An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith

 

How to Let Go of Stress and Save the World

It is easy to forget how your mental attitude affects the world you perceive. It is easy to get so stressed about the problems you perceive in the world and your lives that you can’t act or can’t clearly understand what you face. So not understanding stress can be a significant block to feeling good and acting skillfully.

 

What is stress? Many people think of it as a physiological response to a threat that you can’t control or shape. It is the fight-flight-freeze response, mostly the flight or freeze aspects. But it’s not just that. As Joseph LeDoux makes clear in his new book, Anxious: Understanding The Brain To Understand And Treat Fear And Anxiety, the feeling of fear and anxiety is not simply a physiological response. There is a cognitive component to it.

 

The physiological threat response arises to enable many different kinds of activities, from facing an actual physical threat, such as a knife-wielding robber, to when you think your sense of self is endangered. It can arise when you need to take a test, drive in traffic, talk with a friend about a difficult topic, or write a blog. It can underlie a great many emotions, like fear, worry, anxiety, jealousy and anger.

 

Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention and energy, what he calls the initial orienting response. The second is appraisal, which includes what we might call feeling and interpreting, labeling stimuli as good or bad, to approach or avoid. Memories enter the picture. The third step is your categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, fear. Without the initial signals to pay attention and to approach a task, motivation is absent; and learning, clear thinking is nearly impossible.

 

You can learn to notice what happens in your body as it occurs. If you don’t become aware of what is going on inside you, you can’t do anything about it. You can notice:

*Location: where the sensations of stress are in your body

*Quality: type of feeling you experience, like discomfort, pins and needles, squeezed or pressured, hot or cold.

*Intensity: strength.

*Direction of motivated action: do you feel like approaching, turning away, or being neutral?

*Mental attitude: what thoughts, images— what sense of who you are arises in your mind?

 

The threat response is thus the combination of awakened energy and attention, added to a sense of being uncomfortable, and the internal pressure to relieve it. Stress, at its earliest stage, is simply awakened energy. It is useful and necessary. What turns awakened energy into unwelcome stress is the interpretation or the stories you construct from the memories and sensations and situation. For example, do you think you are capable and strong enough to handle the situation?

 

Unwelcome stress is, thusly, meeting discomfort or any situation with resistance. It is being uncomfortable with discomfort, afraid of being afraid. Once you resist, your thinking gets further skewed, and limited. Emotional awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and images allows you to notice, recognize and thus let go of any emotion before it becomes overwhelming. It allows you to think and act with more clarity, speed, and concern for self and others.

 

Sometimes students express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “if I let go of my feelings, what would be left of me? My emotions are me.” On one level, this is the expression of fear of fear. On another level, mindfulness adds a level of awareness students might not be used to. However, when you let go of fearing fear and other emotions, you notice an even more authentic you, and a deeper realm of feeling.

 

To practice this mindful awareness, take a moment to sit up, possibly close your eyes, and turn inward for a moment. Maybe notice the air entering your nostrils as you breathe in—and breathe out. Or become aware of how your body, as in your shoulders or jaw, expands as you breathe in—and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. You might hear a thought and simply notice it as you breathe in—and let it go as you return your attention to breathing out. Simply take a breath or two, noticing what you do, and then open your eyes, stretch and return fully to the room—awake and refreshed.

 

You can use mindfulness whenever you want to clear your mind: before you enter a class, begin a project, a test, a heavy conversation, or make an important decision. Or when you want to appreciate something more deeply, let go of pain, or take political or social action to reduce inequity, injustice, or suffering.

 

In the US, being constantly busy supposedly signifies you are valued and important. But being on the go all the time means you don’t let your body fully settle. Mindfulness, especially when combined with compassion, gives you the opportunity to let your mind calm and quiet. It can help you discover what you truly feel and guide you through the thinking process. Doing it for just a few minutes at a time can help you better discern which actions are of the most benefit to you and others and help ”save” the world.

