A New Review of My Book “Compassionate Critical Thinking”

The organization, mindfulteachers.org, a wonderful organization, just published a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The book was published by Rowman & Littlefield. It is a book that, I hope not only will help teachers, students, and parents in this time of anxiety and threats, but maybe help anyone trying to understand him or herself and what is happening in our world.

The review begins:

“Often, you have little choice in what material you teach; the only choice you have is how the material is taught… When a teacher enters the classroom with awareness and genuine caring, students are more likely to do the same.”


Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching is based on Ira Rabois’ thirty-year career teaching English, philosophy, history, and psychology to high school students. 

Rabois includes six types of practices in his teaching:

 

To read the whole review, go to the website. Enjoy.

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.

Teaching When Mr. T Is In The Room: Questioning The World Of False Facts And Quick Intolerance

Trump is reaching from the White House and news media to classes throughout the US, and the world, so teachers are fighting him everyday. They’re fighting the way he is influencing individual children as well as the collective psyche of the nation. Many teachers have spoken about the difficulties they have faced in their classes since the election. They value open discussion, but too many students seem poised to verbally leap onto the metaphorical backs of fellow students. Many students do not feel safe to voice their views.

 

But to have a successful class means creating not only a safe environment, but a sense of community, of working together to learn. How do you do that? And how do you respond when students verbally attack one another, or you?

 

Ruben Brosbe recently wrote an article about this subject. The country has become more divided and partisan, he said, and teachers are supposed to be neutral. “But schools and teachers must resist the urge to remain ‘neutral,’ because doing so only reinforces the dominant political ideology of their communities.” The community, the media are certainly not neutral, nor are most teachers, no matter what they do or try to do. 82% of teachers in the US are white, despite a student population that is more than 50% made of minorities. This can make it less likely that teachers will engage with controversial issues related to race and other forms of identity.

 

Brosbe provides resources from the Morningside Center that can be extremely useful to teachers, like finding out what students already know about a controversy, making connections to student’s lives and allowing them to opt out of uncomfortable discussions.

 

The Center also recommends setting a tone of responsiveness and openness. To begin the school year, make group agreements about ground rules and processes to facilitate positive and respectful interactions. There can be no delay or hesitation in your doing this. And Social Emotional Learning has never been more relevant and important.

 

In my experience, to create openness in a classroom, you must be open. When students feel seen and heard, they come alive, so make sure to greet students as they enter the classroom. From the very first day, let students know you see them and they are important. Come to class as engaged and present as you can, so students see you as a person first, and then as a teacher.

 

The job of a teacher is not just to increase knowledge in a particular subject, but help students learn to think clearly and work with others—and learn that discussing issues with others is a vital component of thinking and learning. Brosbe quotes Dr. Paula McAvoy as saying that schools are one of the few places students can learn to go beyond campaign rhetoric to really examine evidence. I agree. Students who can’t speak to others respectfully or who don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, or a truth versus propaganda, do not meet those criteria. Trump might imagine that whatever pops into his mind is the only truth. He might believe that anyone who disagrees with him should be punished. But it is the job of teachers to challenge that way of behaving and thinking when it arises in the classroom.

 

To create the sense that logic and reason, as well as compassion, are equally the core of an education, always make clear your own reasoning, sources of information, and willingness (if the facts warrant it) to change your position on most anything—except how you will treat students and other people.

 

Too many people think of discussions as a competition for who gets to speak or dominate. They think of a viewpoint as their identity, which they must hold on to as tightly as they can so they don’t disappear. The competitive, warlike atmosphere that many politicians and bureaucrats mistake for a constructive educational environment undermines education. Fear is not a good teacher. When you teach with fear, not only are you limiting the quantity of information you can integrate, but you learn that learning is fearful.

 

People easily imagine that when you speak, you are simply expressing yourself. But to speak, you must create an idea in your mind of your audience. You can’t utter a word without an idea of who is listening. You speak differently to a one year old than an English professor, differently to your peers than your parents.

