Acting So We and Our World Awaken Together: Patience is Powerful

We all know we’re living through one of the craziest, most dangerous times in recent or maybe all of human history. I keep asking myself, what am I missing? What more could I do? Where is it all going?

 

We understand mostly by placing one moment in the context of time and memory, by discerning implications and possible futures. But so many of the possible futures being predicted by the news, social and intellectual media are too dismal to consciously consider. Maybe we can help change the future we are seeing by changing how we think about the   present we are living.

 

I am drawn here to a book I mentioned in an earlier blog, The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers, by Eric Weiner, and his chapters on two philosophers not often paired together: Simone Weil and Mahatma Gandhi.

 

The chapter on Simone Weil is about “How to Pay Attention.” Our culture is hooked on speed⎼ and speed, according to Weil, is the enemy of attention, careful consideration, and even joy. Due to the speedy pace of our lives, we can lose so much. We can get caught in, addicted to this repeating cycle, speeding up to catch what is speeding by. And what makes this even worse is the pandemic, added to the injustices, lies, shocks and constant chaos manipulated by DJT and his allies to undermine our sense of stability and our belief in democracy.

 

Desiring is not the problem. The problem with desire is that we can lose ourselves in it, lose even the object we desire in the desiring itself. It robs our attention. A heroin addict doesn’t crave heroin, Weil argues, but the experience of having it. Even more then heroin, the addict craves the relief of the mental and physical agony of not having it. Buddhist teacher, author, philosopher David Loy explained that desire, craving can cause us to feel we are lacking, wrong, powerless, or deficient.

 

The Latin roots of patient are suffering and endurance. When we are more patient, we feel stronger, more in control. We can endure even suffering, and find ourselves happier, clearer in mind, calmer in heart. We can be present in the moment, and thus feel more open to what might come.

 

And then we pay better attention to what or who happens. Weil shows us that inattention is in fact selfishness. When impatient, we reduce others to what we can get from them. When patient, others are fellow travelers who teach us about our own journey.

 

When impatient, we focus on the fruits and yoke action to results. When patient, we make progress even if there are no visible fruits.

 

And how do we fight, now, for our rights, our freedom, and our world?

Gandhi was the father of the movement to free India from British rule and establish an independent nation. He believed he must try to root out the disease of oppression even if it meant suffering hardship himself….

 

*To read the whole article, click on this link to The Good Men Project.

Imagining the Space to be Ourselves

There have been too many days lately when the world seems to be changing too fast. So much of the human world screams at us to be on guard that we can feel crowded out of our own lives. We can feel there’s no room for us to be ourselves. To enjoy. To breathe. So, how do we give ourselves the space we need to breathe and be ourselves?

 

Sometimes, I find myself rushing out of an unformed now to an already completed idea of later. I wake with the ring of an alarm and I’m on my way someplace before I even remove the quilt covering my body. The day already belongs to the past. Or instead of being in bed in the morning in my sleep clothes, I am already dressed in a costume to play a role someone else wrote. To leave my bed is to step onto a stage. Or I feel myself driven by an expectation or self-judgement that is so old I don’t even remember where or how it began.

 

This is how anxiety can arise with me in the morning and continue through the day. It is how we can both fear the future and want the present already over with. When we concentrate solely on how others will see us, we are never seen. If the day is already determined, we have little say in it.

 

Recently, before getting out of bed in the morning, I‘ve been reminding myself⎼ This is my life. I even put up reminders, a photo, artwork, saying, or just the word⎼ ‘remember.’ As much as I can, I stop for a moment to imagine what I do that helps me stay open. That adds to my feeling of strength and agency. That allows me, right now, to learn from and deepen my awareness. To enjoy living. To meet others as more like friends or at least unknown beings rich in possibility. It is my life. So, why not sit for a moment remembering that?

 

And throughout the day, if I’m driving myself and rushing too quickly, I stop and breathe. I question the voices in my head and notice the movement in my body. Judgmental words are visualized as birds flying off toward the sun. I notice them, learn from them, and let them go.

 

This first practice re-affirms what I was already doing⎼ remembering how to take it easy on myself and not let fear or anxiety take control. The second is inspired by a book I am reading about learning different forms of attention. The way we focus, or the quality of our attention, can either increase or decrease the pain we feel. This is equally true with emotional and physical pain.

 

We could do this anywhere, except not right after a meal. For now, imagine we take a seat in a quiet spot. When ready, and with eyes open, we ask ourselves: “Can you let your mind and body naturally and effortlessly respond to the following questions?” 15 seconds later, we continue: “Can you imagine paying attention to the feeling of space that the whole room occupies?”

