The Relationship of All Humans

A relationship with another person, even one of long standing, a friend, colleague, a spouse, can seem so strong but in reality be so delicate. It is important to recognize this. We expect emotional ties to bear so much, to tie people, families, groups together. But emotions are just thoughts, feelings, sensations. They are ephemeral; like air, they can be moved or changed so easily.

 

I look at my wife, Linda, and realize how much better my life is because of her. I think more clearly because I can talk with her and gain new perspectives. The more I feel love, appreciation and gratitude, the more I allow her in, the more I enjoy my day. Yet, despite all that, sometimes I lose it. I don’t feel the connection. I feel what I feel and think what I think but what she feels or thinks is beyond me. I relate to her as if she were a means to an end, my own projection, simply the source of my own satisfaction. And then I feel separation and the fragility of our life together. I become aware of what I am doing and how easily I could lose her, and I wake up.

 

Society is also a relationship. Of course, there’s more to it than that, just like there is more to a marriage than emotion. There’s history, often there are children, homes, possessions; and for a society, institutions, buildings, roads, laws and social processes. But what do any of these mean without the sense of relationship? We spend most of our time each day in human constructed environments with other human beings. The beauty and necessity of our cooperation with others surround us. Yet, often we lose it. We treat other people as means to our own ends. We treat cashiers like the machines they control. We treat other drivers as obstacles to pass. We treat people we barely know with the briefest of recognitions and people we don’t know are ignored or worse. There are so many people around us. How can we do anything else?

 

And the more we harden our personal borders and think of ourselves as somehow separate from others, the more pain we feel, and the easier it is to go from indifference or ignoring others, to hurting. It’s easy to lose the sensed recognition of relationship.

 

And once a relationship breaks, or you hurt someone, bringing it back together is difficult. Once a society breaks, it can’t automatically be put together again. When social problems and problems between nations or groups arise, as they must, they can only be positively dealt with by feeling a relationship. When I hear our political leaders talk about other leaders with obvious lies or malice, or I see in the news racist killings or bombings, I feel the fragility of human society. You can’t bomb a nation and expect it to become your ally and pull together harmoniously. You can’t kill those you disagree with and label as evil and then expect peace to reign or a utopia to spontaneously arise from the coffin. As a political leader, you can’t speak maliciously about other leaders of your own nation and claim you only want a revived union. You can’t favor the interests of a tiny minority and expect the vast majority to peacefully accept the degradation of the quality of their lives and communities.

 

We live in relationship with others and our world. This relationship, and our very lives, is more fragile than we like to recognize. Only by increasing our ability to feel and think with a clear sense and appreciation of this relationship will we be able, as a species, to live well, and possibly, to live at all.

Did You Ever…

Did you ever walk into a bookstore, or any store, and there, on a display table, was exactly what you were looking for? You might not have even known what you were looking for until you found it. But there it was.  And you knew it. Or, you go into a bookstore and you have a question in the back of your mind. You open a book—and there, on that page, is the answer to your question. You can tell that I like bookstores.

 

Or, I wake up and know I have to work on writing my blog. And I pick up some essay or book that feels meaningful or appropriate to what I’m writing. I’ll read three of four pages—and suddenly I have an insight or idea to write about. Or I drive into town, thinking I need to ask someone a question or I worry about how someone is feeling. I park my car and walk a few blocks and there she is, coming right toward me. You know these experiences, right? They don’t happen often, but when they do, life seems just right.

 

Some people, like Carl Jung, have called these experiences “synchronicity” or an “acausal connection through meaning.” According to a book by physicist Victor Mansfield, synchronicity is a correlation between outer and inner events that is meaningful to the person (or persons) involved, but one event doesn’t cause the other. My thinking about the person doesn’t cause her to appear, yet there she is, and it feels meaningful and even mysterious to me.

