The Most Important Lesson A Teacher Teaches

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm and clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.

 

In this way you model the …

 

This blog, with an embedded story, was published on Friday by OTV (Open Thought Vortex): A Literary Magazine for Open Hearts and Minds. Please click on this link to read the rest of the post.

 

 

The Most Important Lesson

Mindfulness and Pain

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***Photo by Kathy Morris.

When You’re Feeling Stressed and Out of Time

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Feeling At Home In The World

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Trouble Sleeping?

Did you ever have trouble falling asleep at night? Who doesn’t, at some time or other. It’s awful. And there can be so many causes, from physical or emotional pain, to having to pee, to disruption of life or sleep patterns, overindulging in technology, to having too many thoughts racing through your mind. Sometimes, you just can’t let yourself sleep.

 

Falling asleep is like a trust exercise. You let yourself go, relax, and let down your conscious guard. And if you feel anxious, for example, you are reluctant to do that. You fear what might occur. When you’re afraid, your body is gearing up for fight-flight-freeze. Your thinking is pushed to consider all the different ways an attack might happen, and your mind races. So preparing for a good night’s sleep happens also during the day, way before your head nudges the pillow.

 

When you respond to your own emotions with “I don’t want to feel this,” or “only weak people would feel this way,” you fight yourself. These thoughts are the way fight-flight appears in your body and mind. So whether it’s at night or during the day, when your thoughts race with negative self-judgments or fearful images of the future, treat the situation as an opportunity to learn what your mind is telling you and how your mind works. Study yourself and take note of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Treat your mind as if you were a loving parent to your mental state.

 

When you are aware of thoughts and feelings it gives you the power to change. Try different strategies, experiment. A fearful image might be telling you that a dangerous moment awaits you. Or it can be telling you that you are carrying unreasonable fear and it’s time to let it go.

 

By studying yourself, you shift your mind from fight-flight to neutral analysis or open welcoming. During the day, you could respond to a racing mind with mindfulness meditation, a walk in the woods, a massage, political action, or exercise in the gym. You can notice your own breath, how rapid, shallow, or deep it is. As the mind goes, so goes the breath. Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then to close your eyes and calmly focus on one breath, then another.

 

At night, once in bed, focus on breathing calmly to provide a transition to sleep and letting go of images from your day. Close your eyes and picture yourself calmly asleep. You could also try one of a number of practices, like progressive relaxation, or taking a mental journey. In progressive relaxation, you could start at your feet and work your way gradually up to your face, or vice versa. If you start with your face, imagine breathing into your cheeks or the area around your eyes. Feel the area expand as you breathe in, and let go, relax, settle down as you breathe out. Then move to the area around your mouth. Then the jaw, shoulders, etc.

 

To take an imaginative walk or visualized journey, after you close your eyes, take three calm, slow breaths. Then allow an image of a path in the woods to come to mind, a tree, a beach, or a waterfall. The important consideration is that it’s a place you love, or welcome, and find relaxing or uplifting. As you walk in your mind, study the details, the flowers, the stones, shells on the beach or the bark of a tree. End by allowing yourself to sit and relax and just take it all in.

 

You could combine the two. If you like beaches, after closing your eyes and focusing on the breath, imagine yourself on the beach, lying down on your back. The temperature is warm but not too hot. As you breathe into your shoulders, feel your body expand as you inhale, and settle down, relax and feel warm as you exhale. You feel the sand mold to your body, accept, protect, and cuddle you.

 

Remember to commit to your own comfort and sleep. When you get in bed, turn off your phone or other device. When thoughts come to you, instead of recording them on your phone or indulging them in your mind, imagine they are like drops of water falling in a waterfall, and notice them as they disappear.

 

Your body and mind operates rhythmically, in different cycles, just like the natural environment around you. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. And there is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dreams and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. If you go to sleep at a relatively set time, it is easier to stay in tune with your cycles and fall asleep. If you wake up during the night, try to return to sleep as soon as comfortable to do so. If you have difficulty, use the above practices.

 

Progressive relaxation and taking a mental journey allows your mind to get close to dreaming and relax. It helps you notice that you can trust at least some aspects of the world. It is especially important, when the headlines are filled with threat and danger, that you find the ability to love and trust elements of your life and world.

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.)

