Persistence and Gratitude

Thank you to everyone who called or emailed or messaged me or just wished good things for me regarding the operation (or operations) on my hand and wrist. The surgery seems to have gone well. At the literal last minute, the surgeon and I decided to only do two surgeries, not three. He did the carpal tunnel, which is not a big deal—and a proximal row carpectomy, which means taking out three of the eight bones in my wrist. He did not do the cubital tunnel surgery. Instead of general anesthesia, I asked the anesthesiologist to use a nerve block and just enough anesthesia to put me asleep. This led to fewer after-affects from the surgery.

 

The only complication was with pain medication. I am allergic or sensitive to many painkillers. And despite many conversations with the doctor about which painkillers to take home with me (I did the surgery in a surgicare facility, not a hospital, and did not stay overnight), I was given one we hadn’t discussed and soon had to stop taking it. Tylenol and Motrin are all I have taken since.

 

The fun part—aside from a short bout of feeling I never want to do this again— my mind has been fairly clear. Visualizations have been helpful with pain relief and meditation has been a great friend.

 

And I am so grateful for my doctor—and also for my health insurance, without which I probably could never have afforded the surgery. I know I pay a lot for insurance, but it’s comprehensive. If the Republicans have their way, such insurance plans will likely disappear for the middle class.

 

I can’t type well right now and have little tolerance for sitting at my computer, but have still written a few emails and made some phone calls about the denying health care to Americans act being considered by Republicans in the Senate. This bill is just too shameful to resist mentioning. It exposes two Republican agendas: redistributing money from the poor and middle class to the rich (also see President Obama on the issue). And making life so expensive for lower and middle class Americans, and politics so difficult, that we will not be able to persist in fighting against the denial or undermining of our rights and freedoms.

 

But persist we must. For example, according to the CBO analysis, the House Republican bill would lead to 23 million people losing their insurance. This would also be the case (or worse) with the Senate version. But this includes, if I understand it, only those getting ACA government subsidies. It does not include all those who would lose Medicaid under this plan, or those, like seniors, who might lose coverage due to prohibitive increases in premiums. A CBO estimate of the House plan says that an average 64 year old earning $26, 500 would see their out of pocket costs for health care rise from $1700 to $14,600. The Senate plan has not been analyzed yet. The increase in costs could wipe out savings and spending power for so many people. And remember: Medicaid covers millions, one fifth of Americans—those with disabilities, in nursing homes, the poor; 49% of births in this country are covered by Medicaid.

 

The exposure of Republicans possibly colluding with Russians to interfere in/manipulate the election, interfere in investigations, rip off tax money, etc. might lead us to think Mr. T and his cohorts will be inevitably dethroned, that our legal system will get him, or them. I certainly feel this yearning for dethronement, but nothing is inevitable (except…). How often has the legal system been compromised before by money and power?

 

Opposing the Republican plan to destroy democracy and undermine our rights, freedoms and economic power will take time and persistence, but I think it’s just something that needs to be done, even by those of us with casts on our arms.

 

*Photo by Kathy Morris.

The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

Mindfulness and Pain

 

This Thursday, June 15th, I will have surgery on my right wrist, or actually three surgeries. I did not want to undergo anesthesia multiple times so I thought I’d do them all at once, and the surgeon agreed. The first two are relatively simple: carpal tunnel (medial nerve in hand) and cubital tunnel (ulnar nerve, at elbow and blade of hand). The third is more complicated and is called a proximal row carpectomy; the surgeon removes three of the eight bones in my wrist. The surgeon predicts it will take two-three months to heal. I will be in a cast for two weeks, and writing may be difficult for an indeterminate length of time.

 

So, I am taking a vacation. I feel better approaching surgery as a vacation then as a dreaded time of suffering. It’s important, in difficult times especially, to be nice to yourself. For the next few weeks or more, instead of feeling an obligation to publish each week, I will do it only when it feels right. I have a blog prepared for next week, but after that—who knows. I will most probably miss writing, miss you as an audience, so I don’t know how long my “vacation” will last.

 

The wrist has been hurting on and off for many years. Driving, writing, certainly carpentry or splitting wood, but even holding a book or sleeping, could be painful. Karate has become problematic. My handwriting was never beautiful, but years ago, before I retired from teaching, I had trouble giving written feedback on student papers due to the pain. Students often commented that my writing was illegible.

 

Yet, I became sort of used to the pain—sort of. In early March, I pointed out to my acupuncturist the swelling in my wrist and she recommended I see a doctor. That led to x-rays and a CT scan, then nerve conduction tests. After seeing what my wrist looked like and reading the radiologist report, of “severe” this and torn that, the pain actually got worse.

