When You’re Feeling Stressed and Out of Time

At the end of anything, whether it be the school year, a vacation, a meditation, a relationship, we need to do the best we can to let it end. Part of the reason accepting the end is so hard is that we never fully begin. There are still things we feel not done. The end can arrive mysteriously because we never fully grasped or embraced the beginning.

 

For many years, when I was a teacher and May rolled around, the end of the school year would feel like a surprise. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do to fill each class period. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. Maybe part of me just did not want to let go. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

I remember vacations I did not want to ever end, or conversations, concerts, a sunset over the Caldera in Santorini, Greece.  I felt this moment might never come again and I wanted to hold on tightly. Or I felt I had missed something or I preferred where I was to where I was going next. I thought of the place or action or person as responsible for my state of mind and so to let go of it was to lose part of who I was.

 

When you feel the crunch of time or the weight of responsibility, take it as an opportunity to learn how to face a challenge and assert your ability.The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do.

 

If you’re a teacher, realize students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. If you’re a student, realize teachers, although more experienced, might feel a stress similar to your own. When you open up to others, you open to yourself.

 

It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year or didn’t deal with as well as you hoped, the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

To reduce the stressful feeling, if you’re a teacher, besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety.

 

It is not just deadlines that cause stress, but how you think about them. You knew for months about most of the work you now face. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

You might feel not only less capable but more constricted, and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. To know an image is not right, you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you can’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one. So, instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths.

 

To counter feeling time-poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, mindfully, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel time-rich, that you have time to give. You feel more in control.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice what you feel. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? Just notice it.Then exhale and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of any tension.

 

Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise, and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.You feel present. You begin each moment fully so you end fully.

The Meaning of Vulnerability

What does it mean when we feel vulnerable? On the one hand, it seems obvious. It means we recognize we can disappear at any moment, die or be hurt. Or that we can lose someone or something we cherish, and feel awful and frightened by that possibility. Vulnerability is a component of nightmares, fear and anxiety.

 

On the other hand, the meaning of vulnerability is more complex than it might appear.

 

When I was young, my Grandmother lived with my parents, brother, and me for half of the year. She was a short woman, suffering from difficult health problems, yet still lively and feisty. We lived in a ranch style house in a suburb of New York City. One evening, when I was six or seven, the two of us were home alone. Our dog, a Welsh Terrier named Peppy, started barking and my Grandmother and I noticed a man outside the back door to the house. Instead of first calling the police, she went to the closet and got two big umbrellas. She kept one and gave me the other, and we ran to the back door, ready to strike him if he broke in, which he did. He was quite a brazen or stupid thief to try to rob a home when a dog and two people were around. As he came through the door, we both started hitting him with the umbrellas. But he was bigger than both of us combined and easily knocked us to the floor….

 

To read the whole post, please go to The Good Men Project, which published the piece.

Overcoming A Fear of Awareness

In these times, how much awareness can you allow yourself? Too much awareness can feel alarming.

 

Recently, a friend told me mindfulness does not work for him. He has asthma and the last thing he wants to do is focus on his breath. Asthma can be so frightening and painful. But focusing on the breath is only one possible point of focus for mindfulness practice. There is a whole universe to focus on.

 

You can focus on something that is easy or enjoyable for you to think about, like the feel of your hands resting in your lap, or your butt touching the chair as you sit in it, or your feet resting on the floor. Or noticing whatever sensation is arising in your body or thought in your mind.  You can focus on an image of your favorite tree or what it means to have a favorite or to be favored. You can focus on an image of a clear and open sky or what it feels like to have an open mind. You can focus on what arises in you when you think of a particular person, or what happens inside you when you are in love.

 

Instead of focusing on awareness of the breath, for example, you might examine your response to simply being aware in that particular moment. What is the quality of your awareness now? Is it jittery or calm, tired or deep? When you have painful memories, you not only fear the object remembered—you fear the feeling that accompanies the memory. You fear fear. Whatever it is that has caused pain in the past is not the primary cause of your suffering. The response to the memory is the primary cause. So make your response your focal point.

