Discussing Terrorism With Students

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.

Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.

 

So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.

 

If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.

 

Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.

 

It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.

 

However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?

 

So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)

 

Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?

 

Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?

 

Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?

 

I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?

 

When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?

You Don’t Teach Mindfulness, You Share It.

Bringing mindfulness practice into a classroom is one of the most productive and helpful things you as a teacher could do for your students and yourself. There is so much that mindfulness can teach you, about your own mind, about the relationship between your mind and the environment around you, you and others. So don’t even think of mindfulness as something you are teaching students. Instead, think of it as sharing something you enjoy and find beneficial. Think about it as something which facilitates a positive educational relationship between you and your students.

 

When you lead students in the practice, make leading your practice. Only introduce in the classroom what you yourself have digested. That way you lead not from something you have read about or memorized but from your own awareness in the moment. You open yourself to your own mind in order to be in touch with what the students are experiencing. You face your thoughts, feelings, sensations, fears, joys to show students that it can be done. And by entering the classroom with the mindfulness you have developed in your own practice, you illustrate the benefits of practice.

 

So you can’t lead students in mindfulness unless you practice it on your own. As my Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If you don’t want to practice mindfulness yet, you can still start the class with silence or progressive relaxation and imagery. Sometimes, I ask students to listen to a singing bowl and determine how long they can hear its fading song.

 

Only if you are familiar with the inner landscape revealed by mindfulness can you lead students through it. If you don’t practice, students will know it. Just be honest with students when answering questions. If you don’t know something, say so.

 

When I first started introducing mindfulness to my classes, I never led a practice until students asked me to do it. I always talked first about research on the benefits of mindfulness and how it had benefitted me. I told stories about proficient meditators. I wanted to make it personal, real, exciting. One story was about the man many neuroscientists and magazines called “the happiest man alive,” Mathieu Ricard. Ricard holds a doctorate in Biology and is a Tibetan monk. A few of my students and I heard him speak at a conference on education and thought that he was one of the most incisive speakers we had ever heard. The result of all this was that students almost pleaded with me to give them instruction and time to practice.

 

In magazines and books on mindfulness, experts talk about practicing because it decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus, attention, and emotional clarity. But there is a hidden danger here. The answer to the question, “Why practice mindfulness?” is not to reduce stress, etc.. Practice mindfulness in order to practice mindfulness. Practice mindfulness because when you’re mindful you’re more fully awake in your own life. If you practice in order to reduce stress, what happens when, in your practice, you feel stressed? Or you feel frightened? Or bored? You then turn away. You feel like your experience was bad and that you were unsuccessful. No. If you feel your stress, but aren’t controlled by it, you were very successful. When you feel sensations and thoughts associated with stress as something you can study and learn from but don’t have to respond to, then you can let them go. When you notice your habitual response to a situation or sensation, then you can free yourself from the habit. You feel capable of handling whatever arises.

 

When you practice, thoughts, insights, fear and joy all come to you. The object of mindfulness, as I said, is to be aware of all this. This requires that you value that awareness. When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I sometimes get insights into my blog or what I might teach. I value the blog and my teaching, so I get the urge to write down the insight. I fear losing it. But when I begin to write, I am no longer aware of my awareness. I am also no longer in the mindset that fostered my insight. By grasping onto the thought as if it were a valued intellectual possession, I lose the insight-mind and replace it with a grasping mind.

 

Some teachers who practice mindfulness feel uncomfortable sharing it with students. They have this image of what a mindfulness teacher should be. This image has feelings attached to it, maybe feelings of not being good enough. Treat this image and the attached feelings in the same way that I have to treat my urge to write everything down. Just notice it and let it go. The image and feelings are just a construct that came into your mind only so you could notice how you were thinking and let it go.

 

Lead mindfulness practice as if it were a gift, not just from you to your students but to you from the students, the school and your profession. Then you will inspire your students. Mindfulness will grow. If you try to lead what you don’t value enough to practice, why should the students value it? Mindfulness will disappear. It will become just another good intentioned educational technique that people never committed to enough to make it transformational. Make it transformational for yourself. Commit to the practice and you and your students will benefit greatly.

 

A note: As I re-read this blog, I feel the influence of Hidy Ochiai in every aspect of it. A good teacher’s influence is ubiquitous. It hits us in unanticipated ways. In this case it made me deeper and kinder. Thank you, Sensei.

Concentrate on the Quality of Mind

When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Shunryu Suzuki

We need to teach ourselves and our students that if our quality of mind is good, what we do will be good. We feel more at ease with learning, more focused than confused, more peaceful than agitated, more energetic than lethargic, more open than resistant. The ultimate result I think most teachers look for is not the essay or test score or work of art our students produce: it is the emergence of a young adult. But, can we teach in this mindful manner and keep our teaching jobs? Yes. Students will be able to concentrate, score better on tests and learn more when they find the work meaningful, enjoyable, and connected to their lives. To enjoy learning students need to feel heard and be seen as people, not as test scores.

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