 

I found this interesting. When I thought of the pain in my wrist as simply an unpleasant sensation that couldn’t be treated, I accepted it and lived with it. But once it had a label and a doctor’s evaluation, once I had the clear image of bones rattling bones, it became more solid and took on a life of its own. The sensations I felt became an alien presence I wanted removed. I scheduled the surgery.

 

This led me to use mindfulness training to study in more detail how my mind influenced the pain. I began to think of pain as a blatant and confounding puzzle, as a chance to learn more about how my mind and body worked. When pain arose, I breathed it in—if I could. I noticed whatever was there for me—how the beliefs and expectations I held influenced the sensations I felt and the thoughts about the sensations. My response to the pain influenced how much I suffered from it. When I let go of the thoughts and images, and focused on the breathing, the pain sensations moved to the periphery of awareness, and lessened in strength. Without resistance, pain decreased. It became one sensation among others. My response went from flight-flight-freeze to something a bit more open, and more relaxed.

 

And, over the last few days, as the fact of surgery sank in and the big day approached, the incidents of high level pain decreased. I don’t know what was most responsible. Was it the natural therapies, pain pills, or increased mindfulness? Was the anxiety over surgery masking the physical sensation?

 

I still need the surgery. But I have a few strategies to help me face it, and my fears about it, with a little more confidence and less anxiety. I have realized how fear can be useful. It tells me to wake up. This is my life on the line. The kindness I give to others I can give myself. I have also accumulated a few good movies and books to enjoy. And I am forever grateful that I still have good health insurance. (Please tell Republicans in Congress that you oppose their undermining-health-care legislation.) On Thursday, please wish for me a good result, a healing. Thank you and may you be well.

 

*Many Buddhist teachers write about how to face pain, or face whatever. Pema ChodronShinzen Young, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are three authors whose wonderful books I can recommend.

 

**My friend Eileen Ain recommended Peggy Huddleston’s Relaxation/Healing CD.

 

***Photo by Kathy Morris.

Snippets of A Gloomy Day: Hoping to Hear He’s Been Impeached

In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real.

 

This is one legacy of all the fake news we’ve been witnessing. And it is truly frightening. If all facts are opinions, mere statements of likes and dislikes, or arbitrary, with no basis in truth, then how can I trust in anything people say? How do I know even what words mean to you? A word’s meaning is a fact of language.

 

While some people can’t stand to watch the news, others fear turning it off. They are afraid of what they might miss. Watching the news has become like guarding your home from attack, or guarding your prized possession, your sanity, so it won’t be stolen.

 

I notice a little of both in me. The President is in the news so frequently that it is difficult to hear about anything else. Part of me likes this, because I’m waiting to hear the latest stupidity, the latest revelation of possibly treasonous acts, of obstruction of justice, of him using his position to make money for the family businesses, etc.—What I am waiting to hear is that he has been kicked out of office.

 

But his possible crimes and misdemeanors blind us to other equally disturbing actions, like on health care for women, the environment, undermining the separation of state and religion, undermining voting rightsfree speech and controls on Wall Street and bankers. Trump might be the first President to use his own impeachment to distract voters from even worse actions he is party too, if there are such.

 

His narcissism is so deep it is contagious. It is like he is subconsciously trying to give all of America the anxiety and disordered thinking that lies at the root of his psyche. What a generous man.

 

One of his biggest gifts is to comedians. He has revived the profession. President Obama was, by comparison, so boringly dependable and literate, so normal. Now, comedians are swamped with material, helping us laugh at what we would otherwise cry about. They have become heroes. They are able to say things that otherwise couldn’t be said on a public stage.

 

Life before Trump felt relatively predictable to many people. No more. He has awakened us to the fundamentally unpredictable and unknowable nature of reality.

 

The Republicans are re-shaping America’s expectations. Before Trump, people wanted health care that was reasonably priced and comprehensive. Now, many will settle for insurance that is cheap but covers almost nothing, or costs less than double their rent or mortgage. Republicans are trying to pit men against women, the young and healthy against the old or those burdened with pre-existing conditions. Make America Great Again seems to mean make health care another vehicle of redistributing wealth—or of making life so expensive that only the wealthy will have the energy or resources to participate meaningfully in politics.

 

Republican politicians and their supporters have been saying for years that they want to reduce the size of government. Is it possible that all along, their strategy was to make government so intractable and toxic, so lacking in compassion that even Democrats would come to hate it and let whatever controls there are left on the wolves of greed be dismantled?

