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.

 

Come Together, Right Now, Over All of Us

I felt the need to write a quick and short blog in response to all those people of conscience who say “be thankful for our new President, for he is waking us up to the reality of America’s ‘sickness’ of racism, inequity and such.” Or those who blame the DNC or Hillary or Bernie supporters or Jill Stein or the Russians for our new situation.

 

I agree that we need to wake up to what is happening in America and the whole world, and I agree that an analysis is needed of the forces and conditions that created this situation. But anything that interferes with united action has just got to go. Diversity in perspectives is helpful. Antipathy toward your possible supporters and colleagues is not.

 

This situation, like any situation, can help me grow. It is important to learn that I don’t have to turn away when life gets uncomfortable or difficult and that I can turn discomfort into engaged and meaningful, even joyful, action. But remember that to say “don’t be afraid” can make you more afraid. To say “don’t think of an elephant” leads me to think of an elephant. Sickness can be healing, but it can also kill you. Fear may wake me up, but it interferes with clarity of thought and compassion for others, and it is compassion that will most help all of us right now.

 

Compassion is not exactly the same as empathy; it is not just recognizing or feeling what another person feels. It is feeling care, kindness in recognizing, feeling that the people around you feel, think, ache like you do. You feel their life, not necessarily their pain, and so you are willing and ready to act to reduce that pain. You do it naturally, because it is the right thing, the natural thing, to do.

 

So I will never be thankful that another person is in pain, even those who oppose me. In our situation now, it is the most vulnerable that might suffer the most, so how can a compassionate person welcome that? It is the earth itself that might soon cry out in pain, that might no longer be able to sustain human or any complex life, so how can I welcome that?

 

(I don’t care, however, if you partly blame Comey, or Republican efforts to undermine voting rights and destroy democracy. But please, don’t blame anyone who might care for and support you in opposing the hate, greed, and destruction that just might soon get worse. We need to, and I hope will succeed in, turning the recognition of the consequences of hate and denial into the necessity for love and kindness.)

Teaching Yourself and Others How to Learn From Fear, Not Fear It

What are you feeling now? Just ask yourself (or your children, students, friends) the question and listen to and feel what comes up. It’s almost four weeks after the election. Have your feelings changed? How? Promise yourself to be gentle and listen not just to the words but the feelings and sensations that shadow and anchor every word you utter. Listen not just to what appears but how you respond to what appears. Feel your jaw and shoulders, your chest and belly. Where do you feel any tension? What is the quality of it, sharp, heavy, like pins and needles, hot or cold? Notice how your body expands with the inbreath, and lets go, settles down with the outbreath. Notice the sense of calm and quiet that can emerge when you step back and be aware of thoughts, sensations or your surroundings. Then breathe into the area and move on to notice another sensation.

 

This is one way to begin your day. When you act with the totality of your being, you are in harmony. Most fear arises from sensing a need to defend your self from an inner not an outer threat. You might be fighting your own inner battle or maybe you try to end any confusion you have over what is “the right way” by eliminating anyone who adds to the confusion or the complexity. When you do need to fight an actual external threat, study yourself and the situation and know the others involved. You can’t fight what you can’t see.

 

Many of us are feeling anxious and afraid. Many have pointed out that this election is different from any other. When there is so much that is unknown, fear is normal. Fear can be both a friend and an enemy, depending on how you treat it. It is an enemy if you turn away from it and fear it. It is a friend if it energizes you to wake up, notice, and learn from a threatening situation. When you turn away, you feel isolated and jittery. When you reach out to others, you more easily calm your thinking and step outside the dominion of fear.

 

Anxiety takes fear a step further. You add to a fear of the future a sense that you might not be able to face it. You feel inadequate, or fear being exposed as inadequate. You think the situation will mark you and turn others away, so your future might be ripped away. You feel like building a wall around yourself. But if you take action, you feel more open and powerful. If you join with others in taking action, you let go of fear and anxiety, isolation and powerlessness.

