How To Better Understand Your Emotions

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

3. How much-How intense are the sensations?

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Can you imagine doing something like this with your students?

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know where you want to end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Which is more important, to compete against others or myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

And an added set of questions: after summers like this one, filled with violence, political upheavals, and environmental disasters, student’s fears, anxieties and questions must be acknowledged and, if possible, brought into the curriculum. They need to know that their real life concerns and thus their real selves do not need to be hidden away in this classroom. How do you face the violence in the news and the anxieties it can produce? What social conditions contribute to violence? What is anxiety? How can it be met in a healthy way and utilized for deeper understanding?

 

Second, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Create a supportive environment in your classroom, so students know, “this is a place of safety.” Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. This is compassion. You care and show that care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. Recognize there’s more you don’t know than you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan, with so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness and compassion practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions; I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life were one.

To Hear, First Listen

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing. I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality.

 

So today, when he brought up the topic, I just listened, sometimes repeating back to him his own words, merely empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions. When you feel heard by others, you are more likely to listen to yourself. I don’t want this anecdote to be taken as a warning to never give advice or never point out to others lines of reasoning they might have missed. It is only a suggestion to listen carefully for projection, especially when fear and its close relatives, worry, anxiety and depression, are involved. And to listen carefully to notice your own response to anger.

 

A similar process can happen in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, or all human beings are machines, because they fear a life without love, have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their lives are meaningless.

 

And when such meaningful moments arise in a class, do not put them off because they are not in the curriculum or not in your lesson plan. Because they are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and the classroom is one place this can occur. Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason.

 

Students ask questions, we all ask questions, because we glimpse a deeper reality and thus know the answers we have now are unsatisfying or incomplete. One reason we get angry is we realize there is something crucial we are denied or can’t understand. We feel we are in the dark because we know what light is. What a good teacher does is point students to their own inner light.

 

No emotion exists by itself without other feelings, sensations and thoughts trailing behind it. Love is only as strong as our ability to tolerate vulnerability and face the fear of loss and hurt. Joy pushes back against fear, happiness against sadness. We learn when we acknowledge our mistakes and our lack of knowledge—and we accept that we must make mistakes in order to succeed. We must actually take in and notice what is truly there, both in us and in what surrounds us, even our fear and anger, in order to learn. Without this openness and engagement there is little learning.

 

To get answers, you must feel your own feelings and hear your own thoughts. Only if you listen can you hear.

 

**After writing this, I read the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing book, The Art of Communicating. To study deep listening, practice mindfulness and enjoy this book. Almost everything I say, and so much more, is inside it. He says: “When you can truly come home to yourself and listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.” (35) “To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.” (15)

Ideas, Perceptions and Feelings

We all form ideas about reality. It is a normal and necessary component of experiencing a meaningful world. However, the idea can seem to us as the reality, even though it’s not. I had two experiences recently which brought out this discrepancy. In one case, it turned an inconvenience into a difficult situation. In the other, it converted joy into loss.

 

In the first situation, I had arranged to use a space to hold a class. I had all the paperwork in and had used the space on and off for years. Then during the class session, another group came in half way through the class and said they had the space reserved. I was annoyed at the interruption and astonished by their claim.  I calmed down and let them use part of the space for the last twenty minutes of the class, even though my class was relatively quiet and theirs noisy. Then the next day, I checked in with the person in charge of scheduling the space and was assured the room was mine, not theirs. So, in my mind, I formed this idea that the other group was lying or taking advantage. That was my interpretation of what had happened. When I saw the leader of the group again, he even looked to me like a liar. But I was wrong about him. I later found out the person in charge of scheduling the space had double booked it.

 

In a totally different type of situation, I noticed recently that as I got older, I centered my life less on my work. I thought of friends and family more. I began to see my family more often and wanted to spend more time with friends. And with both, I am lucky. My family is supportive. I have close friends who care about and accept me. When I am with them, there are distinct ups and downs, but generally my moments with them are some of the finest moments in life. But I sometimes add something to the joy that changes its nature. I add this yearning to keep them close to me more of the time. Even though I have my own life and each of them has theirs, I dream of more time together. Instead of taking this dream as simply an extension of the joy and something to learn from, I sometimes take it as an indication that something is missing. Joy is then converted into clinging and loss.

