When the News Feels Too Upsetting, Try Mindful Logic With Your Coffee

When you awake each morning dreading the news, it’s time to add mindful logic to your coffee. And its time for schools to teach how to think more empathically, clearly, and critically, with more understanding of one’s own mental and emotional state. Current events and election coverage classes are not a new idea. But what might be new is to do more than just listening to news media and testing students on superficial knowledge. Students can learn to analyze the news, discern lies, distortions and logical fallacies, as well as become more aware of how they respond to and are emotionally affected by a news item. They need to go beyond the mere memorization often pushed by standardized testing and actually imagine what the real people in a news item might be experiencing. By intellectually taking hold of the world they can feel a sense of power and will be more capable of acting meaningfully in it.


Of course, many might think this blasphemy. Supposedly, assigning students the task of analyzing and fact-checking the statements of politicians, for example, can lead to indoctrination. But how is the questioning of real people and events indoctrination? And what is the alternative? A politician running for office who, by most criteria and a simple use of Google, lies or distorts the truth about 90% of the time? To counteract indoctrination, teachers need to understand and reveal their own positions with care and humility, understanding that they might be wrong or missing something. ( I, for example, deplore the lies, misogynist statements and actions, and racist insinuations made by Donald Trump, e. g. about Judge Ganzalo Curiel.) They must teach the necessity of doubting any theory until it is questioned in some detail and shown to be well reasoned and supported, even a teacher’s position.


Students need to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions like: “Does the corporate media report more extensively on one candidate for office over another? What is the evidence for this?” And ask what happens to public discourse, what happens to the power of the public, when the truth is made to seem unimportant? What is the cost to the level of public discourse when politicians constantly lie and many Americans believe it?


Teachers need to appreciate, understand and explain the necessity for examining a diversity of viewpoints in forming an understanding of an issue. To get out of the way of a car speeding toward you on a street, you need to see it from the perspective of where your body is standing. But you must also understand the car and you must know what it can do. You must know it from its own perspective. To understand, you need this relationship of multiple perspectives. Once you leave behind exclusively taking the perspective with you at the center, you perceive and can think more clearly and with less bias.


Students can greatly benefit from learning how to recognize persuasion techniques and formal or informal fallacies, which can enable them to recognize how salespeople and political leaders try to sway their thinking. For example, there is the bandwagon technique in advertising or ad populum fallacy, which creates internal pressure to do something because everyone is doing it—or everyone you identify with. It is a version of peer pressure. Or ad hominem—which means, you attack the person and ignore what she says. Or you appeal to emotion, like fear or jealousy to distort thinking. If a statement is repeated frequently enough in a context you trust, you tend to believe it, even if there is little supportive evidence. There is overgeneralization, which is at the heart of prejudiced statements. The mere semblance of logic can be persuasive, as when someone adds “because” to a request (as in “can I please budge in line ahead of you because I get so nervous waiting on lines”) you are more likely to accede to what is being asked.


But you must be able to distinguish the mere semblance of logic from sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is both true, meaning it is based on evidence that is reliably verified. And the argument is valid, which means the position taken by the speaker follows logically or naturally from the statements offered as supportive evidence. Ask: What was actually said? What is your proof? Verify statements offered as supportive evidence through online and other resources, and not just with fact-check sites. You could discuss what is a fact and how it is different from an opinion or theory. Are the supposed facts really facts? You could teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.


Teach the following questions:

What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?

  1. Intent: What did she actually say? What did she mean by that? What might he have been feeling or what was his line of reasoning? What is the statement trying to convince you of? Is the statement consistent with other, previous statements? Is there evidence, for example, that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
  2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?


Researchers have argued that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates, as well as themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.


Students can be taught to mindfully recognize the speeded up heartbeat and breathing, the shakiness and sense of being pressured, as well as other sensations and thoughts which arise when they feel a threat or unconsciously distort what they hear, so they can let it go. When you listen to the news, hear what your mind and body say in response.