 

How you act also depends on how you think about discomfort. If you think it is wrong or abnormal to feel discomfort or stress, you will greet such sensations with fear and anxiety, and turn away from them. Only if you recognize that discomfort can be helpful 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.

 

This time of anxiety and uncertainty can also provide the opportunity to learn more about compassion. Compassion is the motivation, the energy to act to reduce suffering wherever you encounter it. When you do this, you might not even think you are being compassionate. You act because the action comes from a deep sense of who you are, in this moment; it is the only thing you can honestly do. You sense what and who is there with you, what feels right, uplifting—or harmful. Boundaries drop away along with fear and anxiety. You are basically selfless in that there is no intermediary between the sense of another’s pain (or your own) and the motivation to reduce it.

 

You can never know all the results or consequences of your actions, so please don’t act solely for some future political or social goal. As many say, you can’t focus only on the ends and forget the means. Such actions are divisive. But you can study your intentions. You can aim to do the best you can, in the way that fits you. Your actions come from your sense of rightness, not from being bullied into doing it.

 

Likewise, you can recognize the limitations and humanity of others, including anyone who would be a leader. Especially when you’re afraid, it is easy to project onto others mythical qualities, an intelligence, ability or moral quality, positive or negative, that is supposedly greater than your own, and thus let leaders make the decisions for you. You know this, so recognize it when it happens and let it go with laughter. To see what is in others you must know it in yourself. And if you feel called to be a leader, recognize that your wellbeing depends on the wellbeing of the vast mass of others. A diversity of other people needs to live in your heart as your guide.

 

A good friend and I were in a bookstore the day after Thanksgiving. He was reading me a funny passage from a book on Hillary Clinton’s childhood, and we were laughing. A woman standing next to us looked up, a bit startled, with some fear in her face, and said, “How can you be laughing at such a moment? I am too terrified to laugh.” I told her I understood. But that I deal with the terror better if I laugh. If I can laugh, I don’t get stuck on any thought or concern and can think more clearly about what to do. She smiled slightly, unsure. We all talked for another moment, and then went our separate ways.

 

So, I am trying to be gentle and kind to myself in these complex and difficult moments, and I wish you the same. And remember, when you are with others, they might be feeling the same way you do, but in their own way. So be kind to them, too. It might help all of us figure out how to best resist a future of hate and fear.

 

Compassion And Empathy Are Crucial For Critical Thinking

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

 

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

 

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

 

With compassion, you do not help others in order to feel superior; that is pity. You do not simply feel a sense of sorrow about what they are going through; that is sympathy. Both pity and sympathy are based on an emotional distance with the other being. With empathy, that distance diminishes. The situation becomes more close up and personal. With compassion, you not only “feel with” the other person but want to step in and act in accord with that feeling; you want to act in a kind, caring manner. You value the welfare of another person like you value your own welfare. A sense of closeness compels action.

 

And it is this closeness that the students want. They want to know that other people can act for the good of another person, because they want to know that people can be caring. They want to feel that care themselves, both in the giving and in the receiving.

 

But what does compassion do for us? Clearly, it assists our ability to cooperatively work with others. But what else? V. S. Ramachandran describes how, when you watch someone doing an intentional action, like reaching out for a sandwich, the motor control neurons in areas of your brain fire in a manner as if you were doing the action. You model in your brain what another person is doing and respond physically and mentally to your model. You understand what the other person is doing through reading your own response to your model. The neuron systems that enable this empathy have been called called mirror neuron systems. If you see a person experiencing pain, your pain neurons fire almost as if you were in pain. Did you ever flinch back when you saw a person hit? Or smile when you saw someone smile? In this way you break part of the barrier between yourself and others.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and compassion strengthen the insula, which is an area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain involved in understanding the emotion of others. The insula is also involved in the arousal of energy and focus. Compassion practices not only make the insula stronger; they ready you to act in a kind or helpful manner. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices will lead to improving the environment in schools. It will improve learning, thinking and understanding. It will ready students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine and destroy relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they feel the pain of being bullied, and they have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.

