How Can We Determine What to do with Our Lives?

We just don’t know. We live surrounded by so many unknowns that if we think about it, we might never do anything. When we’re in high school or college, for example, we might not know what we’ll do after we graduate, or if we’ll get a good job. We might not even know what we want to happen. But in reality, that is the lesson. We don’t know. Yet we have to act nevertheless.

 

Some deal with this by selecting a theory, belief or desire for what will happen and treat it as a fact. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen how we will do on the next exam or who will win the next election or baseball game. Facing something or someone you know is usually easier to do than facing the unknown, (think about driving your car in some place you don’t know without GPS or google maps) especially if the known is shaped in our favor. Thinking positively is helpful. It makes us feel stronger. If we are taking a test or going on a job interview, we are more likely to succeed if we feel we can succeed.

 

Some of us perpetually do the reverse. We fear failure so much we don’t even try to succeed. Or we try to win by labeling ourselves as losers before anyone else can do so.

 

But if we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we don’t, we close our mind. This might serve as a temporary comfort or rest from something that frightens or stresses us, which can be helpful. But if we pretend we are finished learning when we’re just beginning, then we stop learning.

 

After I graduated from college, I went into the Peace Corps. When I returned, I was a bit lost. I tried traveling, writing, acting, psychology, teaching and decided to get a MAT in teaching English. After graduate school and a few years in education, I got lost once again, and tried out a few more areas of interest, like the martial arts and meditation.

 

At that time in my life, it was difficult to separate fantasy and desire from legitimate paths to a career. It was difficult to face a fear of failure and fully commit to any possible job. For example, I made a far-out proposal to a university that they introduce a new class in their education program.  The class would teach theatre improvisation techniques to teachers, both to improve their skills and to use with students to teach course material. However, I never expected a reply to my proposal. But I got one. A Professor wrote to me. There was no job opening at the moment, but he would like to talk with me about my idea. Because he said there was no job opening, I never went to speak with him. Later, I realized that was a legitimate opportunity lost.

 

But emerging from each moment of being lost was a clarity about one thing: I wanted to do something meaningful, steady, and creative….

 

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

Celebrating the Differences

On this day celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., it is important to remember not only the need to fight those who teach hate but to support those who model love. Remembering that we have had powerful leaders in the past who worked successfully to make the world a better place for all of us gives me hope that there will be such leaders again in the near future, and in fact are here, now.

 

One of my favorite quotes of King’s was one that echoes the Buddha and Gandhi, among others: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

 

King was not a perfect person. But there are no “perfect” people. We might feel the pressure, both from ourselves and others, to think we should be perfect. Or that if we aren’t perfect, how could we demand ethical behavior, clarity of thinking, or compassion from politicians? But what King fought for and the fact that he fought is inspirational.

 

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

 

We might think that those who are already social and political leaders must be either absolute saints or absolute sinners. We often want myths, not reality. It can be difficult to admire someone without mythologizing them.

 

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

 

For example, some people of faith think the rich and powerful are favored by God, and so truth is what erupts from their leader’s mouth. However, when we think of our leaders as greater than us, greater than life, it’s too easy to ignore who they are or what they aim to do. The more real, the more human a leader is, the more we can learn from them. Instead of making a leader greater than us, we need to make ourselves into leaders, or at least informed citizens. We need to learn to examine the implications of policy proposals to determine as best we can what kind of world any leader would create.

 

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”

 

Do we want to “make America great again?” What does ‘great’ mean to T or his followers? From a study of T’s actions, we can see that he is trying to undermine democracy. His aim is to bring our nation back to a time before the Bill of Rights, before the constitution, maybe before the revolution. He wants a nation without a free press, without voting or civil rights, without a balance of powers between different branches of government, and with one-man rule. Or maybe he’s trying for something even worse, a white nationalist kleptocracy in which the rich are not controlled by laws but assume total power over the laws ⎼ something that didn’t even exist here 300 years ago.

 

“Every man must decide if he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the utter darkness of destructive selfishness.”