Anxiety and Critical Thinking: How Helping Students Deal With Their Anxiety Will Help Them Learn To Think More Clearly And Critically.

Last week, I wrote about how to begin anything, especially the school year. One of the most important things teachers do to begin the school year is get to know the students, to help them feel supported, trusted, and part of a community. To do that, especially after a summer like this one marked by so much violence in the news, it is important to ask students about their summer, and discover what, if anything is disturbing them. Anxiety in schools has been rising over the last four or five years. Recognizing this in class, allowing students some space to talk about their emotions, is a crucial component of creating a supportive educational community and showing students that education can be a meaningful force in their lives.

 

Take a minute to think back on how you were affected by different events of the summer. How did you respond to Orlando? Nice? The police shootings of African-Americans? To shootings of police⎯or Donald Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel? To the drought in New York or other weather disasters? By studying yourself, you learn how to help students do the same. If you can’t be a student to yourself, how can you ask students to do it?

 

Then bring up the image of one of your students. Imagine how she or he stands, her face, his posture. Then imagine how the student might have responded to different news items reported this summer. Pick another student and do the same. Maybe write down what you notice, in yourself, in your students.

 

If schools are to accomplish one of their hopefully prime goals, namely teaching critical thinking, teachers have to understand the role emotions play in thinking. Does being worried, for example, or anxious, fearful affect student learning? How?

 

Would you say that emotion does not influence how or how clearly you think? Depression, for example, can be viewed as a state of mind that severely limits the amount of new information your mind will process. When depressed, it is especially difficult to process information that goes against the view of the world that keeps alive the depression. What about anger, jealousy, fear?

 

Yet, what about this: If you aren’t interested in a subject, how hard is it to think about it? How hard is it to think clearly when you’re bored or don’t care? If you don’t care, you don’t think. When you’re interested in something, when you care, your mind and body are energized. Without emotion, thinking is difficult if not impossible.

 

We grow up, or at least I grew up, with people saying that emotion or feeling, and thinking are opposed. We are told to stop being emotional. But emotion, or at least feeling, is what integrates, assigns value and thusly guides and gives meaning to thought.

 

Teachers can’t be therapists. But you can use the skills that teachers normally teach, analysis, critical thinking, focus, and empathy, in order to understand and let go of emotion. For example, when you analyze an emotion, you step back from it. You switch your mind from being identified or caught in emotion to the mind of analysis. When you inquire, you become inquisitive.

 

There is also a form of analysis you can access that is the basis of any thinking. The initial level of emotion or any mental state is what Daniel Siegel and others call an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral, pleasant or unpleasant. Only after this do you get the desire to hold, as in joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate. When your mind is energetic and quiet, you are more likely to directly notice and sense this level of feeling and the development of thought. You can let your mind rest inside a developing idea without being caught by it. You can learn how to name what arises, not to get involved in purely intellectual thought, but to study or increase awareness of your mental processing.

 

In the case of anxiety, for example: If you were in an ongoing class studying the role of emotion in thinking, after sharing and examining different triggers of anxiety, you would need to determine what they all shared. What is it about these stimuli that trigger the emotion? And what are the historical, social, political conditions that contributed to the anxiety-triggering events? Then you’d research several scientific and philosophical perspectives on emotion. You’d ask: What is emotion? And what is critical thinking?

 

You’d take time to study your own experience of the emotion. By studying one emotion, as it arises in yourself, you can learn a method to better understand and deal with any emotion. By taking the time to understand the emotional process, you and your students will be better able to monitor emotions and state of mind, and better able to focus attention. You will be better able to think clearly, relationships in the class will improve, and the atmosphere will become more positive and supportive. You also study yourself so you can increase the positive applications and limit the negative affects of the use of computers and other digital media.

 

And remember, it’s important to help students understand that it is not the trigger or stimulus alone which causes an emotion, but the environment they’re in, and how they interpret, think about, and initially respond to the stimulus.