 

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

 

 

 

 

This Summer: The Crucial Role of Joy and Love

This summer has been one of the most disturbing and anger producing I remember. I am sure many of you feel as I do. Between the killing of African-Americans by police, police being targeted and killed, the killings in Orlando, Nice, Belgium, Afghanistan, etc. and etc. and Turkey, Brexit. Then you add the weather and droughts, all topped off by Republicans chanting for the arrest or execution of Hillary and Trump’s incitement to violence, racism, etc. and attack on almost everything I consider truthful—What do you make of this?

 

It feels to me that too much and too many have been denied for too long. The last thirty years of increasing social-class inequity, concentration of wealth, and increasing environmental problems are fueling this state of affairs. The suffering from inequity between classes and nations has come front and center transmuted into religious warfare and nationalism. As one article in The Globe put it, too many people feel like they are losing out in this economic-political system that seems to favor the very few over the many and so are retreating into fear, anger, and a sort of tribalism.

 

I grew up hearing not only about the bomb and the Red Tide of Communism, but the menace of the Nazis, and was determined to do what I could so it would never happen again. Well, it is hard to believe but I feel like it might be happening again, and it’s time to put aside differences and oppose the menace.

 

This is a moment of challenge for all of us, to wake up to the threats we face and the necessity to greet it not so much with fear (although I feel fearful) but with awareness, understanding, compassion and some righteous determination, even anger. To resist, act and vote against not only the words and deeds of people like Trump, but the institutional forces that would separate us, send us into little camps of like-minded close-mindedness, where we can withdraw into our beliefs and build walls religious or otherwise. We must continuously praise our shared humanity even when we feel like kicking the “stupid example of humanity” standing next to us.

 

And what can we do to help our children and students deal with all of this in a way that is both healthy and mind-strengthening? Think about that. Do you want your children to see you as a perpetrator of hate? Or as running scared from a challenge, as awful as it may be? No way.

 

And keep this in mind, too: one aspect of the 1960’s rebellion was humor. Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, street theatre, etc.. We need people like Stephen Colbert as well as Bernie Sanders. When the situation is so serious, it’s difficult to find humor or enjoyment in life, and to feel the positive aspect of love as well as the fear and hurt of loss. But a little joy and love can help you see straight and resist the mind-numbing quality of fear and depression. When the world feels most scary, that is a time when all those lessons about the necessity for kindness most need to be remembered and acted upon.

“Compassionate Critical Thinking” Now Available to Pre-order

My book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, will be published by Rowman and Littlefield on September 30, 2016.

 

The book takes readers inside a classroom to witness an engaging way of teaching in tune with current neuroscience. In a time when education is under attack and teachers and students report high levels of stress and anxiety, the book offers a method to improve instructional effectiveness with increased student participation and decreased classroom stress. Using mindfulness and a Socratic style of questioning, the book guides teachers and readers in methods to help themselves and their students learn about their own emotions and develop critical thinking skills. Classroom vignettes capture dialogue between teacher and students illustrating how challenging questions stimulate and direct inquiry and discovery. Not only teachers, but administrators wanting to improve the relationship between teachers and students, students who want to develop their thinking skills on their own, parents, any reader interested in reducing stress and increasing clarity might be interested in the book. Many books teach mindfulness, but few provide a model for teaching critical thinking and integrating it across the curriculum.

 

My intention is to demonstrate just how insightful, open, and willing to learn students can be when presented with material they consider challenging and real, and classes are structured to relate to their inner lives. One year in a Psychological Literature class, we read an anecdote about a person putting his own life at risk to save someone drowning in an icy river. I asked, “How can a person do that? Does it show that humans are compassionate or altruistic by nature?” I was surprised by the response by many students. They said that the situation was unreal. Maybe a rare person would put their life at risk to help someone else, but most people—never. Altruism was a rarity. There was too much cruelty in the world for altruism or compassion to be natural.

