Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.


As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.


As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”


He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.


By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”



Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?

Awareness Is Political

I woke up this morning about 6 am. It was still dark. I got out of bed, walked around and almost stepped on my 7 month old kitten, Milo. Instead of being freaked out, I was happy, not only that I didn’t step on him but that I could see him, or just see, period. Maybe because of now being a “senior citizen” I am more aware of what someday I will lose. There was fear at the opposite side of the joy, fear of losing sight and my other senses. And hurt. I felt what I imagined Milo might feel if I stepped on him. He would not know why I hurt him.


Perception is not just about information. My seeing makes it possible to step around and reach out to pet him. As I sense him, a feeling of approach or avoidance arises, then like, dislike or indifference. Then memories, of how he rolls over to get my attention or how he chases our other cats. There is relationship.


Our perceptions and emotions link us to others and our world, a world from which we are never, even for an instance, separate. Yet, do we always feel this? Of course not. We can lose the sense of connection even more easily than we lose the sense of sight. Never forget that sensing connection is a sense. And we pay an enormous price for its’ loss. We pay with violence. We pay with suffering. Once painful emotions are aroused, it is easier to enact them on others. Feeling disconnected or isolated hurts and makes it easier to get angry, blame and hurt others. Thinking gets confused. Manipulation is easy. A population that is hurting is easily manipulated.


Empathy is the heart of connection, love and ethical action. It can take different forms. According to Paul Ekman, there is recognizing what another being thinks or feels. There’s feeling with or caring about others, and lastly, being ready to act for their welfare. I feel the pain I could cause Milo and thus shudder at the imagined hurt. Because I experience his pain, I am more careful. Some argue that such empathy will not stop violence or hurt. People often hurt themselves. Others hurt the ones they love even more frequently than those they don’t care about. If empathy doesn’t protect us from hurting those we love, when will it protect us?


But examine the hurt that arises with the emotion of love. To love is obviously a highly complex state that comes in all sizes and shapes. Feeling love is feeling the edge between two strong polarities. You feel entirely open and vulnerable, “connected.” You care. You feel joyous and valued. You say “yes” to the world. On the other side, you feel the possibility of loss. With love, you feel alive; you feel the moment strongly, which means you feel its impermanence. From there, it is easy to fear loss, hurt, the world saying “no” to you. You desire security, continuity, even control. When you hurt the one you love, you are trying to stop the fear. But that is the same as stopping the vulnerability, which is to stop the love. You try to protect love by ending it. It is not love that causes the hurt. It is the fear that you can’t love. Living on the edge of a sword is a highly prized skill. When you hurt yourself, instead of feeling too much, you feel too little. You hurt yourself because feeling something, even pain, is preferable to feeling nothing or feeling dead.  There is danger in feeling too little or too much.


So, to educate love, empathy and connection, awareness of thoughts and emotions, is a politically and socially responsible act. It makes us better citizens and neighbors. It is difficult to manipulate those who are emotionally and socially aware. It is revolutionary. I wish schools would teach it more. In the late 1960s, the slogan “the personal is political” helped rally the student and women’s movements. Maybe “awareness is political” will rally each of us today.

Why Do We Shop?

It’s the season for shopping, both for others and oneself. And if you’re a teacher, it’s a good time to raise questions about our consumer society.


For many years I had a clear distaste for shopping, especially in malls. I’m not talking about buying necessities, like food when the refrigerator is empty, or a new coat when it’s winter and your only coat is torn. I’m talking about recreational shopping. When you feel you need a new shirt when you have several or a lightweight down coat when you have two already. But once and awhile, the urge creeps in. One minute, I can feel that I have everything I need, for now and years to come. And then, a few minutes later, maybe influenced by a catalogue arriving in the mail, and I feel a desire for something new. Why shop for things other than necessities? Why is shopping so seductive?


There are many reasons, but I want to pick out a few. Of course, we are bombarded with messages in the media. Our society is built on social conditioning to look to possessions to solve our emotional needs. Karl Marx said “religion is the opiate of the masses ” but I sometimes wonder if it’s shopping. After 9/11, as our economy was dipping towards recession, our President urged us to do our civic duty and “go shopping,” as if that would solve our national problems. We are taught to think how we look and what we have gives status.


Some of my students over the years denied this conditioning and claimed that advertising did not affect them, so I tried various strategies to increase their awareness of the influence of media and the importance of examining the ethical implications of actions. I sometimes taught the psychology of persuasion and mindfulness of thoughts and self-images. I also had students read reports from the riots of Detroit and Watts in the mid-1960s, where the goods most stolen by looters were the most advertised [I couldn’t find the source for this] and were in stores where African-Americans were not respectfully treated.


