What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end?* How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I heard from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.


And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves if they feel they didn’t teach well enough or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers that you feel you can’t control or handle.


While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, and deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared, and engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.


In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.


Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can be a total surprise or shock, make you feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You might feel you weren’t paying attention. If so, one strategy that might help is to pay attention, moment by moment, to your feelings, or to whatever arises.


Why don’t people pay attention? Think about why you don’t. Some scientists argue that frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. And attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. You show you care with your attention. Attention requires energy. You might not pay attention because you don’t care or you consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. To attend well, embrace well.


Also, you might stop paying attention because it reminds you of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting, or a relief. Taking a breath means change. Perception is change. Learning is change. This goes way beyond what I understand. But I do know that fear arises when I cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. Even endings end. Change is another way to say living, feeling, understanding. I need to trust in my ability to know, however incompletely, and feel the living world.


So, it’s helpful to learn for yourself and then to teach students about attention. Teach about caring for the moments of your life. Mindfulness can do this. With mindfulness, there is more clarity about what needs to be done, more kindness, and less stress. Try the following practice:


Take a moment. Let your eyes close and your mind relax. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small eddies, some large. And the water continued on, adjusting. Notice that you can focus either on the constantly passing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two types of perception, on an individual rock or drop of water, or on the whole scene, support each other. You can go from one to the other fluidly. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there is a sense of beauty in the whole? Just take in the whole scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to the whole.


We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, or year went. These conclusions can be a way of trying to exercise control over our lives, trying to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. We are also creating an image of who we are. “The year went well; I am a good teacher.” “The year sucked. Do I suck?” But can a year be summed up in any judgment or statement? Is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Specific lessons can be learned. But other than that, is it possible to hold our images and ideas more lightly? Can we enjoy our memories without being so judgmental?


It’s helpful to reflect on and appreciate, at the end, all you’ve done and learned. The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons you have learned but about coming back to your life right now. It is to view being in a classroom or anywhere from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school, this situation is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a classroom, that means at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what does being in this situation feel like right now. What do you feel, now, about this new, unknown, beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.


*This is a newly edited version of an older blog about endings.



Reflecting on Time

Sometimes, I marvel at time and how my life seems to flow. I can’t believe how old I am. Or I can’t believe how quickly yesterday becomes today, ‘now’ becomes ‘then.’ Yesterday afternoon I was in the middle of a wonderful conversation. I was totally absorbed, enjoying myself. Then, suddenly, it was a day later. Is this due to a lapse in attention? Many people say that as they get older, time passes more quickly. Is that the same as what I am describing?


Right now I am in the middle of everything. Everything I see and feel is so present, real, rich. I can see the apple tree blossoms, smell the lilac bushes, and feel my stomach expanding with my breath. I feel the rhythm of the wind in the apple trees. I don’t feel time. I feel this….. For an instant, there is only feeling. Then I try to remember what just happened. And as I write it down, I lose it.


I can’t locate time except as, for example, a number on my digital clock or something scheduled on my calendar. A minute, an hour is life transmuted into abstraction and memory. When I feel life going by so quickly, I am distant from it. It becomes like reviewing memories. Remembering is often like watching a movie, watching life summarized and miniaturized into individual frames. And I become a character in the movie. The nature of movies is to speed by so I speed by.


And when life speeds by (or you want it to speed by), it hurts. There is nostalgia there, but also regret. Nostalgia can’t compensate for losing the here and now. As described in the classic book, Flow, and different meditation traditions, when your life is full sized, close up, and embraced, there is no sense of being distant from others, the world, and one’s life; your time sense is altered. There isn’t a you being hugged but just the feeling of hugging. Time is not separable from each breath, movement, perception lived.


