If You’re Not In Control, Who Is?

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘control’? The word ‘control’ can be very ambiguous and slippery. For example, in an English class about ten years ago, a student asked me what I thought was most important to learn. I asked if she meant in school or in life in general. She said both. I replied that there could be several answers to that question. The first thoughts that came to mind were how to love, and then how to pay attention and learn from my own experiences. Then I thought of being able to control or be the master of my self. I asked her what she thought. Instead of answering directly, she responded to my answers. She liked the first but disliked the second.

 

I asked her, “When you hear ‘master of the self,’ what did you hear?”

 

She replied something like: “I hear the word ‘control.’ I hear someone telling me to ‘be in control’ or ‘get yourself together, be more acceptable, fit in. Put up a front. Not let the real me out.’”

 

Another student added, “Being in control is manipulation. My parents do that.’”

 

Another added, “It is fake. So why be in control?”

 

This surprised me and shook me a bit. “If you’re not in control,” I asked, “who is? Or who would you want in control?”

 

One response was “Why be in control?” These students did not want to be the “master” or even in control. “Master” sounded too much like a movie—pompous, or too S&M, joked one student.

 

I can understand not liking the connotation of control as in “control freak” or manipulating, falsifying, or oppressing others. But someone in control is someone who is an authority. An ‘author’ is an originator, the source, the creator of one’s own actions. One student stated that being in control meant speaking and acting their own truth. Many of us agreed with this perspective.

 

In a similar conversation in a Psych class, some students argued against “controlling” the expression of anger. They said to not express anger was oppressive and made it worse. I then asked how they felt when someone got angry at them.

 

“I felt awful.”

 

“Did you feel oppressed,“ I asked?

 

“I felt assaulted, actually. The anger frightened me.”

 

“It inflamed my own anger,” added another student.

 

“So how successful was directly expressing anger in diminishing it?”

 

“Not very.”

 

After a moment of silence, I went on. “Anger can be useful at times, however. But is there a choice other than unconstrained expression of anger and repression?” Students said there was, which we then talked about. To decide what action to take, you do one thing and not another and, thus, you exercise control.

 

There are strains in our culture that mistakenly link throwing off oppression and opposing falsity, with unchecked expression of emotion. That believes freedom is the same as unrestrained action, and the quantity of choices one has is more important than the quality. This view of freedom undermines the sense that each of us has the right and responsibility not only to act when necessary, for our own safety and principles, but to do our best to make our actions appropriate, and serve the well-being, not only of ourselves but others.

 

“Would you be free if you acted on every thought you had? What would happen if you openly acted on every emotion you experienced?” Some joked it would be a relief, different—until they thought about bullying, assaults, road rage, etc. It became clear to students how oppressive the situation would be if they acted on every thought—and how dangerous

 

Even though the testing culture in many schools is making such meaningful discussions more difficult, I think it needs to be done in whatever way teachers can do it, especially after the election. The President models one result of not exercising self-control, and being thoughtless or not caring of how one’s actions affect others. (These discussions might also reveal students who need one-on-one attention.)

 

We all bear a great responsibility to figure out, as best we can, how we, together, shape the fate of the planet and future generations. To do that, we need to study our self and others, to learn how to hear our own interior dialogues, feelings, and sensations, and be a conscious author of who we are. Who do you want in control, a conscious, aware you, or someone else?

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.

Honoring Differences

In 1969, I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, teaching in a village in the bush. One day, I left the village and went to visit a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, there was little public transport. If you wanted to go somewhere and couldn’t walk, you flagged down a lorry and rode in the back with other people and goats, chickens, and who knows what else.

 

On this day, we stopped at a crossroad and people got out to buy food. I was surprised to see a middle aged man standing at the edge of a group of people, looking out at a field. He had on a tie, and nothing else but a loincloth. I walked up to him, greeted him in Krio, a sort of universal language in the country, a combination of English, Portuguese and several African languages from the country. The greeting was leisurely and took about 5 or 10 minutes.