 

This is the beginning of a practice from a fascinating book called Dissolving Pain: Simple Brain Training Exercises for Overcoming Chronic Pain, by Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins. It comes with a CD of guided exercises. Doing the exercises, in my opinion, is no replacement for the depth of meditation. But they are a wonderful complement to it. They teach open-focus attention and how to discern and use whichever form of awareness is appropriate to a situation….

 

**To read the whole article, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

A New Year’s Wish: We All Share the Community of Breath

I want to celebrate. It is the solstice, and so many holidays are here, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, New Years. But the days have been getting so dark lately, not just in terms of being the darkest time of the year, but emotionally. It’s also cold today. And the numbers of those sick from COVID is frightening. Two friends of mine are suffering now from the illness and must quarantine. No holidays with friends and family this year.

 

It can seem like we are all in quarantine, at least emotionally. When some of us are in quarantine, a part of all of us is in hiding, from the news and crazy weather if not from the pandemic.

 

In the four years that DJT was unfortunately in office, he fostered fear and oppression, hate and violence. He did this it seems in an effort to shock us so frequently or create enough chaos we would surrender and allow him to crown himself King or anoint himself absolute ruler just to turn off the fear. This is why the GOP have been working feverishly to strip away  our voting rights and protections. But to allow him to seize power would only make the threat inconceivably worse.

 

And even though, thankfully, we now have a caring and rational President in Joe Biden, this might seem to many like just a pause, a calm before the storm. It might seem like the efforts of those who would rip our rights and lives from us are succeeding.

 

And the state of the earth itself is adding to this darkness, not only with normal seasonal changes but with abnormal roars of dismay and anger over our abuse of the planet. Historic windstorms and tornadoes last week followed record droughts and fires in the summer and fall, shaking us to realize what happens when the earth warms too precipitously.

 

What is there to celebrate?

 

My wife and 2 of our 3 cats are sitting near to me. We create a place of safety, a haven or home for each other. Outside, the green grass is lightly coated with white. The tufted titmice, blue jays, and chickadees are energetically diving down to get the food we left for them and carry it off to eat.

 

The winter solstice clearly signals both an end, and a beginning, but of what, besides a date on a calendar? Our ancestors, the earliest humans, might have met the dark unsure if the light would ever come again. They might have felt they were returning to the birth of the universe or of life itself, when the world was born from the womb of matter or chaos. They might have wondered what they had done to create the dark. But if creation could triumph over destruction, then maybe light would return; maybe they would not only survive but thrive.

 

The universe itself can thus remind us of what is possible. The movement and tilt of the earth as it rotates around the sun brings seasons, night, and day. Likewise, we can help bring a new season of light to the human world….Protecting Voting Rights

 

**To read the whole piece, please click on this link to The Good Men Project.

Noticing the Weather Patterns in Ourselves: And the Ruins and Beauties of the Past Remaining in the Present

I feel⎼ my feelings are so complex right now. I feel myself sitting in this chair, warm in my midsection, with a hint of coldness in my hands. Outside, the sun shines brightly on the white snow that covers the ground. There is such beauty in the first snows of the season, in the contrast between the utter white of the snow and the brown gray of tree trunks, the tan wood supports of the carport, the blue jays and cardinals on the ground, people walking on the wet street.

 

The world seems so clear, fresh, and alive. Yet, behind my eyes, a tension threatens to impose itself on or obliterate what I see.

 

How do I face this tension? This looming sense of threat? Do I focus on thoughts that arise, question them, or follow them back like an archaeologist exposing the ruins of the past that remain in the present?

 

Or do I focus on the specific details of a perception? The call of the blue jay? The snow resting on the bare branch of an apple tree? Or do I let my eyes rest on the entire scene?

 

Or do I feel the air entering, refreshing my body? Passing over my upper lip and moving inside, down to my chest, belly, and even feet. Each in-breath with a beginning, middle, and end. And then a pause. Everything quiets. And then my belly and diaphragm push up. An exhalation begins.

 

Or as I inhale, the area expands and the tension in my forehead, temples, or jaw is diffused. And as I exhale, I let go.

 

The scene outside might seem so permanent, almost. Sometimes. It is so easy to think that nothing will ever change. That the threats of today will continue. And it is true there will always be threats. But there will also always be beauty and love.

 

This scene only exists because it is constantly changing. The earth itself, which can seem immobile, frozen in place, is moving through space while spinning on its axis, so we have day and night, and seasons. It moves in relation to other planetary bodies, like the moon, so we have tides. It moves internally, which is why we have earthquakes, the migration of continents, volcanoes, weather patterns⎼ and wind, rain, and snow. And we know how dangerous as well as beautiful many of these changes can be.

