The Road Keeps Changing: The Power in Combining the Study of History with the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation

I was walking up this long rural road, a road I walk or drive on almost daily. And as I looked to the distance ahead, let my mind rest mindfully in the view, I suddenly felt there were layers in this road or under it. Old roads. Unknowns. The road has two lanes now. Was it once only one lane? A path traveled by native Americans? A deer path?

 

What was this hill like in the past before this road was built? What is hidden? I stopped and stared into the distance, imagining what the road might cover. These trees on the side. They are now maybe forty feet high. In many places there is just one lone tree fronting a home. Were the trees that bordered this road once part of a vast forest of interconnected trees, huge monsters reaching up to the sky?

 

We think of our road, village, town, or city as being just this, just the way it is now. The same old thing. But we know this isn’t the only way to see it. Not the only way it has been seen, even by me. This road, for example, was recently repaved and widened. The relationship of me standing here, the car speeding too fast by me, that crow calling, the spongy moth floating down its line never existed before.

 

What does it mean to me, now, that just 39 years ago, the lines of cables lining the road for the internet weren’t here? There was no Facebook, TikTok, texting.

 

What does it mean that 77 years ago World War II ended? A hundred years ago was the roaring 20’s. About four hundred years ago, the first Europeans came to this area, which had been populated up to then by the Cayuga tribe of Native Americans. Before the Cayugas, there were more bears than people. Today, we’re shocked, but maybe secretly filled with joy, when a bear walks down our street or visits the food market. Back then, the bears were shocked to see one of us in the forest. So much change.

 

How is this past alive in this present? What does it mean that our lives can change so much and so continuously? So much pain. So much gain and loss.

 

History is the story of change. Dr. Theodore Christou said history is rooted in storytelling. The Greek root of ‘history’ is historia, which means inquiry, seeking knowledge. And ‘story’, histoire in French, is history  without the ‘hi’.  Both words refer to an account of events.

 

We use stories to organize and shape the moments and events of our lives into memories. How we shape those stories is how we shape ourselves, create an identity or personal history. And we then know ourselves through these stories. Likewise, a culture knows itself through its stories. This history is a collective memory. It shapes how we relate with others and shows us who we are….

 

**To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project.

 

Dismantling Walls, Reducing Pain, and Rethinking Thinking

There are so many obstacles, both personal and institutional, we face in trying to improve our lives as well as the society we live in. But we too often overlook the way we think about thinking as one of those obstacles.

 

How we think, as well as what we think about or pay attention to, influences the answers we derive and our emotional state. This might be one reason why the GOP so vigorously use twisted logic to attack the search for truth⎼ about Jan 6 and DJT,  about science, public schools, and education in general, and certainly about gun violence. This is not just a dangerous political maneuver, but one that could threaten our survival as a nation and as a species, because it turns our most precious resource⎼ our minds and ability to think⎼ into an enemy to be feared and fought against.

 

We often conceptualize intelligence as our ability to learn, solve problems, or select goals and calculate how to reach them. But intelligence and thinking are not just a road to a desired end but a quality of our journey. It involves the ability to let go as well as dig deeper, not just to think but rethink our assumptions and beliefs. To know our limitations. The Greek philosopher Socrates supposedly said that what made him wise was that he knew he knew nothing.

 

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant, in his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, spells out how our mistaken idea of thinking can lead to distorting what we look at. And the brighter we supposedly are, the more blind we can be. What makes us intelligent, he says, is an ability to question our assumptions, and beliefs. To act like scientists testing our hypotheses.

 

We often resist rethinking, not only because of the time and energy required, but because it would mean questioning ourselves. Such questioning might add more unpredictability to an already unpredictable, often threatening world. And we’d have to admit we’re wrong, and capable of being very wrong. Our identity is tied closely to our beliefs and what we think are facts. To change our viewpoint can feel like abandoning our sense of ourselves. We might prefer the “comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.”

 

Many of us use one of 3 models for thinking: a preacher defending their sacred beliefs, a prosecutor proving the “other side” wrong, or a politician seeking approval. Instead of thinking clearly, we often “listen to opinions that make us feel good instead of ideas that make us think hard. We see disagreement as a threat… and surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions” instead of those who challenge our thought process.

 

The result is what’s called the Dunning Kruger Effect. This is based on studies showing that people who scored the lowest on tests of reasoning and grammar had the most inflated idea of their abilities. The less we know in a particular domain, the more we overestimate our intelligence in that domain, and the more rigidly we hold our beliefs. Instead of recognizing what we don’t know or have yet to learn, we hide from the realization. We fall easily into the bias of thinking we’re not biased.

