The Mirror, and the Story We Tell About What We See in It

I didn’t want to write this blog, not at first. Writing would mean facing once again what is painful to face. But due to COVID and other factors, here I am.

 

Last week, I started reading Joanna Macy’s 30th Anniversary update of her book, World As Lover, World As Self that was published earlier this year. I think her book has been living inside me for years, but it is only now that I open it. I deeply appreciate the wisdom and practices shared in this book.

 

The book talks about the stories we tell ourselves about this moment we’re living. It reveals many aspects of our lives we might have ignored until COVID and a would-be dictator made them abundantly clear.

 

She uses the image of a mirror, the mirror wisdom of a Buddha which shows us everything just as it is, nothing added or subtracted. And this mirror teaches us how to, “…not look away. Do not avert your eyes. Do not turn aside.” By looking in this mirror we realize the anxiety and fear we feel is the surface layer of our grief for how much of the world is dying. By naming we heal. By looking away the world itself turns away.

 

By looking in the mirror, we tell and make real the story of how to survive and transform a great turning point in history. We discern the path to creating a life-sustaining society that understands in its marrow “we are all in this together.” By averting our eyes, we surrender; we tell and help create a story of unraveling and collapse.

 

We have been witnessing lately appalling contradictions. For example, nurses and other health care workers have been at the front lines of the fight against the COVID pandemic. They have been overworked, often under-equipped and under-paid, facing great stress and trauma. They also face an information or media environment filled with purposeful, politically motivated lies.

 

Many work in crowded nursing homes, or in hospitals where they see a disproportionate rate of suffering from the pandemic amongst Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Many are themselves people of color who have faced all their lives a system of racism.

 

So now many health care workers of whatever race do not want to take what could save their lives and protect their patients, because they believe or have been misled to believe they cannot trust it. So, when the state mandated that all health care workers be vaccinated, they declined, even as that led to them losing their jobs, and we losing their support.

 

Joanna Macy makes clear that we as a society have been ignoring or not seeing clearly how other, crowded work environments like meat-packing-plants are dangerous to workers, cruel to animals, and costly to the climate….

 

We have recognized but not faced directly enough the consequences of enormous, and growing, concentrations of wealth, made worse by the pandemic, and leading to the corporate undermining of democracy and the rule of law, undermining of public schooling, and the degradation of our natural world, the extinction of many species, and the warming of the planet

 

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

We Are Always in Conversation with the Life that Surrounds and Sustains Us

The world is constantly in conversation, talking with itself, or maybe singing to itself.

 

As I stood in the front yard this morning, gypsy moths by the hundreds fluttered around our trees in the yard. Sunlight bounced off their brownish wings, a blue jay was flying between the moths, leaves dancing with wind, while a car crunched the gravel on the road and a crow cried out. I disliked what the moths represented, the oak, maple, and apple trees stripped bare of leaves. But at that moment, all was different. The air itself felt alive and was speaking.

 

Peter Doobinin, in his book, Skillful Pleasure: The Buddha’s Path for Developing Skillful Pleasure, describes how we can use thought to improve thinking. When we are working on a complex task, or we have an appointment later in the day, we talk ourselves through it or to it. We remind ourselves what we need to do or what time we need to leave our home in order to arrive on time. Likewise, when practicing mindfulness, or maybe anytime, we can remind ourselves to arrive right here, now, to be present, to fully focus on whatever task we undertake, or be aware of the quality of our breathing.

 

For example, before a meeting, or engaging in an important conversation, we might remind ourselves to first stop, take three conscious, deeper breaths. Notice how fast or slow, deep or shallow are our breaths, then our thoughts. Notice how we feel before engaging with others.

 

We use thought not only to arrive on time or complete a task but to construct an idea of ourselves, or an identity. We plan our future, select labels for our character, write mental reviews of past actions as if we were writing a review of a movie or play. Thoughts can pop up so easily.

 

In Buddhism, thought is considered the sixth primary form of consciousness, or sense consciousness, following sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch/feeling; it is closely tied to sense experience. So we need to remember that a thought has a different quality than direct perception. It can weigh a great deal emotionally. It can block or expand our viewpoint, aid or obscure the senses in discerning how completely tied we are to the universe. But when isolated from the senses, thought colors are less brilliant than that of bird wings, flowers, or a sunset.

 

Bruce Chatwin, in his book The Songlines, takes us to the Outback to learn about the First Nation People of Australia and the creator beings who sang the world into existence; song being the original language of people. The original songs are called songlines, or dreaming tracks, and mark the routes followed by creator-beings as they carved the earth during the Dreamtime, or time of creation.