 

So I asked, “Imagine you were standing by that river. What would you feel seeing the person drowning?” At first, there were some uncomfortable jokes. But then students said, “I’d feel awful.” Another said that he’d be haunted by the situation for the rest of his life. Another said she would have jumped in. “If the situation would haunt you, then were you feeling empathy? If you would have jumped in, then were you feeling compassion? Altruism?”

 

In the abstract, compassion might seem unreal, especially since many students grow up in a competitive environment and read about and feel so much violence in the world. But when questioned, their inner reality is uncovered. This is the nature of compassionate critical thinking. It incorporates the big questions into the curriculum. Assumptions are challenged. Discussions become mindfulness and compassion practices. This is the core of my book.

 

It can now be pre-ordered through Amazon. Available in September through your local bookstore.

 

**Next week, I plan to post a blog on an extremely interesting book called Siddhartha’s Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment by James Kingsland.

When Will We Learn?

Listen to the news:  Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Brooklyn. I feel like the universe is slapping me in the face, slapping all of us. “Look. Can you see? Can you feel?” Racism, yes, and so much more. Is this what happens when an economic system, and its political and justice system, is lopsided and only a small percentage of “We The People” control most of the wealth and power? I listen to the news and feel angry, and am heartened by protests. But I also recognize fear in myself. The biggest fear is that not enough people will hear what I hear.

 

Will people hear the questions being asked? Questions like: Will substantive change happen? Will the Grand Jury in Brooklyn indict the police in the Akai Gurley killing? Will the federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner lead to prosecutions? Will there ever be a trial for Darren Wilson? Will we as humans make the effort to create a more equitable nation and world?

 

Will we bother to educate ourselves, to better understand our own mental processes so we can understand the importance to all of us of justice and equity?

 

These events are part of the curriculum for our nation. The streets are texts for our classrooms. And I am not just speaking of current events classes but all classes. Science can study the neurobiology of compassion and attunement systems in the brain. Social studies and history can study the effects of greatly unequal wealth distribution. They can study systems of justice and how nations transform themselves—or fall. English classes can write stories of street experiences and read about people fighting injustice and persisting in the face of great challenges. Language classes can study the relationship between language and thought systems and the necessity for diverse perspectives in thinking critically. All classes can ask: Brown, Gurley, Garner, Rice—and Wilson: who are they? They are people who feel and think not much differently than you and I feel and think. To try to separate them from ourselves distorts the substance of our lives and makes us incapable of acting in a humane, well-considered manner. There is no justice without compassion and understanding, no understanding without empathy.

 

We all have to learn enough about how our brains work so we can understand how we can misunderstand ourselves and dehumanize others. I think most people believe in what is called “naïve realism.” We think the world is just as we see it. We can feel our own sensations but not (or rarely) those of others. So we think the red of the apple is all in the apple, the sound of a raindrop is all in the raindrop. We can’t understand why other people don’t like what we like. The person over there who I never look at is not as aware or valuable as I am. I am right and they are not seeing the situation correctly.

 

This study of how events on the streets speak to political, economic, and legal systems, and how they relate to the mind and our social-emotional nature, should be required in our schools.

Creating A Compassionate Community

Mindfulness and compassion practices are extremely important to teach to students, but what’s even more important is embedding compassion in the structure of the school. Schools must make it a priority that students and staff, instead of feeling distant from others or powerless, care for others and feel that others care for them. They feel responsible for what happens at the school and even what it looks like. They have a sense of justice and power to make changes.

 

Schools could consider institutionalizing empathy into graduation or promotion requirements. In my old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, for example, there is a sixty hour community service requirement. It was originally 30 hours but students voted to expand it. Service in this case means taking action with the intent to directly learn from and thus be able to help others. It must be mutual; they not only help but are helped in the process. Students work in kindergarten and elementary schools, senior centers, animal rescue shelters, and juvenile detention centers. The emphasis is on long term commitments so trust and empathy can develop over time. For example, the school has worked with the Akwesasne Freedom School for around twenty years. The teacher who administers the program, Jon Raimon, leads by example, caring for the welfare of his students so they, in turn, will care for others. He spends half of his day arranging, supervising, problem-solving. Combine that with teaching three different courses and he’s always busy.