 

*This is the first in a series of blogs on different elements of critical thinking. Next week, I will focus on the different components of emotion and how to use inquiry, imagination and mindfulness practices to study yourself, think more clearly and critically, and teach your students to do the same.

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.

News Events and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

How and why do people hurt others? I am a mostly retired secondary school teacher. This question came up frequently in my classrooms in the past, and it has frequently been in my mind lately. Is it in our nature to hurt? Do many of us suffer from an empathy deficit disorder? Or do we hurt others when we are too distracted, lost in an emotion, or educated to ignore the pain of others except those who are close to us? Do we have to be “carefully taught” to turn a blind eye to those in need or those breathing close to us on the street?

 

This is a crucial question, for the living room as well as the classroom. It is the question of “what is human nature?” Or is there a human nature? It is a question about the psychology of violence and ethics. How do you stop violence? Or, what allows us to be violent towards other humans? It happens seemingly too often. How can we not see and feel another breathing, feeling, speaking being as essentially just like us? What goes on in the mind when this inner blindness or distortion or active antipathy occurs? There are so many ways to think about and try to answer the question, yet we have to struggle with it.

 

In Baltimore over 2 weeks ago, an African-American man named Freddie Gray died in the custody of police. Evidence revealed to date indicates he was not involved in any criminal act. Yet, he was arrested and is now dead. How can this happen? Why? There have been partial explanations revealed, charges filed, but still, there is no justifiable reason for this death.

 

When we perceive others, we do so in an environmental, social-historical as well as a personal context. We are always part of a context or situation. We make the situation meaningful by organizing all the sensory and other information we receive into a coherent structure, basically into a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. This story helps us remember details of our lives; it is built out of memories. It gives meaning not only to the situation but to ourselves. To create this structure, details must be selected. What supports the structure is perceived; what doesn’t is ignored. Once we have our story, we live an abstraction; we live at a distance. How much and what we feel, think and, thus, do is determined by the story. How we frame reality determines our sense of power, our sense of justice, and compassion.

 

So, what story were the police who arrested Freddie Gray and contributed to his death telling themselves? Did they see him as another person? And the news reporters talking about the demonstrations and violence: what story were they telling themselves, and telling us? Are the people who took to the streets demonstrators for justice? Are they moral citizens or criminals? Is the violence the consequence of people taking to the streets to speak out? Or the inevitable consequence of inequity and racism?  And the police—are they also seen as people? There are stories of great courage in Baltimore as well as ones of people losing control. Clearly, there are volumes of background stories, volumes of past history. Which stories get told? Where you begin your story and how you tell it has consequences. Are the news media considering the consequences of the stories they tell?

 

Dominique Hazzard, a teenager from Baltimore, wrote: “Imagine, for a second, that Maryland governor Larry Hogan called for a state of emergency when Freddie Gray’s spine was broken and his voice box was smashed [when he was] arrested for no reason.” A very different way to think of what happened; a very different story would have been told. Such perspectives need to enter classrooms and living rooms throughout the country.

 

There are many subjects students need to learn in school, how to read, write, be a responsible citizen and question. But one crucial subject is how their own minds work and how other people and social situations influence their viewpoints and values. It’s not just what happens that’s important; its what we tell ourselves about what’s happened. There’s always a difference between an event and the thoughts and memories of it, even when we try to tell the truth. The event is alive, fully now, rich in infinite detail. The memory, story, is, as I said, more selective, abstracted. We all need to learn how we construct the meaning and memory of what happens in our lives. Only if we notice something, whether it’s an injustice in our community or a mental pattern that causes suffering, can we act to stop it.

 

In order to understand how we construct meaning, we need to study the nature of emotion and how it arises in us. One purpose of emotion is to tag stimuli with value. It glues a story together. Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention, what he calls the initial orienting response. Do we notice, pay attention or ignore a raw stimulus? The second adds memory and thoughts. It involves appraisal, which includes labeling stimuli as good, bad, or neutral, something to approach or avoid. The third step is experiencing the full emotion like sadness, happiness, fear. Without awareness of the initial signals to pay attention and then to approach a task, learning as well as timely action is nearly impossible. Without this awareness, we too easily convert living people into characters in a story.