 

I then asked him as best I could, in Krio: “Why are you wearing a tie?”

 

He responded: “Don’t white men wear ties for dignity and power?’

 

I answered: “Yes, but they usually wear shirts to go with it.”

 

He continued: “White men’s shirts stink.”

 

And in Sierra Leone, which sits on the equator, the artificial fabrics manufactured in the west, at that time anyway, did not do well in the heat of the jungle.

 

I was reminded of this incident in school last week, when I noticed a male staff member, who years ago never wore a tie, was wearing one. Almost no one wore a tie in our school. He said students treated him differently, with more respect, since he started wearing a tie and a more formal shirt. Even in the supermarket, he said, people address him now as “Sir.” Most of the people who called him “Sir” would, if you asked them, say that wearing a tie, or any formal clothing, was just a superficial act, a remnant of classist symbolism, or something like that. But their behavior was still affected by the symbol.

 

The man in Sierra Leone was living life in his own way, telling the world with his tie and naked dignity that “I matter.” He was adapting social symbols to speak his own unique speech. And in his society, at that time, political speech was even more restrictive, and more dangerous, than the US was. He had to find his own voice. Our own country, which prides it self on free speech, or maybe did so until recently, and whose predominant religion speaks of “loving your neighbor as yourself,” is often intolerant of differences.

 

I hope we all find our own voice and learn to speak clearly in defense of honest, free speech⏤and the right to be different, or to be ourselves.

 

**Thank you, Cindy Nofziger, for the photo.

To Write Well, Write Truthfully

**This blog was also published by the Swenson Book Development website.

 

How do you write well? Probably thousands have written about this. On the surface, it seems writing is about language, which to a large extent it is. It seems it is about which words to use, or how to find a unique story or approach. But from my point of view, it really is about the mind and body that writes. It is about being truthful and real. If you fake it, your readers will know it. You will know it. The plot or argument won’t hold together. When it’s truthful to you, it will engage others.

 

And you don’t merely know a truth intellectually—you feel it. A word of beauty is really a path for feeling to follow, or it reveals the path feeling took to get to meaning. Without feeling, words are empty code. Dead. When a sentence feels off or incomplete or like it’s struggling for breath, it is wrong, no matter how attractive it looks. Don’t get distracted by good looks. It is the heart that counts.

 

Feelings arise before words and memories do. They arise with the first hint of awareness. You probably have experienced not knowing what you want to write until you put something down on paper, or in your computer. The act of writing opens up the conscious to the depths normally unconscious. It is creating and thinking. It is revelation.

 

So the first step in writing and creating is being aware of feeling. I do that by meditating, exercising and reading. Meditation clears my mind and increases awareness and focus. Exercise energizes me and clears away blocks and obsessions. Reading provides imagery, insights, and intellectual challenges.

 

The philosopher, psychologist, and writer Dr. Jean Huston said in a workshop I attended, that immersing yourself in poetry makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. The same with reading stories, psychology, philosophy, history and such. Reading reveals doors which meditation unlocks.

 

One meditation is to focus attention on the tip of the nose and count breaths. This develops a focused attention which is also peripherally aware of what is going on inside you. All you have to do is count to ten. Listen to the count. The directions for meditation or mindfulness might sound simple. It is the mind which adds the complexities.

 

In school, on hard plastic chairs, we sit near the edge of the chair so we’re neither slouched nor rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully, rest your hands on your lap, and put your attention, continuously, at the tip of the nose and feel the sensations of breathing. Feel the moving air, its temperature, consistency as you breathe in—and out. Inhale. Then exhale and say “onnnnne” to yourself. Continue to be aware throughout the breath. When the exhalation completes itself, allow the in-breath to happen on its own. Then exhale with “twoooo.” Just count. Gently maintain your awareness without trying to change the rhythm of the breath. Continue in this fashion, counting the exhalations until you get to ten. Then, instead of saying eleven, go back to one. Do this sequence once more until you get to ten, and again.