 

Our emotions integrate the different elements of our world. They can do this for good or ill. They begin with what the author and child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel calls an initial “orienting response” or awakening of attention, grows to include memories, likes and dislikes, interpretations, until we get fully ripened emotions and inclinations to act.

 

It can be difficult to spot when distortions in our understanding occur, or understand what the distortion is. But it helps to know how emotions and perceptions are constructed. It helps to be mindful and keep in touch with the feeling underlying emotion. It helps when we notice if we are acting out of fear or a sense of threat so we can step back from the fear and more clearly consider if there is really a threat.  Or step back from an idea and evaluate if it accurately mirrors the situation. To take a breath and ask ourselves: “How am I viewing the other people in this situation? What is motivating the action I imagine?” It helps to realize that the perception I have of others is created along with the idea I hold of myself.

 

Life is so much fuller when I take time to absorb and cherish the reality I am presented with, whatever it is, but especially when it involves the friends and family I am close to.

 

*Photo from Cappadocia, Turkey.

The Quiet of the Rain and Trees

More horrible news from San Bernardino and from Colorado fill the headlines, and that’s only from the U. S. We might say in response that “the world is falling apart” but what’s falling? Not the apple or cherry tree in my yard. Not the hillside beyond it. There is a light rain falling around me, but that’s not it. The rain isn’t falling apart but falling into the earth and onto the rest of us. What is falling apart is a feeling of safety and stability when I read about “world events” or politics or society. But here, sitting outside my house and looking at the hillside around me, there is “falling into” but no falling apart.

 

The sense of threat expressed by “the world is falling apart” can be so powerful. Yet, everything around me is just here, beautiful, stark, rich, and something beyond any word I can write. I need this contrast. We all do. There is a social reality, and there’s this bigger reality. When I try to understand “what’s happening in the world,” it is important to keep the rain and the trees alive in me. When I try to understand US society or human society, I need the society of the earth. Ideas, world and personal events need to be analyzed but are only understood through contrasting them with a diversity of perspectives, including the quiet of the rain and the trees. Without this contrast, it is too easy to get lost in our explanations, beliefs, technology, and the news.

 

Of course, sometimes the rain itself cries out– about global warming, water pollution, etc.

 

I wrote a few weeks ago that teaching students how to understand and deal with terrorism includes teaching what strength means and how to be strong in case of emergency. Strength of this sort emerges from an inner quiet. Meditating, sometimes just walking in the rain or taking in the beauty of a tree, or planting vegetables, trees or flowers, can give you that. The news can be so disturbing and cause such a disruption in your mind and heart that finding balance and quiet can be difficult. Yet, it is worth the effort. A quiet mind enables clear observation of “inner” as well as “outer” reality. It enables you to monitor thoughts, emotions as well as your feelings about the others around you so you can understand them better. To learn from and let go of thoughts and emotions you need to feel them. To feel what connects all of us, feel the earth, feel how every time you walk, talk, yell, scream, or make love, you are the earth speaking.

 

And the earth can no longer afford the hate and blame game. Some people blame all Muslims for ISIL. If so, do you blame all Christians for the violence and murders carried out by Christian groups like the Army of God at Planned Parenthood clinics? (Robert Dear, responsible for last week’s violence, was a Christian but is not known as a member of this or any anti-abortion group.) Do you blame all Americans, including yourself if you’re an American citizen, for the lies, deaths and chaos caused by the invasion of Iraq and for other American policies? Do you blame yourself for being human?

 

As many people have been reminding us lately, hate does not serve us well. Martin Luther King Junior said: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate…Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” The Buddha said, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love…” Maybe it’s about time to figure out how to live by this principle.

Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”

 

 

Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?

