Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat

How do you teach when so many people feel and are threatened and the federal government is controlled by people who do not have your well-being in mind? How would growing up in this age, with this minority-elected President, influence your children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, Muslim or a Jewish person, female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by a teacher’s response, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but how others respond to their actions. Your response is your freedom. Schools can begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.

 

In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. I asked: “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”

 

“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”

 

“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”

 

Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?

 

If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, ask them to close their eyes and answer in their own mind the following questions: What does ‘kindness’ mean to you? What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘kindness’? What does it look like? How do you feel when someone is kind to you? Who could you be kind to today and how would you do it? Then ask them to record and then share with the class what came to mind.

 

Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. Ask students: How do you face what is difficult? Deconstruct what happens when you feel stressed, threatened, or anxious. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.

 

Ask: What happens to your breathing when stressed? When stressed, your breathing gets more shallow and quick. When you notice this, deliberately take one–three longer, deeper breaths before you consider what actions to take.

 

What about your thoughts? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, or of being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. The novelist, G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life.

 

The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. To teach this, you could have mindful moments in your classroom, where you ask students to close their eyes for a moment, and allow themselves to be aware of their breathing. Or start a class with a moment of silence. Or, if you practice mindfulness, start the day with a mindfulness practice. Always practice on your own before you do it with students. If you haven’t already done so, study how to lead students in such practices.

 

Say to students: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and at ease, and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry.

 

Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. You might focus on your shoulders. Simply notice your shoulders rise as you breathe in. And relax, settle down, as you breathe out. Then go to another place in the body. Notice how you body expands as you breathe in, and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. Notice also any thoughts. They are part of the water flowing. If your mind drifts away, or you lose focus on the breath, simply notice it. When you notice something, it means you are found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that. Just notice what arises with the inhalation, and let it go with the exhalation.

 

Take another, deep breath, open your eyes, and return your awareness to the classroom. Ask them to: look round and notice how you feel now. And then write in a journal or share how the experience was for them. Did they notice their thoughts or sensations? Do they feel more relaxed now then they did before?

 

You could ask students: What actions can you take to change their community or the nation to be a better place? How could they help others? By taking action, students feel empowered.

 

If physical exercise isn’t part of the school day or your day, add it somehow. It grounds you. Fear closes you off, divides you. When you engage both the mind and body, you feel whole, more patient, confident and you think more clearly. Take a walk in the woods, study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss with students, “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.

 

What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?

 

**This blog was also published by the Bad Ass Teachers Blogspot.

 

 

 

 

Remember Those Who Taught Us About Love

It is Mother’s Day. Last year, I tried to forget about the holiday, until I read some touching posts on Facebook. My Mom died 10 years ago, yet every Mother’s Day I still have an 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 my Mother’s Day urge as merely a habitual reminder to buy a card, to call or visit, until this year.

I now think the 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; it is 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 didn’t talk about empathy and compassion but showed it. 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 sister-in-law, Mimi. My Mom even helped bring my brother, 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 the terminal trying to find Mimi a ride home. Mimi was greatly impressed and touched 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. I am visiting with him this week. 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 and appreciating others are basic necessities for a good life and a good education. It is because of these feelings, because of such relationships, that a society grows and survives. I hope we can all remember this, re-feel this, on Mother’s Day and beyond.

 

Why Not Practice Mindfulness?

I just read a great article on how teaching mindfulness and social-emotional awareness to students improves the atmosphere and learning in a classroom or a whole school. There is also an interesting website (WKCD- What Kids Can Do) that the founding principal of my former school, Dr. Dave Lehman, recommended, which provides student views on how social-emotional learning greatly impacted their lives. I recommend both resources. I also recommend the practice of mindfulness.

 

In discussing “why practice mindfulness” with people, I frequently say, “Why not?” Most people I know sincerely want to do something positive with their lives, want to help their students or fellow workers and friends. So, why not do it?

 

“It’s too hard,” some people say. Or “I don’t have the time. How can I fit it in?” It is difficult to rearrange your schedule. That’s often true. But I also know that the times I doubt myself, feel in emotional pain, get lost in worry and anxiety, can take way too much time. Would it be worth putting five minutes into mindfulness so you spend five minutes less worrying?

 

And five minutes is all you need to get started. After you get up in the morning and stretch, or after you take a shower but before you eat. Or when you get home from work, and need quiet time for your self to let go of or process the events of the day. For five minutes, do nothing but a little mindfulness.