 

But dreaming tracks are not solely about the past. They mark both a where and a when, a time and all time, or the continuous process linking the Aboriginal people to the land and heavens.

According to Wikipedia, a knowledgeable person even today can navigate vast distances, cross deserts and mountains, by singing and following the directions in the songline.

 

In this way, maybe we sing a songline to reach ourselves, or sing ourselves into existence through song.

 

Two metaphors, songs and conversations, or songs as conversations and vice versa. I don’t know which is more apt. We hear the universe singing; we hear the universe in conversation all the time but maybe don’t know exactly what we’re listening to….

 

*To read the whole post, please use this link to The Good Men Project, who published the piece.

 

 

A Traumatized Nation

Even before COVID-19, even before DT, a great number of us were carrying the pain of a trauma. But since the onset of this pandemic in February and March, the pain and suffering has become ubiquitous. Sure, many of us can be relatively safe in our homes, quite content and even happy, and we need such a refuge. But what does it do to us when we can’t stand to hear the news? Or fear leaving our homes? We often think of trauma in terms of individuals. But a whole nation can be traumatized, as we have been at different times in our history, including 9/11 and, for multiple reasons, now.

 

I’m reading a book that has been extremely helpful for me, called Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing by David A. Treleaven. The book has expanded my understanding of my own practice of mindfulness, how to help others, as well as how to better understand this time we are all experiencing.

 

A trauma is an incapacitating form of stress. Stress by itself can be helpful or harmful. But when it is deep and we can’t integrate or face it, it can become traumatic. The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines a traumatic event as exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

 

Treleaven makes clear that this exposure can come in many ways, from directly experiencing or witnessing a trauma or from learning about what happened to a relative, loved one or close friend. Children are especially vulnerable. One in four children in the U. S. have experienced physical abuse, one in five sexual. Then you add war and oppression, whether it be sexism or violence directed at one’s gender identity, race or religion, etc. and you have a huge number of people who have suffered from trauma.

 

There is a spectrum of trauma, of course, a difference in intensity and symptoms. We can feel stressed out or suffer from PTSD. Symptoms can vary from repeating thoughts and memories, to images flooding consciousness, to being cut off or alienated from our own feelings. We can have trouble sleeping or feel our own bodies are booby-trapped.

 

And what happens when we come to fear a person’s maskless face or touching a surface in a public place? Or we don’t know how we can feed our family or if we will be thrown out of our homes? What happens when our social-economic-political worlds are being destroyed, our rights ripped away, and people who look like us are killed by police without being held accountable? All while the water we drink and the air we breathe is poisoned?

 

Mindfulness Practice:

 

One way to begin is with mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is both a present centered awareness of whatever is going on with us as well as a practice that develops self-regulation. Traditional mindfulness and meditation is based on a deep understanding of the causes of, and ways to relieve, human suffering. It teaches us how to study our conditioned responses to stimuli as well as our own sensations, thoughts and feelings so we can interrupt ones that lead to suffering.

 

Mindfulness usually helps me with any problem I face, even when I am ill or frightened. In fact, for the first few years after I learned how to meditate, I would only do it when I had a headache or felt sick or stressed. I had headaches frequently. Then I realized if I did it every day, maybe the headaches would stop. And they did….

 

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

Memories Are More Like Stories or Myths than Numbers or Files

It is easy to think our memories are simple and accurate representations of reality, that they are like files that we put away in our mind for times when we need them, or like a bank for safekeeping the past moments of our lives. If we want memories to be a resource to utilize, we have to trust them.

 

But in fact, memories can change. Research shows that every time we access them, they are influenced by or adapt to the situation in which they appear. They are somewhat fluid. So how do we trust them if they change?

 

As we age, it’s not just our memories that change, but everything else about us, our bodies, thoughts, emotions. Memory is complex and there are many different types, mostly depending on how we “store” and “retrieve” them.  I am thinking of long term, autobiographical or declarative (meaning facts or episodes of past events that can be ‘declared,’ spoken about or replayed) memory.

 

Maybe memories are more like myths or stories than numbers or files and they guide us in both obvious and more subtle ways.  One memory I have is from 1970, but I am not sure about anything from this time except the broad details.  I hitch-hiked from New York City to Berkeley, California, and  back. It was soon after I returned from the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and was trying to figure out what to do with my life.

 

Sometime early in the trip I met a yoga instructor in Berkeley. I thought of him as almost a mythical being who seemed to flow through life in tune with the world, and I started to pick this up from him. Synchronous events or meaningful coincidences happened frequently while I was there. By chance, I ran into someone from college, who had been in the theatre group I was once part of, and we spent a wonderful afternoon together. I met and stayed with one cousin and by chance ran into another. Whatever I needed, I found.

