So much anger around lately. Like any emotion, anger can be more complex and multifaceted than it seems. It can save your life, energize you to fight off a threat or oppression. Or it could harm a relationship, fog your thinking, and lead to regret.


It’s not the emotional feeling that causes the problems, however. Emotion is a natural response to a stimuli and a motivator to act in a certain way. It directs your way of thinking and remembering. You often create stories in your mind to support and explain your own emotions. It is these stories, how you respond to the emotion, and how you act, that cause the problems or reveal a solution.


Anger can arise out of fear and in response to fear. When afraid, you want to turn away and run. When angry, you want to stay and fight or even run toward what frightens you. So it can be powerful and intoxicating. Anger can come as a balm, feel like a cure, or create an identity for you when one is lacking.


Think about times you were angry. There is a righteousness to the emotion. You are at a check out line in a big box store. The cashier charges you two dollars more than the labeled price and you notice it. You interpret the situation as a purposeful act. You tell yourself the cashier is a dupe of corporate thieves (which does occur too often). You start to get angry—until the cashier turns red in his face, apologizes, and explains he entered the wrong price in the computer.


You might rail against man’s inhumanity to man, or how the political system is rigged and unjust, or how other people’s lack of awareness and responsibility negatively impacts your life. And all this can be true. You feel imposed upon and isolated. You say to yourself you refuse to be a part of the inhumanity. You then use the anger as an identity; you think of yourself as a fighter against evil. You walk around with anger as your shield of righteousness. As a result, you bring anger everywhere you go. You push people away. You ignore or are unaware of how your shield negatively impacts yourself as well as all those you meet and you become what you rail against. How often do you walk into a room full of angry or fearful people and you feel their fear or anger like an assault? Anger is contagious.


In our modern world, culture and cultural institutions are arguably the prime influence on human behavior, not “raw nature.” We don’t, on a daily basis, fear attacks by “wild” animals. We can’t pretend that any anger we feel is just a natural response to a threat and must be acted upon as if our existence were threatened. We predominantly feel threatened by or get angry about not a tiger’s claws but a human who belittles, disrespects or treats us unfairly—or by or a systematic attack on our ability to lead a full, meaningful, happy life. It is human society and how other humans treat us and mirror us that we most often fear and that angers us most deeply.


We are all part of a system of relationships and must do our best to honor those relationships. How we think we stand in relation to others is extremely important to us. Being treated fairly is extremely important. If our society treats some of us poorly, or actually militates against our ability to get our needs met, we get angry. We feel society doesn’t see us and is denying our humanity. As many writers, activists, and spiritual leaders have pointed out, if one of us is treated poorly, all of us are affected.


What can we do? There is no easy answer to this. We can start by studying our own emotional experience and learn to differentiate at least two of the many directions anger can take. There is the anger that arises as we blame others for the pain we cause (to self and others) or we project onto others the anger we do not face. And there is anger that arises when we witness hurt and injustice. The first arises because, ultimately, we want to feel good. We want to feel loved and be loving and we don’t know how. We might judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes and forget that we are not born with all the knowledge and wisdom we need to survive. We forget learning only comes through making mistakes. We need to learn that to feel loved we must be loving. We need to learn, as much as it is possible, how to let go of this anger and the stories we tell ourselves which fuel it. The second arises because we care and feel empathy. We want to act to end any suffering we witness as if it were our own.


Anger at oppression and injustice can spark resistance against it. Yet anger can cloud our thinking. When we’re angry, our ability to perceive can be narrowed to looking for threats, and we isolate ourselves from what we’re angry at. We mentally convert thinking, breathing, feeling people very much like us into enemies filled only with the intent to harm or denigrate us, who exist only as our nemesis or oppressor.


You can’t fight what you don’t see. You can’t see what you rail against in anger and push away with hate. You can’t unite with those you push away. When you’re angry, it is easy to lose sight of those who are your natural allies.