 

Then some people say, “Mindfulness is just a way to forget pain, forget the oppression in the world, to be selfish.” Acting to reduce oppression, inequity, injustice is important work. But what happens if you can’t recognize how hate, fear, or the desire for revenge affects your thinking? Do you want to have people leading a movement who have no insight into what drives them and little ability to control their emotion? Emotion can be a motivator for action, but it needs to be observed with some clarity and focus so your thinking can be clear and focused. When you do compassion practices, you don’t just develop compassion for yourself. You are readied to act for the well-being of others.

 

“I don’t know how to do it. You had a background in meditation; I don’t.” It’s true. I meditated for many years before I used it in classes, or used it regularly in classes. However, how many times do you use a technique at work or in a class that you were taught to use but had little experience with? Or you read about but hadn’t tried more than a few times? So, why not do the same with mindfulness and emotional awareness? The important point with mindfulness is that you practice it on your own, before, during, and after you do it with your students. It’s important that you don’t pretend to be other than who you are. If you are just learning, share that with students. But you need to also open yourself to continuous learning. You take classes. You read books. You find an experienced teacher. And you listen to your students or fellow workers and learn from them how to teach them.

 

You don’t do mindfulness to forget the world. You don’t do mindfulness to improve grade scores or productivity or even to reduce anxiety. You do it just to do it. You do it because of what happens in you when your attention is focused clearly on what you are doing and nothing else. As a result, it just happens to be true that you think more clearly and deeply and you feel better about your abilities. It just so happens that you appreciate your life more.

 

By taking action to change your life, just doing little things, you learn how to take action in other areas. You learn you can act.

 

So, how do you begin? Close your eyes and just feel your breath. Feel the air entering your body. Feel the sensations in your body of taking a breath in, and out. Your body makes slight adjustments with each stage of the breath. Notice those adjustments and changes. How does it feel to breathe in and out? Or open your eyes. Look outside right now. Here, now, it is morning, and raining. When I look at the sky, I see places that look almost black, others gray and hazy. And one place where a little sunlight appears. I see drops of rain strike the window. Each drop, for barely a second, is one with the window, a tiny dome that reflects what’s around it—colors, shapes. Or put your hand on the window and just feel the window—the temperature, the texture, the hardness or softness, how your hand coheres to the window. If its raining at your home like it is at mine, hear the raindrop against the glass. Notice how you feel when you focus intently on the raindrop. How does it feel when you listen to and hear the rain hitting the window or dropping onto the street or the roof of your house?  Just calmly notice what you observe. Then return your attention to your breath.

 

If a thought arises, notice it like you noticed the raindrop, with open interest. Watch it, then move on to the next moment, of rain or whatever. When you do this, rain will no longer be only something to resist, an interference. Instead, it will be something to observe, appreciate and learn from. By doing this, your life will continuously be something to take in and appreciate and learn from.

 

That’s one way to begin.

 

If you’d like more resources, check out my links page and:

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques To Develop Inner Strength in Children, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions, by Amy Saltzman

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, by Ira Rabois (Soon to be published.)

Teaching About Grief

Grief is painful. No getting around that. So how do you face it? You can’t ignore it; or you can try to ignore it, but then it comes back to you in unforeseen ways.

 

Teaching students about their own emotions, especially painful ones like grief, is one of the most important studies a school can provide. By facing what is difficult, painful, even fearful you learn you can do it. You are empowered. But it must be done in a way that honors the value of the emotion as well as the student’s own experience with the emotion. Each emotion has a use, although the usefulness of the emotion can be easily lost when you get caught up in it. Teaching about emotion must be done with heart and sensitivity, so the discussion is real—but not so real that a student suffering their own grief feels overwhelmed. The teacher must first study his or her own emotional nature before asking the same of students.

 

When you feel grief, it can be so powerful that you lose sight of the fact that it, like everything, comes and goes. It can feel like it defines who you are. If your thoughts and feelings of the person you lost can come and go, then they are not all of who you are. There is something more. What is it? Meditation provides a way to study emotion moment by moment. When you take a few breaths, and allow yourself to mindfully notice whatever arises in your mind, you find an answer.

 

One book that helped me deal with grief is Leaning Into Love: A Spiritual Journey Through Grief, by Elaine Mansfield. The author shows you how to face grief and learn from it. She shows you grief is part of love. You grieve because you love. It is not something to hide away. By facing it head on you learn to live and to love head on.

