I am taking the week off and hope that you have time off, too. If you celebrate any of the winter season holidays, may your celebrations be happy and bright. If you don’t celebrate any of these holidays, may your days also be happy and bright. And may understanding, insight, compassion and love slide down everyone’s chimney this New Year. (I can dream, can’t I?)
How do you talk with students about Paris, Beirut, Mali or any acts of terror and violence, 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, unfortunately, answering this question needs to be part of the curriculum, especially of secondary schools. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching students how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students 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. Then you need to hear from students. “What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen?” 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.
In the face of violence, when emotions are lighting up like the explosions they witness, it is difficult to be strong and clear headed unless you prepare for it. How do you do that? What is needed to face such violence? I have never been in such a situation, so I can only try to feel and think my way to an answer. People who have faced such situations need to be brought into the conversation. My Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, has often talked about the need for inner as well as outer strength, for both mental and physical development. He talks about the importance of meditation as well as Karate, a calm mind as well as a well-conditioned and trained body.
Do not mistake inner strength for what some educators call “grit.” “Grit” can be another way to put students in a box; instead of labeling the student according to intelligence, he or she is labeled according to grit. As Alfie Kohn stated in a critique of grit, it is a rehashing of the ethic of hard work merely for the sake of working hard, with no social or ethical critique, no vision of what work is worth doing. Instead, you need to be mindful of what you feel so you can focus and act appropriately. You need to trust your skills and know your limitations. You need a mind trained to go quiet and accurately perceive what is going on. It might be counter-intuitive, but it is compassion that develops this inner strength and readiness to act. Hate makes you weak and ready to over-react. To prepare yourself for whatever it is that might happen in your life, study compassion; not just study the meaning and neuroscience, but study the actual mental and emotional state of compassion.
Compassion includes the ability to read what others might be feeling along with the ability to empathetically feel what others feel, and care about their welfare. But it adds one more element, a drive to act to end any suffering you witness. People have said to me, “Don’t talk to me about compassion…” Or “Compassion just sets you up to be attacked.” These remarks are filled with anger and fear. They are not statements about compassion but more about the speaker’s state of heart.
But this isn’t enough. Students need to understand the context and conditions that have led to incidents of terrorism and violence. All events arise from a context, cultural, historical, psychological, spiritual, etc.. The context is always multi-faceted. Context doesn’t excuse violence. It doesn’t excuse violence to know that people in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere have, for too many years, faced horrendous conditions. It just helps you understand it better, and understand ways to process and work to end such conditions and prevent such acts in the future.
Teach about the destructiveness of hate and the psychology of fear. It is the religion of hate that often causes terrorism, as seen in the U. S. on 9/11 but also Oklahoma City, the KKK, and the Army of God attacks on abortion clinics, etc. When students are afraid, understanding more about the causes and perpetrators of violence can help diminish fear. Being able to voice fear in an open way diminishes fear. Being asked to take positive action diminishes fear. You need to know that when you react with hate and fear, as when you call for revenge and verbally attack others, you actually spread fear and anger. You spread the attacks and serve the interests of the attackers.
In many societies today, social conditioning masks compassion and creates a sense of separation from others. When you feel isolated and in pain, you might even imagine you feel good in witnessing the suffering of others. You might feel that witnessing others in pain lessens your own. It doesn’t. Compassion decreases the pain because it decreases isolation. It changes your sense of who you are. You feel better about life, yourself. By feeling that the welfare of others is important to you, by valuing others, you feel valued. When you let an other person rest in your mind and you allow yourself to feel what she or he might feel, see what she or he might see, something extraordinary can happen. Loosening of your ties to what is normal for you can be a relief. Once you do it, your own perspective expands. You can then respond more clearly to the person you envisioned because, in some sense, you allowed yourself to be the other person. It is worth every second you practice it. And you can teach this to your children.
There is nothing like a beginning. Going to school and teaching gives you a deep sensitivity to cycles, especially how summer ends and a new year begins. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.
