Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Adventure of Teaching

For most of my childhood, my family lived in a house in Queens, New York, which is a suburb of NYC on Long Island. There was still a feel, where I lived, not just of suburbs but of the declining remains of a rural area. There were many trees. We were one block away from a huge golf course, with a lake and hills, where I ran with my dog, played football with my friends, and went sledding in the snow. It was quite a privileged and protected life.

 

I used to write all sorts of stories for myself. One fall, at the age of 6 or 7, I borrowed a little wagon from a neighbor. I invited 2 or 3 friends or relatives to hop on the wagon and took them on a guided adventure through my backyard. The adventure was partly a story I invented and narrated, partly theatre, partly a miniature midway ride. I had such a good time, I repeated it until there were no more customers and winter closed down the midway.

 

While my love of writing started in my early childhood, until recently, I thought of it only in terms of fiction. As I got older, I realized the motivation behind my writing was not just to entertain, but also to feel inspired. I loved the heady joy of pulling ideas, images, and feelings together. It was so alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say and to give. In other words, creative writing had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of creation.

 

And I discovered that it did.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps, in Sierra Leone. As a teacher, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country. I found this again in other teaching jobs, most notably at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. Part of my childhood desire was met. Now that my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, the other half of my yearning is about to come true. It is not a novel, but certainly describes a creative approach to teaching.

 

When you teach, you hold the hearts and minds of students in your hands. You have this amazing opportunity that you just can’t ignore and dread disappointing. You can take students on the greatest adventure imaginable—into the depths of their own minds and hearts. You can show them that there are these depths unrecognized in many schools, or maybe unrecognized since they were small and inspired children. You can show them how valuable and important they are. Show them the joy of play in PE, the miracles of nature in science, the creative spirit in literature, and in social studies classes, show the great diversity of possible ways of living and the importance of relationships, .

 

My book describes and illustrates methods to use in teaching as well as an overall conceptual framework for understanding the way the mind and heart can work together— to take in more of what’s around you and think more clearly and critically. Critical thinking is fueled by caring and feeling, and guided by mindful awareness to focus attention, and notice, formulate, and ask questions. Compassion and imagination help you understand and explore diverse perspectives and let go of distorting judgments.

 

When you quiet the mind by accepting, caring for and valuing it, you hear the world more distinctly. You hear what your own body is saying and how to befriend your emotions. The world is not at a distance but at your fingertips, or is your fingertips. What you think is right to do is evaluated more clearly. You feel more joyful, your life more meaningful, your relationships with others more conscious and honest. Now that is a worthwhile adventure to undertake—that is a way of teaching.

 

*The release date for my book was delayed a few days, but the book launch in Ithaca, at LACS, on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00, will go on as planned–I hope. There will also be a book talk on Saturday, October 22, at Buffalo Street Books, at 3:00 pm. I hope you can come.

Compassion And Empathy Are Crucial For Critical Thinking

What is compassion? Empathy? I have to admit that I used to lump these two together. Some educators have trouble using the word ‘compassion.’ It sounds too “spiritual” to them, or too over-used, whereas ‘empathy’ is something most anyone could support.

 

Psychologist Paul Ekman defines three forms of empathy, the third being close to what many people think of as compassion. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or caring for others. (A sociopath, for example, might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other.) Then “compassionate empathy” or to have a concern for another and the energy to help.

 

I noticed my secondary school students can get very cynical about the possibility of compassion. I think they take a stance against it in order to dare me to prove otherwise. They argue that compassion, like altruism or selflessness, is impossible. People act compassionately only to get some reward or because it feels good. If it feels good, then it isn’t compassion, isn’t selfless. They think they have me or have compassion on the point of a logical dilemma. I am always gladdened by their recognition that compassion feels good. When you act for the good of another, there is a sense of joy. 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 essence of it. When you act in order to get the benefits, then you lose the joy of compassion. The joy is embedded within the selfless caring.

 

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. With compassion, you not only “feel with” the other person but want to step in and 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. A 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.

 

But what does compassion do for us? Clearly, it assists our ability to cooperatively work with others. But what else? 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 and respond physically and mentally to your model. You understand what the other person is doing through reading your own response to your model. The neuron systems that enable this empathy have been called 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 break part of the barrier between yourself and others.