 

We might think this doesn’t apply to us, but I saw this operate in my own life. After returning to teaching after a 10-year absence, for a few years I found myself presenting answers to students more than modeling ways to question. I held viewpoints with more conviction than I felt because I didn’t want to expose my lack of knowledge.

 

 

**To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Models of Who We Might Be: Finding the Quiet that Reveals Truths and Informs Our Voice

We are all influenced by others, constantly, and more often than we like to admit. It doesn’t matter if we’re young or old or the time or place. When we’re with certain friends, we act and respond one way. When we’re in school or work or with parents, we present ourselves differently. As the philosopher Aristotle said, we’re political or social beings, even the shyest and most independent of us.

 

Yet, even surrounded by others we can feel alone, isolated inside our heads as if our joys and pains were what separated us from others, not united us. We might breathe in and out as if each breath secluded us from the world instead of weaving us together. Our minds can feel filled with static when we haven’t learned how to adjust the channels to a receptive station.

 

The French philosopher and author J. P. Sartre had a character in his play No Exit say that hell is other people. What if this hell was caused by an obstructed or inauthentic view of our self? What if we had a model to follow who could show us how to live and think in authentic ways that are now hidden by contemporary culture?

 

And sometimes, there is just silence inside us, which can be frightening⎼ or wonderful. Frightening as it reveals that so much is unknown and unknowable, not as set and secure as we might like it to be. And other times, silence is welcome, calming, freeing, or exciting and full of possibilities. What if there are models out there of how to hear silence as the natural sound of mind in tune with the world?

 

I was recently in a bookstore and found The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, by Eric Weiner. It is about dead thinkers, mostly men, mostly white, unfortunately. But the book is fun to read and examines not only what the philosophers said but who they were and how they lived.

 

Socrates was a monumental figure in Western thought, and in my own life. Or maybe it’s just the myth of Socrates. Because he died 2421 years ago, and he wrote nothing. We know him only through what others said of him. It’s not the living person that we know but an image carved by history to serve our collective needs. Or maybe he has become what  psychiatrist Carl Jung called an archetype or pattern of thought and behavior that can guide us to develop ourselves psychologically, morally, and spiritually.

 

Weiner depicts Socrates as a practitioner of what Buddhists call “crazy wisdom,” someone who casts aside social norms, risking everything to jolt others into new understandings. And he did risk everything. At the age of 71, he was imprisoned and forced to commit suicide by the authorities of his home city of Athens, supposedly for corrupting youth, but most likely because he provoked questions people found uncomfortable….

 

*Please share and go to the Good Men Project to read the whole post.

Reading for Pleasure and Independence of Mind

Reading is one of my favorite activities. Reading fiction can be a way to relax as well as leave our concerns behind and step into someone else’s world. Non-fiction books and essays can inform, challenge, and inspire us. Reading, especially in book length and depth, expands our vocabulary and gives us an opportunity to perceive the mind being itself, as knowing itself. We read and, as with imaginative, creative, or critical thinking, experience the power within us to know, visualize and illuminate the world from the inside out.

 

Sometimes, we can’t discern what we think or feel until we hear or read someone else’s words and then feel a kinship or opposition. We read a paragraph and it’s like suddenly discovering a great canyon in the ground never seen before or recognizing, as if for the first time, how the earth floats in the infinite ocean called sky. In the beauty of another’s speech our own becomes known and beautiful. We find communion.

 

What do we do when we read to turn marks on a page into insights? How do we step out of ourselves, so we hear another? How can we read so we’re not simply working to confirm what we already believe but instead deepen both our understanding and our lives? How do we get ourselves in a similar mindset as the author, so we hear them in a kindred way as they listened for us?

 

In the Summer, 2021 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review there’s a review written by Matthew Abrahams of professor and journalist George Saunder’s book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life. Saunders wrote: “To study the way we read is to study how the mind works… the part of the mind that reads a story is also the part that reads the world…” In this I realized a kindred longing, to study how I read as a practice in studying myself. If I could read words and notice when my attention drifted or sank into an ocean of ruminations, depths normally hidden might be revealed.

 

Saunders said, “each time a writer returns to the story, it is as a different version of themselves.” That is both the excitement and challenge of re-writing. Likewise, each time we re-read a paragraph, it is as a different reader. We see more or see differently. We are more open to others and treat differences as essential nutrients in growing ourselves.

 

When we are about to read, we can pause, take a few breaths, and clear space in our minds for something new to enter. We can keep a pen and paper next to us, so we can converse with what we hear. We can repeat to ourselves each word we read, especially words that stand out or confuse us, and notice what arises inside us, what echoes in our breath, our thoughts, and our feelings.

