An Open Mind

 

I was recently meditating, at home, in the early afternoon. Outside, intense snow squalls alternated with a few minutes of sunshine. Schools started two hours late that morning because of the weather, and before meditating I had wondered if the after-school class that I was supposed to teach would be cancelled. I concentrated on my breath and soon became calm and focused and lost all sense of school and snow. Then the phone rang. My wife picked it up somewhere in the house. I couldn’t hear the conversation but knew it was the school calling about the class and I began to wonder, again, if it would be cancelled. I tried to return my focus to the breath, but couldn’t do it by increasing my concentration. So, I tried another strategy. I made my response and interest in the call the object of awareness. I simply noticed what was there, in me, without judging it. That did it. My mind calmed.

 

By shifting attention to what was there in my own mind and body, and being open to it, my mind became the state of openness. The result was both calm and insight.

 

Why do I have this drive to have an answer? To know is to hold information in mind and be able to use that information, to comprehend and own in myself. Even more, it is a drive for a concept to fit reality into, or this is one way to understand it. In the past, I thought that the drive for answers was a common and primal human drive. It was part of learning and growing up; humans were naturally driven to better understand the world and themselves—unless it was educated out of them. And putting what you knew into words to form a worldview was part of developing an identity.

 

You create explanations and stories to order your life. Having an explanation of any sort is often more important than its accuracy. Thus, you feel uncomfortable when you don’t-know. You take it as something missing, a lack, a hole in your universe. You then hate not-knowing, as it leads you to worry or feel anxious. Part of the joy of solving puzzles or watching a mystery movie is that, for a moment, you feel the anxiety of not-knowing, but in a controlled way. You prove to yourself that this situation can be faced and overcome. It is like an inoculation against fear. The puzzle creates just enough anxiety that by solving the puzzle you demonstrate your control over not-knowing.

 

But this day, I realized this explanation was not enough. I dislike not-knowing only to the degree that I am wedded to an outcome or idea, only to the degree that I cling to one answer, fear another, or think I am only capable of handling certain types of situations.

 

It is easy to cling to ideas, and think knowing is only about putting experiences into words. You value the memory over the “thing” or experience itself, the story about your trip to Africa in the past over the experience of a moment of your life right now. And by focusing so much on the words and explanations, you easily lose perspective on the important role not-knowing plays in your life.

 

There is a second type of not-knowing, an experience of your world being fully there, alive, not lacking. Every moment begins with this not-knowing. If the present moment were known and put into words, it would already be past. Daniel Siegel and other neuroscientists describe stages in the formation of emotion. The first is an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Only later is memory activated, energy directed, liking and disliking begun, emotion and meaning created. In this sense, not-knowing is a step you need to go through to learn and understand anything. It is your original contact with the world. It is a non-verbal or incommunicable sort of knowing, the taste, the touch, the joy and agony of a body twisting in space, the rush of concentrated attention. 

 

In Buddhism, not-knowing is to perceive without preconceived ideas. It is to hold what you know lightly, and to put observation and experience before concept. It is a silence of concept mind so you can hear the world more clearly.

 

In the first sense of knowing, where you emphasize knowing as conceptualizing, you can miss, not fully engage in, the only moment you ever live in, the present. Your life becomes a memory, a story or explanation, and is lived almost secondhand. It is something you read about in your own mind or listen for in the words of others, not what you live each moment.

 

When you understand yourself in this almost secondhand manner, you cling to ideas and it is easier to get into energetic disagreements about points of view. When you think you know and have the explanation of an event, you feel in control. When you threaten a person’s explanation, you threaten their world. And when people in power and in the headlines manipulate information, say one thing and mean something entirely different, and lie repeatedly, even obviously, they are attempting to take away your power by undermining your sense that there is a clear reality out there. They can create psychological and social chaos. The lie is not just a lie. It is an attempt to undermine your sense of control over your life. It is an attempt to get you to live as if your life were a memory. With a truth, you can have a two-way conversation; a lie is an attempt to make it one-way.

 

To not-know in the second way, you can’t be manipulated so easily because you welcome and are fully present in your immediate experience. Thus, to be open to whatever arises in your mind, body and the world around you, and to be able to utilize both forms of knowing and not-knowing, is a revolutionary act. To face your fear and anxiety is a form of resistance to the powerful. It is to return to where all action begins and all thought is born. And that is a very powerful state.