To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or even vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. So allow it, make it, as new, refreshing, as much an adventure as possible. To lessen your nervousness, step toward it. Make it part of your teaching.
To do this, I recommend two practices. The first involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. The second involves how you plan your courses.
First, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the importance of the other people there with you. You are very present. You care about the students and recognize there’s more you don’t know than what you do know about them. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice it both in and out of the classroom.
Second, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know your intention for the end. To teach students, you need to know what you think is most important for students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.
The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. They are open-ended with no simple answers to them and evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.
I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. What, right now, is perplexing you about the world? What do you want to learn in this class? Let’s say you’re beginning a unit, in a high school English course on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse. The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development. You might ask students: What questions do you have about dreams or archetypal imagery? Have dreams been meaningful in your life or the lives of other people you know? And their assessment on the unit can ask them what answers their study of the novel gave them to their own unit questions.
Education, in any discipline, to a large degree is about uncovering questions. If you teach sports or PE, there might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?
What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea that I had a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. I felt distant, separated from the task. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time– I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life.
What do you do?
In a philosophy class I taught a few years ago, the class read sections of the Indian spiritual classic, the Bhagavad Gita. One passage said:
“You have a right to your actions
But never to your actions’ fruits.
Act for the action’s sake.”
I asked my students what this passage meant to them. They had difficulty with it. “Why not be concerned with the fruits of your actions?” they asked. “You do something well, you deserve praise.” Don’t you want to foster a concern with the fruits of your actions, or at least the ethical consequences of your actions on the world?
I asked: What is meant by “the fruits”? Whose fruits are they? Why do you act at all? Why fight against war or racism? Is your action worthy only if you’re successful? If you center only on whether you are patted on the back or make the headlines or even stop the war, what happens when the task goes on longer than you thought? What happens when you have to face those who disagree with you or even face people you love but who don’t actively support your cause? Maybe you should act because the nature of the act itself, in context, is beautiful, worthy, right?
The philosopher and Zen teacher, David Loy, has a new book out called A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World. Loy talks about the “awakened activism” of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is someone who has attained much wisdom but gives up nirvana, personal liberation, until the liberation of all is attained. She or he can do this because of a dual practice; the way to personal transformation is aided by “doing everything she can to promote social and ecological transformation.” One acts because the action just needs to be taken and in this way the clarity of one’s perception and understanding improves.
Loy aims to apply traditional Buddhism to our modern world and develop “a fresh understanding of our place and role in it.” Our modern scientific and materialist culture, although it has given us many gifts, from improved medicine to global communication, also preaches a distorted way to think of and observe “the world and our place in it.” It is a sense that we, our very selves, are inherently separable from our world, that we can think of our welfare as distinct from its welfare, and thus can think of others or the world as merely resources for us to exploit or fruits to pick. That we can think of our own illumination, our own education, even our own waking up in the morning as separate from the world itself waking up and becoming illuminated.
This sense of separation is a psychological and social construction which contains at its heart a sense that something is wrong here, that something is lacking in us and our world, and so we are constantly looking to things like money, power, ideologies, recognition in order to fill that lack. How many times, in discussions of politics or in meetings whose goal is improving some aspect of society, do people get stuck in pushing their own viewpoint, as if they had an exclusive line to truth, as if their truth were separate from everyone else’s? Unless we clearly perceive the root of that sense of something lacking in our self, all that we do will only replicate it. To right any wrongs in the world our actions must arise out of understanding our own essential oneness with “it” or that we were never separate to begin with. We can’t create, for example, a more compassionate world by acting without compassion. Working for environmental, social, educational justice is inseparable from and needs to include working on one’s own mind, awareness, understanding and ethical nature.
Loy gives us a great gift, a marvelous guide to deconstructing our ways of thinking of and perceiving the world. Maybe the lessons of this book and Catastrophism, which I wrote about last week, can be synthesized. Deep social change requires deep organizing, thinking and communicating. When social action is perceived and felt as personal as well as political transformation, it is easier to face what is difficult. If actions are contemplated with empathy and compassion, more people will join in, thinking will be clearer and more creative. You and your world will awaken together.