 

Fear is both an emotion that can save your life or turn you away from it. It can shake you, but a shaken being either opens its eyes wider or closes them, depending on how vigorous the vibration and how you interpret it.

 

When anything is too frightening or difficult to focus on, you can shift your focus to analyzing the components of the emotion. You then shift your mind from being fearful to being analytical. Notice where in your body you feel what you feel. Notice if any sensations or thoughts arise. Notice how the feelings come and go. Certain thoughts might increase the fear, while others, or the absence of thought, might quiet the fear.

 

When you think you can’t do something, and fear or self-doubt is doing the thinking instead of more rational appraisal, practice how to shift from “I can’t,” or “I am not open to this,” to being open. Bring up in your mind the sense of “I can,” and the sense of open observation. Ask yourself: Was there ever a time that I felt I could overcome any obstacle? Was there ever a time that I openly examined some object, person, or idea? What did it feel like to openly observe or think about something? Or: What does it mean, and what does it feel like, to be courageous and able to face whatever arises in your life?

 

Mindfulness means clear observation, or moment-by-moment awareness of whatever arises for you. It is about letting things be whatever they are so you can know whatever is there. It is to treat your own thoughts, perceptions and feelings as valuable sources of learning. Thus, to say mindfulness does not work for you is to say observation does not work for you, or knowing your own mind or world does not work for you.

 

A Mindfulness Practice:

 

Sit up in a chair in a comfortable and stable position, in a place that feels safe for you. Close your eyes now or in a minute or so, or let your eyes rest on the floor a few feet in front of you. Place your attention on your feet resting on the floor. Feel how heavy or light your feet feel, how hot or cold.  You might sense your feet gently expanding, and then contracting, pressing against your shoes or socks, then letting go, relaxing, just resting where they are.

 

And then let come to mind an image or memory of a courageous action, maybe one of your own, or one you witnessed or read about. What was the courageous act? Who did it? What made it courageous?

 

Think about what courage means to you. Does courage have to be dramatic, like in some movies? Or can it be something simple, like sticking up for someone, speaking out, or doing something you never did before?

 

What does it feel like to be courageous? Imagine feeling courageous. Imagine feeling that you could face whatever it is that arises in your life. Just sit for a moment with the feeling of courage.

 

You can practice this exercise on your own or with others. You can record yourself slowly reading the above as a script and then play it back for yourself. If you’re a teacher or a parent, after researching and practicing this and other mindfulness techniques on an ongoing basis, you can lead your students or children in the practice.

 

This exercise is a simple form of mindfulness combined with inquiry. It can help you be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, of how your mind works, and how to more deeply engage with and enjoy the world. I hope it works for you.

Madness, Immorality, or Greed? Facing the Hard Truth of Trump’s Presidency

At any moment over the past year and a quarter, you could listen to the news and marvel at or be sickened by the ignorance, immorality, greed, or insanity of the pronouncements of Trump and many of his GOP supporters. And I don’t just mean tweets like “my button is bigger than yours” with the leader of North Korea. I mean his statements on health care, political protests, media coverage, the FBI, Charlottesville, immigration, the Russia investigation, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, etc. I mean the whole pattern of what is taken for the policies of this administration is based on ignorance of oneself and one’s place in the world.

 

This blog was just published by OTV, Open Thought Vortex literary magazine. To read the whole post, please follow this link.

Facing Pain and Aging Mindfully

On Tuesday, March 13th, I will have hip replacement surgery. The surgeon predicts it will take about three weeks before I can drive, two-three months to heal fully.

 

So, I am declaring myself on vacation. I feel better approaching surgery as a vacation then as a dreaded time of suffering. I realize it’s important, in difficult times especially, to be nice to myself. For the next few weeks or more, instead of feeling an obligation to publish a blog or story each week, or do any business-type activities, I will do it only when it feels right. I have a blog prepared for March 21st (for the online magazine, Open Thought Vortex), but before or after that—who knows. I will most probably miss writing, miss you as an audience, so I don’t know how long my “vacation” will last. It rarely lasts long.

