To Hear, First Listen

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing. I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality.

 

So today, when he brought up the topic, I just listened, sometimes repeating back to him his own words, merely empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions. When you feel heard by others, you are more likely to listen to yourself. I don’t want this anecdote to be taken as a warning to never give advice or never point out to others lines of reasoning they might have missed. It is only a suggestion to listen carefully for projection, especially when fear and its close relatives, worry, anxiety and depression, are involved. And to listen carefully to notice your own response to anger.

 

A similar process can happen in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, or all human beings are machines, because they fear a life without love, have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their lives are meaningless.

 

And when such meaningful moments arise in a class, do not put them off because they are not in the curriculum or not in your lesson plan. Because they are the heart of education, the real reason you teach. They go beyond a “teachable moment.” By engaging with difficult and real questions and concerns you tell students that what’s difficult can be faced, that meaningful learning is possible, and the classroom is one place this can occur. Instead of dictating answers of your own, which will often be resisted, ask questions to help students better notice and understand their own experience and improve their ability to reason.

 

Students ask questions, we all ask questions, because we glimpse a deeper reality and thus know the answers we have now are unsatisfying or incomplete. One reason we get angry is we realize there is something crucial we are denied or can’t understand. We feel we are in the dark because we know what light is. What a good teacher does is point students to their own inner light.

 

No emotion exists by itself without other feelings, sensations and thoughts trailing behind it. Love is only as strong as our ability to tolerate vulnerability and face the fear of loss and hurt. Joy pushes back against fear, happiness against sadness. We learn when we acknowledge our mistakes and our lack of knowledge—and we accept that we must make mistakes in order to succeed. We must actually take in and notice what is truly there, both in us and in what surrounds us, even our fear and anger, in order to learn. Without this openness and engagement there is little learning.

 

To get answers, you must feel your own feelings and hear your own thoughts. Only if you listen can you hear.

 

**After writing this, I read the first half of Thich Nhat Hanh’s amazing book, The Art of Communicating. To study deep listening, practice mindfulness and enjoy this book. Almost everything I say, and so much more, is inside it. He says: “When you can truly come home to yourself and listen to yourself, you can profit from every moment given you to live.” (35) “To stop and communicate with yourself is a revolutionary act.” (15)

Why Not Practice Mindfulness?

I just read a great article on how teaching mindfulness and social-emotional awareness to students improves the atmosphere and learning in a classroom or a whole school. There is also an interesting website (WKCD- What Kids Can Do) that the founding principal of my former school, Dr. Dave Lehman, recommended, which provides student views on how social-emotional learning greatly impacted their lives. I recommend both resources. I also recommend the practice of mindfulness.

 

In discussing “why practice mindfulness” with people, I frequently say, “Why not?” Most people I know sincerely want to do something positive with their lives, want to help their students or fellow workers and friends. So, why not do it?

 

“It’s too hard,” some people say. Or “I don’t have the time. How can I fit it in?” It is difficult to rearrange your schedule. That’s often true. But I also know that the times I doubt myself, feel in emotional pain, get lost in worry and anxiety, can take way too much time. Would it be worth putting five minutes into mindfulness so you spend five minutes less worrying?

 

And five minutes is all you need to get started. After you get up in the morning and stretch, or after you take a shower but before you eat. Or when you get home from work, and need quiet time for your self to let go of or process the events of the day. For five minutes, do nothing but a little mindfulness.

 

Then some people say, “Mindfulness is just a way to forget pain, forget the oppression in the world, to be selfish.” Acting to reduce oppression, inequity, injustice is important work. But what happens if you can’t recognize how hate, fear, or the desire for revenge affects your thinking? Do you want to have people leading a movement who have no insight into what drives them and little ability to control their emotion? Emotion can be a motivator for action, but it needs to be observed with some clarity and focus so your thinking can be clear and focused. When you do compassion practices, you don’t just develop compassion for yourself. You are readied to act for the well-being of others.

 

“I don’t know how to do it. You had a background in meditation; I don’t.” It’s true. I meditated for many years before I used it in classes, or used it regularly in classes. However, how many times do you use a technique at work or in a class that you were taught to use but had little experience with? Or you read about but hadn’t tried more than a few times? So, why not do the same with mindfulness and emotional awareness? The important point with mindfulness is that you practice it on your own, before, during, and after you do it with your students. It’s important that you don’t pretend to be other than who you are. If you are just learning, share that with students. But you need to also open yourself to continuous learning. You take classes. You read books. You find an experienced teacher. And you listen to your students or fellow workers and learn from them how to teach them.

 

You don’t do mindfulness to forget the world. You don’t do mindfulness to improve grade scores or productivity or even to reduce anxiety. You do it just to do it. You do it because of what happens in you when your attention is focused clearly on what you are doing and nothing else. As a result, it just happens to be true that you think more clearly and deeply and you feel better about your abilities. It just so happens that you appreciate your life more.

 

By taking action to change your life, just doing little things, you learn how to take action in other areas. You learn you can act.