Recently, I had a startling experience. I got into an intellectual argument with two acquaintances over the Affordable Care Act. What startled me was the fact that these two seemingly reasonable people were saying things that were, in my estimation, totally unreasonable. Yet, they had a great many facts to back them up, or what they thought were facts. They had more facts then I did. They also had more conviction, so much conviction that I couldn’t even begin to get across my viewpoint. I tried to listen to them. They took my listening as an opportunity to repeat their view again and again. Anything positive I had to say about the ACA was, in their view, not just inaccurate but an abomination. They picked out as important very different aspects of the question than I did. We were looking at totally different realities.
After the incident was over, I felt bad. I had failed to convert them. Even more, our previous peaceful coexistence was, at least temporarily, ended. I was unsure what would happen when we next met. Then I realized I had learned a great deal from these two men. I realized I did not know as much as I thought. I realized how difficult it is to actually think from another person’s viewpoint. And I was reminded of how holding tightly onto an intellectual position can distort the situation you are involved in.
The possibility of such disagreements occurring is enhanced by the fact that many of us listen exclusively to people we agree with. One of the men in the discussion about the ACA said he researched the act with three different sources, but all the sources he cited were from the same political perspective. It can be difficult, unsettling, even threatening to be in the same room with people who you know have viewpoints, political ideologies or religions different from your own. The loud voices often used in political speech, for example, can easily remind you just how threatened people can feel from hearing differing viewpoints.
In the early 1970s, I often hitched rides. This gave me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons about talking with people who held viewpoints very different from my own. On one occasion, I was hitching to California from Arizona and was picked up by a marine who had recently returned from Vietnam. I was recently returned from the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. He was very upset about how anti-war protesters spoke about soldiers. I had the long hair of a protester. Somehow, he started talking about the snakes and insects he had encountered. Maybe he was trying to scare me or gross me out. However, Sierra Leone has an abundance of wildlife. After dueling with scary stories, we particularly bonded over our experiences with black mamba and other snakes.
So, how do you deal with different perspectives? Be aware that when you take on an intellectual viewpoint, it’s easy to think your viewpoint is the “right” one. You might think your position is privileged, outside or above it all and you are looking down on your “opponents.” You might think you know something that they don’t and if only they knew what you knew, they would repent. In Aristotelian logic, something is either true or false. It can’t be both. So, if this “other” view is correct, that means your view is incorrect. And most people I know don’t like being “wrong” or being looked down upon.
Start by mindfully noticing your thoughts and the story you are creating in your mind. Realize that as you are thinking of your “opponent,” she or he is thinking of you. Your viewpoint of this person, or of whatever question you are discussing, no matter how deep, can never encompass the reality of the person or question. Our description of the taste of an orange is never as delicious as actually tasting the orange. However, when you talk honestly with others about the reality of your life, often a connection is made. But, if you use buzz words with deep emotional and intellectual connotations, you can lose both the sense of yourself and the others you are with. When you hold your viewpoints with some lightness or humor, this leaves more room for others to enter.
These differences can also show up in a classroom. Students can seem to teachers to be “intransigent” or just “not getting it” when in reality they are simply disagreeing with something we said or the way that we said it. Teachers can seem, to students, to be judging them, imposing a viewpoint or value on them. Of course, with students, teachers can have agreements about how to examine and analyze evidence, derive conclusions, and what constitutes a sound argument—something that is more difficult to pull off in the world outside the classroom. We can teach students that the most valuable lesson to learn in a class is how to learn, understand, and change. In that way, when they face a viewpoint that is different from their own, they take it as an opportunity to learn, not a threat.
So, when you run into perceived opposition, take a breath. Notice what you’re feeling. Breathe in the sense that this is another person you are speaking with. You are speaking with a person, not an idea. Feel the fact that the person is feeling something just like you; you feel you have the correct view, she might feel the same. Maybe he is feeling scared or defensive. As you breathe out relax, look at the other person, and only then begin to speak. Hopefully, you and the other person will then meet.