 

If any feelings arise, be kind to yourself. Notice what’s there and then return to the breath. No internal commenting is necessary. The same if any thoughts arise. Just notice the arising or the whisper of thought. Then let it dissipate as you return your attention to the counting and the feel of air passing in and out. That’s how you start. Two minutes for the first time is good. Your body will ask for more if you don’t force it.

 

If, or when, you get lost, and you lose the count or awareness of the breath, just focus on the fact that you noticed you were lost. This is the prime lesson. Everyone gets lost sometimes. It is the fact that now you are found, and how you respond to it that is important. Enjoy being found.

 

The meditation develops a sense of presence that is inherently creative and curious. Understanding will come more quickly to you. If you look at your ideas or writing in this state, you will readily notice what feels off or incomplete.

 

Another wonderful practice is proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It is a “method for finding your authentic voice,” and hearing your personal truth. It asks you to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to feel and hear what you write. It is especially appropriate for the brainstorm or first draft. Put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you. Maybe you have a question or topic in mind you want to explore—respond to that. If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. “Write what you hear. Hear what you write.” Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic.

 

Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, you need to begin with the confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay or story itself by voicing your confusion. By going directly into it, it unravels.

 

Study yourself. When are you most clear and awake? In college, my best time was late at night, when the world was quiet and my school day complete. Now, it is the morning, when I’m fully awake but still close to dreaming. The morning sun—the freshness of the light—gets to me.

 

Think of writing as a process. To prepare, you immerse yourself in a topic until you are clear on what drives you. Then you brainstorm or do proprioceptive writing, recording initial ideas without care about spelling or craft—with honesty and feeling. Then later you craft. You plot. And then you test it, share it, think about how others will hear it, and re-write it. Actually, you constantly repeat the steps of the creative process. You prepare through immersion. You propose sentences, plot lines, arguments and counterarguments and question them. You then allow yourself to be aware of frustration and feelings. Then you incubate; you step back, take a walk in the woods or meditate or sleep on it. And in the morning, or after the meditation, the answer will be there, or you will have a new perspective. The material will be integrated. Illumination will follow.

 

When you get lost or don’t know what to write, return to the source. Go quiet. Work with your mind and body, not against it. But be diligent and commit. Commit to your work and to the process of writing itself. If you focus on the result, you will force it. Instead of valuing the ends over the means—the celebration, acclaim, the satisfaction of completing a project—love the process itself. To love the process is to turn your whole life into a creative act. It is to value each moment you live.

 

What a beautiful way to live.

 

 

The Central Importance of A United Resistance and Decreasing the Concentration of Wealth and Inequity

Opposing the Republican minority-elected President cannot be simply a Democratic version of “the party of No.” It cannot be concerned just with revealing lies and resisting racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and all sorts of phobias like homophobia, Islamaphobia or xenophobia, etc. To fight racism, etc., we must first unite to resist the destruction of what’s left of democracy, free speech and the freedom of the press. We need more political equity. But to accomplish that, we must also work to improve economic equity and a sense of shared humanity. In a functioning democracy, these three work together.

 

Last week, the Republican administration took things to a new level. The President spoke to Congress about “a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.” He spoke about Black History Month and ending threats to Jewish Community Centers. He spoke as if he cared about supporting “the torch of truth, liberty, and justice.” This was scary because even I wanted to hear such words from his mouth, words calling for real unity and caring. He is seemingly getting coached on how to sound reasonable while his choices and history scream otherwise. This is the same person who appointed Jeff Sessions to be his Attorney General, and Steve Bannon, former head of the alt-right Breitbart News, to be his general adviser. According to an NPR program during the campaign:

 

“The views of the alt-right are widely seen as anti-Semitic and white supremacist…. They see political correctness really as the greatest threat to their liberty,” Nicole Hemmer, University of Virginia professor and author of a forthcoming book Messengers of the Right, explained on Morning Edition. “So, they believe saying racist or anti-Semitic things — it’s is not an act of hate, but an act of freedom.”