 

Can a similar thing happen even in a conversation? You don’t know, at least not consciously, what it is you want to say to the other person. But suddenly, it’s there for you. Maybe you even know you had to say something to a friend and you couldn’t figure out how to say it. You fretted, worried, and imagined all sorts of negative results. But then, you are with this person. And your heart opens and you just say it and it’s perfect. Is this the same as what happened in the bookstore? The first examples are, apparently, a synchronicity between internal and external events. In the second, it seems to be all “internal.” Is it?

 

All I know is that sometimes my attention is awakened. I feel more alive and clear headed. And then I know what to say or do more than at other times. Does meditation assist this? Practicing compassion and empathy? I think so. Or is it just luck, whatever that is?

 

It’s valuable that teachers and parents talk with their students and children about how they experience their lives. This includes not only thoughts, emotions, and ethical quandaries, but more subtle experiences like synchronicity. Why? Because it happens, and it’s one of those moments to savor. There are so many inexplicable moments in life. Savor this and other mysteries might be revealed, other questions answered. And by doing so, teachers and parents communicate to children the value of their lives, the value of being aware of their experience, and the value of sharing and examining one’s own experiences with others.

Sometimes, The Best Thing To Do Is Sit With It

Some people think critical thinking is very difficult and that it’s all about hard work and great, even unnatural effort. This is obvious in many schools, where learning is considered work prescribed by teachers, administrators, even politicians who know “what is best for students.” They want students to learn on schedule as if they were products on a factory assembly line. They try to cement this attitude in place by testing and judging students in ways that are convenient for policy makers and administrators, not students; that yield easy numbers, even though the meaning of those numbers is highly unclear and the evidence predominantly shows such assessments do more to interfere with learning than assist it. When the mind is overfull and frightened, focused on appeasing others with test scores instead of meeting and uncovering one’s own drive for understanding, then learning and thinking is difficult. ‘Education’ comes from ‘educere,’ meaning ‘to draw/lead out,’ but too many forget this.

 

If we want clear thinking, that is critical, independent and creative, we need to work with our students, not against them. We need to bring their lives, their questions into the curriculum. This can be done in ways as simple as asking, at the beginning of the year, what they already know about the topic of study and what questions they want answered, to giving choices on assessments and projects or even creating a class based on their questions. This can be done by thinking of the classroom as a supportive learning community, not a factory or competitive raceway. We need to teach in ways that utilize natural mental processes. We need to teach how to hit “refresh,” clear away mental and emotional obstacles and lethargy.

 

Ask yourself, when is your mind most fresh and clear, most ready for thinking? For me, this has changed. When I was in college, my mind was clearest late at night, when everyone else was asleep, the city was quiet, and I let go of what I felt I “needed to accomplish.” I could just sit with whatever.  Nowadays, it’s in the morning. I wake up with my mind refreshed. Any concern or question I had before sleep was now unconsciously processed. Creativity theory calls this aspect of mental processing, of finding ways to let the mind go quiet, “incubation.” Incubation is not only about sleeping on a question. It is “letting something sit.” It is a time to take three deep breaths, relax, do something different, exercise, sit under an apple tree, smell a rose, and have fun. For teachers, it’s time to give your class a sunshine break. So, why not apply this knowing of how and when you think most clearly to critical thinking? To learning? Let your mind-body marinate whatever questions, problems, concepts it faces. Incubation, or “sitting with it” refreshes mind.

 

Another way to refresh mind is mindfulness practice. It helps you monitor your thinking moment-by-moment so you know better when you are losing focus or getting diverted by other interests or emotions. It uncovers whether an answer “feels right” and not just intellectually looks right. It clears and focuses mind so it is attentive, ready, present. It is like waking up in the morning with a clear, attentive mind.

 

You need a break because when you have to examine complex materials in-depth, the brain has a great deal to handle. It can’t organize and digest too much material at once. So, once you’ve immersed yourself in the material that you need to understand and analyze, once you’ve engaged in thorough research and explored different theories or explanations, then stop the direct mental push and the effortful striving. Stop the urge to jump to hasty conclusions and easy or habitual answers. You need to allow the mind to switch out of conceptual understanding and analysis. Allow the brain to work at its own pace to integrate all the material and work with the natural processes of your mind. The result of this process is an inner quiet, decreased anxiety and increased insight. Later on, you need to test, question the insight. But first, you need to let it come.