 

When some people speak, they speak to the crowd in their mind, not the breathing people in the classroom with them. They do not see others or try to learn from them, and thus feel isolated. Ask students what being isolated feels like. You must look at and listen to the people you speak to if you want a good conversation.

 

Make the class discussions themselves the teaching. Ask students: How can the way you speak to others influence how well you learn? Did anyone ever cut you off or shut you up by the way they spoke? If someone doesn’t hear you, will they learn from you? If you don’t listen, will you hear?

 

Occasionally, in a class discussion, especially if the level of tension is rising, stop the discussion. Ask students to close their eyes, partially or fully, and take two calm breaths. With the third breath, ask them to notice how they feel. Or with the third breath, ask them to bring to mind a person with whom they were having a disagreement. Have them picture the person and imagine that they have feelings, just like they do. They hurt, just like they do. They want to be accepted, just like they do.

 

Teach students three aspects of a learning dialogue:

  1. The quality of your listening: What exactly did you hear? Be ready to check if what you heard was what was said.
  2. The quality of your understanding. What was your evidence? Was the evidence factual, reliable, and well supported? Make sure students recognize the need for accuracy and truthfulness in their speech. Talk about what a fact is, and how it is different from a theory or opinion. How do you verify or support a fact versus an opinion?
  3. The quality of metacognition and reasoning. In order to think clearly and discover bias and points of confusion, you need to be mindful of your thinking process. For what reasons did you say that? What was your intent? And: How did you figure that out? Did you jump to a conclusion too quickly? Did your conclusion clearly follow from the evidence?

 

Help students be more observant of others by playing theatre improvisation games. Pair up students to mirror each other. The pairs stand, facing each other, hands up with palms facing their partner as if there was a glass surface between them that they never break. Ask them to decide who will first lead, who will mirror. As the leader moves her right hand back, away from the mirror, the follower moves his left hand away. They continue moving together until you call out switch—and they change roles without stopping. Or: show students an ambiguous photo of people in a group and let them create a story of who the people are and what they are doing.

 

Critical thinking is a process, not an immediate taking of a position. It requires that you question and test your understanding and ideas, as well as feelings, and recognize discussing with others is a crucial component of that process. When you consider a diversity of viewpoints and listen to those who disagree with your original position, this is not a threat to who you are but an expansion—if it is done respectfully. Viewpoints must be seen as evolving, not final. The process of arriving at a conclusion is as important as the answer or solution you derive. The process influences the quality, depth and breadth of that solution.

 

Students come to school partly to test reality and discover if what they heard at home reflects what happens in the larger world. Teachers know this. Intellectually opposing a teacher or other students might be the only way some children can rebel or learn to assert themselves.

 

This can be painful for teachers to deal with. It is so easy to feel you have failed if your students treat you or each other badly. But if you can keep in mind the depth and importance of the struggle you are engaged in, it might help you be kinder to yourself. We have a bully in the White House. We have to do what we can so a caring, clear thinking person, not a bully, presides in the classroom.

 

**The increase in anxiety and fear in the classroom and society also interferes with learning and reasoning. Here is a link to a blog on helping relieve student/teacher anxiety. And the New Yorker published an article in September of this year, by Clint Smith, called “James Baldwin’s Lesson For Teachers In A Time Of Turmoil.” It is about a talk given by Baldwin in 1963.

Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Those Who Lie to Create Fear vs Those Who Face Even Death to Reveal the Lie.

As the inauguration nears, or as any feared event draws near, what do you do? If you’re a teacher and your students are anxious and fearful, maybe it’s due to a test or a presentation, or a difficult situation in the world, what do you do? Do you go on, and basically ignore the situation, or do you acknowledge and face it? How do you face it? How do you allow yourself to notice and understand what hurts and oppresses you so you can take action to end it?