 

These neurons enable you to be a sophisticated imitator, which facilitates imagination, learning and understanding. You learn through imitating the sound of a word, how to hold a hammer, how to solve a formula. 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 mirror mostly unconsciously. You can be so good at it that you need mechanisms in your brain and in your skin to prevent you from constantly imitating others. There is even a condition where people can’t stop their imitating; it is called echopraxia.

 

Even more, you can’t think without a context, and other people are part of the context in which you are embedded. The depth of your self understanding is proportional to your understanding of others. To understand how to hit a baseball, you need to see it clearly from your perspective, but you also need to know the baseball, what it can do, how it can curve or dive. The more you know about the baseball, the more capable you will be at hitting it. You and the other arise together.

 

But when anxious, jealous, or depressed you might think of yourself only as what distinguishes you from others. You might focus on your skin only as a wall meant to keep others out, enclosing an unchanging, isolated being, and you must constantly defend that wall. You need that wall to keep out germs and create the integrity of your body-mind system. Yet, your skin also breathes, in and out. It excretes—and it senses, touches. When your hand touches mine, we can join together.

 

What do you feel when you think of your skin only as a border and wall? You create the sense of being constantly uncomfortable, anxious, even at war. It is a big burden. But compassion recognizes your borders are also places of contact. It gives you a larger viewpoint. It recognizes that you exist thanks to an entire universe and you are never and can never separate from that universe. Compassion alters your very sense of self and thus can alleviate anxiety, fear, and other painful emotions.

 

Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and compassion strengthen the insula, which is an area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain involved in understanding the emotion of others. 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 kind or helpful manner. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices will lead to improving the environment in schools. It will improve learning, thinking and understanding. It will ready students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine and destroy relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they feel the pain of being bullied, and they have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.

 

So, when you feel a push to speak or act, especially when you are angry or anxious, use compassion. Think about what you want to say and then how you might feel when hearing it. If you pity the other person, or feel very distant, what happens to understanding? Only by an empathic modeling and understanding of another person’s intent do you understand what they meant to say and what you mean to say to them. This is a skill all schools could benefit from teaching.

 

 

 

 

How To Better Understand Your Emotions

Last week, I talked about why understanding emotion is important in thinking critically and clearly. It is not just understanding emotion, however, that is important but being aware and able to monitor, and let them go. This week, I will discuss one perspective on what exactly an emotion is. This approach combines Western psychology and neuroscience with Buddhism. One practice I discussed last week is to use analysis or deconstruction. Analysis itself can be turned into a way to intervene in and let go of an emotion. To analyze or deconstruct an emotion, first understand the triggers and evolutionary uses of emotion and then go to the components of emotional experience. An intellectual understanding of the physiology and psychology of emotion can also be extremely helpful. Let’s use anxiety as an example.

 

Triggers: what can trigger anxiety in you or your students? Take a moment to think of times you were anxious. What set it off? Can you find any characteristics these triggers share?

 

Use: What use can anxiety have? When students understand that each emotion has a purpose or use, they can also come to understand when the emotion goes beyond the use. For example, students want to hold onto anger and don’t see why it might serve them better to let it go. When you prolong the emotions, they go awry. Anxiety and worry can help you prepare for something. It can energize you. To do something you care about, you need to be energized. The energy of anxiety, stress, is the energy of waking up to prepare. It is useful.

 

One of the things many emotions do is orient us in time. How does anxiety orient us in time? Usually, it orients you to the future. You think of how things might go wrong. But the “future” is an idea, right? Anxiety can orient us out of the present experience to an idea of another experience.

 

Components: A Buddhist teacher named Shinzen Young has a great description of the components of emotion that influenced (but is not exactly the same as) my own approach. What are the components of emotional experience? I will discuss feelings, sensations, thoughts and images, and motivated actions.

 

Feelings can be defined as the sensation of touch, or as the initial orienting energy, or awakening of attention. This energy later develops into taking something as good, bad, or neutral, pleasant or unpleasant, to like or dislike; then a state of mind, or emotion, and holding on, pushing away, or being indifferent.