 

Despite the joy of a vacation, I am not looking forward to this. I have been through similar surgeries before. I already have a new knee and hip and had hand and wrist surgery last June. And, as with the previous surgeries, I became sort of used to the pain—sort of. It is hard to believe I really need to do this. I can get around and do almost everything—as long as I’m careful.

 

I find this interesting. The pain was diagnosed a year and a half ago, and I put off surgery. In the end of January, just five weeks ago or so, I had a new x-ray. The surgeon said the hip is now bone against bone, causing my whole body to strain to compensate; I couldn’t put off the surgery any longer. Once I heard that, the hip became even more painful for a few days.

 

I also realize that I feel more vulnerable this time because of the political situation. Much of this nation feels constantly under threat, so it’s no wonder that a surgery would just add to the dread.

 

When I was recovering from the wrist surgery, I used a mindful approach to pain management, which has also been helpful with my hip. I thought of pain as an opportunity to better understand how my mind and body works. I am allergic to most of the usual pain medications, and had to rely only on Motrin and Tylenol, so I had a rich field of study. When pain arose, I breathed it in—if I could. I noticed whatever was there for me—how the beliefs and expectations I held influenced the sensations I felt. My response to the pain influenced how much I suffered from it. When I let go of the thoughts and images, and focused on the breath, the pain sensations moved to the periphery of awareness, and lessened in strength. Without resistance, pain decreased. It became one sensation among others. My response went from flight-fight-freeze to something a bit more open, more relaxed. I hope to do that again after this surgery.

 

I have also accumulated a few good movies and books to enjoy. And I am forever grateful that I still have good health insurance. On Tuesday, please wish for me a good result, a healing. Thank you and may you be well.

 

*Many Buddhist teachers write about how to face pain, or face whatever. Pema ChodronShinzen Young, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are three authors whose wonderful books I can recommend.

**My friend Eileen Ain recommended Peggy Huddleston’s Relaxation/Healing CD.

How Mindful Focus Can Help Free Your Mind From Painful or Repeating Thoughts

How often do you feel plagued by a thought? Or you feel pushed around by an idea or image, as if it were a phantom bully, disrupting your concentration or making a moment of life, of school or work, more difficult? You begin to look more at the ghost that trails you than the people or events that face you. Especially in times like this, it can be difficult to find comfort and clarity.

 

One way to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought is to center your mind on feeling a sensation. In this way you break the apparent chain of thought. Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing. And focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. Mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.

 

You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.

 

Then notice how your body automatically strives to open itself and take in air once again. Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.

 

Notice the pause between breaths. You get quiet. For a second, you are simply there. For a sweet second of life, all that is important is the simple enjoyment of life.

 

And then you want to let go of the air, and let go of tension. You settle into the sensation of letting go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale. Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. You become aware of the thought precisely in order to learn from it and let it go.

 

Breathe in and out through the nose. This is the cycle of a breath. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.

 

If you are leading a group or class, first study and practice, daily, on your own, to know it from the “inside,” and possibly find a mindfulness teacher or counselor. You might give students a choice of where to focus, on the upper lip, on the shoulders, or on the bottom of your feet—focus wherever it is easier to focus. Focusing on the feet can be helpful for facing anxiety and fear as it helps you feel more grounded, or centered. You breathe out and feel your feet pressing down against the floor or earth as you push the air up, from your feet and out your nose. You focus directly on the breath and let everything else go. Then as you breathe in, feel the air enter your body and go all the way down to your feet. Feel your body expand slightly—your feet expand down, into the floor or earth.

 

Do this for three breaths, or three minutes, whenever you need it, or at a set time of day. Just a small investment of time can be significant. Start small and your body will ask for more.

 

You might feel that if you’re not rushed, you’re not important. In our society, it is easy to think the busier you look, the more important you feel. Being constantly connected to social media, for example, means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected from technology or from busy-ness can mean to them they are less valuable or they are missing something. If you don’t fill each moment with tasks or texts or thoughts, you are wasting your time. But being connected to media often means being disconnected from yourself. You miss yourself. When you quiet your mind, you hear the world more fully and clearly.