 

*Two Resources Relevant to This Post:

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self, by Rodney Smith

 

The Gap Between What You Can Know and What You Can’t

How much can we know? And how do we deal with that limitation, if there is one?

 

Such old questions. Yet, occasionally, when I’m quiet inside and the world seems to slow down, I hear the remnants of these questions stirring in me. For example, just last night, I was thinking about the book I just completed. I worked on it for three years and it is scheduled to be published on September 30th. But, I still don’t really believe it. It is the third book I have written, and the first to be published. Yet, how it happened is mysterious to me. Mysterious not in the sense that I have no idea how I wrote the book or no idea of all the work, inspiration, joy and heartache that went into it. But, in the sense that despite all that intimate knowledge of what I did, I still feel “Wow, I did that!” I still wonder if it is really going to happen.

 

And so much of what it took surprised me. I thought a book was one person’s creation. Yet when you add all the people who edited, gave feedback, who were my students, colleagues, teachers, inspirations, and then add the publisher, etc.—how many people is that?

 

And how is it that I know how to write a clear, grammatical sentence (usually) and yet the book required several people over several months to sharpen the writing and eliminate mistakes?

 

Trying to understand is one of the biggest drives a human being has, so we are always trying to figure things out. And I don’t just mean things like about how my book will be received, but everyday things like how to set up a rain barrel system in my house or learn the best route to my brother’s new home in Virginia. And in the Presidential election, we watch polls to see what the future will bring. We research and try to understand who the candidates are so we can make good decisions about who to vote for and who will help us secure the future we think will serve us best. We do the same with doctors, places to vacation, bikes to ride, shirts to wear. We try to predict the weather and understand our friends and pets.

 

We often think knowing and understanding means to be able to predict, control, dominate and make safe, that it is linked to our drive to survive, possess and secure. We think it means to encapsulate in words. And that once we have created such a capsule of understanding or knowledge, it is the correct one. We seem to think that our mental models of reality are the one and only truth. And this truth will set us free. The internal pressure to replace the unknown and mysterious with the known and explained has led to both great technical and scientific advances and also violence and oppression.

 

Due to a limited perspective on what understanding means, many people try to fill the gap between what we can know and what we can’t with undigested or untested beliefs, often mistaking such beliefs for truth. We might be tempted to try to replace what we can’t know with a willful ignorance that masks wish fulfillment or shoddy thinking. We can do this with religion, politics, intellectual systems or relationships.

 

We need to recognize the limits of our knowing and control. We can’t know everything, but it is fun, important, and sometimes a responsibility, to learn and understand or think things through as deeply as we can. We can’t predict the future, although we can, to an extent, prepare for it. We can’t predict or control what our friends or loved ones or pets will do; yet we can be helpful, kind and caring. We can’t know when or how we will die, but we can live as fully, healthfully, and meaningfully as we can. We can’t pave over the unknown with the known, but we can be aware of when the attempts to do so lead to suffering.

 

We need to be able to live with and be mindfully aware of not-knowing. We need a little more humility, and a little less clinging to our mental formulations. We need to know how to tolerate, learn from, and let go of discomfort and other ways we hurt ourselves. We need to tolerate and even value some mystery, not mystification. The sense of mystery is a sense of the aliveness of life. When a person feels mysterious to us, we could be realizing they have an inner world of their own. That who they are exceeds our expectations, exceeds what we know, exceeds what we want of them. Any person or living being is so much more than what we want for or from them or words about them. And this mystery, this life, is what’s ultimately most important. It involves a very different sort of knowing, living, loving.

Meditation and Exercise: For Clearer Thinking and Better Health

Meditation has been shown to improve your health as well as thinking. It can help students catch up in school, overcome adversity, and improve their mental and emotional outlook. It can help stressed and aging adults live better, be happier and think more clearly.

 

Two well.blogs from the New York Times make these points very clearly. The first, by Norman E. Rosenthal, talks about meditation as one element that can help students overcome the achievement gap between children in inner city schools and those in more affluent districts. Meditation helps these students overcome the higher stress levels they face and gives them the advantage of an improved ability to focus attention and regulate emotion.  Of course, improving the funding of their schools and the job-economic situation in their communities would also be a great help.

 

Gretchen Reynolds writes about how yoga and meditation combined can improve mood and mental function as you age. The two practices go together well. In my own practice, I usually do some yoga, aerobics, and Karate each morning before I meditate. The exercise helps my alertness and overall sense of well-being, which assists the meditation. The meditation helps me maintain a deep focus and enjoyment in my exercise (and in everything else I do).

