Have You Had Your Holon Today? Facts, Contexts, and Holons.

When you think of facts, like the date Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo or when the number zero was first discovered (or invented?), it is easy to think of those facts as if they were independently existing things. You look at a building or a wasp flying around your head and you see them as independent things, certainly independent of you—and maybe you’re glad of that independence. The tree over there or that man by the tree gnashing his teeth and scowling at you as if angry, seem to exist as you see them but independent of you seeing them. Does any fact or theory exist on its own, independent of people who discover or read about or perceive them? And how do you teach about a historical fact or a scientific theory, for example, or even a “thing,” like this table I am writing on or this computer keyboard?

 

The concept of a holon provides a helpful way to teach and think about facts and things. In 1967 Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian author and philosopher, coined the term ‘holon’ and defined it as a “whole-part.” ‘Hol’ (’holos’) means whole, self-contained, a surface with a boundary. ‘On’ means a basic unit in something larger than itself, as in ‘electron;’ open, interconnected or interdependent. Everything exists, he says, as both a distinguishable unit and, at the same time, a part in a larger whole. Each part influences and is influenced by the whole. Neither exists without the other. There is no living leaf without the tree, no living tree without the leaf.

 

We imagine things can exist on their own only if we don’t notice or we actively ignore an implied context. You might think of the sound of a letter as inherent in the letter, not you, not dependent on the language you are speaking, and your time and place in history and your vocal cords. But what turns a squiggly line into a letter? I write a letter ‘B’ on a white board with a black marker. How am I able to even see the ‘B’? I need a contrast in order to perceive. The black ‘B’ exists as a distinguishable marking only due to the contrast with the white background. If the white board was black, the markings would disappear. There is a “figure-ground’ relationship; the letter stands out as my brain focuses on it as a distinguishable figure. “Figure-ground” is like “part-whole.”  A word seemingly has meaning by itself, until you put it in a variety of contexts. And to think clearly, we need to mentally place supposed facts in a variety of contexts. For example, add the letter ‘B’ to ‘ark’ and you get ‘Bark.’ Is ‘Bark’ a sound, or the outermost layer of a tree? Without context, no meaning.

 

I hold a coin, a quarter in my hand. It exists on its own. It lies there in my palm. But it becomes a quarter, not a piece of some metal, due to the context of our culture, a monetary system, a language. It has value only based on what I as a person, the culture I live in, the situation I am in (for example, needing a quarter for a parking meter) assign to it.

 

I might think of myself as independently existing. I can feel isolated from others and my world. But I couldn’t last for even a second if “I” or whatever “I” stood for was isolated from the world. I don’t exist without air, nutrients, sunlight, gravity, language and culture, other people, etc. Even the thoughts in my head usually imply a speaker, a listener and a storyline uniting them both in a context of meaning. As physicist Jeremy Hayward points out, I, like a holon, have an “inside,” experiential, subjective, “what it feels like to be” aspect, and an “outside,” surface, objective aspect. Your skin can be considered a boundary line, a potential point of conflict or isolation, but also a point of contact. It’s difficult to touch another person without skin.

 

I know teachers who creatively use the concept of holons to teach subjects like ecology. An environment is a system of interacting holons, or processes. Just like the leaf and the tree, the process of photosynthesis and the carbon cycle, depend on sun, air, the earth, other living beings, etc.

 

I think ‘holon’ should become a commonly taught concept in schools and homes. From an early age, teachers already try to help students learn by embedding material in contexts. You figure out what a word means by looking at the context in a sentence, for example. In elementary schools, teachers could find age-appropriate ways to ask students: “What are you part of?” What places or groups or  relationships are you connected to? Students might say their family, their class, and with questioning, their friends, their pets, their city or town, their teams, the human race, the flowers they planted in the garden, the food they ate for lunch, etc. “What makes a good friendship?” In order to get the other side of the holon, you could ask students what they could contribute to any relationship. To go further: “What does it feel like when you’re calm? When you’re angry? What can you do to help others be calm? What do you do that upsets others?” Students could create charts, write vignettes of friendships, of listening to others. There’s so much you could do with this.

 

In secondary schools, the questioning could get more sophisticated. “In what ways does your idea of yourself change depending on who you are with?” “Give examples of how the context of a situation changes how you view the actions of a person.” “What can the concept of a holon reveal about what is needed for a good friendship?” You could jokingly ask: “How does your nose become a nose? Does a nose exist without a face? Does a face exist without a body? A body without an environment? Where does the nose begin and the cheeks end?”  “How does ‘no’ depend on ‘yes’ and vice versa?” You could mindfully listen to your thoughts and ask, “Who is speaking?”