 

I feared her book would depress me. Instead, it filled me with life. Elaine’s writing is direct and honest. She goes into detail about the last years and seconds of her husband Vic’s life and the three years that followed. She gives us her life as an example and thus guides us in fashioning our own lives. She shows us the importance of friends and ritual in facing grief. She shows us her feelings so we can feel our own.

 

At one point, she describes the moments after Vic’s death. Ms. Mansfield says, “Even though his hands and feet are cold, warmth emanates from his heart.” I felt like crying. Maybe I was beginning to feel, not just hear her words. That warmth made the loss and the importance of living honestly so real. What a gift!

 

I taught the novel Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, published in 1976, in a high school English class. Although the book portrays an upper middle class life many students thought was fading away, the insight it presents into the importance of facing your feelings as honestly as you can is extremely valuable. Fear of emotion made one of the characters in the novel turn away from grief and turn away from her family. The novel thus gives students insight into how emotion shapes experience and opens the classroom to discussions of grief, guilt, depression and love. It also presents a very positive view of psychotherapy.

 

Grief reveals the intensity of loss. It can lead to obsessive thoughts and anxiety, but it is not just pain. It is a valuable and necessary part of healing and living. It requires time. It can be a mirror to reveal how your mind and emotion works. Grief can give the moments of your life tremendous feeling and meaning and thus studying it can give a class tremendous meaning. And this is one function a good education should fulfill. We can learn to better help each other face the pain, and joy, of living together.

 

*Photo of cave in Cappadocia, Turkey.

The Story and the Reality

A big event occurs. You graduate from high school or college, you win the lottery, get married, and what do you expect next from your life? You imagine the joy of seeing the winning numbers going on forever. You imagine the ceremony, the parties, the honeymoon. But after the celebrating, what then? Do you imagine cleaning the house? Taking out the trash?

 

We expect the world would be changed or we would be changed. That the quality of our experience of life would be better, heightened, maybe. Or the quality of our mind would be different. And it is, but not like we expected. We are always changing. But we easily get caught up in the idea or the story we tell ourselves and miss the reality.

 

Daniel Kahneman described this as a “focusing illusion.” When we’re thinking about the wedding or the graduation, it is big, tremendous. When we’re in school, we might think that, when we graduate, life will be so different. Or we’re in love and imagine that, once the love is celebrated and wrapped in the marriage license, we will feel more secure and loved. But what we find is a new moment and a new day. We forget about adaptation, getting used to living with a spouse or getting used to the job or whatever it is we do after graduation.

 

We forget where feelings come from. We think the person we love creates the love. We think the achievement creates the thrill of success. We forget that to feel loved one must love. To be touched, one must touch. Jack Kornfield wrote a book called After The Ecstasy, The Laundry. We can even view enlightenment, whatever that is, in the same way. “Once I get enlightened, all will be different.” Or, “If only I’d get enlightened…”

 

All we ever have are moments. Hopefully, most of these will be spent with more clarity than confusion, more compassion than anger, more love than greed. When I first fell in love with Linda, the woman I eventually married, I wrote a poem in which I described her as “the apple-mad lady with a third eye.” We built a little cabin in an orchard and sold apples with friends and made apple cider. I saw her as almost a goddess. Guess what? Neither of us was either divine or, thank God, even an approximation of perfection. Our feet were very much made of clay, or skin and bones, and we made mistakes. Yet, luckily, we stayed together.

 

A marriage agreement* proclaims (I hope) that you will, henceforth, be real with each other. What first attracted you to the other person will eventually become an obstacle to really seeing the other for who she or he is. Once the illusion is over, some retreat; some mistake this as a signal to leave the relationship. But really, this is the moment of awakening. Now you are real, to see what was always there; now you see yourself and the other for what you both are, not for what you wanted from the other, not for your own projection. The other can be seen to exceed whatever you can think, explain or contain. As you affirm your commitment, you affirm not only the relationship, but you take yourself to a deeper level. The other is accepted and you are accepted, too. The same with a graduation ceremony, getting a new job, whatever.

 

As we let go of trying to contain reality or to protect ourselves with ideas, the richness of our life expands. We learn to trust ourselves to an unanticipated depth. The storytelling about our lives continues. But we recognize ourselves clearly as the storyteller, not the story.

 

 

*This is adapted from the text of an original marriage ceremony I performed and inspired by a Carl Jung analysis of the anima/animus archetypes.