It is important both for your mental health and for acting as a responsible citizen to analyze the news with an understanding of your own mental-emotional state, your inclinations, desires, theories about the world, and how others influence you. This part of the curriculum needs to be expanded in our schools, or added if it is missing.


*For more assistance in teaching about the election, I recommend the article in Teaching Tolerance: Teach 2016. For more assistance in teaching critical thinking, see my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

How to Let Go of Stress and Save the World

It is easy to forget how your mental attitude affects the world you perceive. It is easy to get so stressed about the problems you perceive in the world and your lives that you can’t act or can’t clearly understand what you face. So not understanding stress can be a significant block to feeling good and acting skillfully.


What is stress? Many people think of it as a physiological response to a threat that you can’t control or shape. It is the fight-flight-freeze response, mostly the flight or freeze aspects. But it’s not just that. As Joseph LeDoux makes clear in his new book, Anxious: Understanding The Brain To Understand And Treat Fear And Anxiety, the feeling of fear and anxiety is not simply a physiological response. There is a cognitive component to it.


The physiological threat response arises to enable many different kinds of activities, from facing an actual physical threat, such as a knife-wielding robber, to when you think your sense of self is endangered. It can arise when you need to take a test, drive in traffic, talk with a friend about a difficult topic, or write a blog. It can underlie a great many emotions, like fear, worry, anxiety, jealousy and anger.


Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention and energy, what he calls the initial orienting response. The second is appraisal, which includes what we might call feeling and interpreting, labeling stimuli as good or bad, to approach or avoid. Memories enter the picture. The third step is your categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, fear. Without the initial signals to pay attention and to approach a task, motivation is absent; and learning, clear thinking is nearly impossible.


You can learn to notice what happens in your body as it occurs. If you don’t become aware of what is going on inside you, you can’t do anything about it. You can notice:

*Location: where the sensations of stress are in your body

*Quality: type of feeling you experience, like discomfort, pins and needles, squeezed or pressured, hot or cold.

*Intensity: strength.

*Direction of motivated action: do you feel like approaching, turning away, or being neutral?

*Mental attitude: what thoughts, images— what sense of who you are arises in your mind?


The threat response is thus the combination of awakened energy and attention, added to a sense of being uncomfortable, and the internal pressure to relieve it. Stress, at its earliest stage, is simply awakened energy. It is useful and necessary. What turns awakened energy into unwelcome stress is the interpretation or the stories you construct from the memories and sensations and situation. For example, do you think you are capable and strong enough to handle the situation?


Unwelcome stress is, thusly, meeting discomfort or any situation with resistance. It is being uncomfortable with discomfort, afraid of being afraid. Once you resist, your thinking gets further skewed, and limited. Emotional awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and images allows you to notice, recognize and thus let go of any emotion before it becomes overwhelming. It allows you to think and act with more clarity, speed, and concern for self and others.


Sometimes students express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “if I let go of my feelings, what would be left of me? My emotions are me.” On one level, this is the expression of fear of fear. On another level, mindfulness adds a level of awareness students might not be used to. However, when you let go of fearing fear and other emotions, you notice an even more authentic you, and a deeper realm of feeling.


To practice this mindful awareness, take a moment to sit up, possibly close your eyes, and turn inward for a moment. Maybe notice the air entering your nostrils as you breathe in—and breathe out. Or become aware of how your body, as in your shoulders or jaw, expands as you breathe in—and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. You might hear a thought and simply notice it as you breathe in—and let it go as you return your attention to breathing out. Simply take a breath or two, noticing what you do, and then open your eyes, stretch and return fully to the room—awake and refreshed.


You can use mindfulness whenever you want to clear your mind: before you enter a class, begin a project, a test, a heavy conversation, or make an important decision. Or when you want to appreciate something more deeply, let go of pain, or take political or social action to reduce inequity, injustice, or suffering.