 

We can ask why the author said what they did. What evidence or reasons did they have? What are the implications of their theory or point of view?…

 

**To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

Compassionate Critical Thinking: A Workshop

We are living through a time that challenges us to learn how to think compassionately, clearly and critically—to think in a manner that facilitates awareness of our own emotions and thought processes while elucidating what is happening to those around us. This workshop will explore how to use practices of inquiry and imagination, as well as mindful and compassionate questioning, to better understand and teach course material and critical thinking.

 

The approach is described in my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, published in October, 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. It was developed over 30 years of teaching. All the techniques help students improve focus, find more meaning in classroom studies, and so are more engaged in their education. Many take only a few minutes and all were used in actual classes.

 

The workshop is part of Ithaca Loves Teachers Week. It will include experiential exercises and discussion. It is open to teachers, administrators and others interested in developing and teaching empathy and critical thinking. For more background, go to my website: irarabois.com.

 

The workshop will be Thursday, February 23, 2:00 – 3:15 pm, at the Tompkins County Public Library, Cornell Reading Room.

The Natural Process of Thinking Critically and Mindfully: A Workshop.

Children, especially those between the ages of 8 – 15, easily look at the world with what Kieran Egan calls a “Romantic” imagination or sensibility. The world becomes a stage for a heroic struggle. They search for enlarged significance in events. They read and like to watch stories of werewolves and vampires, demons and goddesses, heroes and heroines, struggles against oppressors and evils. They seek the strange and the extraordinary. They want to hear about unusual abilities and intense achievements. And even deeper is the desire for awe, for the sense of a mystery lying just behind what they perceive, for the miraculous just beyond their comprehension.

 

I remember this sensibility as a yearning and maybe never totally grew beyond it. It established in me an early expectation for my life that was almost impossible to achieve. I wanted to be extraordinary. And worse, I did not know then what my yearnings meant. I had few words for it. All I knew was that much of life seemed too ordinary, boring, like I was missing something. So, I searched for what was driving me. I searched out the unusual and extraordinary. What about you? Do you remember this yearning?

 

I started meditating as part of this search, particularly Zen meditation. Some of the Zen teachers I met seemed deep and mysterious. But meditation did not fit the ideas I had. It did something unpredicted; it changed the feel of a moment. Whether during or after formal practice, the moments of life could no longer be dismissed as ordinary.

 

To think clearly requires both understanding and feeling. By ‘feeling’ I mean inner sensation, like in my stomach, gut, or breath, as in “I know it in my gut.” To know what to write or say requires monitoring what feels, in this sense, right and true, versus wrong or false. Study this in yourself. For me, the false feels jittery, my stomach and shoulders tighten. It is like wearing someone else’s clothes or like a bone with no marrow. What’s truthful comes unadorned, raw, full of energy, like it’s been there the whole time but I didn’t see it. Feeling is usually speedier than intellectual comprehension, although they can and must work together, check on each other. In the same way, searching “outside” oneself for wonders creates a false sense of two worlds in conflict, “out there” and “in here,” or one part of myself versus another. If “out there” is not good enough, “in here” is not good enough.

 

When you fight yourself, thinking is difficult. When you understand and work with your natural processes of thinking and feeling, thinking, even critical thinking, may not be easy, but it’s easier. Insight is more likely. What is this natural process of thinking? What part do meditation and mindfulness play in it? How do you practice mindfulness?

 

For those not sure what mindfulness is: mindfulness is both a quality of mind and a type of meditation. As a quality of mind, it is very alive. It is moment-by-moment awareness of how to learn from and then let go of whatever arises. It teaches awareness of the quality and focus of awareness and attention. Because you notice, you have choice. You can let go of what might be hurtful to yourself or others before the hurt fully develops, and so can be kinder, less judgmental. Because it monitors attention, it improves focus and clarity of thinking and readies you to act in a more empathetic manner.

 

 

*If you live in the Ithaca area and would like to attend a workshop on The Natural Process of Thinking Mindfully and Critically: This workshop will be for two Wednesdays, led by Ira Rabois, former teacher at The Lehman Alternative Community School. It will be open to any LACS staff and graduates, parents, or any adult with a serious interest. It was suggested that we meet 5:30-6:30, after LACS staff meeting, starting Wednesday, February 4th. The recommended tuition: $5/ session (or what you can pay, from two-twenty dollars/week is fine). Please contact me if you want to attend or have a question, either by e-mail, note to my website, or phone. If there is enough interest, I will extend the duration of the workshop.