 

Motivate Without Anxiety

How do you motivate students to do well without creating anxiety over performance? Many teachers I know report increasing anxiety in their students. I wrote about this briefly in an earlier blog, about the link between the 3Cs (commitment, control and challenge) and decreasing stress, and I will discuss this in more detail soon. But first, what is anxiety?

 

To understand what a student feels, place yourself in their position. Bring up in your mind a time you felt anxious, especially about learning, or not understanding something, or taking a test. What does anxiety feel like? Where do you feel it? Notice, for example, how your heart feels. Notice your belly, shoulders, hands, and your body temperature. Do you feel warm or cold? How fast or slow does your mind work? What images come to mind? What thoughts? And, what conclusions do you draw from these observations?

 

Many students report their hands clench; they sweat. Their heart and thoughts race. It is the flight-fight-freeze response. They replay scenarios of the future over and over again. They hear condemnation from others. They imagine that a situation is arising or will arise they can’t handle. Maybe they feel no control. Maybe they feel they are just not capable enough. They feel their understanding of self fading away. They think other people have an image of them that is bad or unlikable and feel weighed down by this seemingly imposed image. They feel like turning away but can’t.

 

Anxiety is about feeling disconnected and not in control. It is losing the sense of the present by looking to the future and fearing judgment. And it’s not just about school. All students, but especially those prone to anxiety, need support, maybe even need a refuge. Since they have a fragile sense of being present, they need lessons in more than academic skills.

 

Students, and all of us, need to feel control, commitment, and challenge. These 3Cs turn the energy that might go into stress into engagement. “Control” can have many meanings. For school, control means having some choice in what is studied and in how understanding is assessed, so the class feels meaningful and connected to their lives. Students can voice their own questions and concerns and see them addressed. They, of course, also need to learn the basic skills of reading, writing and thinking critically.

 

They need to learn how to monitor their feelings and thoughts moment-by-moment, as is done with mindfulness. This gives them the power to choose—do I listen to this idea, or act on that one? It provides the insight to know how and when to question facts to uncover bias, question thoughts to reveal distortions. It’s empowering to learn what a thought is, that thoughts tell stories but not always true or healthy ones. Thoughts are not necessarily revelations from an oracle, and don’t have to be believed. We can step back and let them go. This inner knowing helps students assess their work in a meaningful way and, thus, not be dependent on external sources of judgment, like what the teacher thinks of them.

 

Besides studying mind with mindfulness, study the basic working of the brain with neuroscience. For example, students in my classes were always engaged when we discussed neuroplasticity, or the fact that they, their brain, can change and strengthen throughout life. It is very empowering to learn that your brain is not set by the time you’re 15. Combining mindfulness and neuroscience allows students to study their mind and behavior and treat life itself as a vast school teaching them how to think and act most clearly, ethically and effectively.

 

Commitment is acting on what is chosen. It involves students getting immersed and engaged in what they do. They allow themselves to be present, aware of their thinking, acting and feeling. Challenge comes from feeling the task is important, that it tests and develops their ability, but is not so challenging that they can’t succeed. It involves trusting that the teacher will support, coach, assist when needed. A well-planned challenge leads the student to feel trust in their capabilities.

 

Which mindfulness practices work best when students are anxious? Since mindfulness educates attention, begin with learning to notice the first signs of anxiety, as we discussed earlier, and to let go of the thoughts generating that anxious response. However, anxiety can make it more difficult to just sit and notice what occurs in the body and mind. Here are a few alternative practices:

  1. Teach focus. Counting breaths or visualizing a natural scene, like a flower, mountain, tree, or gently moving stream, can calm and clear the mind.
  2. Practice empathy and compassion. The empathy for others can transfer to themselves. And empathy or care for another person or being can free them from incessant worry.
  3. Progressive relaxation and visualization. They learn how to relax the body, starting with the toes and working their way up. After relaxing the body, the teacher can have students visualize a scene in a novel or an historical incident, for example, or have them imagine how to face a difficult problem.

 

G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” I love the quote, and so do my students, although in my mind I often substitute ‘understood’ for ‘considered.’ The quote helps me change how I look at all the unanticipated and possibly stressful events that arise each day. What story will I tell  myself about an event or challenge? Will I be a hero or heroine, fighter of injustice and bringer of light to the world? Or a villain? What I tell myself is of crucial importance. In many ways, it’s my choice, my story. So I need to do it with awareness.  And teachers, what better motivator can you find than allowing students the chance to hero their own stories?

