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.

Experiencing Big Changes

A big event occurs. You graduate from high school or college, you win the lottery, get married, and what do you expect next from your life? You imagine the joy of seeing the winning numbers going on forever. You imagine the ceremony, the parties, the honeymoon. But after the celebrating, what then? Do you imagine cleaning the house? Taking out the trash?

 

We expect the world would be changed or we would be changed. That the quality of our experience of life would be better, heightened, maybe. Or the quality of our mind would be different. And it is, but not like we expected. We are always changing. But we easily get caught up in the idea or the story we tell ourselves and miss the reality.

 

Daniel Kahneman described this as a “focusing illusion.” When we’re thinking about the graduation or the wedding, it is big, tremendous. When we’re in school, we might think that, when we graduate, life will be so different. Or we’re in love and imagine that, once the love is celebrated and wrapped in the marriage license, we will feel more secure and loved. But what we find is a new moment and a new day. We forget about adaptation and getting used to living with a spouse or getting used to the job or whatever it is we do after graduation.

 

We forget where feelings come from. We think the person we love creates the love. We think the achievement creates the thrill of success. We forget that to feel loved one must love. To be touched, one must touch. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. We can even view enlightenment, whatever that is, in the same way. “Once I get enlightened, all will be different.” Or, “If only I’d get enlightened…”

 

All we ever have is moments. Hopefully, most of these will be spent with more clarity than confusion, more compassion than anger, more love than greed. When I first fell in love with Linda, the woman I eventually married, I wrote a poem in which I described her as “the apple-mad lady with a third eye.” We built a little cabin in an orchard and sold apples and made apple cider with friends. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Yet, luckily we stayed together.

 

A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to seeing the other for who she or he is. Once the illusion is over, some retreat; some mistake this as a signal to leave the relationship. But really, this is the moment of awakening. Now you are real, to see yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, and not for your own projection. The other can then exceed whatever you can think, explain or try to contain. You take yourself to a deeper level. The other is accepted and you are accepted, too.

 

The same with a graduation ceremony, getting a new job, whatever transition you make. When you graduate from high school, you have ideas and expectations. If you are going away to college or a new city, you are stepping away from all you know. Like when you love someone, you feel vulnerable. And this can be difficult to face. But feeling vulnerable is another way to say you are free to feel life more intensely. The fear you feel, the discomfort, is there to awaken you to the opportunity you have given yourself. To be open means open to learn from whatever arises, even fear and discomfort.

 

As we let go of trying to contain reality or to protect ourselves with ideas, the richness of our life expands. We learn to trust ourselves to an unanticipated depth. The storytelling about our lives continues. But we recognize ourselves more clearly as the storyteller, not any one of the stories.

 

*This is adapted from the text of an original marriage ceremony I performed and inspired by a Carl Jung analysis of the anima/animus archetypes.

This blog is a re-write of an earlier blog.

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.

What Is Mindfulness?

Last week, my book agent sent me and I then posted on FB a video of an elementary school class using mindfulness practices. The comments following the video were mostly favorable and appreciative, but a few were not so favorable and exposed for me the way some people see and think about the practice. The video provides a great lesson on mindfulness, but I decided to add a few hopefully clarifying comments of my own on the subject.

 

Some people question the use of mindfulness in schools because they wonder if it is a religious practice. The word religion can stir people’s emotions, and prevent clear examination. People light candles in Christian churches, but not all lighting of candles is a Christian practice. Buddhists practice mindfulness, but so do yoga practitioners, Hindus, Taoists, even some people who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Atheists. Therefore, if you practice mindfulness, are you practicing religion? And, if so, which religion are you expressing?

 

Mindfulness is moment-by-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, whatever arises in your mind. It treats whatever comes up for you as something to learn from and then, in many practices, let go. It is both a quality of awareness as well as a practice. It has been called a scientific study of the mind. Is being aware a religious practice? Does that mean that every time I become aware of and open to my own thoughts, I am practicing a religion? I personally think the more aware humans become of what is going on in their minds, the more responsible they will be in their actions.

 

Then there is a question if mindfulness might be a form of indoctrination and students will lose the ability to think for themselves and more easily fall under the sway of authority figures. But how can you make a responsible choice and think for yourself if you don’t recognize what is influencing that choice? Mindfulness increases your ability to think clearly, to make independent, responsible decisions, because it increases your knowledge and awareness, moment-by-moment, of your thinking process. I wonder if the concern about indoctrination comes from noticing that the students in the video seem happier and more caring about the welfare of others then is true in many other classrooms. Is the implication that when students are happy and allowed to realize their own connection to others, it must be indoctrination? But when students are encouraged to compete or to think of themselves only in terms of being separate from others, then it is not indoctrination?

 

The last question I noticed has to do with how you treat thoughts.  Is mindfulness about suppressing thoughts or distancing yourself from them? Neither. It is about awareness. When you are aware of a thought or feeling, you are better able to let it go. Letting go is significantly different from suppressing or separating yourself from thoughts. In order to separate from something, you must keep it alive in order to distance from it. Who, then, is separating from what? Are you your thoughts? Or the emotions you feel? The sensations? All of these change; they pass, yet there is a sense that your awareness continues as long as you’re alive (and awake). If you are your thoughts or identified with your thoughts, then which thought would you be? Your thoughts can be entirely contradictory from moment to moment. Why not realize your awareness, or the power to think, to change, to empathize with is who you are?

 

What is dangerous is thinking that whatever thought shows itself in a moment is the truth and the only legitimate expression of who you are. You could then act righteously on one moment’s thought, and deny responsibility for the action with the next.

 

If acting kind and being aware or concerned about another’s welfare is religious, then all kind and caring people are religious, and I’d happily say mindfulness is a religious practice. Wouldn’t you? Or would you argue to eliminate kindness from schools because it is supposedly religious? What about caring?