 

This is a President who called the media “the enemy of the people.” Who said protestors were not in genuine disagreement with his policies but were being paid to disrupt town hall meetings. Republican governors and legislators have followed this lead by calling for severe punishments for protestors. This administration is not about protecting America or securing jobs for people. It is about ending democracy and increasing their personal wealth. The DNC, as well as those who hate the DNC and are still fighting the Hillary vs Bernie fight, need to remember this or risk being irrelevant or worse. If we don’t unite, our very right to disagree without dire consequences will be taken from us. In fact, the very air that sustains our life might be taken from us.

 

Yet, to resist this administration successfully will mean insisting on increasing economic equity. This is the second concern. We must learn from the Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders movements, which spoke to a great majority of Americans, even to some of those who supported Mr. T. (Listen to Bernie Sander’s response to Mr. T’s address to Congress.) Most Americans desire an economy that works for all and provides jobs for the unemployed and the not satisfactorily employed. Mr. T did speak of jobs. But he did not address working conditions, guaranteed health care, and a pension, as part of a good job. He did not acknowledge the crucial role public schools can play in “leveling the playing field” and in preparing children not only for work but for all of life. All these issues are related. It is not just a job people want, but to be treated as a valuable being, with a right to meaningful work. This I think speaks to most everyone. And we need to add the right to give our children a habitable planet with a climate that readily sustains life, human, animal and insect.

 

The US, according to a report cited in Fortune Magazine in 2015, is the richest nation in the world but the most inequitable of the 55 nations studied (including European nations, China, Japan, South Korea, Columbia and Russia, etc.). If you didn’t know this, read on. If you look at the US economy, the richest 1% own 40% of the wealth. (I will be using many figures from Mathieu Ricard’s book, Altruism, published in 2015. Ricard is a Ph.d. in genetics and Buddhist teacher. His figures are well documented and seem in line with other reliable sources.) Twenty-five years ago, the top 1% owned 13% of the nation’s wealth. In 2015, Oxfam said that by the following year, 1% of the richest people worldwide will control over 50% of the world’s wealth.

 

Ricard points out that in 1880-90, J. P. Morgan said “he would never agree to invest in a company where the directors were paid over 6 times the average wage.” In 2011, the bosses were paid 253 times more. Over the last 30 years, 90% of Americans saw their incomes increase by only 15%. For the wealthiest 1%, the increase was 150%. Between 2002 and 2007, the top 1% scored over “65% of national income gains.”

 

What are the consequences of such inequality and concentration of wealth? According to Ricard and the International Monetary Fund, income inequality “slows growth and triggers financial crises.” Quoting directly from the IMF summary report (See IMF, 2015): “We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down…” as opposed to what many Republicans claim. Instead, concentrating wealth undermines the economy. For example, one million people with a decent income will buy more products and stimulate the economy more than one person with a billion dollars—unless he or she gives it all away to public schools or spends it on improving mass transit or such, or starts a worker managed business, for example, where the workers get a fair share of the income created and the climate isn’t undermined by its products.

 

The Citizens United decision, the worsening political situation in the US, as illustrated by 8 years of Republican Congressional refusal to compromise during the Obama administration, and the election by less than 26% of eligible voters of this Republican President (only 52% voted and Mr. T. received less than half of those), are all direct results of increasing the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Mr. T is trying even now to reduce even further the input of Democrats and any who oppose him. When was the last moment in American history that the vast majority of citizens were so excluded from the formal political process? Was it before the 19th amendment was passed granting women’s suffrage? Or was it before the civil war, before the 13th amendment was passed ending slavery? Or was it before the revolution, when the colonies were ruled by a monarch? Is this the time of greatness the Republicans say they yearn for?

 

The price the US pays for this inequality is immense. Ricard provides data from scientific research and several international organizations, including the UN, which show that “for each health care or social indicator (physical health, mental health, school success rates, …obesity, drug addiction…infant mortality, and the well-being of children in general) the results are significantly worse in countries where inequality is highest.”