 

Focusing on feeling is only one of many methods you can use. You can teach yourself to mindfully face uncomfortable emotions and question thoughts. If you turn away from feeling fear, for example, you let it rule. Usually, when you face something directly, you can break its hold on you. When you face what bothers you, you feel more powerful. Distraction is another technique many people use, reading a book, working out at a gym, or taking a walk in the woods when you want to “get out of your head” and back into the rest of the world.

 

To let go of a thought, it might also help to understand why you have thoughts. So study yourself. Thoughts are an expression of mind testing and abstracting from reality to create a viewpoint. The initial level of any mental state is what psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized and you begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral. You explain the world to yourself and you get the desire to hold, as in the emotion of joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate.

 

You might hold on to a thought in order to control what you feel can’t be controlled. You might worry about something occurring in order to magically prevent its occurrence. You might think your viewpoint is the absolute truth in order to prevent yourself from noticing how contingent and subjective a truth is. You might hold on to a thought out of fear of having nothing to hold on to.

 

When your mind quiets, you are more likely to directly notice the feeling that precedes thought. You can notice an idea without being caught by it. When you mistake the thought about an event or person as the entire story, you miss so much. When you focus on feeling, it shifts your perspective so you perceive and live more deeply the entire reality out of which the thought arises. You feel more centered and enjoy more fully the individual moments of your life. When the mind is calm, you act, teach, and learn more effectively.

Studying The Dreaming Mind At Home Or In The Classroom: Mindfulness And Dreams

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Dreams have fascinated, confused, scared and inspired people probably ever since there were people on this earth. How can we not wonder about the often bizarre images and stories that fill our nights and sometimes wander into our days? The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of the Mesopotamian hero-king and possibly one of the first stories ever written, cites dream narratives. The Greeks had dream temples to help cure people of their ills. The German chemist, Friedrich Kekule claimed his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene came to him in a dream. Artists and scientists throughout history have spoken of the role of dreams in their work. The famed psychologist and theorist, Carl Jung, amongst many others, have explored and written about the role dreaming plays in the psyche.

 

When I was teaching, I noticed my students shared this fascination. Every time the subject of dreaming came up in a class, students became excited and engaged. Many students expressed their wonder about the cause or source of their dream images. Dreams can wake us up to realize there is more to reality, more to our own minds than we thought. Or as Hamlet put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

We dream every night, even if we’re unaware of it. Although neuroscientists still haven’t come to understand the full role of dreaming in human consciousness, many speak of the role it might play in integrating material from our lives and forming coherent memories. For example, how often have you gone to sleep with a question and woken up with an answer, or at least a clearer understanding of the question? We might think of dreaming as a phenomenon distinct and separate from other aspects of mind, but it is one part of the process we use to think about our lives and construct a viewpoint of the world.

 

In some of my high school psychology classes we left time to share dreams. I encourage other teachers to do the same—if students are interested. Or if you’re not a teacher, to do this with interested friends, or maybe parents when children wonder about a dream. Teachers should only do it if they take time to study methods of group dream work as well as study their own dreams. I don’t ask students to do what I won’t do.

 

For the last few days, instead of my dreams disappearing as soon as I woke up, like they usually do, some stayed with me. One question is why that is. Another is what the dreams are saying, if anything.

 

In one recent dream, I was standing by a bridge I drove over to get to the school where I used to teach and noticed a break in the metal under-structure. The exact problem changed as I explained it to people in the dream. The season changed too, as did the location of the bridge. In some renditions of the dream bridge, it was located in Queens, NYC, where I grew up. In that image, it was winter and there was snow on the ground. In others, it was in Ithaca, where I now live, and the season was a cool late summer.

 

As I tried to tell the dream people about the break in the bridge, there was a definite awareness in my mind of how others might take what I said. It was a little bit of lucid dreaming, or of conscious awareness while dreaming, and the present and past could change in one stroke.

 

In another dream, my wife and I moved our possessions into an apartment rented in some city that was new to us. When I went out to complete errands, I couldn’t get back to the apartment. I worried about my wife. Worried about what would happen to what I had left behind. And there were other dreams like this one. In one, I was back in college, trying to get to a morning class, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the class. Things kept getting in the way.