 

One day, I decided to hitch-hike to Mendocino to find a woman who I had grown up with. All I knew about where she lived was that she was living in a commune and that there were communes in Mendocino. I got a ride to a small town most of the way to my destination. But then nothing. No cars, no rides.

 

I was beginning to think my whole plan was crazy. How could I imagine I could just set off without knowing my destination and just arrive there? Then a car stopped on the opposite side of the road. A woman emerged from the car with a small backpack and soon put out her thumb. After maybe a half hour, we looked at and smiled to each other. I crossed the road and we started to chat.

 

She asked where I was going, and I told her I was looking for a friend named Susi (not her real name) who was living in a commune somewhere in or near Mendocino. She said she lived in a commune in the area. A housemate of hers, named Susi, had just left for New York to meet up with a friend who had just returned from the Peace Corps. Me.

 

Just then a car stopped for her. She told me the name and location of the commune and then left with her ride. I eventually got to the commune, stayed for a few days, and then returned to Berkeley. It took a few months before Susi and I got together….

 

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

Being A Leader in A Stressed World

What makes a good leader, especially in education? How do you teach people to be leaders? What strategies can educational leaders use to reduce stress and increase learning in the schools they lead? Caryn Wells provides answers to these questions in her new book, Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job.

 

I remember very well what life was like when I was teaching. During the school year, it was easy to feel like I was working all day long. I usually was involved in school business from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm, Monday to Friday. And on weekends, it didn’t end. I needed at least eight hours of time to process the old week and prepare for the new one. When I had to write evaluations or I was teaching drama or doing fundraising for a trip, the hours were greatly increased. I remember one year I counted the after school hours I put into a drama performance: 100 hours. Plus, students and parents sometimes called me on the phone in my supposedly “off” times (this was before texting). And at school, everything was condensed and sped up. I remember how it was in the halls when I needed to find a student or co-worker and talk with them. Often, the person I wanted to talk to, felt I needed right then to talk to, was engaged with someone else. Waiting felt impossible. Interruptions were constant. Yet, I loved the moments in the classroom working with students. I loved the creativity needed for a good lesson and the way my whole self was engaged in the job.

 

Caryn Wells discusses how easy it is to lose our way in the everyday busyness of the contemporary 24/7 world. In fact, our education leaders today have an enormous responsibility. They have to lead in a way that not only creates a rich educational environment but one that prepares students and staff to face the everyday feeling of catastrophe as well as possible disasters. She shows how to turn this situation from a “catastrophe” into a conscious recognition of the enormity of life and the tremendous opportunities it offers us.

 

Educational leaders cannot just be managers, cannot be concerned solely with getting things done, with high levels of achievement, and numbers. Educators are at the forefront of many of the most crucial issues facing our society today, such as poverty, inequity, social media distractions, drug abuse, emotional suffering and high levels of stress and scrutiny.

 

What is needed is compassion, a sense of the importance of educating young people, and mindfulness. Caryn Wells is a former teacher, counselor, and principal. She studied Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn who created a breakthrough program in stress and pain reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He defined mindfulness as “moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness” which leads to mentally slowing down the ordinary moments of life so you enter a state of inner stillness. In this state, instead of feeling crowded by the spatial limitations of the school or the constant demands on your attention, you feel a sense of spaciousness. Instead of blaming or judging yourself or the students for tough moments, you treat whatever arises as an opportunity to educate yourself. Instead of feeling closed off, isolated behind harsh boundaries, you feel open, empathic, patient, and caring.  Working with students or co-workers becomes “being with” them.

 

Think about leaders who inspire you. Wells points out that, most likely, many of the characteristics of inspirational people include qualities of emotional intelligence. A good leader hears what you say, sees who you are, and cares. They show self-awareness, flexibility, optimism, initiative, and transparency. All of these qualities are developed through mindfulness practice along with an improved memory, and reduced anxiety and depression.

 

Mindfulness does this by teaching you how to be as present as you can be—how to approach problems, difficult moments, discomfort, instead of turning away. It educates a conscious method of attention and observation as well as compassion for your own limitations. By developing an increased ability to go toward what is difficult or uncomfortable instead of turning away or attacking, you allow yourself to more fully take in a situation or understand a person. Your ability to observe and analyze increases. You create the conditions for in-depth understanding and insight.

 

Wells gives her readers both a clear intellectual analysis and specific, detailed methods to practice. Any principal, teacher or teacher-leader, superintendent—anyone can benefit from the practices and insights provided by this book. We need a transformation in approach to how we educate leaders and this book provides just that.