 

In 1947, in the Morehouse College student newspaper, Martin Luther King wrote: “If we are not careful, our colleagues will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts.” And this is what the Presidency is now teaching. T, along with his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is trying to replace education with propaganda,  public schools with private, a commitment to improving equity and protecting student’s rights and safety with a focus on producing workers desperate for income, open inquiry with religious centered mind-control.

 

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

 

We must not say: “This is awful but does not affect me directly. This is an assault on democracy and this is unjust, but I can live with it.”

 

Instead, we must be aware that: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

 

This is what, and whom, we celebrate today.

 

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

 

 

 

*The photo of is of a wall painting of Martin Luther King Jr., in Lake Worth, Florida.

The Healing Cries of Outrage and Compassion

So much has happened in the last week or more. So much cruelty, so many lies. Yet, the hearts of many have awoken, have reached a point where mutual feeling and compassion has overcome fear or disbelief or inertia and has led so many to speak out. It feels like, or maybe I am just hoping, that the opposition to T is growing and will continue to grow.

 

T’s policy toward immigrants, of separating children from their parents so their pain will scare others away from our borders, is not only so inhumane and cruel I can barely stand to think about it, but ignorant in terms of the long range effects of this policy. If our borders are marked with red in the hearts of so many, then we, as a people and a nation, are marked with red, like targets. Like a cruel threat to eliminate. As an immoral nation. It is unbelievably costly in terms of human suffering. It is costly in terms of the money spent in building and staffing the prisons to hold the people, and providing judges to judge them, food to feed and doctors to care for them (and hopefully that will get such care).

 

And it is based on so many lies. As most of us know, and despite T’s statements and tweets to the contrary, undocumented immigrants from the south, and elsewhere, are less likely to commit a crime than US citizens. The border, despite T’s claims, has not been overrun by illegals, certainly not more than in past years.

 

T claims his policy is nothing new. President Obama supposedly did it. Democrats passed a law to do it. And he’s helpless to stop it. Congress must stop it. Then a few days later, he signs an executive order claiming to do just what he said he couldn’t do. Of course, the order, in effect, is almost as cruel as the policy it claims to end. It creates more chaos and does nothing to help re-unite parents with the children the government ripped away.

 

Of course, Obama did not have a policy of separating children from the parents of asylum seekers or immigrants as a way to scare away other immigrants. Of course, Democrats passed no law forcing T to separate children from parents.

 

Friends have cautioned me to look behind the headlines. Whenever T does something spectacularly awful, something else awful is hiding in the shadows, or something threatening to T is being hidden. It is painful to say this, but T is ripping children from their parents not only as a way to satisfy his political base and his own base instincts. He is hiding the fact he is ripping off social welfare and health care programs from most Americans as well as hiding his own possibly treasonous and criminal activities.

 

So, while many of us are focusing on the cruelty being done to immigrants, the GOP, on Tuesday, 6/19, quietly passed through a House committee a budget proposal that would fast track large cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, as well as education and other programs that actually serve most Americans, all to finance continued tax cuts to the rich. This proposal is expected to pass the House—unless there is a public outcry.

 

On Thursday, they released a plan to reorganize the federal government, and cut programs like food stamps. It would combine the education and labor departments and give private industry a more direct role in the government. This could, for example, undermine the teaching of the humanities and redirect education to be totally concerned with one goal —providing labor to corporate interests. It could undermine the power of workers in general and the enforcement of civil rights in schools.

 

However, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort remains in jail, a judge ruled that the evidence seized by the FBI from his office can be used in his trial, and new evidence has been uncovered of Trump advisers like Roger Stone meeting with Russian agents.

 

What is heartening is the outcry. Millions of Americans are calling Congress, and as Rachel Maddow revealed in a story on Thursday, 6/21, lawyers are organizing to defend, pro bono, federal officials who refuse to “follow orders” on immigration.  Multiple states are suing the T administration to stop his immigration policy. And millions of dollars have been raised in just a few days to provide legal assistance to the parents and children separated at the border.