 

This mutual benefit should not be a surprise. Mind and body are inseparable except in the conceptual frameworks held by many of us. Meditation is living the reality of how everything, what we call mind, body, environment, and others arise together, interdependently. No mind without a breathing body. No breathing without an earthly environment. No self without others. And no teacher without students.

 

Meditation is not a panacea but it does help those who practice it, students, teachers, whomever. It could help teachers not only relate better to their students and improve their performance in the classroom, but stay in the profession longer. Our society could greatly benefit right now by the increased understanding of interdependence that meditation can develop. So, why not do it? In fact, why not include meditation and yoga programs in teacher-training schools? Administrators are looking for ways to retain experienced teachers—this might be one part of a solution (along with better pay, more support, and improved school culture—but that’s another blog).

 

*The photo is the entrance to the track in Olympus, Greece,.

 

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.

Root Beliefs

When someone says something to you that seems outrageously wrong and you want to jump onto his back and pound him, or at least leap onto his words and pound them, consider this first. What beliefs or assumptions about the nature of reality that you hold is he threatening? What beliefs or assumptions of his are behind his statements? You might think his reasoning needs correction or her factual knowledge is deficient. But what might instead be the culprit is her cosmology or “meta-narrative,” meaning the central story that he tells himself to make sense of the world. And if so, your response won’t reach him unless you take that into account.

 

You aren’t going to change someone’s belief system in one conversation, and attacking that belief system will just lead to defensive behavior. No one likes having their God or favorite story threatened. To do so threatens a person’s whole sense of self and reality.

 

For example, if you believe that there is a male God who favors the rich, and politically and economically powerful, you are likely to believe what these people say even if it is absurd. According to this viewpoint, it is not the institutions, economic and legal systems of a particular society that favor certain people to gain riches. It is nature itself that puts these people in their position. Another form of this cosmology is presented by Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher who has influenced a great many Republican political leaders. For Rand, altruism and compassion are signs of weakness and are unhealthy, immoral, even evil. In her book, The Voice of Reason, she said that altruism is a “monstrous notion.”  “It is the morality of cannibals devouring one another. It is a theory of profound hatred for man, for reason, for achievement, for any form of human success and happiness on earth.” To help someone else, she argued, especially if the act is dangerous, is immoral because it would show a lack of esteem for your self. It would be putting someone’s interest above your own, thus degrading you. Governments not only cannot, but should not, help the poor, sick, and elderly, who are to be considered killers of growth. Those who take anything from the government are looting from everyone else. It is the poor who exploit the rich, not the other way around. Christian calls to help the needy, or the image of Jesus as compassionate, are likewise notions that promote immorality. If you believe Rand, you treat those who are on Social Security or Medicare as looters, and those people who want to reduce their college debt as immoral, wanting to steal from the coffers of the brave bankers who loaned them money.

 

The fact that such beliefs reduce each person to a fortress at war not only with everyone else but nature itself is not a result to be deplored but just the way the world works. For Rand, happiness results from acting in tune with this reality.

 

I fundamentally disagree with this viewpoint. It often leads to a disquieting tendency to react defensively, not to what I’d call happiness. Contemporary neuroscience describes a “negativity bias” in our brain and perceptual system. We react to the mere possibility of a threat to our selves or even to our self-image, to pain or negative experience, more quickly than to positive experiences. Our fight-flight-freeze response activates quickly. In fact, during the course of a normal day, our thoughts might center on one negative or threatening comment and gloss over the far more numerous positive experiences. Rand’s philosophy reinforces this negative reactivity.

 

Happiness, whether in the form of joy or overall well-being, only appears as this negativity ends. According to neuroscience, one of the greatest sources of happiness is a close, caring relationship, a relationship where you value the other person as highly as yourself. Where you can let down your guard and relax. It’s difficult to feel happy when you feel everyone around you is primarily motivated by the thought of taking from you whatever you have. Helping others increases self-esteem. It leads you to feel you have something valuable to give and the other is worth your attention. It strengthens the ties between people. How you feel about others and the world includes how you feel about yourself. You value others and in turn feel valued.

 

But if you can’t speak at the level of these core beliefs in a conversation with someone you disagree with, what do you do? Instead of attacking what divides you, think of what you share. Think from a place of agreement so you can reach some agreement. Use language that doesn’t set off a sense of threat.