 

Sensations are the experience of your physiological responses or changes. When you learn the sensations of an emotion, you can learn to spot or feel them and can more easily let them go before they become overwhelming. It is also important, and can be tremendous fun, to ask students what an emotion looks like in someone else. For example, what does an anxious person look like? A moment-by-moment awareness of your own experience can help you better observe and understand what someone else might be experiencing. Emotion is not just felt but communicated. What are the sensations of anxiety?

1. Where are the sensations in your body? A technique I learned from a fellow teacher is to     ask students to draw a human figure and circle places where they feel anxiety.

2. How– Describe the sensations of anxiety. For example, are they like pins and needles, tight or loose, cold or warm?

3. How much-How intense are the sensations?

What goes on physiologically with anxiety? The fight-flight-freeze response, our body system that deals with threats, becomes active. You treat your own sensations as a threat. The sensations are uncomfortable and you flee the discomfort. You don’t just feel uncomfortable—you fear the discomfort and what it might mean.

 

Thoughts: What thoughts or images arise when you’re anxious? We humans have a powerful ability to plan for the future, think, imagine. Language increases the power of these abilities. But that power can be helpful, or go awry. It is the power of thought and imagination and language that helps us develop an idea of our self and others. How does it go awry with anxiety?

 

When anxious, you think you are unable to face what you think is coming. You imagine others have a negative image of you. You leave behind your present experience. You think of yourself as a house of cards, easily broken, or as a fake, because you have lost contact with yourself. When you fear yourself and your sensations and thoughts, how does the world appear to you? When you flee discomfort, you live the sense of fleeing, of running away. And what happens to thoughts that go against the emotion? Do you hear them? See them?

 

Actions: What actions does the emotion motivate you to take?

 

Interventions: How do you intervene in, let go of, anxiety? Since anxiety can be feeling and imagining you can’t handle a future state or event, you flee from your awareness. Your imagination can create distressing images of your future, or wonderful ones. It can undermine or increase your strength depending on how you use it.

 

When you take action directed at increasing your self-awareness in the present, and better understand whatever is the trigger for anxiety, you can reduce anxiety. When you utilize mindfulness, compassion and imagination practices, you learn how to treat whatever arises as something to learn from. You learn how to inquire into a question, face a challenge and better understand your thinking process.

 

Inquiry Practice: What happens to your thinking if you feel you can face any idea, anything that arises? Let’s explore that.

 

Just sit back and take it easy. Close your eyes now or in a minute or so, and take a few slow, calm breaths. Notice how it feels to breathe in—and breathe out. Focus on your face, around your mouth. How do the muscles around your mouth respond as you breathe? As you breathe out? Do you notice any tension, heat, or joy? As you breathe in, can you feel your body expand a little bit? As you breathe out, can you feel your body let go, relax, and settle down? Then focus on your shoulders. Notice what sensations you feel as you breathe in, and breathe out. As you breathe in, do you feel your body expand a little bit? As you breathe out, can you feel your body let go, relax, and settle down? Maybe go to your belly next and simply notice how your belly breathes in—and out. If any thoughts come up, just calmly notice them and appreciate the noticing, and let them go as you return attention to the sensations of breathing.

 

And now engage your imagination. Let come to your mind an image or memory of a courageous action of your own, or one you witnessed or read about. What was the courageous act? Who did it? What made it courageous? What does courage mean to you? Does it have to be dramatic, like in some movies? Or can it be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out? Or doing something you never did before but was frightening? Or putting yourself at some risk? What does it feel like to be courageous? Imagine feeling courageous. Imagine feeling that you could face whatever came up in your life and just sit for a moment with that feeling.

 

If you’re doing this with students, have them write down the thoughts or images that came up for them and what it felt like to feel they could face whatever arises. Then let them share their thoughts.

 

Can you imagine doing something like this with your students?

 

 

**For a fuller development of the components of emotion and the role of emotion in thinking, see my soon to be released book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching.