 

As Caryn Wells advises, when you feel your mind “out on patrol” looking for danger, bring it back to a place of calm. “Watch the thoughts that emerge…the emotions and  feelings… Just observe and label them… Watch the thoughts without developing accompanying stories about them…” And at the conclusion, one benefit will be a feeling of peace, another the insights that emerge.

Writing As A Process of Discovering Your Truths And Power

Sometimes teachers ask themselves, “How do I get students to use the full writing process, to start with brainstorming and proceed to outlining, first draft, etc.,?” I think that question assumes that the writing process, as usually taught, is the most appropriate way for each student to approach writing. I prefer to start with: “How do I help each student to think clearly and express that clarity?” Or: “How do I help this student to write well?” Or: “How do I motivate this student to write?” And: “How do you write what is your own truth?” Discovering what works best for you, and why, can help you relate to your student’s struggles. And when writing is viewed as revelation or discovery, a means not only for expressing but thinking critically about yourself and your life, then writing becomes intrinsically motivating. It is not just something imposed by a teacher. And then the most important part of writing instruction is already taught.

 

I noticed that whenever I first try to discuss the process of writing with a group of secondary school students, they rarely like or fully understand how to outline or brainstorm. Or maybe they don’t like it because they don’t understand it. They think the “full writing process” is a waste of time. Outlining feels artificial, inauthentic. Brainstorming, they think, only gets in their way. They want to “just write” or just get something down on a page.

 

It’s helpful to ask students how they approach writing and what is most difficult for them, but you have to listen and watch closely for answers. They might not be able or willing to say it all in words. And you need ways to individualize instruction in response to what they say.

 

Sometimes, the problem is that they don’t know how to organize their ideas or they are easily overwhelmed by material. In that case, I offer a form guiding them step by step through structuring their essay. Or, in the past, I showed students an old process used by scriptwriters. It involves writing, on 3 x 5 cards, each scene you envision for the movie. Then you place the cards on a table and move them around to find the most appropriate plotline. You could do the same thing with a research or persuasive essay by recording facts, theories, and lines of reasoning on the cards and move them around to build the strongest argument for your position. Or you could use a concept map or computer graphics to serve a similar purpose.

 

Other times, students feel an outline or brainstorm takes away the creativity. Or, underneath that, they don’t trust their intellect or feel that if the process were too organized it would chase away their ideas. In that case, I explain that brainstorming allows them to work with their own brain and not against it. The brain processes that foster insight and creativity are different from those that edit, or check spelling and grammar. So doing a brainstorm frees the mind from anything that is irrelevant to writing a first draft.

 

But even more, I talk about uncovering your own truth. “What is it that you really feel, think and want to say?” Brainstorming is a way to free your mind from assumptions and get at what isn’t initially clear. It is a way to integrate material and synthesize information.

 

Actually, it’s helpful to talk about writing as part of thinking from the very beginning of an assignment or project. Start by giving students meaningful choices to write about. Then use prompts to help brainstorm how to approach the subject: “What intrigues you about this subject? What do you love or hate about it? What are your assumptions?” To help students understand the question or assignment, ask: “How are you hearing the question? What is it asking you to do? What are the different parts of the question?”

 

When you brainstorm, what do you do? Just put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you in response to the prompt. “What do you hear in your head? What thoughts and ideas come to you? If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion.  Write what you hear, hear what you write. Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic. Write until the topic feels new or fresh to you.” Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, make the essay the unraveling of your confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay itself by voicing what troubles or confuses you. By going directly into it, it unravels. Much of this instruction I learned from a wonderful form of meditative writing called proprioceptive writing. This practice can be adapted to a classroom setting. It asks students to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer or phone because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to see and hear what you write.

 

Emphasize that any writing, not just short stories or poetry or film scripts, is creative, and can follow the creative process. You begin with preparation and immersion in the material. You go through a time of frustration, even confusion, questioning. Then, before insight, you allow an incubation period. You step back. You meditate. You do exercises. You play games. Especially for younger students, but its great with anyone, have some fun. Loosen up. For example, if the assignment is to write a persuasive essay, ask the students, ”If the different sides or aspects of this question were animals, which ones would they be?” Or, you can imagine each side of an argument has a different tone of voice. Or you can have students draw the central questions they are dealing with.

 

When writing is explained in this way, it’s creative, not just work, not only logic. When the student’s actual thoughts, obstacles and ways of thinking are made part of the process, the assignment becomes less an imposition and more of a revelation. The student feels like you’re helping them discover their truth and power, not taking it away. And that’s exactly what you want and what writing is about.

 

 

 

*Over the next few months, I will be devoting more time to completing my book on teaching, less to these blogs, so don’t be surprised if I miss a week now and then. Wish me well.