To some degree, buying something is getting oneself a present. Presents show care, that we’re loved and valued. Shopping can be an adventure, if you care about what you’re shopping for. My favorite shopping is for books. To find a book that meets and expands my knowledge in an area I value is exciting. And what about clothing? Most clothes shopping bores me, unless it is for what I consider “different” or beautiful or when the very act of buying is more personal, like an acknowledgement. For example, when I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I loved buying shirts made locally and from the craftsmen and women who made them.


Often, people try to define themselves with clothes and other possessions and this is where many problems arise. Maybe you see an ad for running shoes, and you imagine yourself as a runner or an athlete. You project yourself into this external image as if your joy or happiness resided in the clothes or shoes—or books. A new you is born. It’s like magic. You pay money and you turn a mental image into a physically new you.


You might feel, “If only I had that, I’d be so much more attractive”? Or, “If I had that car, I’d be free!” But what happens to your sense of yourself without that possession, or if you can’t afford it? You feel poorer. When you crave an object, you desire it because you make yourself feel deficient without it. In fact, creating an image of a self dependent on external factors for happiness, is part of the Buddhist analysis of suffering. Advertising throws in your face what you don’t have. Our consumer economy is particularly oppressive to those with little money. And even if you do have the money, what happens after you spend it? Maybe a few weeks later, you feel the same as before, or worse. You crave a new identity, maybe this time with a new jacket. But the self-image we create out of this possession is just an image in the mind. It’s ephemeral; it disappears like smoke. And when it does, we are once again left emptier than before.


Actually, I left out a step. When I returned home with my new jacket, I knew exactly where I put it in the closet. I created with the jacket a zone of aliveness around it. When I put it on, I felt new. When something new or fast moving enters the scene, we give it our attention. The new and surprising attract us, and the chronic and the everyday escape our notice. A new possession can awaken our sense of aliveness.


Yet, everything is changing every second. We know this. We are change. To breathe, our lungs expand as we inhale, contract in order to exhale. To speak, my mouth must move, change. That’s life. Why don’t we feel it?  We dull the perception of constant change with possessions, self-images, ideas, expectations, habits, and things we ingest. But the reality can’t be long suppressed. It must find a means of expression. So, for many, we shop.


Why not learn how to keep the mind fresh without depending on possessions? Why not sharpen awareness instead of dulling it? Many people have raised these questions. Can our world continue to support us at this rate of consumption? Can we create an economy that fosters social and political awareness and compassion instead of consumerism and competition? Can working for a more equitable distribution of wealth lead to more resources for more people? We must answer these with the way we live our lives, not only for ourselves but for our students and our world. This is the ultimate homework assignment.



*Photo By Ben Schumin (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

When Will We Learn?

Listen to the news:  Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, Brooklyn. I feel like the universe is slapping me in the face, slapping all of us. “Look. Can you see? Can you feel?” Racism, yes, and so much more. Is this what happens when an economic system, and its political and justice system, is lopsided and only a small percentage of “We The People” control most of the wealth and power? I listen to the news and feel angry, and am heartened by protests. But I also recognize fear in myself. The biggest fear is that not enough people will hear what I hear.


Will people hear the questions being asked? Questions like: Will substantive change happen? Will the Grand Jury in Brooklyn indict the police in the Akai Gurley killing? Will the federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner lead to prosecutions? Will there ever be a trial for Darren Wilson? Will we as humans make the effort to create a more equitable nation and world?


Will we bother to educate ourselves, to better understand our own mental processes so we can understand the importance to all of us of justice and equity?


These events are part of the curriculum for our nation. The streets are texts for our classrooms. And I am not just speaking of current events classes but all classes. Science can study the neurobiology of compassion and attunement systems in the brain. Social studies and history can study the effects of greatly unequal wealth distribution. They can study systems of justice and how nations transform themselves—or fall. English classes can write stories of street experiences and read about people fighting injustice and persisting in the face of great challenges. Language classes can study the relationship between language and thought systems and the necessity for diverse perspectives in thinking critically. All classes can ask: Brown, Gurley, Garner, Rice—and Wilson: who are they? They are people who feel and think not much differently than you and I feel and think. To try to separate them from ourselves distorts the substance of our lives and makes us incapable of acting in a humane, well-considered manner. There is no justice without compassion and understanding, no understanding without empathy.


We all have to learn enough about how our brains work so we can understand how we can misunderstand ourselves and dehumanize others. I think most people believe in what is called “naïve realism.” We think the world is just as we see it. We can feel our own sensations but not (or rarely) those of others. So we think the red of the apple is all in the apple, the sound of a raindrop is all in the raindrop. We can’t understand why other people don’t like what we like. The person over there who I never look at is not as aware or valuable as I am. I am right and they are not seeing the situation correctly.


This study of how events on the streets speak to political, economic, and legal systems, and how they relate to the mind and our social-emotional nature, should be required in our schools.