 

Is it any wonder that there can’t be a democracy if 1% of the people own so much of the wealth? The rich can buy power, occupy the media, and intervene in the judiciary. Just look at Betsy DeVos, who contributed thousands to the coffers of Republican Senators—but did those Senators who were paid by DeVos recuse themselves, or were even asked by fellow Senators to recuse themselves, from voting for her nomination to Education Secretary? Conservatives argue that the rich have the freedom to use their wealth. But what happens when one person’s freedom prohibits that of another, or of many, many others?

 

For too many people, the acquisition of wealth is fast becoming the primary value of life. Other people are no longer thought of as fellow breathing, feeling beings; other species and the world itself⏤all are thusly reduced to being valued only in terms of the wealth they can be used to produce. Compassion, respect—these just interfere with what’s “truly important.” Long term or big picture issues—not important except to the degree they guarantee increased wealth. This is the third area of concern, our sense of a shared humanity and a judiciary that could preserve equity and justice in the law.

 

It is mainly for this reason people feel threatened, Democrat or Republican, Leftist or Conservative. So many of us value family, love, companionship, compassion, fairness, the beauty of the earth, a sense of meaning in life, maybe a sense of a spiritual or religious dimension. The importance of all these values is now threatened. The acquisition of immense wealth is becoming the religion of the rich, turning the rich into a great threat to the lives of the vast majority of Americans, and to the overwhelming majority of people worldwide.

 

**Photo by Kathy Morris.

Teaching In A Period of Anxiety and Threat

How would growing up in an age of the minority-elected President influence our children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, a Muslim or a Jewish person, a female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?

 

Just a few years ago, teachers started noticing a clear increase in anxiety in the children they taught. Now, it’s even worse. Even back before Mr. T. was sworn in or elected, a negative effect was noticed in school children by the SPLC and NEA. Teachers recently have talked about how his election has led to children acting out more, being more argumentative, angry, anxious and less willing to listen to others, as if they were bringing into the classroom the emotions and arguments from home or the media. There’s been an increase in bullying, use of verbal slurs, harassment. So, what do you do?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by your response, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but by controlling how you perceive them. Your response is your freedom. Begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.

 

In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”

 

“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”

 

“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”

 

Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important to you? What is kindness? What do you feel when someone is kind to you? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?

 

If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, go with it. Start with a short mindfulness practice. Say to them: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry. Put your attention on the area around your mouth and notice how your mouth feels as you breathe in. Then notice what happens as you breathe out. Do the same with your shoulders. Notice how your shoulders respond, expand as you breathe in. Notice how your shoulders let go, relax as you breathe out.

 

Now let come to mind the word kindness. Did you ever see someone being kind? Or meet someone you considered kind? What did he or she do that was kind? Just notice it in your mind and body. Who was the person who was kind? Who was she or he kind to? What makes an action kind? What words come to mind along with kindness?

 

What do you imagine the person felt when he or she was treated with kindness? Just imagine that feeling. What do you think the person felt who was kind? Just sit for a moment with the feeling of kindness, or being kind.

 

Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly. Also, if possible, add to the curriculum other social-emotional forms of learning to help children be more aware of how their actions affect others, affect their own emotions and the atmosphere in the classroom and their own sense of empowerment.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. How do you face what is difficult? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, stress, being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life. Only if you know that discomfort can be helpful and is not abnormal can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.

 

The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. How do you teach this? Start as you did with the mindfulness practice you used with kindness. Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. Then go to other places in the body. Notice also any thoughts. They are like whirlpools in the water. Just keep your attention on noticing what arises and dissipates, and, after you notice something, return your awareness to the breath. If your mind drifts away and you notice it, or you lose focus on the breath and realize it, the realization means you are now found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that, emphasize that.