 

And in all of this, FB and other social media have become the place to share information on petitions, letter-writing campaigns, Town Hall meetings and other demonstrations. But it can be shocking to see information on government crimes and lies, on a possible loss of health care coverage for millions, alongside cute cats and our best friend’s latest vacation. The extent of his destruction alone makes it difficult enough to accept; the camouflage of “fake news,” lies, and distractions, of saying one thing one minute and another in the next, makes speech seem meaningless and facts difficult to discern. Hoping for the best and “liking” posts on FB is just a beginning.

 

I think we are re-creating what it means to participate in governing, despite the administration trying to stop us. We are learning not to ignore the difficult, and how to muster in ourselves the strength, compassion and persistence needed to resist Mr. Trump and create a new political reality.

When You’re Feeling Stressed and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, about school, job or whatever, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. In fact, any time is a wonderful time, but especially if you feel stressed or out of time. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What can you do to reduce the stressful feeling? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by hearing and questioning the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about them. You knew for months about most of the work you now face. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed that you don’t even want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off and hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. Or you might feel if you let go of the thoughts about the future, let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel time rich, that you have time to give, and you feel more in control.

 

In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.

Feeling At Home In The World

Earlier this month, I was walking down my road acutely aware of blooming apple trees (two weeks early), late blossoming cherry trees, greening grasses and bushes, birds calling, and the scent of lilac—all my senses were alive. Yet, in some way, I couldn’t believe I was here. That this was my home. I loved the view but it was just a beautiful view. It wasn’t quite me, or I couldn’t feel that it was.

 

I was born in Manhattan, New York City, and grew up in Queens. The streets were in my veins. But I’ve spent twice as many years here, on the hillside, living with apple trees, and still often feel like a visitor, that it’s temporary—a grateful visitor but a visitor nevertheless.

 

I was thinking about this again when I returned to my house, took off my shoes, and went upstairs to the bedroom. Did I feel this separation from the land I lived on because I grew up elsewhere? Or because I had worked, intensely, in town, for approximately 30 years and so the land had become more of a retreat than a home?

 

One of my cats, Milo, came to sit next to me on the bed. We turned to look out the big picture window into the orchard. I looked at an apple tree covered with white and pink blossoms surrounded by forget-me-nots. It was beautiful. I realized I always found this view out my window beautiful, even in the winter when it was covered in snow. My mind slowed down. I relaxed and truly felt this was where I belonged. Maybe it was my cat influencing me—it was amazing that this semi-wild creature would sit next to me like this and enjoy the view with me—and the whole situation changed. I realized I loved this place. This companionship, this moment was me, was home.

 

A home is created not only through a relationship with a place but through an opening in time. As 13th Century Zen teacher Dogen said, “The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers.” There is no separation between things and time, people and what they experience. The flowering apple tree is spring; this calm, loving mind is home.

 

 

*This blog is inspired not only by the beauty of spring but by Gillian Judson’s book, Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies for Teaching.

**For an imaginative, insightful essay on Dogen and time, that is also accessible to high school students, read The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, by David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew.

Remember Those Who Taught Us About Love

It is Mother’s Day. Last year, I tried to forget about the holiday, until I read some touching posts on Facebook. My Mom died 10 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have an urge to do something for her. I feel she is alive and have to remind myself she is not. She even talks to me sometimes in my dreams. Maybe we all have similar experiences, not only with our Moms but with anyone dearly loved. I usually mistake my Mother’s Day urge as merely a habitual reminder to buy a card, to call or visit, until this year.

I now think the urge to remember is just that, a reminder of how important it is to remember—and a realization that I can remember. It is not forbidden; it is not too painful. I can partly thank two women I know for this realization. Elaine Mansfield and Robin Botie wrote deeply and beautifully about what could be learned from loss. Life, love and loss are woven inextricably together. To live well you must love. To love well, you must be willing to be torn apart by loss. “Love and death are a package deal,” said Elaine.

My Mom often reminded me to be aware of other people’s feelings, not just my own. She didn’t talk about empathy and compassion but showed it. She was able to take people in, to see who a person was and embrace them. When I first brought Linda, who is now my wife, to meet my parents, my Mom accepted her right away. There was no mother-girlfriend conflict.

The same with my sister-in-law, Mimi. My Mom even helped bring my brother, Gene, and Mimi together. Before they even really knew one another, they were on a flight together home for the holidays. They both attended the same university. My brother had noticed Mimi when exiting the airplane. She was knitting a scarf and he commented on the length of it (“long enough for a giant”) and my Mom witnessed the brief exchange. As my parents and brother were about to leave the airport, my Mom noticed that Mimi was standing alone; her ride never arrived. So my Mom went around the terminal trying to find Mimi a ride home. Mimi was greatly impressed and touched by my Mom’s actions.