In the US, being constantly busy supposedly signifies you are valued and important. But being on the go all the time means you don’t let your body fully settle. Mindfulness, especially when combined with compassion, gives you the opportunity to let your mind calm and quiet. It can help you discover what you truly feel and guide you through the thinking process. Doing it for just a few minutes at a time can help you better discern which actions are of the most benefit to you and others and help ”save” the world.

Bias and Distortions in Thinking

During a discussion with friends at a party, I voiced a not very original analysis that Donald Trump’s proposed economic policies posed a threat to the interests of his supporters from lower economic classes. A friend replied that was “just your opinion.” Trump’s supporters held a very different viewpoint. My viewpoint was supposedly biased against Trump and so I couldn’t see him clearly—but, of course, “we are all biased.”


If this was a class, I would ask students what exactly was an opinion, a theory, or a fact. Do these words have different, contrasting, meanings? If so, what are those differences? But this was a party and the discussion was interrupted and dissolved. This view, this meme, that we all have bias, can be ambiguous at best, and undermine critical thinking at worst. It could undermine the value of taking a position based on facts instead of opinions.


What is bias? What could it mean to say, “Everyone is biased?” Or, “all viewpoints are biased?” ‘Bias’ is sometimes used in a way that is almost synonymous with having a perspective. We always speak and act from a particular perspective and all perspectives have limits. No one is omniscient. So, in this case, yes, everyone has bias. It couldn’t be otherwise. So, why even use the word ‘bias’ instead of ‘perspective’?


One student argued in a very insightful manner that ‘bias’ can simply mean a preference. This meaning, however, could run into the same difficulties as ‘perspective.’ ‘Bias’ can also mean, according to my Encarta Dictionary, “an unfair preference for or dislike of something” or “to influence someone or something unfairly.” Bias is not simply any preference but an “unfair” one. In statistics, ‘bias’ means “a distortion of a set of results.” To be biased can also mean to be prejudiced. Why do people use ‘bias’ instead of ‘preference’? Probably because of the emotional charge, which comes not from the meaning of ‘perspective’ or ‘preference’ but from ‘distorted’ or ‘prejudiced.’ You can’t say you want the emotional charge of a word and deny the implications or connotations that come with that charge.


And the fact that all perspectives are limited does not mean that all are biased. Limited is not the same as distorted. If it were, then it would imply that everyone acts unfairly or is prejudiced, which would undermine any effort to act against distortion/unfairness/prejudice. You need humility and understanding in the face of the limited nature of your viewpoint. You need clearer observation, more careful analysis, more reliable sources of information, and possibly more self-awareness and empathy in the face of distortion.


Saying “everyone is biased” also creates logical problems. It implies an “irrefutable situation” in which non-biased viewpoints are impossible. “A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is nonscientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.” (Karl Popper, Philosopher of Science) Likewise, “If a word’s meaning includes everything, then it means nothing. If a theory can’t possibly be proven wrong, then it is actually useless.” Since meaning is a function of being able to make distinctions, to say “everyone is biased” has no meaning.


And we clearly need to make distinctions, including between opinions, distortions of facts, and demonstrable facts. We are constantly forming viewpoints and emotions based both on what we hear and how we listen. When we distort the situation around us, we tightly restrict the information we allow into our awareness. Our emotional health, and maybe our political rights and power, might depend on our learning how to spot logical gaps, check the truthfulness of statements, read our own body responses, and be aware of when we listen openly and when we close our ears and eyes—and are aware of when our thinking is distorted, unfair, biased.

Teaching Writing and Discovering Who You Are

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. Why not start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well or to write at all?”


Even more, you can ask yourself: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. When writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.


I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic, as if it would rob them of their creativity. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. It feels reassuring to “just write” or just get something down on a page.


It’s helpful to ask students directly how they approach writing, what works for them and what is most difficult, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.


Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, offer a form to guide them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, show students an old, pre-computer scriptwriting process, that involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plot line. You could adapt this to a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.