 

This is just the beginning. I would also recommend intense physical exercise and the study of martial arts, for example, to develop inner discipline, gratitude, patience, and confidence. Physical strength and conditioning can aid mental clarity and focus. I would study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias, and possibly even how to detect lies as part of the study of emotion. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.

 

What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?

Compassionate Critical Thinking: A Workshop

We are living through a time that challenges us to learn how to think compassionately, clearly and critically—to think in a manner that facilitates awareness of our own emotions and thought processes while elucidating what is happening to those around us. This workshop will explore how to use practices of inquiry and imagination, as well as mindful and compassionate questioning, to better understand and teach course material and critical thinking.

 

The approach is described in my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, published in October, 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. It was developed over 30 years of teaching. All the techniques help students improve focus, find more meaning in classroom studies, and so are more engaged in their education. Many take only a few minutes and all were used in actual classes.

 

The workshop is part of Ithaca Loves Teachers Week. It will include experiential exercises and discussion. It is open to teachers, administrators and others interested in developing and teaching empathy and critical thinking. For more background, go to my website: irarabois.com.

 

The workshop will be Thursday, February 23, 2:00 – 3:15 pm, at the Tompkins County Public Library, Cornell Reading Room.

An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith

 

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Undermining the Public (In Order to Rip Us Off?)

Yesterday, Mr. T spoke to members of the National Sheriffs Association and said: “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” According to the Washington Post, he blamed the news media for not publicizing this development, and then added, “But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, 45 to 47 years.” But according to the Post, Politifact, and the FBI, this claim by him is clearly false. In 1980, the murder rate was 10.2 per 100,000 residents. In 2014 it was 4.4. In 2015, it did go up to 4.9, less than half of the 1980 rate. Violent crime in America in general has gone down. But not in the America Mr. T sees. He sees, or tries to get us to feel, that the rate is going up. Why? To create fear. To create a sense of society falling apart so he can ride in and save us.

 

Likewise, on 2/6 Politifact reported on Mr. T’s comment that the US news media, regarding terrorist attacks, are “dishonest” and it has “gotten to the point where it’s [terrorist attacks are] not even being reported.” He tells us that there is so much more extremist violence happening and we are not safe. But, of course, the violence committed by Muslims from other nations is being constantly reported, maybe even too much. And, as Democracy Now, CNN, and other respected media report, if there isn’t any violence, Mr. T and his associates will lie or manufacture “fake news” to make us think there is. For example, Kellyanne Conway talking about a “Bowling Green Massacre” that never took place. Why? To create a sense of distrust in the media and a fear of the other, of other people, of our society falling apart so he, or HE, can ride in to save us.

 

But he has no plans to save anyone. In fact, this is the same strategy started in the Reagan administration to undermine public schools. Diane Ravitch argued in her book Reign of Error that different corporations, working with political institutions and individual politicians, are leading an effort to undermine public schools by undermining teachers, teacher unions, and the very concept that a public institution working for the general good, instead of a for-profit corporation, can successfully manage and direct an educational system.

 

The strategy calls for publicizing deceptive and often inaccurate information to create a sense of a crisis in education so corporations can step in and save the day. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all later proved untrue. According to Edutopia and government statistics, Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor, white and African-American, Latino, Native-American, was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning. Betsy DeVos and the destruction she might wreak is the end result.

 

In 2007, Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine. Klein’s book argued that when people feel they are in a crisis, they support doctrines, policies, laws that they never would have supported otherwise. Crises can be of all kinds; economic, public health, national security, education. Mr. T. is shocking. He is creating a crisis so he, with the help of some large corporations and his billionaire buddies, can step in and sell the solution.

 

As I said in an earlier blog, we live in relationship with others and our world. This relationship, and our very lives, is more fragile than we like to recognize. If society falls apart, it is not so easy to piece it back together. Mr. T is not a populist working for the common good, but someone working to undermine the sense of relationship that underlies a society and then reconfigure it to fit his interests. By favoring the very few over the whole, his policies undermine the public good and he weakens and isolates himself and his cohorts ever further from everyone else. His delusion and hunger for power threatens every person, maybe every living being on this planet.