 

So, how do you begin? Close your eyes and just feel your breath. Feel the air entering your body. Feel the sensations in your body of taking a breath in, and out. Your body makes slight adjustments with each stage of the breath. Notice those adjustments and changes. How does it feel to breathe in and out? Or open your eyes. Look outside right now. Here, now, it is morning, and raining. When I look at the sky, I see places that look almost black, others gray and hazy. And one place where a little sunlight appears. I see drops of rain strike the window. Each drop, for barely a second, is one with the window, a tiny dome that reflects what’s around it—colors, shapes. Or put your hand on the window and just feel the window—the temperature, the texture, the hardness or softness, how your hand coheres to the window. If its raining at your home like it is at mine, hear the raindrop against the glass. Notice how you feel when you focus intently on the raindrop. How does it feel when you listen to and hear the rain hitting the window or dropping onto the street or the roof of your house?  Just calmly notice what you observe. Then return your attention to your breath.

 

If a thought arises, notice it like you noticed the raindrop, with open interest. Watch it, then move on to the next moment, of rain or whatever. When you do this, rain will no longer be only something to resist, an interference. Instead, it will be something to observe, appreciate and learn from. By doing this, your life will continuously be something to take in and appreciate and learn from.

 

That’s one way to begin.

 

If you’d like more resources, check out my links page and:

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques To Develop Inner Strength in Children, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions, by Amy Saltzman

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, by Ira Rabois (Soon to be published.)

Recognize the Web of Life

 

I heard on the news of the deaths of 12 people in Paris, the cartoonists, editors and writers of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and I don’t know how to live with these deaths. Maybe if it were just this one incident, not the deaths and bombings that followed, not ISIL, not the deaths in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Israel, Palestine. Maybe if it were just this one time I could come up with a story to tell myself, of people who, perhaps, lived lives of such desperation and hopelessness that, in their eyes, they weren’t killing other people at all. They were defending an idea, they were creating hope. Or maybe they told themselves the cartoons hurt too much and they needed the pain to stop. Or maybe they told themselves their religion, their reality was threatened and they had to destroy the threat.

 

 

 

But the explanation doesn’t work. And for good reason. Nothing can justify or explain away their deaths. All over the world, there are too many such deaths, too much pain. For example, in the US there’s New York City. Not just 9/11, but Eric Garner. Deaths of African-Americans by police and deaths of police, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos. To kill someone is not just emotion burning out of control. A story was needed to fuel that emotion and keep it hot.

 

 

 

Humans have lived for thousands of years by creating an in versus an out-group. We live with, cooperate with, love the in-group and often de-humanize the out-group.  We do this with stories or narratives we tell ourselves about us and them. We can’t afford to do this anymore. There are over 7 billion of us now and we’re growing exponentially. This leads to increasing complexity in human relations (and, of course, increasing stress on resources). We cannot continue to support a way of thinking and acting that deals with problems mainly by defining villains to defeat. Or deals with problems by thinking we can just cut ourselves from or discard millions or billions of other humans. We can no longer discard people with a story. Somehow, we must learn, I must learn, how to feel each killing that I hear about with a raw and unexplainable emotion.

 

 

 

Honestly, I don’t know if I can do this. I think it’s too much. It would be overwhelming. How could I work and play when I feel so openly? Even writing this blog is telling a story of sorts.  My work and play and loving can also get covered over or diluted by stories. But isn’t my heart bigger than my thinking? What if my family or friends worked at Charlie Hebdo? Or I lived in Syria, Iraq or my family was killed in New York or Israel? There is no explanation big enough for that pain.

 

 

 

The closest I can come is justice. I shudder to bring it up, as I don’t want to even appear to be diluting murder with economic analysis, but there needs to be justice for the slain, and justice for the conditions that might have contributed to the slaying. People are discarded, dehumanized through economic and political processes even more than by the gun. For one example, when wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, more and more people are ignored. In the US, real income for all but the top few has gone down since 1978-80. A few days ago, I was watching Robert Reich’s movie, “Inequality For All.” Today, 400 people in the US have more wealth than half of the rest of the population. This trend is worldwide. One billionaire means a million people barely getting by. One billionaire doesn’t buy what a million individuals could buy. Concentrating wealth doesn’t create jobs; it undermines the middle class and the whole economy. What are the implications of a collapse of the middle class and the swelling in size of the ranks of the poor? What happens to people living in poverty who get to see on television everyday the rich living in luxury?

 

 

 

Maybe, if we allow our hearts to feel the pain that others feel, and the pain that dehumanization brings, there would be fewer killings? I don’t know for sure, but it feels right. The only explanation that is viable and works for me to keep my heart alive, is that all of us—all humans, all species, all life—we’re all equally alive. There is no out-group. That’s myth, story. The reality is that we are all in this together. We are all interdependent. To borrow an image from ancient India, we are in a huge web (or net, as in Indra’s net). The world webs together. It’s not even that a tug in this section of the web is felt way over there. It’s the whole universe crawling, walking, screaming, dancing as one. And we need an education in web-being, or as the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it, inter-being.