Underneath their resistance to writing might be a lack of trust in their intellect or they might not be able to focus attention enough to hold onto and clearly hear their own ideas. In that case, I explain that writing can be part of thinking. The purpose of brainstorming is to allow you to work with your brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to simply getting down a first draft. But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information. Start by assigning meaningful topics or questions to write about or get students involved in creating the topics. Then use prompts to help students understand the question or assignment: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”


Then brainstorm how to approach the question: “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say? What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into your confusion, it unravels.


When you brainstorm, just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. Write what you hear, hear what you write. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful writing practice called proprioceptive writing, developed by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It also asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.


Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion and questioning. Then you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” You can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice and have them speak to each other. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with. Then insight and understanding comes more easily to them. Then you test what you think is correct.


When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.


*For more information on teaching writing and on a process of thinking creatively, critically, and with compassion, see my newly released book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Question Authority! Taking Questions Deeply Enough

A question can be beautiful and exciting. A good question can be a gift. In education, for example, when a teacher asks students a real, honest question, it can fire up a real and honest discussion. Such questions are at the heart of education. To notice such a question you must be at least part way to an answer. The question reveals that, and possibly what, you don’t know.


“Question authority” can be a powerful and useful slogan. It can mean you can and should challenge, not automatically believe in, the power and viewpoint of those people in positions of power, whether it be institutional, social, or personal. It means you can question and challenge those who are charismatic and those you put on a pedestal or highly admire.


To question does not mean to denigrate but to elucidate the meaning, test the accuracy and applicability, or to do justice to the person or concept and reveal implications. There are different questions you ask when you doubt the truth of a statement, and those you ask when you simply want more understanding.


Sometimes, a question is asked facetiously, or to end or divert a discussion, so not all questions are honest, or insightful. I remember students taking “Question Authority” to mean there are no authorities; no one’s viewpoint has any more truth-value than anyone else’s. I think that all questions asked in a classroom should be heard; but the level of understanding of those with little or no experience in an area of life is rarely as deep or broad as those with actual experience, or who have extensively studied a subject.


To question that anyone who has experience in an area of life has a viewpoint that deserves a little more weight than someone without that experience, is to deny the value of experience and learning—is to deny there are truths to learn. The value of life itself can be undermined. Authority is not only a person in power but also a source of reliable information or truths, accurate observations and such. “What do you mean by ‘truth’” is one question a teacher must not ignore.


Sometimes, a question does not go deeply enough. People often question only up to the point of reinforcing their own, old viewpoint. A person, for example, might question whether the views of a climate scientist are biased by their science and not question how their own views are biased. They might inquire into what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails but not wonder what might be revealed by Mr. Trump’s emails or tax returns. They might question that teachers with experience with a student might be able to objectively describe the student’s learning, but not question the value of a score on a test created by an educational corporation. One of the most important times to question is when you assume your own viewpoint is the one and only truth.


‘Authority’ comes from ‘author’ or ‘creator,’ ‘originator.’ So when you assume your own ability to think, question, act, and you learn how to monitor and let go of thoughts and emotions, you are an authority. In Buddhism and mindfulness training, the meditator is taught to doubt any explanation, any conceptual thought, but not lose faith in one’s ability to understand—to doubt the thought until one’s awareness and clarity of mind and heart is sharpened.


Empathy is needed to take in, value and learn from other viewpoints. And a little humility regarding your assumptions or naming of what is true can be extremely useful. Such humility does not undermine your ability to think and act but enlivens it. Understanding, as Paulo Freire (and opposed to Professor Gradkind in the novel Hard Times by Dickens) and others have argued, is not like depositing money in the bank, not a thing to posses. It is more of a relationship, a guide, a clarity and a spark. It is not a wall to keep you or anyone else out but a hand to hold. Your understanding of the world and yourself is constantly changing, flowing. You need to make your questions into vehicles to help you navigate and work with the flow, not dam it up.