Habits of Mind

In the 1990s, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a series of books on fostering habits of mind that assist the learning process. I, and many teachers that I worked with, greatly benefitted from their approach. The books argued that if students learned these habits, then they would be able to successfully put in the type of effort that leads to deep learning. The habits included persisting, striving for accuracy, thinking flexibly, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking about thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, etc. This approach is being revived today and I think it is a tremendous step, hopefully indicating an increased understanding of the necessity to teach the social and emotional aspects of learning. I would make minor adjustments, such as adding patience to persisting, and gratitude to responding with wonderment and awe. And I’d ask: Is it accurate and beneficial to call these mental processes or qualities of mind “habits”? Are the habits separate and discrete? Or are they merely different ways to view one quality of mind or experience? And what is the most efficacious way to teach what the habits teach us?

 

Costa and Kallick describe many excellent methods for teaching these habits. For example, you can use “word splashes” or brainstorms on the meanings of the habit. You can use questioning strategies that help students elucidate and analyze a problem, and you can incorporate the habits into rubrics students can use to reflect on their thinking process.

 

We teach through modeling. To help teach reflection, for example, we model awareness, honesty and humanity in the class.  We need to admit what and when we don’t really know something or if we get something wrong. If we want to teach flexibility or hearing with empathy, for example, then we teach with those qualities. When there is any doubt about what a student means in his or her analysis of a passage in a text, for example, we don’t just assume we understand what a student means; we paraphrase and then ask for confirmation.

 

Other ways to teach these qualities that I use include linking class content and student concerns. By asking students to work on questions that are meaningful and important to them, we can stimulate the student’s own striving for accuracy, curiosity, and ability to think flexibly and critically.

 

Costa and Kallick state that the habits work together. Thinking critically, for example, is a complex and multifaceted mental process and is best taught as a whole process. I think it begins with clarifying the problem or question and careful observation. Then gathering and immersing yourself in the material, presenting and questioning evidence and theories, mindful awareness and reflection on your process, incubation or stepping back to gain some perspective. And, finally, stating and testing a synthesis or conclusion. It involves not one but possibly all of the beneficial habits Costa and Kallick describe.

 

And I recommend teaching the habits experientially, with mindful meditation. Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Just let your body settle, relax. Pick a place to put your attention, like maybe the area around your eyes. Just feel the muscles around your eyes. Can you feel how your body, very subtly, expands as you breathe in? Just notice it. And as you breathe out, can you feel your eyes relax, settle down, let go of any tension?  Just feel that for a minute.

 

Give the following directions or ask the following questions one at a time, with patience.

 

Now, think of a time that you were very patient, or you witnessed someone else being patient. Just observe yourself or the person. What did you or this person do? What actions did she or he take? What qualities did you or this other person show? How do you think the person felt while being patient? How do you feel when you’re patient? How does it feel when someone is patient with you?

 

Now just sit for a minute with the feeling of patience.

 

When you practice this meditation, notice what you feel at the end. Patience does not stand by itself. It comes along with other qualities of mind, more than I could sum up, qualities like calmness and clarity of thought. You manage impulsivity, for example, by first monitoring it, or by allowing awareness of how the impulsivity is specifically arising moment-by-moment in your body and mind. If you get absorbed in your internal comments or become judgmental of yourself for “having” the impulsivity, or if you don’t allow the awareness of what is going on to fully arise, you become lost. You manage nothing.

 

And this is true with all the “habits.” They are different aspects of awareness of what and how we “pay” attention. To start learning habits of mind, allow into awareness, “How am I thinking, now? What habits am I using now?” One of the habits, for example, is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. We could also call it “attending to thinking” to avoid using the word ‘thinking’ too ambiguously. What is the goal of attending to our thinking? Is it an intellectual analysis of how our thinking could be improved? Or is it actually thinking consciously and clearly? The two are not necessarily the same, any more than eating a meal and the description of the tastes are the same.  Analysis is based on memory and is an after-the-fact commenting on conscious experience. The other is direct experience. The former depends on the latter. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to be aware of direct experience, or our moment-by-moment quality of attention. This includes, as we pointed out with “impulsivity,” being aware and open to whatever arises, even confusion, anxiety, or fear. Without developing this clear awareness of direct experience, metacognition is handicapped.

 

The habits of mind bring attention to important mental processes or qualities of mind. However, these “habits” are not discrete and separate. They arise and work together. And to fully utilize a complex mental process, you need clear awareness of your own mental state. Mindfulness meditation provides a wonderful method to develop this clear and direct awareness.