Speeding Up Life Shortens Your Meaningful Moments: Time and Addiction

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*Photo: Temple, Delphi, Greece.

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.

 

 

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 as a teacher, 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. Schools can 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?

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

 

The Gap Between What You Can Know and What You Can’t

How much can we know? And how do we deal with that limitation, if there is one?

 

Such old questions. Yet, occasionally, when I’m quiet inside and the world seems to slow down, I hear the remnants of these questions stirring in me. For example, just last night, I was thinking about the book I just completed. I worked on it for three years and it is scheduled to be published on September 30th. But, I still don’t really believe it. It is the third book I have written, and the first to be published. Yet, how it happened is mysterious to me. Mysterious not in the sense that I have no idea how I wrote the book or no idea of all the work, inspiration, joy and heartache that went into it. But, in the sense that despite all that intimate knowledge of what I did, I still feel “Wow, I did that!” I still wonder if it is really going to happen.

 

And so much of what it took surprised me. I thought a book was one person’s creation. Yet when you add all the people who edited, gave feedback, who were my students, colleagues, teachers, inspirations, and then add the publisher, etc.—how many people is that?

 

And how is it that I know how to write a clear, grammatical sentence (usually) and yet the book required several people over several months to sharpen the writing and eliminate mistakes?

 

Trying to understand is one of the biggest drives a human being has, so we are always trying to figure things out. And I don’t just mean things like about how my book will be received, but everyday things like how to set up a rain barrel system in my house or learn the best route to my brother’s new home in Virginia. And in the Presidential election, we watch polls to see what the future will bring. We research and try to understand who the candidates are so we can make good decisions about who to vote for and who will help us secure the future we think will serve us best. We do the same with doctors, places to vacation, bikes to ride, shirts to wear. We try to predict the weather and understand our friends and pets.

 

We often think knowing and understanding means to be able to predict, control, dominate and make safe, that it is linked to our drive to survive, possess and secure. We think it means to encapsulate in words. And that once we have created such a capsule of understanding or knowledge, it is the correct one. We seem to think that our mental models of reality are the one and only truth. And this truth will set us free. The internal pressure to replace the unknown and mysterious with the known and explained has led to both great technical and scientific advances and also violence and oppression.

 

Due to a limited perspective on what understanding means, many people try to fill the gap between what we can know and what we can’t with undigested or untested beliefs, often mistaking such beliefs for truth. We might be tempted to try to replace what we can’t know with a willful ignorance that masks wish fulfillment or shoddy thinking. We can do this with religion, politics, intellectual systems or relationships.

 

We need to recognize the limits of our knowing and control. We can’t know everything, but it is fun, important, and sometimes a responsibility, to learn and understand or think things through as deeply as we can. We can’t predict the future, although we can, to an extent, prepare for it. We can’t predict or control what our friends or loved ones or pets will do; yet we can be helpful, kind and caring. We can’t know when or how we will die, but we can live as fully, healthfully, and meaningfully as we can. We can’t pave over the unknown with the known, but we can be aware of when the attempts to do so lead to suffering.

 

We need to be able to live with and be mindfully aware of not-knowing. We need a little more humility, and a little less clinging to our mental formulations. We need to know how to tolerate, learn from, and let go of discomfort and other ways we hurt ourselves. We need to tolerate and even value some mystery, not mystification. The sense of mystery is a sense of the aliveness of life. When a person feels mysterious to us, we could be realizing they have an inner world of their own. That who they are exceeds our expectations, exceeds what we know, exceeds what we want of them. Any person or living being is so much more than what we want for or from them or words about them. And this mystery, this life, is what’s ultimately most important. It involves a very different sort of knowing, living, loving.

Meditation and Exercise: For Clearer Thinking and Better Health

Meditation has been shown to improve your health as well as thinking. It can help students catch up in school, overcome adversity, and improve their mental and emotional outlook. It can help stressed and aging adults live better, be happier and think more clearly.

 

Two well.blogs from the New York Times make these points very clearly. The first, by Norman E. Rosenthal, talks about meditation as one element that can help students overcome the achievement gap between children in inner city schools and those in more affluent districts. Meditation helps these students overcome the higher stress levels they face and gives them the advantage of an improved ability to focus attention and regulate emotion.  Of course, improving the funding of their schools and the job-economic situation in their communities would also be a great help.

 

Gretchen Reynolds writes about how yoga and meditation combined can improve mood and mental function as you age. The two practices go together well. In my own practice, I usually do some yoga, aerobics, and Karate each morning before I meditate. The exercise helps my alertness and overall sense of well-being, which assists the meditation. The meditation helps me maintain a deep focus and enjoyment in my exercise (and in everything else I do).

 

This mutual benefit should not be a surprise. Mind and body are inseparable except in the conceptual frameworks held by many of us. Meditation is living the reality of how everything, what we call mind, body, environment, and others arise together, interdependently. No mind without a breathing body. No breathing without an earthly environment. No self without others. And no teacher without students.