 

Teachers need to select the stories they tell and the ones they assign not just with the eye of beauty but with the aim of improving social and self understanding, knowledge as well as awareness. They need to tell the story of how to create meaning and live meaningfully. They need to foster inner strength, understanding of how interconnected we all are, and a sense of responsibility for how we act.

To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?

 

What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.

 

Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.

 

One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.

 

But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.

 

Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”

 

What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.

 

Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.

 

Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.

 

Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.

 

To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

South_Bend_Voice_-_2014_People's_Climate_March_crowd_with_banner.jpg

An Interview on Out of Bounds

I was recently interviewed by Tish Pearlman, for the local NPR program Out of Bounds. Tish was an incisive and sensitive interviewer. I greatly appreciated how she heard and spoke to me. She started by asking how I became a teacher. I talked about this topic in an earlier blog. But in thinking about this question with Tish, I came to insights I didn’t realize before.

 

I went to college from 1965-1969, the heart of the sixties. It was a time of great upheaval, pain, challenge, but also meaning. There were many protest demonstrations. The idea of an involved citizenry demanding not only peace and justice but a meaningful life was, for many,  just in the bloodstream of the times. So when I had to think about a profession, that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to keep my ideals alive in my professional life.

 

And at first, teaching was not my primary choice. I had had some good-to-great teachers in public school, even more in college (even more since college). But public schools themselves were not inspiring to me. I did not at first appreciate what my schools had given me. Not until I was in the Peace Corps and actually taught.

 

I also didn’t have patience with myself. I thought I could be a success right away. Success meant standing out in some way, or having some label I could apply to myself, like an explorer, or a writer, poet, actor, director—the arts were the first area to stand out to me as meaningful. I really had no other idea of what I really wanted to do. I had no idea what success meant. What does it mean to be a success? For me, now, it’s not about having a lot of money or recognition. You could be successful with a project, but to be a success with your life, you first have to live for a while. And when you do live for more than three or four decades, everything, I think, shifts. It’s no longer money or fame that are important, it’s moments. Not just great moments that you could reflect back on, but how you have learned to live a moment. It’s not so much what you do, although that is important. It’s how.

 

But what makes a moment full and meaningful? I think it is the quality of presence and caring, what you can take in, what you feel touched by, the depth of your connection to others and this world. And your ability to act in ways guided by that care. So in the interview, I said I turned to teaching because I wanted a full and meaningful life, but there was so much more in that statement than I first thought.

 

I also didn’t realize that what I was feeling in the 60’s was the remains of my adolescence. The drive for meaning, to test and expand boundaries, to be courageous, creative and engage with the world, as Daniel Siegel and others have pointed out, is central to adolescence. And my ability to feel this drive as a teacher enabled my teaching, enabled me to bring that meaning into the classroom.

 

So ask your students these questions. What does success mean to you? What do you want the individual moments of your life to feel like? What do you want your relationships to be like? How do you want to influence your world?

 

 

 

Have a great Thanksgiving. I might take a vacation for the holiday but will return.

 

Here is the information for the interview:

The Out of Bounds Radio Show with Tish Pearlman

AIR DATES:

Sat Nov 29 at 3:30 pm: WEOS-FM (90.3 & 89.5 Geneva region)

Live Stream: WEOS.org

 Sun Nov 30 at 11:30am: WSKG-FM 89.3 Binghamton, 90.9 Ithaca 91.7 Cooperstown/Oneonta,

91.1 Corning/Elmira, 88.7 Hornell/Alfred) Live Stream: Wskg.org

 

*Photo: South_Bend_Voice_-_2014_People’s_Climate_March_crowd_with_banner.jpg

 

Embedding Compassion Part B: Teaching With Joy

To Teach Critical Thinking or Compassion, Mindfully Teach About Emotion:

 

When our minds are filled with emotions like fear, hate, anger, or greed it can be difficult to think clearly. When we feel we are boxed in, for example, the walls of the box are our own anger and fear. Certain emotions scream at us. Because of this, it is easy to assume that emotion interferes with critical or at least clear thinking.