 

Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then and focus on one breath, then another. For example, at the end of the school year, when you have so many tasks to complete. By giving yourself time, you gain, not lose, time. Why is that? Your mental attitude changes. You focus on one thing each moment and so feel less rushed and think more clearly. You sit silently in the center of your life so you hear the universe, in one location, speaking to itself. And what a beautiful sound that can be.

 

 

*Photo: Maui, Hawaii.

What Will the Future Bring?

You can’t help but sometimes wonder about the future. Thinking about what will happen next, will I graduate with honors, will I ever find love, will I die alone, will my book get published, what will I have for dinner? Isn’t this what all of us do at times? Prognosticating the future is not just the realm of scientists, weather people, soothsayers and diviners.  To understand anything or know what actions to take, to know what is ethical or even practical, I need to examine what fits, what feels right, now. But don’t I also need to examine the consequences of my actions? “If I do this, what will the result be?” Each action in the present presumes a future, a particular future. Each step I take, each act and view I express, helps set the conditions for the next moment. So, I need to carefully consider what future I am helping to create.

 

Barbara Ehrenreich recently reviewed two books, “Rise of the Robots” and “Shadow Work” which look at present trends and try to read the future those trends are creating. Martin Ford, author of “Rise of the Robots” documents how our push to embrace technology and automate everything threatens everyone, threatens 100% unemployment. Although “we the people” are getting better and better gadgets, wealth and power gets increasingly concentrated.  The threat of a dystopian future (as portrayed in Hunger Games and other movies and novels), of a plutocracy living in “gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots or drones” looms over us—or so sspeculates Martin Ford. What happens to “we the people” when we have no meaningful work to do? What does this technological push tell us about ourselves? What can we do about it? “Shadow Work” by Craig Lambert documents all the unseen jobs that technology adds to our lives—deleting spam from our email, reviewing “terms and conditions,” creating passwords for websites, etc..

 

Of course, this concern about technology is not new. Possibly ever since there were people (or possibly even before modern humans appeared in the world), there were those who looked to new tools and weapons to make a brighter future, to make life easier or safer or more enjoyable, as well as those who doubted the efficacy of looking to technology to improve life. For example, people in my school have sometimes been called Luddites for doubting claims made by computer companies, school administrators, and even other teachers that computers would reduce our workload or improve our ability to teach or make teaching easier. According to a recent NPR program on All Things Considered, the original Luddites were cloth workers fighting to preserve their livelihood. They rebelled, during the English Industrial Revolution, against the introduction of machines to displace workers and were labeled unthinking opponents to progress. They said machines would not only displace workers from sometimes good paying jobs; they would concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The Luddites not only argued against but physically acted to destroy those machines and were jailed or executed for their actions. The spokesmen for the wealthy machine owners argued that the Industrial Revolution would make life better for everyone. The industrial revolution did bring huge changes to human culture. But it could easily be argued that it wasn’t until after the depression of the 1930s and after World War II was over, that substantive benefits from this revolution would begin to reach most people in Europe and the US, let alone the rest of the world.

 

And now we have a new revolution, a new realm of machinery displacing workers and concentrating wealth—information machines. So, were the Luddites actually correct? And will the new “Luddites,” who advise caution on information technology, also be correct about the negative effects of this technology hidden behind all the glitz and conveniences?

 

I have to admit that I’m divided. I fear Ford is correct, yet don’t think his view of a bleak future will come to pass. I think that as we create new technology, we will also create better ways to live with it—or so I hope. I hope more humans will learn that a good life doesn’t come through projecting emotional fulfillment into a gadget. It comes through better understanding of our own mind and how our actions in the present help shape the future for everyone. I hope this isn’t just hope.

 

*Photo: Trojan Horse from movie Troy, in Canakkale, Turkey.