 

Meditation is not a panacea but it does help those who practice it, students, teachers, whomever. It could help teachers not only relate better to their students and improve their performance in the classroom, but stay in the profession longer. Our society could greatly benefit right now by the increased understanding of interdependence that meditation can develop. So, why not do it? In fact, why not include meditation and yoga programs in teacher-training schools? Administrators are looking for ways to retain experienced teachers—this might be one part of a solution (along with better pay, more support, and improved school culture—but that’s another blog).

 

*The photo is the entrance to the track in Olympus, Greece,.

 

When You’re Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Out of Time

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel you have more time to give; you feel more in control. In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

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

 

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

Root Beliefs

When someone says something to you that seems outrageously wrong and you want to jump onto his back and pound him, or at least leap onto his words and pound them, consider this first. What beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality that you hold is he threatening? What beliefs or assumptions of his are behind his statements? You might think his reasoning needs correction or her factual knowledge is deficient. But what might instead be the culprit is her cosmology or “meta-narrative,” meaning the central story that he tells himself to make sense of the world. And if so, your response won’t reach him unless you take that into account.

 

You aren’t going to change someone’s belief system in one conversation, and attacking that belief system will just lead to defensive behavior. No one likes having their God or favorite story threatened. To do so threatens a person’s whole sense of self and reality.

 

For example, if you believe that there is a male God who favors the rich, and politically and economically powerful, you are likely to believe what these people say even if it is absurd. According to this viewpoint, it is not the institutions, economic and legal systems of a particular society that favor certain people to gain riches. It is nature itself that puts these people in their position. Another form of this cosmology is presented by Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher who has influenced a great many Republican political leaders. For Rand, altruism and compassion are signs of weakness and are unhealthy, immoral, even evil. In her book, The Voice of Reason, she said that altruism is a “monstrous notion.”  “It is the morality of cannibals devouring one another. It is a theory of profound hatred for man, for reason, for achievement, for any form of human success and happiness on earth.” To help someone else, she argued, especially if the act is dangerous, is immoral because it would show a lack of esteem for your self. It would be putting someone’s interest above your own, thus degrading you. Governments not only cannot, but should not, help the poor, sick, and elderly, who are to be considered killers of growth. Those who take anything from the government are looting from everyone else. It is the poor who exploit the rich, not the other way around. Christian calls to help the needy, or the image of Jesus as compassionate, are likewise notions that promote immorality. If you believe Rand, you treat those who are on Social Security or Medicare as looters, and those people who want to reduce their college debt as immoral, wanting to steal from the coffers of the brave bankers who loaned them money.

 

The fact that such beliefs reduce each person to a fortress at war not only with everyone else but nature itself is not a result to be deplored but just the way the world works. For Rand, happiness results from acting in tune with this reality.

 

I fundamentally disagree with this viewpoint. It often leads to a disquieting tendency to react defensively, not to what I’d call happiness. Contemporary neuroscience describes a “negativity bias” in our brain and perceptual system. We react to the mere possibility of a threat to our selves or even to our self-image, to pain or negative experience, more quickly than to positive experiences. Our fight-flight-freeze response activates quickly. In fact, during the course of a normal day, our thoughts might center on one negative or threatening comment and gloss over the far more numerous positive experiences. Rand’s philosophy reinforces this negative reactivity.

 

Happiness, whether in the form of joy or overall well-being, only appears as this negativity ends. According to neuroscience, one of the greatest sources of happiness is a close, caring relationship, a relationship where you value the other person as highly as yourself. Where you can let down your guard and relax. It’s difficult to feel happy when you feel everyone around you is primarily motivated by the thought of taking from you whatever you have. Helping others increases self-esteem. It leads you to feel you have something valuable to give and the other is worth your attention. It strengthens the ties between people. How you feel about others and the world includes how you feel about yourself. You value others and in turn feel valued.

 

But if you can’t speak at the level of these core beliefs in a conversation with someone you disagree with, what do you do? Instead of attacking what divides you, think of what you share. Think from a place of agreement so you can reach some agreement. Use language that doesn’t set off a sense of threat.

 

George Lakoff, in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, gives a guide to do just that. You can’t say to someone “don’t think of an elephant” and imagine they won’t think of an elephant. Likewise, to say “Ayn Rand is wrong” or this idea is evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the people you are speaking with. Instead, use the language and metaphors that a person values in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered.

 

Borrowing again from Lakoff, think of “freedom.” Rand and other conservatives speak frequently about freedom. Ask them to imagine that they want to walk on a beach, but it’s owned by a rich person who fences it off from the public. They want good medical care but can’t get it because they don’t have the money. Or they want to attend college but it’s too expensive. What then happens to their freedom? Whose freedom is supported by the belief that the rich are favored by God? Are the rich to be allowed to deny these freedoms to others?

 

In an important way, we inhabit the world we believe is true and live the story (or the consequences of the story) about reality that we tell ourselves. If we believe that the only way to be free and get what we need is to seize it, no matter the consequences for others or the environment, then others are unlikely to respond to us with love and friendship. If we put up strong walls, then it’s unlikely anyone will get inside with us. Happiness is reduced to the thrill of defending our isolation. But society is a relationship amongst all its members. The quality of society and of our happiness will depend on how much we respect and value each other and value caring relationships.

“Who Am I?” Ironies About Self

There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.

 

So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.

 

And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.

 

One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.

 

A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.

 

Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.