So, to find answers, you must enter the mind and heart of others to understand what drives them and how they think. Then your anger, as much as it is possible, can give way to the empathy and care which might underlie it, and be replaced with a commitment to take appropriate action guided by emotional awareness and intellectual understanding. Gandhi said something like, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Buddha said something very similar. They weren’t being “nice” when they said this. They were being practical.

Being A Leader in A Stressed World

What makes a good leader, especially in education? How do you teach people to be leaders? What strategies can educational leaders use to reduce stress and increase learning in the schools they lead? Caryn Wells provides answers to these questions in her new book, Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job.


I remember very well what life was like when I was teaching. During the school year, it was easy to feel like I was working all day long. I usually was involved in school business from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm, Monday to Friday. And on weekends, it didn’t end. I needed at least eight hours of time to process the old week and prepare for the new one. When I had to write evaluations or I was teaching drama or doing fundraising for a trip, the hours were greatly increased. I remember one year I counted the after school hours I put into a drama performance: 100 hours. Plus, students and parents sometimes called me on the phone in my supposedly “off” times (this was before texting). And at school, everything was condensed and sped up. I remember how it was in the halls when I needed to find a student or co-worker and talk with them. Often, the person I wanted to talk to, felt I needed right then to talk to, was engaged with someone else. Waiting felt impossible. Interruptions were constant. Yet, I loved the moments in the classroom working with students. I loved the creativity needed for a good lesson and the way my whole self was engaged in the job.


Caryn Wells discusses how easy it is to lose our way in the everyday busyness of the contemporary 24/7 world. In fact, our education leaders today have an enormous responsibility. They have to lead in a way that not only creates a rich educational environment but one that prepares students and staff to face the everyday feeling of catastrophe as well as possible disasters. She shows how to turn this situation from a “catastrophe” into a conscious recognition of the enormity of life and the tremendous opportunities it offers us.


Educational leaders cannot just be managers, cannot be concerned solely with getting things done, with high levels of achievement, and numbers. Educators are at the forefront of many of the most crucial issues facing our society today, such as poverty, inequity, social media distractions, drug abuse, emotional suffering and high levels of stress and scrutiny.


What is needed is compassion, a sense of the importance of educating young people, and mindfulness. Caryn Wells is a former teacher, counselor, and principal. She studied Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn who created a breakthrough program in stress and pain reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He defined mindfulness as “moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness” which leads to mentally slowing down the ordinary moments of life so you enter a state of inner stillness. In this state, instead of feeling crowded by the spatial limitations of the school or the constant demands on your attention, you feel a sense of spaciousness. Instead of blaming or judging yourself or the students for tough moments, you treat whatever arises as an opportunity to educate yourself. Instead of feeling closed off, isolated behind harsh boundaries, you feel open, empathic, patient, and caring.  Working with students or co-workers becomes “being with” them.


Think about leaders who inspire you. Wells points out that, most likely, many of the characteristics of inspirational people include qualities of emotional intelligence. A good leader hears what you say, sees who you are, and cares. They show self-awareness, flexibility, optimism, initiative, and transparency. All of these qualities are developed through mindfulness practice along with an improved memory, and reduced anxiety and depression.


Mindfulness does this by teaching you how to be as present as you can be—how to approach problems, difficult moments, discomfort, instead of turning away. It educates a conscious method of attention and observation as well as compassion for your own limitations. By developing an increased ability to go toward what is difficult or uncomfortable instead of turning away or attacking, you allow yourself to more fully take in a situation or understand a person. Your ability to observe and analyze increases. You create the conditions for in-depth understanding and insight.


Wells gives her readers both a clear intellectual analysis and specific, detailed methods to practice. Any principal, teacher or teacher-leader, superintendent—anyone can benefit from the practices and insights provided by this book. We need a transformation in approach to how we educate leaders and this book provides just that.


As Caryn Wells advises, when you feel your mind “out on patrol” looking for danger, bring it back to a place of calm. “Watch the thoughts that emerge…the emotions and  feelings… Just observe and label them… Watch the thoughts without developing accompanying stories about them…” And at the conclusion, one benefit will be a feeling of peace, another the insights that emerge.