 

For an updated source on thought distortions go to a site by Sam Thomas Davis.

Anger, Resentment, and Gratitude

I think some of us can remember hearing the following: “I didn’t choose to be here. My parents chose to have sex; I didn’t choose to be born. I am forced to go to school; I didn’t choose to go to school.” We either said this ourselves or heard some of our students or children saying it. There are many ways to argue with these statements, but for now, let’s just listen to them and take them in. What is going on in us or in any person who has similar thoughts or feelings? What is our response to such statements? They’re not unusual but they are powerful. It’s not just a teenager being a teenager. There is real confusion, anger and/or pain being expressed.

 

So, what do you do when you hear these thoughts in your own mind or when your students voice them? Here are a few suggestions. You could re-direct attention. The thoughts arise from something repeating itself over and over again in your mind.  You can’t tell anyone to stop thinking something. But you can give yourself or your students something else to do or think about. You could read something inspiring, a story of courage or achievement or social justice, or a poem that reaches deep into the heart. Or you could organize an activity together, something physical or in nature.

 

If you have practiced mindfulness, you could lead the class in a meditation to quiet the mind, recognize the sensations that go with the thoughts, and let them go.

 

Another approach is to understand the emotion behind the thoughts by going directly into it and explore all of its components. What emotion are you feeling? What triggered the feeling? What sensations do you feel, where? What images arise? What actions do you feel driven to take?  For many people, the emotion arises from not wanting to go along with the status quo, the present reality, political, social or otherwise. It is pushing back against the world. It is a feeling of rebellion. And there is much to rebel against. I wish more of us were rebelling, or fighting to change elements of our human world.

 

It can be disappointment or anger. The anger might be at a hurt you have suffered. Or you might not realize it, but the anger might be from feeling that your life is not meaningful enough. Especially teenagers, whose brains are growing at such a pace that they want a challenge, they want to save the world and make grand discoveries. Anger or resentment can be a cry for depth and meaning.

 

However, when the thought, “I don’t want to be here,” is rampaging through your mind, it can block out anything positive. It can make the world itself a threat that you must guard against. You need some clarity to determine how much of your thinking that the world is awful or needs changing is based on a real understanding of the situation. And, how much is based on your attitude or not being able to let go of something in the past?

 

So, if students can’t find clarity, you can help them explore their own mind with an inquiry practice. First, they need some calm or quiet. You can start off with a meditative technique like focusing attention on the breath. Or you could just have them close their eyes and take 3 slow, full, deep breaths. Then try one of the following practices. If the sun is shining, you could ask them to: focus on the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your face. If it’s cold, you could say: imagine being wrapped in a beautiful quilt. Imagine the warmth and how comforting that could be, how safe it can feel. (Pause.)

 

Then: Legally, you have to be educated in a manner approved by the state. But you can ask: “What do I want from my schooling? How can I participate in that education so it best serves my deepest needs? What are those deep needs?”  Imagine participating in your education so it serves your needs. What would you do differently? What initial steps would you take?

 

Or: What would it be like to transform resentment or anger by changing your life or the world for the better? How would it feel to have a sense of purpose or meaning? Right now, what instance of suffering or injustice would you like to lessen, what situation would you like to change? What first step can you take to make that improvement and make your life more meaningful or purposeful through your actions?

 

Or, you could explore a mind-state very different from anger or resentment, like gratitude. In school, I sometimes ask students: What does gratitude mean to you? What would happen if you felt gratitude for what you’re learning? How does that differ, emotionally, from being bored, indifferent, resentful, or angry? Which attitude helps you learn better? Which gives you more of a sense of power?

 

I teach Karate to middle and high school students. One part of class is learning Katas, which are prearranged series of movements, each of which has a meaning in self-defense. Before each practice of a Kata, you bow. Some students have trouble seeing the meaning in this bow or understand why they must repeat the movements so many times. I then explain that each of the Katas we learn were created by real people, masters of the art, and can go back a hundred years or more. They are like books of great depth that can be read again and again to find new meaning. We bow in respect and gratitude not just to the teacher leading the class, but to the teacher in the Kata or to the teachings embedded in the Kata. I ask them: How does it change your attitude when you think of the master creating the Kata? When you think of its depth and age? When you think that practicing it might somehow give you the ability to save your life or the life of someone you cared about? What is that worth? What is it like to feel that you are learning something that can save lives?