 

George Lakoff, in his book, The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant, gives a guide to do just that. You can’t say to someone “don’t think of an elephant” and imagine they won’t think of an elephant. Likewise, to say “Ayn Rand is wrong” or this idea is evil, you strengthen the idea you oppose in the mind of the people you are speaking with. Instead, use the language and metaphors that a person values in order to expose the implications or perspective they hadn’t considered.

 

Borrowing again from Lakoff, think of “freedom.” Rand and other conservatives speak frequently about freedom. Ask them to imagine that they want to walk on a beach, but it’s owned by a rich person who fences it off from the public. They want good medical care but can’t get it because they don’t have the money. Or they want to attend college but it’s too expensive. What then happens to their freedom? Whose freedom is supported by the belief that the rich are favored by God? Are the rich to be allowed to deny these freedoms to others?

 

In an important way, we inhabit the world we believe is true and live the story (or the consequences of the story) about reality that we tell ourselves. If we believe that the only way to be free and get what we need is to seize it, no matter the consequences for others or the environment, then others are unlikely to respond to us with love and friendship. If we put up strong walls, then it’s unlikely anyone will get inside with us. Happiness is reduced to the thrill of defending our isolation. But society is a relationship amongst all its members. The quality of society and of our happiness will depend on how much we respect and value each other and value caring relationships.

“Who Am I?” Ironies About Self

There are many ironies about feeling good about yourself and knowing who you are. For example, you might think of your identity as who you are. You might think the more you stand out, the more you are you. Yet, the more you stand out, the more lonely you might feel. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out who I was, what my skills were, how I was unique, and thought that the more unique I was, the more others would like or love me. Yet, the root of ‘identity’ is ‘idem,’ meaning ‘same’ or like others. And one definition of self, in psychology, is how we see ourselves from the point of view of others. To be different, to stand out, you must be connected. To be unique, you must be unique in relation to something or someone(s). The philosopher Martin Buber said there is no ‘I’ without others. I agree.

 

So does neuroscience. When not occupied or engaged in a task, psychologist Mathew Lieberman says our brains turn to social concerns. Whether it’s integrating previous experiences with others or planning for future ones, a good part of our mental space, when alone, is thinking about others. The neurologist James Austin talks about the natural discursive quality of mind: we are often talking with ourselves, engaged in an “inner” conversation, when not in conversation with others. Our sense of self changes depending on the situation, who we are with or who we imagine we are with. The part of the brain that oversees social-emotional concerns, thinking and planning, the prefrontal cortex, is also the part of the brain that takes the longest to develop in each of us. It is an area highly developed in humans compared to other species. Humans were able to survive by developing not only a large brain but a social one. The larger our social groups, the larger our brains needed to be.

 

And whether you realize it or not, relationships, especially loving ones, are one of the greatest sources of happiness. These are most satisfying when you feel genuine, when you don’t have to “put up a front” or be someone you aren’t. You feel best with others who can see or hear you. You can be spontaneous and feel loved or appreciated no matter what. This is one element of what might attract you to someone. What makes the person attractive is a combination of their uniqueness and their ability to see or hear your uniqueness. What makes me most myself is what makes me able to hear others, or to be, to some degree, selfless.

 

One element of being “in flow” or fully, joyfully, engaged in a task, is that “you” are forgotten. You don’t think of the past or future or what others might say about you. You are focused entirely on what you are doing. You are focused on, filled by, one moment of life. Every one of us knows how wonderful such moments are and how destructive concerns of self image, failure or success can be. Yet, you need a sense of self to even step off a curb and cross a street.

 

A Zen Master named Dogen said, “…to study the self is to forget the self, and to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things….” Think about this. It is not just about “forgetting” but enlightening. When you are most empty of your expectations, worries, you are most able to take in “all things,” to appreciate others, to feel and enjoy what you experience. To be most full, you must be most empty. To study the self is to study how I am others, and others are me.

 

Feeling “off” or discontented, or that you are missing something, is feeling there is an intermediary or a distance between yourself and now, between awareness and the object of awareness. Feeling fully alive, “on,” is feeling there is no boundary, that you can deal with whatever comes up, that whatever arises can teach you something. It is feeling this very moment, in fact, all of your life, is worth living, not something to distance from or deny. Feeling “on” is enjoying the ironies of self.