 

Community service is often cited by students as one of the most meaningful parts of their education. One student made a video about the importance of service and the lasting impact it had in his life. He spoke about a week long trip he took with other students to work in the 7th Ward in New Orleans. They repaired houses of people neglected by different government agencies after Katrina. He spoke about service turning him into a self-motivated learner, excited about his own education and committed to standing up in the face of a wrong.

 

Another unusual graduation requirement is analyzing and taking action to end some form of bias. The student can choose the bias. It can be racism or sexism or anti-semitism. It can be countering an obvious bias, such as about gender, or more intellectual, such as scientific materialism (the view that only what we can touch, feel and measure can cause things to happen in the world).

 

The school is relatively small (about 310 students) and democratic. There are three major aspects to this democracy: The All School Meeting, a committee system, and family group. Once a week, the whole school, students and staff, meet to discuss and vote on proposals introduced by anyone in the school community. Instead of simply taking an academic course on democracy, students get to actually practice it. Students get to help figure out and vote on meaningful issues, like graduation requirements, school trips, how to spend fundraised monies. This develops a sense of commitment and responsibility– and some patience with the fact that a community is made of many individuals with diverse ways of perceiving and thinking. Of course, there are days students couldn’t care less about the meeting and spend their time whispering to friends or secretly texting. However, I remember meetings where sixth graders stood up to defend a position even in the face of twelfth grader opposition. I remember a meeting where a student with autism took a period and a half to describe how his condition influenced his life and perceptions. Everyone was attentive, sometimes laughing with him, sometimes crying. At the end, the entire school gave him a standing ovation. Such learning experiences are priceless and no single teacher can create them. It takes a community. These meetings are a powerful lesson on the transformative power of giving students a voice.

 

Students meet twice a week to serve on one of twenty committees which help run and maintain the school. There are committees to welcome and mentor new students, to help clean the school, plan all school meetings, learn about and plan environmental actions, and a student court. The court is not only about getting a student perspective on how other student’s actions affect them and the community; it is about restorative justice replacing automatic punishment. If an action disturbs or harms the community, the court tries to figure out what could be done to restore the sense of safety and trust.

 

What’s crucial in developing empathy and compassion is the relationship between staff and students. To develop a caring relationship, it is helpful that students and staff learn about each other in contexts other than classes, so teachers are not only “teachers” and students are not only “students.” One way to facilitate this is to give each student an in-school family group led by one or two staff members. The family group acts as a support group and an intermediary between home and school. If a problem occurs, it is the family group leader who often contacts the parents or caregivers. The group helps plan a student’s schedule, do check-ins and discuss school issues. They go on trips, fundraise and, on occasion, eat meals together.

 

The aim is to create a true community, a community of learners where people know and care about each other. The school is not always successful. No school is perfect for everyone. But this one tries. It is a second home to most. This sense of a second home extends way beyond graduation. Students often stay in touch with friends—and staff. Because the school acts as a compassionate second home for students, they take that home out into the rest of the world with them. They work to make the world a safer and more compassionate place.

 

 

A great video that I recommend is called My Teacher Is My Hero, by Devin Bokaer. Many teachers all through the world are heroes of compassion. Here are suggestions on how to do it.

 

Thanks to LACS staff and students, Sarah Jane Bokaer, Sam Frumkin, Hayya Mintz, Tommy Murphy, Jon Raimon, and Chris Sperry for giving suggestions for this blog.

Teaching Drama, Identity, and Interdependence

When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I once got the chance to witness spirit beings emerge from the jungle to dance a story about the origin of creativity. The spirits were also people wearing carved wood masks and raffia from their neck down to their feet. After the dance, the spirits walked amongst us and then returned to the jungle. I didn’t realize then that I was seeing an early form of theatre.