 

When you feel resentful, you can feel your life is not worthwhile. You are saying “no” to a moment. We all want our lives to have a sense of worth and meaning and deserve the chance to create such a life. Anger wants a target to attack. It can point you towards something that needs changing or it can set you against yourself. Gratitude can take you directly into your own experience. It opens you up to the world. What you feel gratitude for, you value. You feel that your life in this very moment is valuable. So, what is it that you feel gratitude for? For your ability to be aware of your own thoughts and sensations? For the clarity of your breath? For the fact that there is something meaningful that you could work on? What is that worth to you?

Have You Noticed That You Are Getting Older?

If you look at your body and you’re over 70 or 60 or for some, 40 or earlier; all of us perceive aging differently and think of ourselves as “getting old” at a different age. And you see wrinkles and you feel aches and pains which before you never knew existed. And you wonder if you have some illness. You might have an illness. But the malady you’re experiencing, if you think of it that way, is aging. Is change. Is impermanence.

 

Aging is an illness only if you fear it. Only because you label or were taught to label wrinkles as something to fear, or pain or change as something to fear. But then, the fear is of fear itself. You fear your own sensations. You battle with your own body. And this can be awful. It makes any pain you experience feel worse.

 

You might have this idea of yourself. But the idea you like best is of a young woman or man. Our culture teaches that youth is beauty. So the aging self is seen as a younger self decaying, falling apart. So you never see your self as she or he is, now. You see only falling apart. And, truthfully, even that image that you had of yourself back when you felt young—that wasn’t very real, either. Do you think any image, any abstracted idea of a you, could encompass all that you are? You knew back then that your reality exceeded your idea of you, so even in your twenties or teens, you were nervous about your self and who she or he was. Even as a young person you suffered from thinking of change as something to be feared, and you labeled parts of your self beautiful or handsome and others as awful or not-to-be-perceived. You walked even then with a shadow.

 

So, what do you do? Understand this. Look back and perceive all the changes you have gone through and know that everything changes. If everything changes, even your fear and ideas can change. Notice what is deeper in you than your ideas. Your thoughts, that sensations of aging are symptoms of illness, are there primarily to reveal how you are thinking and how you are creating a sense of suffering. When you feel sensations of fear, when you start sweating and your stomach tenses and feels like the contents of a castanet played by some hyperactive child, these sensations are telling you about themselves, not you. They are saying: you are holding fear, but you are not fear. You can release it and put your attention elsewhere. Notice it. Greet what arises with as much openness as possible, then let it go. When you are open to whatever arises, this means you stop fighting your own life. You feel freer, more joyful. Is it easy to be open to change or to others? No. But noticing how this emotional process works is important.

 

And there is no way to age “correctly.” There is only doing it honestly, with kindness and the recognition that everyone—everyone, hopefully, goes through this. Look around you. We are all wrinkling.

 

When I was 66, after practicing Karate for 37 years or so, I felt that I was finally beginning to understand how to practice Kata—not that I could put this understanding into words very well. A Kata is a pre-arranged series of movements, each of which has meaning in terms of self-defense. Katas are at the heart of traditional martial arts practice, yet the part that I had the most difficulty doing well. Suddenly, there was good focus in my practice and a feeling of flow of movement. The judge who used to sit on my shoulder and make snide comments had, for the most part, disappeared. It was just the Kata. And I enjoyed doing it. There was pain, but it was just part of the practice. It is so wonderful to move in a way that accepts whatever shows up as just something new to perceive and greet. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, I love it.

 

And to do this in a class, with teenagers—to discuss aging, discuss how we look at our selves and our bodies—can be liberating. To discuss what we fear most means that even what we most fear can be faced directly. Now that is an education.

 

 

*Next week: Dreams and reunions.

A Story of Regret

Regret can be devastating. It can feel like an explosion, yet it is often set off by a seemingly tiny trigger. This happened to me just a few days ago. I gave an impromptu, short presentation to fill in for someone else and I felt that I didn’t do the best job. Suddenly, I had an explosion of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and images. I did a “good” thing, helping out a colleague, and then I felt “bad” about it.

 

So what do you do with regret?