When You’re Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time now was almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.


If you feel the same, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.


What might you do? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.


Start by questioning and being open to the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the end of year deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about the situation. You knew for months about most of the work you now need to accomplish. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.


The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed for time that you don’t want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off, to hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. You might feel that to let go of thoughts about the future or let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.


You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.


But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  


So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel you have more time to give; you feel more in control. In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.


Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.


Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.

Is Congress Doing Its Job?

The National Education Association (NEA) online newsletter, Education Votes, includes a letter from history, civics, and social studies teachers telling the Senate to do its job and act on the President’s appointment to the Supreme Court. They make the point that if the Republican Senators who refuse to let a vote happen were in a class on civics, and said on a test that the Constitution says the President loses the power to appoint Supreme Court judges in their last year in office, they would fail the test. You might enjoy reading the article.


How many politicians would fail their science classes, due to their statements on global warming, or fail their sex education classes, due to statements on birth control? Or if there were ethics classes, their statements that were, well, lies?


How well is Congress doing its job? Here’s one example. You would think politicians, whose job it is to protect the health, education, and welfare of Americans would be in favor of assuring that children were guaranteed enough food to eat when attending (or not attending) school. But, the US House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee is proposing cutting funding that feeds poor children through the Hunger-Free Kids Act. If you’d like to take action to stop the Republican attack on student lunches, go to the Campaign for America’s Future site.


We have in our country a wide diversity in education funding, and I don’t mean diversity in a good or probably even legal way. In many parts of the country, poorer school districts with a mostly non-white population get less funding then areas with more affluent and white voters. The children who need it most are often the last to get it. To make the situation worse, school voucher programs are enabling public education money to be funneled to private schools that directly teach a curriculum advocating one specific formal religious viewpoint.


Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. I hope everyone appreciated their teachers, and voted for an increase in teacher pay.


And some possibly good news: Fair Test, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, reports that “a national poll concludes that a majority of parents are critical of standardized exam overkill.” “[M]ore state and local education leaders are beginning to heed the message: ‘Enough is enough!’”

Educating Perception

You might think the world is the world, what you see is what is there. The truth is the truth. Yet, how does the world feel with no hands to touch it? If your ears were sensitive to sounds lower in pitch, would you hear collisions of molecules in the air? What a different world that would be! If you could see a tree in infrared, would the tree have a halo around it and seem blessed? Humans can hear sounds up to 20,000 cycles per second. Mice, whales, and bats can hear sounds at 100,000 per second. How would your experience of the world change if sound were your dominant sense, not sight? A dog can differentiate over 250,000 odors, a human maybe 10,000. How would your experience of the world change if smell were your dominant sense? The world perceived is dependent on the sensory system that perceives it.


A tragedy occurs in your social world and for you “the world is tragic.” You see a red rose, a frightening auto accident, and a beautiful sunset. Are the red of the rose, the fear, and the beauty objective elements that exist independent of humans? And the classic: when a tree falls in the forest and no human or animal is there to hear it, is there a sound?


To what degree is the truth perceived dependent on the person who perceives it? The world appears differently to different people, but how big can the difference be? A human baby’s sense of smell and taste, and the sensitivity of their skin, is well developed at birth. Sound takes a little longer. A baby immediately looks for and can see faces right away, but seeing full people, or the whole context of a room they are in, develops gradually over a year or more. Not everyone can see colors. If you have the ability to see color, imagine the world from the perspective of a color-blind person. Or imagine what it would be like for a person from the 12th Century to visit the US today, or vice versa. It makes great science fiction. Yet, most of us insist our view of what is real is the one and only view. To some degree, we need that to survive. How long would you live if you stepped off the curb, a car came at you, and you stopped to debate whether you should see the car from the perspective of an ant or a human? Culture, historical time period, personal history, age, social context, etc. all condition your perceptions and ways of thinking.