 

Outside the window, two crows glide into the scene crying raucously.

 

We, our body, and our emotions, can also seem so set, permanent. Yet, we are alive because of the constant movement of breathing. We see because of the constant movement of and in our eyes. We hear because of the changes taking place every second in our ears and brain. We are sad, then happy. We are 6 years old, then 60. We know this⎼ yet we don’t. It’s obvious everything changes. What’s not so obvious, borrowing from Buddhist teacher Albert Low, is that everything is change….

 

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

Aging: Finding an Extra Set of Hands, or Added Muscle in Ourselves

Aging is a mystery we can’t solve no matter how much we might desire to do so. We just live it, if we’re lucky. Although it might not always feel so lucky.

 

But maybe, if we could hear the honest truth of how other people lived their aging, we might live our own more gracefully. Maybe. Or at least we would not feel isolated in ourselves.

 

So I’m now reading two very different books, Essays After Eighty by the American poet Laureate, Donald Hall, who lived 1928-2018, and The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, Expanded and Newly Translated, by David Hinton. Tu Fu lived from 712-770 C. E. and many consider him China’s greatest classical poet.

 

Hall’s writing feels very personal to me, partly because I took a creative writing class with him when I was in College. The class was engaging, challenging. At times afterwards, I contacted him to talk about my own writing or how to get published. And years later, he gave a talk at a nearby college and we reconnected. I was so surprised he remembered me.

 

We can hold such contradictory and frightening notions. We can both want to know, and yet, not know⎼ what will happen to us next week? Next year? When will we die? We can think of each decade as an actual thing, a door we pass through. “I’m thirty now…seventy, eighty, ninety.” But the door has only the solidity we give it. As Hidy Ochiai⎼ world renowned master and master teacher of the traditional Japanese martial arts, who is still teaching in his eighties and with whom I have studied for many years⎼ put it: “We’re not old. We’re just getting older.”

 

Hall says, “However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life.” And as we age, we enter and deconstruct that alien universe.

 

“My problem isn’t death but old age. I fret about my lack of balance, my buckling knee, my difficulty standing up and sitting down…. I sit daydreaming about what I might do next.”

 

Maybe we don’t worry often about death, but we feel it more and more, somewhere behind us and getting closer. Sometimes, we just stop, lost in thought about what to do next or whether we have already done all we need to do. We wonder how well we will be able to walk, get around. How independent. In the U. S., independence, vulnerability or lack of control is one of our greatest fears.

 

Yet so many of us say we don’t feel old. Even in our seventies, we imagine we’re thirty. I notice it is more difficult now to get up after doing floor exercises. One reason I work out daily is to stay as young in body and mind as I can, to stay limber, healthy. The aches I feel afterward are almost pleasurable, a reminder I am here….

 

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

Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

One of the “in” concepts in education today is “growth mindset.” Carol Dweck, a researcher and the author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, first introduced the term to many people. A growth mindset is opposite a fixed or stagnant one, one that says your intelligence or ability to learn or emotional nature is set and irreversible. Instead, a growth mindset says effort pays off. You can change; you can improve your intellectual abilities. It pays off not only in education but also business, relationships, sports. I agree with this perspective. And it’s not new.

 

When I studied psychology in the 1960s, I was told that brain cells do not regenerate and by the time you’re a young adult, the brain is set. Since then, neuroscience has shown that new brain cells can be produced (neurogenesis) and that new pathways in the brain are constantly being formed (neuroplasticity). Most teachers I know have been applying some version of this mindset since they began teaching. In fact, how could anyone be a good teacher without such a mindset? Maybe I’m being simplistic, but without believing in the possibility of intellectual growth, how can you believe in learning? Learning is change. Good teachers know that their attitude and assumptions about how well a student can learn will influence how well they do learn from you. Developing such an attitude in students is crucial to learning.

 

Dweck cites research to show that a growth mindset not only leads to an increase in learning, but an increase in compassion and a decrease in aggressive behavior and depression. Why is that?

 

To have a fixed mindset is not very different than believing in a fixed ego. According to Mathieu Ricard, such a view of ego has three characteristics. Firstly, you imagine you perceive the world as it is and that your perception is the only correct perception. Those who oppose you are just wrong. Secondly, you project onto the world attributes that aren’t there, attributes like goodness, beauty, ugliness, and these attributes are fixed, constant, unchanging and distinct, separable from the socio-historical context that supplied the label, which gets us to the third characteristic. You try to deny that you and others can change in meaningful ways. It is all genetics, out of your control. Your heroes are exceptional, superhuman. Successful people are born that way. God or nature favored them. Dweck described the fixed mindset as saying, “effort is for those with deficiencies.” (42) Thirdly, you think of everything you see as standing on its own, separate instead of as part of an interconnecting network. But life means change. Breathing is change. Learning is change. And there is no isolating of anything in the universe from the universe. A fixed mindset requires constant vigilance to ignore much of life and what is happening around you and to perceive instead your idea of what is or should be there. It requires ignoring empathy and compassion both for what others might actually be feeling, as well as for your own thoughts and emotions.