 

Only by understanding even those you oppose can you fight them. Only by working to create a society that prioritizes relationships that are mutual, inclusive, caring, and honest can we, as a species, live well, and possibly, live at all.

 

*For information on a foiled white supremacist terrorist plan to massacre African-Americans and Jewish people in Bowling Green, Ohio, see ProPublica post.

Crossing the Divides

Our country is divided not only in terms of which presidential candidate we supported or which policies we support, but on a much more fundamental level. We differ on what it means to be a human being. We differ in our root beliefs, our understanding of the human mind, the self, and reality. It is a difference in the way of thinking and speaking with others, in activities we engage in, in our view of what a democracy is. It is not simply a matter of income, class or color, although I think income inequity and racism are central causes and indications of division. It is spiritual, intellectual and emotional. It is not a divide between one religion and another, or religious versus secular, but runs right through all such groupings. The differing sides all feel that the other, or one of the others, threatens the world itself. This makes extreme actions appear possible or even necessary.

 

Karen Armstrong, author, religious scholar, and former nun, provides an important perspective on one issue dividing our land. In 2005, talking about the rise of fundamentalism and terrorism, she said it is wrong to even speak of conducting a war on terrorism, because it is really a religious war, one form of fundamentalism versus another. Fundamentalism is a desire to return to the fundamental values, the original state of a religion. It interprets religious doctrine literally and calls for strict adherence to such doctrine. Truth is solid, fixed, and absolute and tolerance of the “other” can be considered sin. In our world today, there is a “mushrooming worldwide religious fundamentalist revolt against modernity and secularism.” She said, “We are creatures who seek transcendence… We’re meaning-seeking creatures, we fall easily into despair.” Thus, religion has always had a place in human affairs and even the appearance of assaulting religion can have dire consequences.

 

But, she says, there is “good” religion and “bad.” “Bad” suffocates the sacred and the search for meaning and truth in dogma and rules. “Good” religion is compassion and the experience of dethroning the ego at the center of your world and finding another person or something bigger than your self there. This good religion is not anti-intellectual; it recognizes that understanding deep truths is a matter of feeling, imagination, as well as rationality. For example, some religions consider experience, rational analysis, and wisdom essential to religion. The Dalai Lama, for example, said “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

 

Religion is not usually a consciously chosen belief. It can be foundational to one’s sense of self, culture and reality. To threaten religion is to threaten the world itself. Bad religion considers any statement, factual or otherwise, that is contrary to their religious position not only an untruth or lie, but dangerous. This can include science. Armstrong also argues that especially in nations like the US, where there is so much violent imagery in the media and entertainment, the reaction against secularism can be violent. “Whenever religion is allowed to enter political debate, positions become more rigid and absolute.” And when religion is threatened, fundamentalist membership and action increases and bad religion replaces good.

 

George Lakoff, in his wonderful book, The All New Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, provides another way to frame the divide in our nation. In America, we often use the metaphor of the nation as a family. Yet, Republicans and Democrats have a very different notion of the nature of that family, or what should be that nature. The Republicans think of the nation as needing to conform to a “strict father” model. The Democrats think of needing a “nurturant parent” model. This is, of course, a simplification of both the reality and Lakoff’s analysis, but it provides a general overview of the theory.

 

The strict father family thinks of the world “as a dangerous place…because there is evil out there in the world.” It is competitive, there is absolute right and wrong, and children, when “bad,” are born bad. So a strict father is needed to protect and teach the children. Children need to be obedient and learn discipline, and be punished when disobedient. Without discipline, the world would go to hell. If you are wealthy, it means you are disciplined. Reality dictates that if you work for your own selfish motives and success, everyone will benefit. If you try to help someone else, be compassionate, and try to nurture others, you interfere with his or her own self-discipline, and undermine self-interest. According to this reasoning, the rich are good, the poor are bad. These metaphors and beliefs translate into domestic and foreign policies that maximize the value of the rich pursuing their self-interest.