**Here is a link to Mindful Schools, to see a video on using mindfulness to help MS children deal with anxiety.

Anxiety and Critical Thinking: How Helping Students Deal With Their Anxiety Will Help Them Learn To Think More Clearly And Critically.

Last week, I wrote about how to begin anything, especially the school year. One of the most important things teachers do to begin the school year is get to know the students, to help them feel supported, trusted, and part of a community. To do that, especially after a summer like this one marked by so much violence in the news, it is important to ask students about their summer, and discover what, if anything is disturbing them. Anxiety in schools has been rising over the last four or five years. Recognizing this in class, allowing students some space to talk about their emotions, is a crucial component of creating a supportive educational community and showing students that education can be a meaningful force in their lives.

 

Take a minute to think back on how you were affected by different events of the summer. How did you respond to Orlando? Nice? The police shootings of African-Americans? To shootings of police⎯or Donald Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel? To the drought in New York or other weather disasters? By studying yourself, you learn how to help students do the same. If you can’t be a student to yourself, how can you ask students to do it?

 

Then bring up the image of one of your students. Imagine how she or he stands, her face, his posture. Then imagine how the student might have responded to different news items reported this summer. Pick another student and do the same. Maybe write down what you notice, in yourself, in your students.

 

If schools are to accomplish one of their hopefully prime goals, namely teaching critical thinking, teachers have to understand the role emotions play in thinking. Does being worried, for example, or anxious, fearful affect student learning? How?

 

Would you say that emotion does not influence how or how clearly you think? Depression, for example, can be viewed as a state of mind that severely limits the amount of new information your mind will process. When depressed, it is especially difficult to process information that goes against the view of the world that keeps alive the depression. What about anger, jealousy, fear?

 

Yet, what about this: If you aren’t interested in a subject, how hard is it to think about it? How hard is it to think clearly when you’re bored or don’t care? If you don’t care, you don’t think. When you’re interested in something, when you care, your mind and body are energized. Without emotion, thinking is difficult if not impossible.

 

We grow up, or at least I grew up, with people saying that emotion or feeling, and thinking are opposed. We are told to stop being emotional. But emotion, or at least feeling, is what integrates, assigns value and thusly guides and gives meaning to thought.

 

Teachers can’t be therapists. But you can use the skills that teachers normally teach, analysis, critical thinking, focus, and empathy, in order to understand and let go of emotion. For example, when you analyze an emotion, you step back from it. You switch your mind from being identified or caught in emotion to the mind of analysis. When you inquire, you become inquisitive.

 

There is also a form of analysis you can access that is the basis of any thinking. The initial level of emotion or any mental state is what Daniel Siegel and others call an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral, pleasant or unpleasant. Only after this do you get the desire to hold, as in joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate. When your mind is energetic and quiet, you are more likely to directly notice and sense this level of feeling and the development of thought. You can let your mind rest inside a developing idea without being caught by it. You can learn how to name what arises, not to get involved in purely intellectual thought, but to study or increase awareness of your mental processing.

 

In the case of anxiety, for example: If you were in an ongoing class studying the role of emotion in thinking, after sharing and examining different triggers of anxiety, you would need to determine what they all shared. What is it about these stimuli that trigger the emotion? And what are the historical, social, political conditions that contributed to the anxiety-triggering events? Then you’d research several scientific and philosophical perspectives on emotion. You’d ask: What is emotion? And what is critical thinking?

 

You’d take time to study your own experience of the emotion. By studying one emotion, as it arises in yourself, you can learn a method to better understand and deal with any emotion. By taking the time to understand the emotional process, you and your students will be better able to monitor emotions and state of mind, and better able to focus attention. You will be better able to think clearly, relationships in the class will improve, and the atmosphere will become more positive and supportive. You also study yourself so you can increase the positive applications and limit the negative affects of the use of computers and other digital media.

 

And remember, it’s important to help students understand that it is not the trigger or stimulus alone which causes an emotion, but the environment they’re in, and how they interpret, think about, and initially respond to the stimulus.

 

*This is the first in a series of blogs on different elements of critical thinking. Next week, I will focus on the different components of emotion and how to use inquiry, imagination and mindfulness practices to study yourself, think more clearly and critically, and teach your students to do the same.