 

I think the first step is analyzing what goes into the emotion—or any emotion. Sit with the question. Let your eyes relax, even close. Calmly breathe in, then out. Then ask: Why feel regret? How does the emotion help me? Emotions have real uses. If you experience an emotion, you say yes to it for a reason. There is something there for you. Regret is unpleasant. Regret makes you reconsider and re-evaluate something you did or thought. Or you can regret what you didn’t do or left undone. Generally, people turn away from what they regret. Or you can get angry about it, angry at yourself or at other people. Regret can thus serve an ethical purpose, so you learn from and do not repeat an action.

 

How is regret different from other emotions, like guilt, remorse, sorrow? Is regret as sharp as guilt or as deep as remorse? There is sorrow with regret. The Encarta dictionary defines regret as feeling sorrow or sadness “about something previously done that now appears wrong, mistaken or hurtful to others.” The root, regreter, from the Old French means “to weep much.”

 

What comes up for you when you think of emotion, in general? I think first of the power emotions can have. They can be overwhelming. We say things like “I was bowled over” or “floored” by some emotion. Emotions can seem solid, heavy. But they are not solid at all. I first realized this when studying the Buddhist teaching of the skandhas, which is a Sanskrit word meaning an “aggregate” of things or elements which make up how things appear. When you mindfully attend to the elements out of which emotions are constructed, the emotion loses its solidity and sense of continuity; it dissipates.

 

Imagine a time that you felt regret. What does the emotion feel like? When I go into regret, I first discover this sense of me isolated from others. I notice a group of sensations, sensations of a particular type and intensity, in a specific place. When I feel sadness, for example, my head and shoulders feel heavy and drop. They turn inwards, as if forming a shell. My mouth and eyes also drop and tense. My stomach feels heavy. With regret, there are sensations like sadness or sorrow but less demonstrative. There is also a touch of anger: a jumpy quality, a tension in my hands, a churning in my stomach. There is the sense of inward pressure.

 

Secondly, there’s a quality to the feelings. They feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When you feel something as pleasant, what comes next? Desire. You want it to continue. You want more. But if it’s unpleasant, you want it to end. If it’s neutral, you might want to forget it. Regret feels unpleasant. When I feel it, I don’t want to be seen, or to see myself.

 

Thirdly, images and thoughts stream through my mind. I replay the scene over and over and try out different interpretations of what happened. This is the part I remember the most, because memories and labels get added to the feelings. In my case, I interpret what happened at school. I come up with a story to explain what occurred. I become a character in my own movie with a particular but somewhat new identity, an identity I wanted to avoid ever being. The sorrow of regret is like mourning; it is mourning the loss of an image I held of myself. I previously felt insightful, ready for anything. Now, I feel exposed as I picture people saying, “He’s not as aware as I thought he was.” I feel afraid of my image being diminished or attacked by others. I am no longer a hero in my story.

 

Fourthly, a mental state is constructed out of all these elements producing a way of thinking and perceiving the world. And I plan actions to end the regret. However, since all that I perceive is shaped by my emotion, how do I stop the planning? I wish I could hire a spin doctor.

 

The fifth skandha is consciousness, awareness, the ability to know. It is a two-edged sword. It can lead to suffering. But because I feel the pain of regret, I can do something about it. The initial pain is enough; my response to the pain is something else. Awareness allows a gap between feeling the initial elements of the emotion and doing something because of it. Mindfulness and other practices allow me to expand that gap. The gap allows a recognition that it is my own mental state and my storyline of a distinct, continuing self that is regretted; it is that story that I want to end. The regret brings my attention not only to elements of the remembered situation. It brings my attention to the image I held up in the situation as myself and the shadow cast by that me, the shadow I feared being. The regret is the recognition of that shadow. I feel exposed only when I imagine I am being seen as something I don’t like. Only because I am invested in not being seen a certain way do I care about it.

 

So, when the regret lives on beyond its usefulness, intervene. Go to the gym or do breathing exercises. Get a massage. Or end the storytelling directly. Enter and sit in your own theatre of mind. Watch the play without pretending to be a critic. Recognize that the actor on that stage who bears a resemblance to you is just an actor in a play. Enjoy the show as much as possible. Thank the Shakespeare inside you. And this is really important, although not easy: appreciate even what you think you don’t like in you, even the shadows. Only then will you be able to perceive clearly enough to learn from whatever happens and let it go. So notice what is there for you. And then let it go. Or: breathe in, notice what it feels like to breathe in, notice whatever arises as you inhale. Then breathe out, let go, and return your attention to the breath.

 

Note: I made a correction in an earlier blog after it was published but did not point this out. Sorry. The mistake was in describing the location of the insula or insular cortex of the brain.