My Mom modeled what it is to love. She did this in the way she took care of me. She did this with my Dad in the way they cared for each other. My parents showed me what relationship was about. They showed me what life can give you. Whatever or whoever I love carries their influence. Luckily, I still have my Dad. I am visiting with him this week. My Mom lives in my ability to love.

It’s weird that I must learn and re-learn these basic realities of life over and over again. It’s important to appreciate and thank all those people who have shaped and loved me. It’s important to notice how, when I feel pain, I wish that it will be the last pain I will ever face but fear that it’s just the beginning. I feel joy and don’t want it ever to end. I love and don’t want it ever to end. And maybe it doesn’t.

What would any of us be without those who love us, and our ability to love? Teaching children about love and appreciating others are basic necessities for a good life and a good education. It is because of these feelings, because of such relationships, that a society grows and survives. I hope we can all remember this, re-feel this, on Mother’s Day and beyond.

 

Re-Thinking Retirement: Learning How To Be Rich In Openness Is What Retirement Is For

This blog was published earlier this week by The Good Men Project.

What does it mean to retire besides leaving your job? What do you do when you don’t have to do anything? How do you think of yourself once you’re a “senior citizen”? Should society re-conceptualize this stage of life?

 

I have a personal interest in the question. When I retired from my job in 2012, the obvious stared me clearly in the face. Work had filled my life for years, not just my time, but my sense of who I was. I found status, friendship, value through the job. I was a teacher and felt gifted to be paid to creatively help other people. Now, my life sometimes seems like an extended vacation, or continual snow day. Other times, it’s confusing. It seems like I am watching myself grow old. What do you do when your retirement stops being a sudden holiday and you have no set of obligations to take up most of your time? ….

 

…When I was working, I didn’t like to consider that what I did had value partly because other people were willing to pay for it. In the U. S., money concerns tend to creep in everywhere. Wasn’t it time, now, to care enough about life itself that I no longer needed to be paid to live it? Can I give each moment the same value I once gave to work? Can I open enough to the world, to others, and value them, feel them, so deeply that I gain security not in material things and other’s opinion of me, but in a sense of what’s right, what is, and what brings joy?

 

To read the whole blog, please go to The Good Men Project.

*Photo is of me, traveling, Mycenae, Greece.

 

The Place of Wildess and Wonder in Critical Thinking

*This blog was first published by Gillian Judson’s website, Education That Inspires. http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/26/the-place-of-wildness-and-wonder-in-critical-thinking/

 

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. But is this enough? I think you need to add imagination, mindfulness and empathy, and to think of critical thinking as a process enabling you to deeply engage in what you study and test your answers. How many times do you think you have the right answer, and then a minute, day or year later, you realize how wrong you were?

 

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or what’s real or true.

 

To analyze or mentally break what was originally whole into its component parts, you can easily conceive a dichotomy between the parts and the whole. However, to perceive the whole, you need to include the parts. To see the forest, you include all the trees. To perceive the parts, the whole always remains, as context or background. It is like the figure-ground principle of optical illusions, as in the vase-faces illusion. The lines of the faces and the lines drawing the vase are both always present, yet you only see one at a time. What you perceive changes from one to the other depending on your point of focus.

 

So, to clearly understand what you perceive or think about requires a process that lets the reality you contemplate BE whatever it is, as much as is possible. When you try to understand something, you use words to form concepts. This abstracts your experience from the perceived reality. You can then get lost in your abstraction. You might even love your abstraction; it is your creation. Words are wondrous but can be the subtlest of blindfolds and distractions.

 

To think clearly and critically requires constant monitoring, so you can mindfully shift perspectives, from abstraction to original perception— or from one theory to another, from thoughts to feelings, from object contemplated to the experience of contemplating. This allows you to engage more fully with whatever you focus on. You feel as well as think about whatever subject your mind touches, so it takes on a three-dimensional quality otherwise hard to see.

 

Your mind becomes the act of contemplating. You enter a place, or more accurately, the world becomes a place full of life, wildness, even wonder. It pulsates. The imagination flows from that place. Imagination is how mind transforms into time and language, into questions, and possibilities. Love and relationships are born in that place.

 

How Do You Utilize Imagination in Critical Thinking and Enter a Place of Wonder?