How do you answer these questions? And how could a teacher explore them with students? One way to explore this is through developing mindful self-awareness. Another is through studying the science and analyzing the vocabulary of perception. For example, what differentiates a sensation from a perception? The two words are often used similarly and ambiguously. Sensation is often used in psychology to refer to the stimulation of sense receptors or to raw sense information, before the information is interpreted or becomes conscious. However, a perception is conscious.


So how would sound be defined? It too is often used ambiguously. Is a sound the sound wave produced when a tree falls? Or the perception of the sound waves produced by a tree falling? If it is the latter, then an ear is necessary for hearing to occur, and there is no sound without a hearer, no taste without a taster.


Children of all ages enjoy trying to figure out optical illusions. In schools, you could study what these illusions demonstrate about your senses and sense of reality. For example, there is the figure-ground principle and salienceSalience means value or importance; your brain assigns value to certain parts of the visual field. Your attention is selective. You don’t (consciously) perceive all that passes before you (even if some part of us is aware of it all). We have thresholds, dividing lines in all the senses, above which you are aware, below you are unaware. If you were consciously aware of every stimuli in your environment, you would die, burn out. Figure-ground refers to how you pick out elements of a visual stimuli to focus on and the rest becomes background. For example, there are illusions of faces, like the Rubin Vase or the old-young woman figure. (Take a look at the provided links to see examples of the illusions discussed.)


Another principle is that of meaningfulness. No perception is without interpretation and meaning, and this meaning usually appears as an element of the objects perceived, not as an element of the mind perceiving. This is illustrated by the blind spot in your eye. In the back of the retina there is an area where there are no receptor cells. It is where the optic nerve forms to transmit information to the brain. Yet, you don’t see an empty spot in your visual field. Your brain “fills in” the spot. Other illustrations of how the brain can fill in “holes” in your field of perception to make the scene meaningful are the illusion where a Dalmatian dog appears out of a scene of black and white spots, or when you perceive an incomplete figure as complete. Did you ever drive at dusk or at night in a fog and misperceive something in your peripheral vision?


A few other principles can deepen the discussion. For example, a perceptual set is a pre-set or habitual manner of perceiving phenomena. This can be illustrated in various ways. For one, the young-old woman ambiguous figure. Show one half of a class of students pictures of old women. Show the other half pictures of young women. Then show them the optical illusion. There’s a good chance the students who saw the pictures of the young women will see the young woman first in the ambiguous figure. This would work better, of course, if none of your students had ever seen the ambiguous figure. The principle can also be seen with illusions of perspective, for example, those which illustrate how train tracks appear to narrow in the distance—or illusions of context and expectation, such as the one above where you see the 13, when you read 12, 13, 14; or you see a B as you read A, B, C.


With ambiguous figures, all the information to perceive either figure is present. You only see one figure at a time. For example, in the Rubin vase illusion, you can either see a vase or two faces—you never perceive both the vase and the faces at once. When you see the vase, you will swear the drawing is only of a vase. Yet, you can go back and forth between interpretations. There is no correct way to see the ambiguous figure, but you can understand the ambiguity of perception.


The depth and accuracy of a perception can be increased (or decreased) by how the perceiver is educated.


Does this mean that there is no truth? I think it means that truth is interdependent with context, mind—with the universe in which the perceiver of truth appears. Physicist and author Jeremy Hayward calls perception a “creative dance.” “[A]s we move through the world, we don’t see what is really there. We experience a mutual creation between what is there and the ideas and emotions that seem fitting at the time.” (page 68) To a large degree, perception is a subject meeting an object or other being. The world you see is inextricably tied to who you are. You and your world are not two. It is not just the sensation by itself which determines how much pain or joy you experience, but how you interpret or perceive it.


So, when you perceive someone as threatening, or think your view of the world is the only correct view, you might consider whether you are looking at the vase or the faces.



*If you teach high school and want a resource for your students to read, or just want a deeper discussion of these issues for yourself, read: Letters To Vanessa: On Love, Science and Awareness in an Enchanted World, by Jeremy Hayward, physicist and Buddhist teacher. You might also read: The Butterfly’s Dream, by Zen teacher Albert Low.