 

Depression can share these characteristics with a fixed mindset. Depression is not just depressed feeling; it is a depressed ability to take in, be open to, new information, experiences and viewpoints. You don’t recognize a difference between sadness, or feeling down as a natural response to events in the world, something everyone sometimes feels, and identifying yourself as a depressed person. You cut yourself off, feel stuck and unable to change. You can mentally lock yourself in a box built out of your own ideas about yourself and the world. Instead of being present and open, you are absent from the life that exists beyond the limited boundary of your box.

 

One way to end depression is to practice compassion. Compassion is empathy with extra benefits. You step out of your box and look around you. You treat yourself and others with more kindness and patience. Compassion can include the cognitive ability to discern what another feels as well as emotional resonance, empathetic caring and openness to what another person feels. Then there’s a readiness to act to reduce the suffering of another being almost as if the suffering was your own. You recognize you are two different beings but what you share is at least as important as how you are different. Compassion is the ultimate growth mindset in that you know and feel the other person can change and you commit yourself to work to help spur that change.

 

Compassion also means you realize that how you treat others is how you treat yourself. By being open to another person, your state of mind and heart become openness, caring, kindness. When you close yourself to another, you are closed off.  Whether you act on it or not, when you carry anger, the world comes back to you as angry. You suffer your anger. When you carry hate, you depersonalize others and turn them into merely ideas. Carrying hate can rob you of power and control by depriving you of perspective. You feel a world dominated by hatred. When you are compassionate and kind, the world feels compassionate; you, as well as those around you, get the benefits. Thus, one way to free yourself from a fixed mindset or depression, and expand your ability to think clearly and critically, is to practice empathy and compassion.

 

A fixed mindset is a distorted way of looking at other people and the world. Such a viewpoint can have disastrous social and political consequences. A growth mindset, on the other hand, has tremendous social as well as educational benefits. It realizes you cannot isolate yourself from the welfare of others or imagine those who are successful are somehow more deserving, by nature, than anyone else. Success is due to your care and effort as well as the cultural environment and how social/political institutions are structured. These institutions can change. A growth mindset can spur individual people, and those collections of people in large groups called governments, to work for the welfare of all.

 

“True compassion, is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

Summertime

Do we all grow up with a longing for summer? Even if we have no connection, as adults, to the school system, summer can remind us of childhood, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if we’re teachers and don’t have summer school or don’t have to work a second job, we can have free time once again.

 

Summer is a time of renewal. What does that mean? This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

 

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains. This is it.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. I also took classes every summer, in whatever interested me. I just wanted to feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. I wanted to take in what I could and let go of the rest. We all need this. So that even in winter, we know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

We can notice and accept change. Summer is, after all, just a label. A season is a rhythm of nature. Rhythm is the pulse of change. So, feel that pulse and all the different rhythms of your life. There are biological rhythms. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle controlling core body temperature, pulse, blood sugar, motor control and such. There is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dream cycles and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. What other biological rhythms do we have? Menstrual (infradian rhythm). Our blood has tides. Even cells oscillate. And all around us, cycles of the moon and sun, cycles of trees and animals. Cycles within cycles.

 

Why all these cycles? Maybe they fit us together. Not just us, people to people, but everyone to everything. Our internal rhythms can, if we pay attention, link us to external ones like time of day (sunlight), time of month (moon cycle). The more in tune we are with nature, the more in sync with ourselves. So this is another part of renewal, to feel this pulse, rhythm, and move with it.

 

One example of not being in tune with nature is the starting time of many secondary schools. High school students in this country are seriously sleep deprived. Their natural rhythm is to stay up later and wake up later than adults. Several studies show that starting schools at 9 a. m. instead of 7 or 8 a. m. would improve student alertness and performance and decrease absences and depression. My old school, the Lehman Alternative Community School, tried this and it worked well.

 

The metaphor of a dance is fitting. As T. S. Eliot put it—“…at the still point, there the dance is …/Except for the point, the still point,/There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.” So, let’s allow ourselves to enjoy summer and dance with the rhythm nature has given us.

Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end? How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I hear from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared. And engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.

 

Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. Attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.

 

So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.

 

Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to noticing the whole scene.

 

So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.

 

The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.