 

Begin by taking breaks from intellectual study to let your mind quiet and integrate material. Practice mindfulness meditation, sit by a waterfall, or take a nap and dream. Did you ever wake up from a dream and have an insight appear to you?

 

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you answer this question, which frequently came up in my high school class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further.

 

Students need to place themselves in the world of ancient humans by visualizing, for example, a world of few humans and many wild, animal species, no cell phones and no buildings. This requires not only imagination but also empathy. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy can come in different forms. There is a cognitive form, being able to read another person’s feelings, for example. There is also feeling along with others, and caring. Without immersing themselves as much as possible in the world they study, and adding empathy for the subject studied and the subject studying, understanding will be limited. When you use a process of critical contemplation, employing empathy and mindfulness, you allow whatever you perceive to be itself.

 

One form of art created by early humans was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels.

 

Students decided to research, in groups, various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, tools, other species populating the world at that time, and theories of the origin of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the other students form a line and one by one enter the stairwell. It felt like we were entering a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

 

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

 

This type of activity is not limited to a history class. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination and honoring the pulsating life of whatever you study.

 

*Photo is from the wall of the “cave” painted by students at LACS.

Speeding Up Life Shortens Your Meaningful Moments: Time and Addiction

We obviously live in a fast paced political-social world. It is easy for most of us to get caught up in thoughts about job or school, relationships, money, health, or the new political reality. Thoughts move at lightning speed. Communication in the brain moves through neurons or brain cells as an electrical current, so ideas can register in tiny fractions of a second. And for many of us, thoughts constantly arise in our mind, whether awake or asleep. Just think how fast a thought can arise in your mind and then disappear. Having thoughts is what a mind does.

 

Emotions usually take longer to get underway, but once started, last longer. Try to make yourself love something or get angry. You need to evoke thought, memory, or sensation first. And emotions don’t evaporate and disappear so easily. They can lie hidden and their very intensity can make them difficult to process.

 

In fact, since thoughts arise so quickly, they can easily be used to hide away feeling. And as the pace of society quickens, we more easily get lost in our mental world. We think “the mind gets things done; feelings or emotions get in the way.” The more we use thoughts to cover emotions and feelings, the more we dread and avoid feeling. We thus train ourselves to fear our own feelings, and to experience anxiety and other forms of discomfort whenever feelings appear. We might not even relax when on vacation because that would mean lowering our guard. How often do vacations cause more anxiety than normal day-to-day life?

 

And when feelings or emotions come up in our daily lives, we react doubly. We not only try to respond to whatever situation we are in; we react against the formerly buried content. Our perceptions and thinking can get confused and distorted.

 

The result, as discussed by Stephan Rechtschaffen in his book Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, is that our ability to focus and experience a moment of life is shortened to the length of a thought. This book was published 20 years ago, but its central message is even more important now. When psychological reality moves too quickly, and the duration of a moment is too short, then life seems more superficial, and it is difficult to be intensely conscious and aware. We can’t process meaning well. In order for an experience to touch us at all, we need something very intense or dramatic.

 

The shorter the focal duration of a moment, the more groundless and isolated we feel. We cling more desperately to our thoughts and viewpoints, as if they were the only thing we could count on. We crave intense risk, stimulation or challenge to achieve any depth of experience.

 

As Rechtshaffen points out, this is also what happens with addictions.The rushing mind can be addictive. In an addiction, we turn to some substance like a drug, or to a media device, something external to ourselves, to get high or to distract ourselves, because our focus on the moment is too short to allow anything “mundane” to be exciting. The more we depend on externals, the more our length of focus decreases, and we need even more stimulation. We can be manipulated more easily because our connection and understanding of our own inner experience is diminished. We continuously focus in the wrong place and never satisfy our true yearning.

 

We humans desire peak experiences, highs, and pleasures. And the longer we allow the focal duration of a moment to be, or the longer we can maintain focus, the easier it is to think clearly and for any experience to feel real, important, touching. Thus, almost any experience can be meaningful, can be a high, whether it is taking a breath, cooking a meal, or kissing our lover.

 

I think the deepest yearning we all have is to feel loved⏤to feel loved not as a gift bestowed upon us by others, but as a mutual creation that arises when we love others, when our life has depth and meaning. And when we do that we are likely to live our moments fully. Only by improving our ability to focus and pay attention, to quiet the constant chatter, and trust our inherent abilities and feelings, can we do this. Mindfulness, taking time in nature, allowing ourselves to truly savor and care for each moment we live, is so important. When the mind quiets, we hear the world more clearly. To re-phrase the English poet, William Blake, we hear and feel eternity in a moment.

 

*Photo: Temple, Delphi, Greece.