Embedding Compassion Part B: Teaching With Joy

To Teach Critical Thinking or Compassion, Mindfully Teach About Emotion:

 

When our minds are filled with emotions like fear, hate, anger, or greed it can be difficult to think clearly. When we feel we are boxed in, for example, the walls of the box are our own anger and fear. Certain emotions scream at us. Because of this, it is easy to assume that emotion interferes with critical or at least clear thinking.

 

But consider this: what happens if you try to read a book that you don’t care about? Or solve a tough math problem when you think the problem has no connection to your life? It is excruciating. Engagement and connection are emotion. Care is emotion. We all know the value of being engaged with what we are doing. Reading, writing, solving problems all take energy, emotional energy to create meaning.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. One purpose of emotion is to give value to things so we know how to think and act. Daniel Siegel describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting the system to pay attention, what he calls the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes labeling stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning, assign value, and then prepare for action, to either approach or avoid something. The first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase, what we normally call emotion develops. Emotions like fear, sadness, joy integrate seemingly diverse realms of experience. For example, attention, value, meaning are integrated with ideas of how things work, with physiological changes in our body and with perceiving and communicating social signals. In other words, body, mind, and relationships can link together, so we need to be attentive to what and how we link. Without the initial “emotional” energy to pay attention and to approach a task, learning is nearly impossible. Teaching about emotion, its uses and how it’s constructed, is one of the most important subjects we could teach our students. It takes up most of my book on teaching.

 

Awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of feelings, thoughts, beliefs and images allows us to notice, recognize and thus let go of any of these. In previous blogs, we talked about the fact that if we don’t become aware of what is going on inside us, we can’t do anything about it. The earlier in the emotion process we do this, the more we can monitor and alter it. That is not controversial. What is harder to understand is that the focus created by mindfulness can create a different sort of emotion that supports learning and thinking. First, the mind stops screaming. Then it quiets. A focused and flexible attention ensues. You feel a sense of silent presence which says “pay attention” and “feel your way into this.” You can find a similar attention in the absorption of a writer in creating a story or an athlete with their sport. Focus feels good. Insight feels good. Solving a problem that arises from your own heart feels good. Even if what you learn is also painful in some way, there is this good feeling inside the learning. Thinking deeply might be difficult, but when you do it, it is greatly satisfying. This good feeling is not a distraction but part of the essential component of creating meaning. It is an essential part of an undistracted experience of living and breathing.

 

In fact, this feeling of joy is an extremely subtle guide that we don’t always recognize. To cut ourselves off from our emotions and our bodily response is to cut us off from our full ability to think. When we experience the difficulty of thinking deeply, this can be our body and mind giving us direction. The difficulty is telling us that we are not fully energized or there is something that needs our attention. Go directly into that feeling of not being energized. A narrative will come up with feelings and images attached. Instead of inhabiting that narrative, we need to shift attention to our responses to it. Notice what’s there without getting caught up in the storyline. There we will find the needed energy.  Notice and move on.

 

There are moments when you mentally stop, let go of whatever is on your mind, and just look around you. In the early morning before a school day, I would feel the anticipation and anxiety of a school day as I walked from the parking lot to the school. I would repeat in my mind stories and dialogues involving my plans and hopes for the day. These plans cut me off from my feelings. Then I would stop and look around me. I would look at the trees, the building and people rushing to get inside. And I’d feel, “Ah, it is only this that I have to do. I only have to take this in and I’ll be fine.” And then it was fine.

 

This is an example of what we need to help students learn. Students sometimes express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “If I let go of my emotions, what would be left of me? My emotions are me. They are the most authentic part of me.” This fear might be partly from an uncertainty or shakiness with their identity. They identify not with the total experience of their life but with specific images, thoughts, memories or emotions. So ask them, “When you have a new emotion, does your old you disappear? Are you any one emotion, or all emotion?” When you mindfully let go of an emotion, awareness remains. You let go of separation. In that awareness, there is an even more authentic you. Compassion for yourself and others awaits you. What is left is a deeper realm of feeling, a clearer realm of thinking.