 

Democrats and progressives are likely to believe in a more gender-neutral parent model. Any gender is equally responsible for, and capable of, raising children. Children are born basically “good” or full of potential and can be nurtured to be better. You need empathy, so you can know better what your child needs. You need to take care of yourself so you can take care of your child. You need a sense of responsibility and commitment, not only for your family but your community, country, and world. You want your child to be fulfilled in life, happy. You value freedom, fairness, service, cooperation, and trust.

 

To speak across this great divide, you must use language that reflects the values others hold dear and does not threaten their religion. To tell another person they are just wrong or their ideas are evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the person you are talking to.

 

These are just two different perspectives out of many. We’re multidimensional and complex beings. Progressives can be closeted conservatives and conservatives can be closeted progressives. So instead of just attacking those who disagree with you, use the language and metaphors that they value in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered. According to Lakoff, the Republican and conservative message is that Democrats, liberals and progressives are weak, angry, and softhearted, so be sincere, respectful, calm, and hold your ground. Re-frame any story anyone tries to use against you in order to illustrate that your point of view and your values show you, too, love your country. You, too, want security, opportunity, and freedom, just as they do. You agree more than you disagree. The road to the freedom and stability that conservatives’ value highly must merge with the road to equity and compassion you value highly.

 

*You might find this recent post on the election by George Lakoff extremely useful.

Is Truth Now Illegal?

We have to study Dictators and reread books like 1984. Since the election, so many people have been coming to this realization that maybe this is now obvious, but I will say it anyway: Once again, a would-be dictator is trying to impose thought control. As we’ve witnessed over the last week, the new administration has been taking steps to prevent agencies like the EPA from sharing climate information with the public. They have gone from claiming global warming is a hoax, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, to destroying that evidence. Our fearless leader doesn’t like the fact that Hillary got more popular votes than he did, so he will now start an investigation to find all those illegal voters who supposedly preferred his opponent. He doesn’t like the photos negatively comparing the size of the crowd at his own inauguration to President Obama’s, so he claims the photos were altered and information distorted. He doesn’t like a CNN reporter questioning him, so he tries to prevent the reporter from speaking. He doesn’t like people protesting his policies and statements, as with the Women’s March, so he sends out his press secretary to deny what occurred, and Republican legislators in 5 states try to make it illegal to peacefully protest.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984.

This is both laughable and frightening. The consequences of such actions can be disastrous. He may try to imprison truth, but truth can be slippery and easily escape, to take revenge on him and on all of us. Any statement about ‘truth’ is a statement about reality. Our daily lives depend on how well we discern it. We depend on scientific information, for example. Will he next outlaw the weather forecast? It, too, is based on climate science. Will he stop the use of climate information from going to cities and towns on the coasts that could be used to prepare for sea level rise? Will he try to stop information going to medical researchers about the harmful effects of air pollution and thus cause the death of many children or cause more lung and breathing problems in our population?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” George Orwell.

Our economy is dependent on science. Creating new technologies can be a rich source of new jobs, but if scientific research is interfered with and access to it restricted, our economy will falter.

“We are not interested in the good of others. We are interested solely in power, pure power.”

“Power is in tearing human minds apart and putting them together again in shapes of your own choosing.”

In whatever area of life you look at, restricting information, restricting science, making up reality to fit your vision of power, puts everyone at risk. You try to lock away truth when you fear it. Since truth is about what is real, he is trying to lock away reality so none of us, including himself, can perceive it. I think he is doing this not only so he has free reign to do as he pleases without being held accountable, but so he doesn’t have to see what he is.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

This is 1984. But we don’t have to allow ourselves to be infected by this vision of the world. “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Schools, news media, social media, people passing on the street, gatherings, demonstrations: perceiving and telling the truth, “speaking truth to power,” is now a revolutionary act.

 

*Journalists have also been arrested for covering last week’s protests. Please do not forget these journalists.