 

Take a moment. Too often people rush through life and miss the simple things, simple pleasures. Without knowing yourself and the feeling, emotion, the anticipation in your body and mind, all that you do can be compromised. So, begin with the simplest thing. Close your eyes and put attention on your breath. Simply breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. You do it every second of every day. It can be your lifeline, your awakening. Breathe in and be aware of breathing in. Breathe out and be aware of breathing out. Breathe in and notice what you do. Notice the sensations of taking in air, taking in the world. Breathe out and notice letting go, pushing out, settling down, focusing. It’s ok to take a moment for yourself. 

 

Notice any place of discomfort as you breathe in. Just notice its feel and placement. And breathe out and move on. Notice any thoughts or images that arise. Simply notice with your in-breath, and let go with the out-breath.

 

As you breathe in, allow to come to mind a time that you helped another person, or stood up for a principle, stood up for what was right. What images come to mind when you think of helping others or helping one other person? Have you ever witnessed one person helping another, or imagined doing so yourself? What happened or what did you imagine? It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like in the movies. It can be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out—or putting yourself at some risk.

 

If you imagined someone else taking action, what do you think this person felt afterwards? Or if you saw yourself doing such an act, what did it feel like for you to do this? Imagine the feeling, when you’re home, safe, knowing you could do what you did. Would you do it again? Was it the right thing to do? Sit for a moment with the feeling of knowing you could imagine and take action to help others or do the right thing.

 

All through history people have been helping others, facing adversity, taking risks. Study history. You are not alone. This struggle needs to be awakened, refought and refined, improving it, strengthening your self, as it is needed. When have your parents helped others or faced fearsome events? When have you? When were people in the past as afraid for the future as many people are now? When were people of this nation afraid of the government or people in the government?

 

Think of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his version of the Witch-Trials. He “rose suddenly to national fame in February, 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of ‘members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring’ who were employed in the State Department.” It was a lie. He stoked the fears of communist takeover during the Cold War and went after writers and actors as well as people in the government and gay men and others, accusing them of disloyalty or being communist sympathizers or committing sex crimes, when for most the only crime they committed was being different from or opposing him. He destroyed the lives of many good people all to fuel his own selfish desire for power. Many times in history, the fear of an external threat was distorted into a fear of our own neighbors, all to fuel the hunger for power by a few.

 

McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the lies of the man who was once popular and feared were revealed. He died a despised man. That can happen again. When did people in the US and other nations fight such oppressive leaders or fight to change the government or social institutions? Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, for example, or the anti-slavery or Civil Rights movement. Think of people who faced even death to do what was right and awaken the “conscience of a nation,” Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

 

We are here, now, in a new moment. I hope we all learn from history the importance and power of facing fear and injustice.

 

When you’re anxious and afraid, you can feel brittle. You can hold onto the fear as if it was your identity and fear letting it go. But it is fear itself that is brittle. Fear serves a purpose. It is telling you to wake up. Beyond that, it no longer serves you. It is telling you to beware and turn away from some person or event, but it is too easy to interpret it as telling you to turn away from this moment that you feel it. As little children, we learned to turn away from many uncomfortable feelings. But when you notice and simply study it; notice “I know that biting sensation in my stomach, that trembling in my knees.” And you take a deep breath anyway and move on. The fear dissolves. You think more clearly. Your life takes on more meaning. You come back to this very moment, this very breath, now. That’s a powerful place to be.

 

 

 

Anxiety and Critical Thinking: How Helping Students Deal With Their Anxiety Will Help Them Learn To Think More Clearly And Critically.

Last week, I wrote about how to begin anything, especially the school year. One of the most important things teachers do to begin the school year is get to know the students, to help them feel supported, trusted, and part of a community. To do that, especially after a summer like this one marked by so much violence in the news, it is important to ask students about their summer, and discover what, if anything is disturbing them. Anxiety in schools has been rising over the last four or five years. Recognizing this in class, allowing students some space to talk about their emotions, is a crucial component of creating a supportive educational community and showing students that education can be a meaningful force in their lives.