 

But consider this: what happens if you try to read a book that you don’t care about? Or solve a tough math problem when you think the problem has no connection to your life? It is excruciating. Engagement and connection are emotion. Care is emotion. We all know the value of being engaged with what we are doing. Reading, writing, solving problems all take energy, emotional energy to create meaning.

 

Emotion is not just feeling. One purpose of emotion is to give value to things so we know how to think and act. Daniel Siegel describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting the system to pay attention, what he calls the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes labeling stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning, assign value, and then prepare for action, to either approach or avoid something. The first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase, what we normally call emotion develops. Emotions like fear, sadness, joy integrate seemingly diverse realms of experience. For example, attention, value, meaning are integrated with ideas of how things work, with physiological changes in our body and with perceiving and communicating social signals. In other words, body, mind, and relationships can link together, so we need to be attentive to what and how we link. Without the initial “emotional” energy to pay attention and to approach a task, learning is nearly impossible. Teaching about emotion, its uses and how it’s constructed, is one of the most important subjects we could teach our students. It takes up most of my book on teaching.

 

Awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of feelings, thoughts, beliefs and images allows us to notice, recognize and thus let go of any of these. In previous blogs, we talked about the fact that if we don’t become aware of what is going on inside us, we can’t do anything about it. The earlier in the emotion process we do this, the more we can monitor and alter it. That is not controversial. What is harder to understand is that the focus created by mindfulness can create a different sort of emotion that supports learning and thinking. First, the mind stops screaming. Then it quiets. A focused and flexible attention ensues. You feel a sense of silent presence which says “pay attention” and “feel your way into this.” You can find a similar attention in the absorption of a writer in creating a story or an athlete with their sport. Focus feels good. Insight feels good. Solving a problem that arises from your own heart feels good. Even if what you learn is also painful in some way, there is this good feeling inside the learning. Thinking deeply might be difficult, but when you do it, it is greatly satisfying. This good feeling is not a distraction but part of the essential component of creating meaning. It is an essential part of an undistracted experience of living and breathing.

 

In fact, this feeling of joy is an extremely subtle guide that we don’t always recognize. To cut ourselves off from our emotions and our bodily response is to cut us off from our full ability to think. When we experience the difficulty of thinking deeply, this can be our body and mind giving us direction. The difficulty is telling us that we are not fully energized or there is something that needs our attention. Go directly into that feeling of not being energized. A narrative will come up with feelings and images attached. Instead of inhabiting that narrative, we need to shift attention to our responses to it. Notice what’s there without getting caught up in the storyline. There we will find the needed energy.  Notice and move on.

 

There are moments when you mentally stop, let go of whatever is on your mind, and just look around you. In the early morning before a school day, I would feel the anticipation and anxiety of a school day as I walked from the parking lot to the school. I would repeat in my mind stories and dialogues involving my plans and hopes for the day. These plans cut me off from my feelings. Then I would stop and look around me. I would look at the trees, the building and people rushing to get inside. And I’d feel, “Ah, it is only this that I have to do. I only have to take this in and I’ll be fine.” And then it was fine.

 

This is an example of what we need to help students learn. Students sometimes express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “If I let go of my emotions, what would be left of me? My emotions are me. They are the most authentic part of me.” This fear might be partly from an uncertainty or shakiness with their identity. They identify not with the total experience of their life but with specific images, thoughts, memories or emotions. So ask them, “When you have a new emotion, does your old you disappear? Are you any one emotion, or all emotion?” When you mindfully let go of an emotion, awareness remains. You let go of separation. In that awareness, there is an even more authentic you. Compassion for yourself and others awaits you. What is left is a deeper realm of feeling, a clearer realm of thinking.