 

So, what in my life is getting in my way? What new activity do I want to start that I can’t manage to do? And what is the bridge to doing it—and what is the possible “break” (or “brake”) in the bridge to my future?

 

Dreams can mean so many different things. One approach I like is to think of them as stories built from residues of my day floating in my unconscious, as partly completed expressions of who I was in a particular moment, a partly realized idea, or partly recognized emotion. And I carry them in my mind and body until somehow, in the dreaming world or in waking life, I recognize or complete them.

 

So, to complete the idea or emotion, I try to let them speak through me and listen openly, without reacting judgmentally. They might complete themselves when openly witnessed and then no longer demand I rent then mind space. When I hide them away, the energy of hiding animates them. The energy of the suppressed joins with the energy of suppressing and thus lives in me in a distorted way. But when I step back as an audience and let them act on the stage of my mind, I know what’s there. I listen for and learn from myself. Instead of living the act of suppressing, I live the energy of open listening.

 

When you have trouble understanding what’s true, or can’t solve a problem, or can’t understand someone’s motivation—step back, take a walk in the woods, meditate— or dream on it. When you first get up in the morning and your mind hasn’t filled with thoughts of all you have to do for the day, this is the time to create a theatre of mind, or a listening space for dreams or the unconscious to speak to the daytime mind. This is the space for what was unheard in ourselves to be heard and embraced, and let go.

 

You could write down whatever you remember of a dream. Even if you remember very little at first, the act of honoring by recording might allow more to be remembered. And after you write something down, look at the words from different angles, or as puns. What you mindfully listen to, you hear. What you hide away continues on as a mystery you never solve.

 

Although sometimes a dream has a message, other times the purpose of dreams is simply to be dreamed and experienced. And most dreams are not to be taken literally. As Carl Jung and others have pointed out, dreams speak in their own language, a language more symbolic than literal. And like other symbols, there is more than one way to understand their meaning.

 

All humans dream. Every time you do it, just like every time you open your eyes and breathe, you share an experience with countless others. You share an experience humans have had for thousands of years. The bridge you cross over, as well as your destination, is this very moment, both uniquely your own and shared with billions of others. Being aware of your dreams can help you be mindfully aware in your waking life (and when mindful in your waking life, it can help you be aware in your dreaming). It can wake you up to your shared humanity, if you’d let it.

 

 

** If you’re a teacher and want to discuss dreams with students, I suggest you first establish an agreed upon process. One book to help think about a process is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Powers in Dreams. However, Taylor’s techniques need to be adapted to the classroom. I would not share more than one or two dreams a day. I wouldn’t ask even for whole dreams. The purpose of dream discussion in a class is, of course, more modest than in a dream group led by a professional. It is to help students learn from peers about dreaming and to be better able to hear what their own mind and body is telling them. Maybe they might also learn more about the power of metaphor.

 

Students should agree to confidentiality and not sharing the dreamer’s identity out of class. Talk with students about not interrupting the person who is sharing. Only the dreamer can know what a dream means, so take the shared dream as one’s own. Instead of students interpreting each other’s dreams, ask them to notice their own responses, feelings and thoughts. They can say, after hearing another dreamer speak, ”I felt this when you said that.” Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the dream. In dreams when you’re pursued and run away, the pursuer grows in size. When you turn toward the pursuer and study him or her, she gets smaller in size.

 

**Another resource is an insightful, recently published blog by Elaine Mansfield called “9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.”

 

***And remember to vote this Tuesday, 11/7. In New York, I urge you to vote against the Constitutional Convention, and vote everywhere for local candidates who will protect the environment, health care, public education, voting rights, etc. and oppose Mr. T. Exercise what power you have or you, we might lose it.

 

****The photo is from a bridge near the village where I lived in Sierra Leone. It had to be reconstructed every year and crossed over a river with crocodiles in it.

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

The Most Important Lesson A Teacher Teaches

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm and clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.

 

In this way you model the …

 

This blog, with an embedded story, was published on Friday by OTV (Open Thought Vortex): A Literary Magazine for Open Hearts and Minds. Please click on this link to read the rest of the post.

 

 

The Most Important Lesson