 

Take a minute to think back on how you were affected by different events of the summer. How did you respond to Orlando? Nice? The police shootings of African-Americans? To shootings of police⎯or Donald Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel? To the drought in New York or other weather disasters? By studying yourself, you learn how to help students do the same. If you can’t be a student to yourself, how can you ask students to do it?

 

Then bring up the image of one of your students. Imagine how she or he stands, her face, his posture. Then imagine how the student might have responded to different news items reported this summer. Pick another student and do the same. Maybe write down what you notice, in yourself, in your students.

 

If schools are to accomplish one of their hopefully prime goals, namely teaching critical thinking, teachers have to understand the role emotions play in thinking. Does being worried, for example, or anxious, fearful affect student learning? How?

 

Would you say that emotion does not influence how or how clearly you think? Depression, for example, can be viewed as a state of mind that severely limits the amount of new information your mind will process. When depressed, it is especially difficult to process information that goes against the view of the world that keeps alive the depression. What about anger, jealousy, fear?

 

Yet, what about this: If you aren’t interested in a subject, how hard is it to think about it? How hard is it to think clearly when you’re bored or don’t care? If you don’t care, you don’t think. When you’re interested in something, when you care, your mind and body are energized. Without emotion, thinking is difficult if not impossible.

 

We grow up, or at least I grew up, with people saying that emotion or feeling, and thinking are opposed. We are told to stop being emotional. But emotion, or at least feeling, is what integrates, assigns value and thusly guides and gives meaning to thought.

 

Teachers can’t be therapists. But you can use the skills that teachers normally teach, analysis, critical thinking, focus, and empathy, in order to understand and let go of emotion. For example, when you analyze an emotion, you step back from it. You switch your mind from being identified or caught in emotion to the mind of analysis. When you inquire, you become inquisitive.

 

There is also a form of analysis you can access that is the basis of any thinking. The initial level of emotion or any mental state is what Daniel Siegel and others call an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized. You begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral, pleasant or unpleasant. Only after this do you get the desire to hold, as in joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate. When your mind is energetic and quiet, you are more likely to directly notice and sense this level of feeling and the development of thought. You can let your mind rest inside a developing idea without being caught by it. You can learn how to name what arises, not to get involved in purely intellectual thought, but to study or increase awareness of your mental processing.

 

In the case of anxiety, for example: If you were in an ongoing class studying the role of emotion in thinking, after sharing and examining different triggers of anxiety, you would need to determine what they all shared. What is it about these stimuli that trigger the emotion? And what are the historical, social, political conditions that contributed to the anxiety-triggering events? Then you’d research several scientific and philosophical perspectives on emotion. You’d ask: What is emotion? And what is critical thinking?

 

You’d take time to study your own experience of the emotion. By studying one emotion, as it arises in yourself, you can learn a method to better understand and deal with any emotion. By taking the time to understand the emotional process, you and your students will be better able to monitor emotions and state of mind, and better able to focus attention. You will be better able to think clearly, relationships in the class will improve, and the atmosphere will become more positive and supportive. You also study yourself so you can increase the positive applications and limit the negative affects of the use of computers and other digital media.

 

And remember, it’s important to help students understand that it is not the trigger or stimulus alone which causes an emotion, but the environment they’re in, and how they interpret, think about, and initially respond to the stimulus.

 

*This is the first in a series of blogs on different elements of critical thinking. Next week, I will focus on the different components of emotion and how to use inquiry, imagination and mindfulness practices to study yourself, think more clearly and critically, and teach your students to do the same.

When You’re Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time now was almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. 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 the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What might you do? 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. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by questioning and being open to the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the end of year deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about the situation. You knew for months about most of the work you now need to accomplish. 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.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed for time that you don’t want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off, to hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. You might feel that to let go of thoughts about the future or let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You 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. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. 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 couldn’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, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel you have more time to give; you feel more in control. In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of 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.