 

In Ancient Greece, the legendary poet Thespis was supposedly the first to have an actor step on a stage and turn choral recitation into drama. The first dramas told mythical stories. In fact, they were enacted myths, so drama emerged from a religious ceremony. Actors, just like the spirit dancers, were those who could take in and express the power of a myth or spiritual story. In fact, Thespis also introduced masks so actors could play different roles and genders. This was not just putting on a costume. It was putting on an identity, often an identity much bigger than one’s own.

 

When students today take on a role they are partaking in a very old tradition. They are taking on someone else’s character and history. To do the job well, the actor must let go of their own ego border enough so they can feel the feelings of the role, of the other person. The student standing in the shining lights of a theatre illuminates the question of identity which all of us, certainly teenagers, face. Who is it standing in those lights? And who are you when the show is over?

 

The actor makes himself vulnerable, open to the community’s judgment. It is almost sacrificial. If the actor fails, forgets a word, loses connection to the dramatic reality, they often feel devastated. In this way, an actor is heroic. This is extremely powerful. To be seen in stage lights is to be seen in a heightened light, in a way you can’t be seen in ordinary life.

 

Just imagine the effects acting can have on a student. A shy student, a student unsure of her identity, or a student who is disenfranchised or ignored by others can, with drama, become a hero. The intensity, creativity and sheer amount of work that goes into a production can also bring students closely together, make them feel cared for, part of a group, part of something larger than themselves.

 

But this power can work on people in many ways. The actor, feeling the vulnerability on stage, can either carry that openness over to their daily life or build walls around it to be opened only in the lights. They can let themselves think their special status onstage is their due offstage. They can so identify with being in the lights that they mistake the mythical power of the stage as their own. Our culture worships stars and this worship can either fuel or distort the creative process—and one’s own sense of oneself.

 

This worship and the dreams it inspires in students made casting our annual big production the most difficult time of the year for me. There were always disappointed students, always tears. Some schools just thought of putting the “best” singer or strongest actor in the lead role. I wanted not only a great performance but a great learning experience for everyone in the group. Sometimes it was not the lead who carried the play, but one of the supporting roles. Sometimes, I had the students cast the show themselves. This practically always worked out well, with few complaints.

 

Students must learn the historical background out of which modern theatre emerges. They must learn how to take on and then let go of the power of the stage. The power is not only one’s own but derives from one’s engagement with the role. The role is part of a whole play. It is dependent on the rest of the cast, the tech crew, and the process of rehearsal. It is dependent on the audience. The actor must learn that identity arises in a situation. It is not formed once and forever, but moment by moment. You don’t do something wild, like play Romeo or Juliet, and for all time you are a romantic hero or heroine.  For one glorious moment you enact that role, you give people that example of how to live. Then, a new moment arises, a new situation. What role will you then play?

 

I clearly did not always succeed in getting across these lessons. The pressures that develop during a production can be enormous. In order to help both the educational and creative process, it is important to get students to take on roles not only on stage but off. Students can help in casting and in researching and choosing the play. They can be assistant directors and choreographers. Almost all schools have student costume designers, stage managers, and tech crew. It is important to choose plays and even musicals that have several good parts, so as many people as possible can be stars. I did a series of one act and short plays each fall. This enabled almost everyone to get a decent sized part and one that they wanted to play. Each spring, we did a larger production. We did shorter runs, of one to three shows, in order to not get overloaded—and to emphasize that the whole process was important, not only the show itself. We used meaningful rituals to get everyone engaged, loosened up, energized, and to have fun. One of our most important rituals was doing the Hokey Pokey very loudly before each performance. Instead of me deciding on all the stage action, as much as possible I had the actors improvise stage action during rehearsal. And, on the first school day after the show was over, we always had a check-in session, to discuss people’s feelings, reflect on how the show went, put audience feedback in perspective, and say farewell to what was hopefully a great experience.

 

The cultural and personal expectations, as well as the sheer effort required by a performance, made drama the most difficult class I ever taught.  It also provided the most amazing highlights.