Discovering A Depth in Ourselves Often Forgotten in this Crisis

Change can happen so quickly. Just a few days ago, we had snow and sleet⎼ in May! Spring flowers were covered by snow, broken by sleet, and blossoms were blown from the branches of cherry trees. Yet right now, it’s sunny and warm. All the snow is just a memory.

 

And even though it took a few months, it feels like it was just a few days before the pandemic changed everything. It is a storm that rages through our lives, but instead of ending in a day or two it continues on. And it is two storm fronts combined, COVID-19 ⎼ the fear of illness as well as the news of infections, deaths, jobs lost, schools closed⎼ as well as the DT administration and all the ills it brings us each day. But both of these, too, will end.

 

As a teenager, I remember many of us thinking being at school was preparing for life, not living it. We wanted “real life” to begin. Well, if real life hadn’t already begun for us, it is here now. This is it. Whatever we learned or studied, we have to use it now to help ourselves and others through this crisis.

 

Meditation or mindfulness has become the core structure of my day, along with greeting my wife and cats. I am so grateful to my teachers for showing me these practices. Each morning, I stretch, exercise, and meditate. When either fear or worry show up, I know I can let it go, or at least diminish it. Best of all, meditation provides a means to get quiet inside and study whatever occurs, so whatever occurs can teach me how to perceive with less projection or distortion, think more clearly, and grow stronger.

 

Due to the pandemic. I can’t go to the gym, so I’ve brought my workout home. I work out here more than ever, take more walks, do more breathing exercises and martial arts training.  And it’s not just more, it’s better. I have no other place to be, so I am here more thoroughly.

 

Writing stories, personal or persuasive essays or blogs, has been another way to learn about myself and feel more positive emotionally. It requires a combination of creativity, critical thinking, mystery-solving, and meditation. My first drafts are often journal entries or responses to an article or poem I read, a news program or podcast I listened to. I record an insight or something that intrigued me. Or I just write what I see around me or feel. And then I follow it up, do research, dive into the puzzle of my mind and write a full draft. And then take a breath. Sleep on it. Let it sit and percolate in my body and dreams….

 

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

Expanding Our Sense of Self Can Create Revolutionary Moments of Happiness: Caring for Ourselves During the Pandemic

In my last year of college, 1968-9, the improvisational theatre group I was part of rehearsed on a stage in a coffee house. Not only our group rehearsed and performed there, but singers and other performers, sometimes famous ones. That was where I heard Odetta,  Tim Buckley, Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.  At a vigil for peace in Vietnam, Joan Baez was seated behind me and, at one point, started singing “The Dove Is A Pretty Bird.” Can you imagine suddenly and unexpectedly, from right behind you, hearing her voice burst out in song? It was shockingly beautiful.

 

One night, Joni Mitchell performed there. It was winter and she had just broken up with a boyfriend. Every song she sang, even the upbeat ones, was a song about sadness.

 

At that time, I was dealing with a form of depression, but didn’t have the insight to name it that. There were days I felt I was being attacked from within. I would have a good time, talking with friends, dancing, and suddenly felt like I had no right to have a good time. I had to do something great first ⎼ change the world and prove my self-worth, or at least get a good paying job.

 

That night, I was totally absorbed in Joni Mitchell’s singing. But after her last set ended, any pleasure I had taken in the music turned into pain. I left the coffeehouse on my own without saying goodbye to my friends, got on my motorcycle, and took off. I drove into a storm of my own making, to freeze the pain so it could no longer touch me.

 

Depression is not just a lowered mood. The word means to press down, weaken, and reduce, as in to reduce the information you take in, or to feel the weight of the world press down on you. You might fear a situation is reducing, stealing your life from you and you are not strong enough to stop it. Depression makes the world look so dark you can’t see much of it, certainly not see anything that might lighten it up. Sometimes, you don’t even see who or what stands in front of you. And your ideas about life and reality can be as rigid as the metal bars of a jail cell. Finding the key to let yourself out can be difficult.

 

Or maybe it’s wrong to say that depression dims the light. It is more accurate to say that when the light is dimmed by your neurochemistry or your response to a situation and you feel locked in a jail cell of your mind and can’t find the key ⎼ then you are depressed.

 

I have a vague memory, which I’m not sure is accurate, of my father telling me that if I tried to make a living as a writer, I’d end up as a bum on the Bowery. Or maybe I subconsciously stole that image from somewhere, like a Henry Miller novel, and imposed it on my Dad ⎼ or on myself. I feared that if I worked at something creative, like writing or acting, or some profession I really liked, I’d wind up a Bowery Bum. Maybe my writing and acting was a way to rebel against that fear. Such a disturbing image can lock up your mind….

 

**To read the whole post, discover the conclusion of the piece and ways to better care for ourselves and our families or friends, go to The Good Men Project.

 

Stories From the Borderline of Hate and Suspicion

In the locker room of the gym yesterday, three men changing their clothes near to me were talking about incidents of road rage and random anger they had witnessed. They were upset about how the mood on the street had changed since the last election. I could easily relate to the discussion and was relieved they seemed to be on “my side” of the political divide. But the remarkable thing was that on previous days I had felt suspicious of two of the three men. They had looked angry to me, aggressive, not on my side at all. Taking sides means sides to stay away from.

 

When politics gets as divisive as it is now, it reaches into almost every aspect of our lives. It’s not just online and newspapers, television and radio. It is on the street, in the gym, work, and travel. We don’t know from what side of the borderline of hate and division the driver of the car next to us might be or the person on the check out line behind us—or the policeman standing at the street corner. Hate and suspicion are contagious. This is one reason the level of anxiety and depression amongst college and k-12 students is at all-time highs.

 

And this is obviously not the first time the U. S. has been so divided. Think of the Civil War, the revolution, the suffrage, civil rights, and anti-war movements, etc. I grew up in the 1950s and 60s. Back then I was under the illusion I could discern sides by looking at the length of hair, the clothing, the age, and facial expression. All such illusions are shattered now, although sloganed t-shirts and confederate or Nazis flags speak all too clearly.

 

In December 1970, after vacationing in Berkeley, California, I had to return home to New York City. I didn’t have much money so I arranged for a drive-away car. It was easy to get such cars back then. In exchange for driving someone’s vehicle to their home for them, I could receive free transportation.  An Englishman I had met in a theatre workshop, who I will call Adam, was going to share the ride with me.

 

Adam had met a woman, Nancy, and she wanted to go east with us. That was fine with me. What wasn’t fine was that Adam had developed a drug dependency. He had been on speed and other drugs for weeks. I told him we could only travel together if he stopped using. No drugs were allowed in the car.  He agreed.

 

We left a few days after our talk. I started the driving. It was winter and a storm was forecast for that night so we had to get across the Rockies before the snows began. We drove south towards LA before turning east….

 

To read the whole story/personal essay, go to Heart and Humanity magazine, which published this piece.

Compassion and the Social Implications of a Growth Mindset

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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