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Adventure of Teaching

For most of my childhood, my family lived in a house in Queens, New York, which is a suburb of NYC on Long Island. There was still a feel, where I lived, not just of suburbs but of the declining remains of a rural area. There were many trees. We were one block away from a huge golf course, with a lake and hills, where I ran with my dog, played football with my friends, and went sledding in the snow. It was quite a privileged and protected life.

 

I used to write all sorts of stories for myself. One fall, at the age of 6 or 7, I borrowed a little wagon from a neighbor. I invited 2 or 3 friends or relatives to hop on the wagon and took them on a guided adventure through my backyard. The adventure was partly a story I invented and narrated, partly theatre, partly a miniature midway ride. I had such a good time, I repeated it until there were no more customers and winter closed down the midway.

 

While my love of writing started in my early childhood, until recently, I thought of it only in terms of fiction. As I got older, I realized the motivation behind my writing was not just to entertain, but also to feel inspired. I loved the heady joy of pulling ideas, images, and feelings together. It was so alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say and to give. In other words, creative writing had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of creation.

 

And I discovered that it did.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps, in Sierra Leone. As a teacher, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country. I found this again in other teaching jobs, most notably at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. Part of my childhood desire was met. Now that my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, the other half of my yearning is about to come true. It is not a novel, but certainly describes a creative approach to teaching.

 

When you teach, you hold the hearts and minds of students in your hands. You have this amazing opportunity that you just can’t ignore and dread disappointing. You can take students on the greatest adventure imaginable—into the depths of their own minds and hearts. You can show them that there are these depths unrecognized in many schools, or maybe unrecognized since they were small and inspired children. You can show them how valuable and important they are. Show them the joy of play in PE, the miracles of nature in science, the creative spirit in literature, and in social studies classes, show the great diversity of possible ways of living and the importance of relationships, .

 

My book describes and illustrates methods to use in teaching as well as an overall conceptual framework for understanding the way the mind and heart can work together— to take in more of what’s around you and think more clearly and critically. Critical thinking is fueled by caring and feeling, and guided by mindful awareness to focus attention, and notice, formulate, and ask questions. Compassion and imagination help you understand and explore diverse perspectives and let go of distorting judgments.

 

When you quiet the mind by accepting, caring for and valuing it, you hear the world more distinctly. You hear what your own body is saying and how to befriend your emotions. The world is not at a distance but at your fingertips, or is your fingertips. What you think is right to do is evaluated more clearly. You feel more joyful, your life more meaningful, your relationships with others more conscious and honest. Now that is a worthwhile adventure to undertake—that is a way of teaching.

 

*The release date for my book was delayed a few days, but the book launch in Ithaca, at LACS, on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00, will go on as planned–I hope. There will also be a book talk on Saturday, October 22, at Buffalo Street Books, at 3:00 pm. I hope you can come.

Summertime

This is my third summer writing blogs. Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, (or maybe even if we do) we can have free time once again.

 

The longing for summer is a longing for renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

 

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains (or if it doesn’t rain, sigh). This is it. I actually hear my own life speaking to me.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, mountains, and forests. I meditated every day. I also took classes, at the Omega Institute, Universities, meditation centers, in whatever interested me. I wanted to learn something new and meaningful, feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

Summer is a season, a rhythm of nature, a pulse of change. Because of the beauty of summer, it’s hopefully easier to notice and accept change, and thus ourselves, to see life in all its complexities. We are alive thanks to change. To breathe, our lungs expand and contract. To eat or speak, our lips change position. We can feel the pulse or all the different rhythms of life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. There are monthly cycles. What other biological rhythms do we have? Our blood has tides. Cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.

 

Cycles help fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sun cycle) or time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.

 

T. S. Eliot wrote: “…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” One rhythm is the breath. Between the inhale and exhale is a natural pause, a natural quieting of mind, a still point, a summer. You can take time throughout your day to notice this, especially if you feel upset, confused, anxious or you need to make an important decision. We can use the stillness to refresh ourselves, learn new things to share, learn how to let go and dance, how to better relate with others and our world, and how to teach our students to do the same.

 

P. S. One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High school students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. Students at several schools, including the Lehman Alternative Community School where I used to teach, brought such studies to the school board and were successful in pressuring this welcomed change in policy.

 

*New Addition: I just saw this posting on Facebook, meditating on the pause by Erin Ramsay.