the classroom what you yourself have digested. That way you lead not from something you have read about or memorized but from your own awareness in the moment. You open yourself to your own mind in order to be in touch with what the students are experiencing. You face your thoughts, feelings, sensations, fears, joys to show students that it can be done. And by entering the classroom with the mindfulness you have developed in your own practice, you illustrate the benefits of practice.

 

So you can’t lead students in mindfulness unless you practice it on your own. As my Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If you don’t want to practice mindfulness yet, you can still start the class with silence or progressive relaxation and imagery. Sometimes, I ask students to listen to a singing bowl and determine how long they can hear its fading song.

 

Only if you are familiar with the inner landscape revealed by mindfulness can you lead students through it. If you don’t practice, students will know it. Just be honest with students when answering questions. If you don’t know something, say so.

 

When I first started introducing mindfulness to my classes, I never led a practice until students asked me to do it. I always talked first about research on the benefits of mindfulness and how it had benefitted me. I told stories about proficient meditators. I wanted to make it personal, real, exciting. One story was about the man many neuroscientists and magazines called “the happiest man alive,” Mathieu Ricard. Ricard holds a doctorate in Biology and is a Tibetan monk. A few of my students and I heard him speak at a conference on education and thought that he was one of the most incisive speakers we had ever heard. The result of all this was that students almost pleaded with me to give them instruction and time to practice.

 

In magazines and books on mindfulness, experts talk about practicing because it decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus, attention, and emotional clarity. But there is a hidden danger here. The answer to the question, “Why practice mindfulness?” is not to reduce stress, etc.. Practice mindfulness in order to practice mindfulness. Practice mindfulness because when you’re mindful you’re more fully awake in your own life. If you practice in order to reduce stress, what happens when, in your practice, you feel stressed? Or you feel frightened? Or bored? You then turn away. You feel like your experience was bad and that you were unsuccessful. No. If you feel your stress, but aren’t controlled by it, you were very successful. When you feel sensations and thoughts associated with stress as something you can study and learn from but don’t have to respond to, then you can let them go. When you notice your habitual response to a situation or sensation, then you can free yourself from the habit. You feel capable of handling whatever arises.

 

When you practice, thoughts, insights, fear and joy all come to you. The object of mindfulness, as I said, is to be aware of all this. This requires that you value that awareness. When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I sometimes get insights into my blog or what I might teach. I value the blog and my teaching, so I get the urge to write down the insight. I fear losing it. But when I begin to write, I am no longer aware of my awareness. I am also no longer in the mindset that fostered my insight. By grasping onto the thought as if it were a valued intellectual possession, I lose the insight-mind and replace it with a grasping mind.

 

Some teachers who practice mindfulness feel uncomfortable sharing it with students. They have this image of what a mindfulness teacher should be. This image has feelings attached to it, maybe feelings of not being good enough. Treat this image and the attached feelings in the same way that I have to treat my urge to write everything down. Just notice it and let it go. The image and feelings are just a construct that came into your mind only so you could notice how you were thinking and let it go.

 

Lead mindfulness practice as if it were a gift, not just from you to your students but to you from the students, the school and your profession. Then you will inspire your students. Mindfulness will grow. If you try to lead what you don’t value enough to practice, why should the students value it? Mindfulness will disappear. It will become just another good intentioned educational technique that people never committed to enough to make it transformational. Make it transformational for yourself. Commit to the practice and you and your students will benefit greatly.

 

A note: As I re-read this blog, I feel the influence of Hidy Ochiai in every aspect of it. A good teacher’s influence is ubiquitous. It hits us in unanticipated ways. In this case it made me deeper and kinder. Thank you, Sensei.