 

There are no decontextualized facts, but it is easy to lose sight of that. There are no decontextualized people, people separate from their environment and other beings, yet it is easy to lose sight of that as well. It is our job as educators to refresh our understanding and our student’s understanding of this most basic reality, even in the face of officials and administrators trying to undermine our jobs by judging us, our schools, and students with decontextualized numbers like standardized test scores. Even in the face of politicians who push policies that divide us and create institutionalized inequities. We are all whole, in ourselves, and yet inseparably a part of all others, whether we know them personally, or not.

 

**If you’re a high school teacher, I recommend you use in class or consult two books that greatly influenced this blog. One is Ken Wilber’s No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, especially the chapter called the “Half Of It.” The other is Jeremy Hayward’s, Letters To Vanessa: On Love, Science, and Awareness in an Enchanted World.

Sharing Compassion

It is fairly easy to be kind and compassionate to those we care for. It is not too difficult to be kind to strangers or those we just met. To be kind to those we don’t like or actively hate feels like a contradiction. We often imagine that kindness is only for those we want to embrace, not those we want to yell at or never see again. But to be kind to those we dislike changes our whole way of responding to events in our life. When we allow ourselves to simply notice the feeling of “I don’t like this” or “I don’t like you,” without holding on to that feeling or automatically acting on it, then we can break conditioned behaviors. We can just recognize the thought or feeling and move on. We become flexible in our thinking and less burdened by hurtful feelings.

 

How do we share this with our students and ourselves? Here is one practice. The idea is to develop the ability to imagine, “feel with” and care about another person’s inner state. Alfie Kohn said that compassion is not just to imagine what its like to be in another person’s shoes but “what its like to have their feet.”

 

Start, as with other mindfulness practices, by calming and focusing the mind.

 

Sit up, near the edge of the chair, so your back is straight but not rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully. Then turn your attention inwards to your breath. Exhale, noticing how the diaphragm works to push out the air. Then notice the inhalation, how the diaphragm expands downwards on its own, and air comes in. Just notice this. Notice what it feels like to breathe in, to refresh yourself. And breathe out, focusing on the breath and letting go of thoughts or images.

 

Notice the quality of your awareness and attention. Is your mind clear or foggy? Focused or wandering? Awake or tired?

 

As you breathe in, let a friend or someone you get along with well come to mind. Just imagine him or her, or let descriptive words about the person come to you. Notice their face, mouth, hair, eyes. Notice how they look at you, their expression.

 

Then notice their whole body, how they stand, their shoulders, hands. Do they stand straight?  Are they relaxed or stiff?

 

Then go inside. What do you think this person is feeling? What clues can you get from their expression and from their posture about what they are thinking or feeling?

 

In this subtle way, you can teach students about reading another person, reading their body language and facial expression, which is one form of empathy.

 

Now imagine giving a simple gift to this person. The gift is merely a wish for the person to feel kindness, peacefulness and joy. Just say it to yourself: I wish this person kindness, peacefulness and joy. Imagine the person filled with this kindness, inner peacefulness, and joy. Notice how it affects them.

 

Standard compassion practices start with someone you are comfortable with or close to. Then you go to someone neutral. Then to someone you don’t know. Finally, you imagine someone you dislike or are angry with. Then you give the gift to yourself.

 

Just sit for a moment with the sense of kindness, inner peacefulness and joy being all around you, filling you.

 

You could end right there or you might add this visualization:

 

Imagine a ball of light appearing above your head, a beautiful light, maybe white, or golden, like sunlight. The light begins to flow into your body, from the top of your head down to your feet. It fills your body with a warm, healing light. Then it flows out from your feet to the feet of the other person. It flows from you to the person you imagined, up her or his feet, through their body to their head and out to the ball of light above your body. Imagine the light filling both you and the other person, connecting you both in a circle of light. Enjoy the connection for a moment.

 

You can have the light flow from you, or from you and the imagined person, out to the whole class.

 

I usually use a singing bowl to end all practices. If you don’t use one, then end the visualization with:

 

Now, return your awareness to your breath. Breathe out—then allow yourself to inhale– and exhale again. As you inhale, return your attention fully to the classroom remembering the sense of kindness, peacefulness, joy and connection.

 

Singing bowls can also be used when the room gets too loud and you want to quiet everyone. Just listening to the bowl sing can focus attention and give people a sense of inner quiet.

 

Students often report that it is easier to imagine giving kindness, peacefulness, and joy to others than receiving it themselves. It is difficult to feel deserving of such gifts. I think it was the Dalai Lama who said that in the U. S. you must be courageous to be happy—or to allow yourself the gift. However, imagining the gift of joy for another bestows it on yourself. By giving it, you receive it. It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that the joy you imagine is in yourself. That’s one reason why, as I pointed out in my last blog, there are many psychological and health benefits to being compassionate.