So, I guess the question is, can life always feel full? Can even regret be embraced? I think so. I think being open to the awareness of distance is a step in eliminating it. The heart of what I experience is my attitude toward it. In order to write this, I need both time and the timeless; the two are wrapped together and I need to embrace both. The timeless is the smell of the lilac and the rush of creativity when writing. Without the distance of time, I couldn’t step back and reflect. Without memory, I couldn’t write a word, couldn’t name the fragrance, couldn’t learn, couldn’t keep in mind even who I am relating to. I couldn’t appreciate people from my past, couldn’t identify who I carry within me. Memory is usually tied to an uncovering and release of emotion. But what is the ultimate aim of reflecting—and remembering? Creating great theories or conclusions? Or actually living more inclusively and deeply?


If you want to explore this for yourself and, if you’re a teacher, with your students: sit back in your chair and relax. Focus on your breath. Maybe close your eyes. Let come to mind a moment when you did something meaningful or fully. When you were fully involved. Picture or feel the details of the moment. Where were you? Were you with anyone? Who? If you were with others, how did your actions affect them? How did you work together? What did working or living fully feel like? How did you open to it?


And when you open your eyes and return, examine your responses. Hold them in memory and feel what they have to say. What made the moment so full and successful? What motivated you to do whatever you did?


Be aware in yourself how time and the timeless weave themselves together. Life is more exciting and rich when the patterns of this weaving are noticed and embraced.



*For an interesting reading on time for yourself or secondary school students, see: The Dharma of Dragons and Demons, by David Loy and Linda Goodhew.


Last week was Mother’s Day and I forgot—or, believe it or not, I tried to forget, until I read some touching posts on Facebook. My Mom died 8 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have that urge to do something for her. I feel she is alive and have to remind myself she is not. She even talks to me sometimes in my dreams. Maybe we all have similar experiences, not only with our Moms but with anyone dearly loved. I usually mistake that Mother’s Day urge as a habitual reminder built into time to buy a card, call or visit. Then I realize what’s happening and I tell myself to forget it. Until this year.


I now think that urge to remember is just that, a reminder of how important it is to remember and a realization that I can remember. It is not forbidden and not too painful. I can partly thank two women I know for this realization. Elaine Mansfield and Robin Botie wrote deeply and beautifully about what could be learned from loss. Life, love and loss are woven inextricably together. To live well you must love. To love well, you must be willing to be torn apart by loss. “Love and death are a package deal,” said Elaine.


My Mom often reminded me to be aware of other people’s feelings, not just my own. She was able to take people in, to see who a person was and embrace them. When I first brought Linda, who is now my wife, to meet my parents, my Mom accepted her right away. There was no mother-girlfriend conflict. The same with my brother, Gene, and sister-in-law, Mimi. My Mom even helped bring Gene and Mimi together. Before they even really knew one another, they were on a flight together home for the holidays. They both attended the same university. My brother had noticed Mimi when exiting the airplane. She was knitting a scarf and he commented on the length of it (long enough for a giant) and my Mom witnessed the brief exchange. As my parents and brother were about to leave the airport, my Mom noticed that Mimi was standing alone; her ride never arrived. So my Mom went around trying to find Mimi a ride home. Mimi was greatly impressed by my Mom’s actions.


My Mom modeled what it is to love. She did this in the way she took care of me. She did this with my Dad in the way they cared for each other. My parents showed me what relationship was about. They showed me what life can give you. Whatever or whoever I love carries their influence. Luckily, I still have my Dad. My Mom lives in my ability to love.


It’s weird that I must learn and re-learn these basic realities of life over and over again. It’s important to appreciate and thank all those people who have shaped and loved me. It’s important to notice how, when I feel pain, I wish that it will be the last pain I will ever face but fear that it’s just the beginning. I feel joy and don’t want it ever to end. I love and don’t want it ever to end. And maybe it doesn’t.


What would any of us be without those who love us and our ability to love? Teaching children about love, appreciating others, and the importance of grieving, are basic necessities for a good life and a good education.


Achieving Goals

I have something planned for early tonight. I feel both anxiety and excitement whenever I think about it. I feel threatened in a way, feel a queasiness in my stomach, a tension in my shoulders and thighs. Why? Is the tension from the mere fact of setting a goal or planning an activity? What am I afraid of? And how do you set and meet goals without anxiety?


