To Teach Critical Thinking or Compassion, Mindfully Teach About Emotion:
When our minds are filled with emotions like fear, hate, anger, or greed it can be difficult to think clearly. When we feel we are boxed in, for example, the walls of the box are our own anger and fear. Certain emotions scream at us. Because of this, it is easy to assume that emotion interferes with critical or at least clear thinking.
But consider this: what happens if you try to read a book that you don’t care about? Or solve a tough math problem when you think the problem has no connection to your life? It is excruciating. Engagement and connection are emotion. Care is emotion. We all know the value of being engaged with what we are doing. Reading, writing, solving problems all take energy, emotional energy to create meaning.
Emotion is not just feeling. One purpose of emotion is to give value to things so we know how to think and act. Daniel Siegel describes phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting the system to pay attention, what he calls the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes labeling stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning, assign value, and then prepare for action, to either approach or avoid something. The first two phases can be unconscious. In the third phase, what we normally call emotion develops. Emotions like fear, sadness, joy integrate seemingly diverse realms of experience. For example, attention, value, meaning are integrated with ideas of how things work, with physiological changes in our body and with perceiving and communicating social signals. In other words, body, mind, and relationships can link together, so we need to be attentive to what and how we link. Without the initial “emotional” energy to pay attention and to approach a task, learning is nearly impossible. Teaching about emotion, its uses and how it’s constructed, is one of the most important subjects we could teach our students. It takes up most of my book on teaching.
Awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of feelings, thoughts, beliefs and images allows us to notice, recognize and thus let go of any of these. In previous blogs, we talked about the fact that if we don’t become aware of what is going on inside us, we can’t do anything about it. The earlier in the emotion process we do this, the more we can monitor and alter it. That is not controversial. What is harder to understand is that the focus created by mindfulness can create a different sort of emotion that supports learning and thinking. First, the mind stops screaming. Then it quiets. A focused and flexible attention ensues. You feel a sense of silent presence which says “pay attention” and “feel your way into this.” You can find a similar attention in the absorption of a writer in creating a story or an athlete with their sport. Focus feels good. Insight feels good. Solving a problem that arises from your own heart feels good. Even if what you learn is also painful in some way, there is this good feeling inside the learning. Thinking deeply might be difficult, but when you do it, it is greatly satisfying. This good feeling is not a distraction but part of the essential component of creating meaning. It is an essential part of an undistracted experience of living and breathing.
In fact, this feeling of joy is an extremely subtle guide that we don’t always recognize. To cut ourselves off from our emotions and our bodily response is to cut us off from our full ability to think. When we experience the difficulty of thinking deeply, this can be our body and mind giving us direction. The difficulty is telling us that we are not fully energized or there is something that needs our attention. Go directly into that feeling of not being energized. A narrative will come up with feelings and images attached. Instead of inhabiting that narrative, we need to shift attention to our responses to it. Notice what’s there without getting caught up in the storyline. There we will find the needed energy. Notice and move on.
There are moments when you mentally stop, let go of whatever is on your mind, and just look around you. In the early morning before a school day, I would feel the anticipation and anxiety of a school day as I walked from the parking lot to the school. I would repeat in my mind stories and dialogues involving my plans and hopes for the day. These plans cut me off from my feelings. Then I would stop and look around me. I would look at the trees, the building and people rushing to get inside. And I’d feel, “Ah, it is only this that I have to do. I only have to take this in and I’ll be fine.” And then it was fine.
This is an example of what we need to help students learn. Students sometimes express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “If I let go of my emotions, what would be left of me? My emotions are me. They are the most authentic part of me.” This fear might be partly from an uncertainty or shakiness with their identity. They identify not with the total experience of their life but with specific images, thoughts, memories or emotions. So ask them, “When you have a new emotion, does your old you disappear? Are you any one emotion, or all emotion?” When you mindfully let go of an emotion, awareness remains. You let go of separation. In that awareness, there is an even more authentic you. Compassion for yourself and others awaits you. What is left is a deeper realm of feeling, a clearer realm of thinking.