 

Likewise, the more anyone can be kind and compassionate to themselves, the deeper their capacity for compassion for others.  Being kind to yourself is something you can practice each moment. Whenever you realize your mind has drifted or when you become aware that a thought, judgment, or emotion has carried you off, in that moment, you can come awake. You hear your thoughts as just thoughts, emotions as just emotional energy. Instead of judging yourself negatively, you treat your thoughts and emotions kindly and as an experience to learn from.

 

I have so far talked about mindfulness and compassion in terms of what one teacher or student could do in or out of a classroom. There is a deeper question that needs to be asked: What can a whole school do to teach compassion? Ultimately, compassion works best when it is embedded in the structure and culture of the school community and curriculum. What can you do you to embed compassion in your community?

 

 

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Dalai Lama

Practicing Mindfulness and Awareness, Kindness, and Letting Go

How do you start a class with mindfulness? Once you have all entered and greeted each other, tell your students:

 

Let’s begin a short mindfulness practice. Push away from your desk. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.

 

When leading a practice of mindfulness use a calm tone of voice. An important element of mindfulness is moment to moment awareness. Speak clearly, while monitoring your own feelings and thoughts as they arise so you can be in tune with the students. When possible, give two or three choices. Some students are too nervous to close their eyes, so give them a few different ways to practice. Never force anything.

 

Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body lets go, settles down, relaxes a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

Never lead something that you haven’t practiced many times. Start with just this much, just two minutes.  You, and the students, will soon want more. Do the rest of this practice when you’re ready.

 

Once you become quiet, you might notice awareness of what is going on inside yourself on a new level. You become aware of awareness itself. You begin to hear thoughts and beliefs and feel sensations that were automatic before and almost unconscious. You might feel pressure to immediately react to these thoughts and feelings and to take them as important. Instead, let whatever arises be the object of awareness. Even the sensation of pressure. It is all there for your education.

 

Notice how long or short, deep or shallow your breaths are. (Pause.) Notice if any place in your body is tense. Go to that area with your awareness and just notice it. Notice how the area expands as you breathe in. Then relaxes, settles down as you breathe out. There is a natural rhythm here. Then go to another part of your body. Notice how you breathe in from that area. Notice your body expand with the inbreath; and let go as you breathe out.

 

When we feel certain sensations, like those that arise with fear or anxiety, we might immediately react with an impulse to run away from the feelings. Or if we feel pleasant sensations, we might feel an impulse to grasp onto them and not let go. We don’t want these unpleasant feelings, sensations and thoughts to be there; we don’t want the pleasant ones to end. Or sometimes we get confused and want to do nothing. Our awareness switches from the initial feeling to our response. The two are different. Our reaction of running away is a fear of fear, or a fear of anxiety. The grasping is resistance to pleasant feelings ending. We generally like liking. By grasping onto a feeling and resisting change, we turn something pleasant unpleasant.

 

If you find yourself drifting away, just notice it and gently return your awareness to the breath.

 

Another element of mindfulness is what we do when we realize we lost our focus. Maybe we spent a few breaths engaged in a memory or following the sound of someone laughing in the hall. We all lose focus at times. If at the moment of realization we get down on ourselves, we lose focus again. If we get angry at the people disturbing our practice with laughter, we lose focus. If we are kind, gentle, and committed to returning attention to awareness, we regain focus.

 

The initial sensations of emotion have a message for us. But we lose the message contained in the initial sensation when we switch attention from it to our emotional response. We take a small sensation, fill it up with thoughts, images, anticipations and make it something big. So return to the small sensations. When we lead the exercise in the classroom, we are helping students learn how to gently return to awareness of the individual sensations.

 

If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inbreath, and then let go of them with the outbreath.

 

Part of why we react to sensations as we do is because of conditioning. We are not taught how to be so aware. We might be unsure of our ability to handle a situation. We might have beliefs or theories about reality that have not been carefully questioned. For example, if we feel a pain in our chest and imagine it is a heart attack, the level of pain goes up. If we realize it is acid reflux, our fear decreases considerably. Mindfulness is not psychological analysis. We are just breaking down automatic responses by becoming aware of the simplest elements of our experience. What is the feeling of our feet on the floor? Taking a breath? Keep it simple. Yet, nothing could be more profound.

 

Just sit for a minute with the calm and quiet of having nothing to do but breathe in and breathe out.

 

And once we develop the ability to just sit with whatever arises for us, we have patience with ourselves and with others. We allow ourselves to perceive and think more deeply. We persist in completing even what feels difficult. When we have a test, and we feel a tightness in the belly or a shaking in the knees, we just feel it. We feel the message that we need to wake up and concentrate. Then once the message is delivered, we let the sensation go.