What happens when you create a goal, or create any planned activity? Goal setting is important to all of us no matter how difficult or tedious it might feel at times. It’s important to students, in getting work completed on time. It’s important to teachers who, during the school year, are so busy their lives seem to consist mostly of planning activities and goals or living the planned activity. It’s important to parents, managers, workers of all jobs and professions.


To learn how to create goals, you have to understand why you do it, why this particular goal, and why any goal. It’s not just about meeting expectations and getting work done. Goals structure life. We can’t live without them. They are intentions. They get us to do something. They concretize our emotions and values. They create opportunities to grow, learn, enjoy. So, to create goals you need to be aware of and understand your own experience now. You have to understand your own intentions, needs, drives, primarily the drive to live fully and meaningfully. What, if anything, is getting in the way of living fully now?


When I feel threatened, I usually want to fight, run away, or play dead. But there’s another possibility. I feel threatened partly because getting someplace on time, or succeeding at any task or assignment, means doing all the necessary steps to getting there. Even to be somewhere at 5:00 pm, I must figure out when I must leave, how far away is the place I am going, etc.. Once a time is set, I need to put psychic energy into remembering to get there. And how do I do that? If I’m going somewhere to have fun, I don’t want the moments I am getting ready to have fun be moments of anxiety and fear. To learn something that will make my life better should not mean making my life before that time worse.


But, you might say, sometimes you need to sacrifice in order to achieve. You need to be able to do what is difficult or do what you would rather not. You need to work a lousy job in order to pay for college so you can get a better job. Yes, that’s true, to a point. The point is how do you live that “lousy” job or anything difficult? Once you set an intention or goal, do you then resent and feel angry about all that you must do to get there? Do you resist your own intention? You mustn’t lose the feel of the original drive, which is to fully live the moments of your life.  As the novelist G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.” A difficulty can become an opportunity. Once you uncover your intention, then mine each moment you live to the depths for what it can teach you, give you, and especially what you can give to it.


So, if you conceive of goal setting as something you do for the future, as if the future were separate from now, then you can never get there. You undermine your efforts. The goal in the future is an idea wrapped in hopes and memories. It’s an abstraction.  It’s easy to fear not meeting your expectations or not being the person you imagined you’d be, because these are ideas. You can never, no matter how hard you try nor how glorious or perfect your idea might be, transform yourself into an idea. An idea does not breathe; a living being breathes. But right now can be glorious.


So, to learn how to meet goals, you learn how to live each moment. If you think having a goal is planning for the future, you miss the heart of it and separate from it. If you treat each moment as your goal, then you’ve already achieved it.



To mindfully set and meet goals, try the following:

  1. Sit with your body straight but not rigid. Take a moment to close your eyes partially or fully and notice your breath. Notice what is happening in and around you. With your inbreath, notice any feelings, thoughts, sensations, or images. With your exhalation, let go of the images and return to awareness of the breath.
  2. Is there a goal, a need or drive that you have? What goal stirs your heart, awakens your soul, or puts food on the table? Just allow any thoughts or images to come to mind of any goal you want to achieve.
  3. What is it about this goal that motivates you? Do you want this for your own good? To help others? Just ask yourself, and listen for an answer. Feel the energy within it, the passion. Visualize achieving this goal. Hear, feel, or picture it. Notice yourself, where you are, what you’re doing, as you achieve the goal.
  4. Test it. Notice any thoughts, feelings, emotions which arise in response to the thought or image of this achieved goal. What might the consequences be of pursuing and achieving this goal? How does it affect the people you know? The world? Does the goal feel right? If so, continue. If not? Let go of the goal and turn your attention to noticing your breath, or listening to the sounds around you.
  5. Let come to mind the steps you need to take to achieve the goal. Just listen, feel the answers arise. What do you need to do now? Do it in your mind so you can do it in reality. Imagine acting fully, with determination, to achieve what you set out to achieve. What actions will you take when you leave this chair?
  6. As you breathe in, turn your attention to the room. As you breathe out, open your eyes and look around you. Then begin.


*The photo: the goal of a stone patio halfway achieved.

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.