 

Even more, the number of people who are ready to enter politics to defend America from the racism, sexism, etc., criminality, greed, and shortsightedness that this administration represents has increased dramatically this year. Over the last week, I have attended a fundraiser and/or donated to two amazing people who are running for office. One is a friend, Michael Lausell, who is running for the New York Senate in district 58. The other, a former student and graduate from the Lehman Alternative Community School, Satya Rhodes-Conway, is running for Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. And five people are competing in the Democratic primary in New York’s 23rd district to unseat T supporter Tom Reed. I have met and talked to two of the candidates at different political demonstrations and think both are worthy of my vote (Max Della Pia and Tracy Mitrano).

 

I just hope that all those who oppose and are outraged by this immigration policy, as well as the GOP tax policy, can keep in mind that our differences are less important than what we share ⎼ our humanity, and the drive to unseat T and his whole administration. To protect our environment and create a democratic government that works for and looks to promote the rights, freedom, education, and quality of life of the great majority of people in this nation.

 

**There is a New York primary on Tuesday, June 26th.

***And remember to make calls and speak up against this immigration policy and against cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to continue to finance tax cuts for the rich. On Saturday, June 30th, there will be demonstrations all over the nation to support immigrants. In Ithaca, the demonstration will be on the Commons, at 11:00 am.

Am I Good Enough Yet?

When I was teaching secondary school students, if I asked a class, “how often do you torture yourself by thinking ‘I’m not good enough’?” Students would laugh, smile with both embarrassment and familiarity, and then most would raise their hands in recognition. It was a good question to break open a group. But why is that?

 

Psychology gives us many reasons. We carry at least some degree of our past in our present. If people have said or done negative things to us often enough, we become conditioned to carry the hurt. If our parents and families have been dysfunctional, we can carry dysfunctional habits, guilt or blame. We hear other people in our heads—parents, friends, lovers, teachers, sometimes even strangers we meet on the street.

 

Evolutionary psychologists say we are born with a predisposition to look for faults. It is called a negativity bias. We are sensitized to look for any form of a threat as a way to actually protect ourselves from them. But this can lead to imagining we can ward off an attack by attacking ourselves first.

 

Our economic system teaches us to think of ourselves as our resume, as a list of achievements with a title above it, and as a marketable entity. Only those with a good resume are valuable—and we gain value by comparing ourselves to others and appearing better than them. So we think of ourselves as a continuing entity, as an independent being separate, distinct, and in competition with others.

 

But there’s even more going on here. Our mind plays a curious game with our sense of self. We see ourselves one minute as we imagine someone else might see us. And in the next minute, we see ourselves as this subjective, conscious experience. When we look at other people, they often seem consistent and stable in identity. From the outside, other people can appear as clearly defined, distinguishable, separate beings. They have the same basic face and figure, with a recognizable personality, tone of voice, and gestures. They, and we, respond to a name, a label.

 

But when we look at our selves, it is not so clear. We know we have different moods and emotions and that our thoughts about the world and ourselves can change rapidly. We know that we sometimes don’t know what to do and we can feel completely adrift. We know that when people ask us “How are you?” and we say, “I’m good,” that the reality is much more complicated and indefinable.

 

So we want to know how others think of us. We try to imagine how we look, how we seem to others. We expect our whole being to be as relatively unchanging to ourselves as other people usually look to us. We think we should be as clear on the inside as we imagine we are on the outside. As the Buddha and other thinkers have pointed out, we expect something from ourselves or from our notion of self that it can’t deliver, namely surety. This expectation masks who we are and makes us vulnerable to feeling something is wrong in ourselves, when nothing is wrong except the expectation. The view from the inside is obviously different from that of the outside. On the inside, it has to be at least somewhat mysterious, unknown, or we would always try to reproduce on the inside what has already been produced outside. To be alive and conscious is to face the unknown. To know what will happen is to mean it already happened.

 

Being conscious is a mystery, maybe the biggest mystery there is. ‘Con’ means ‘with.’ ‘Scio’ is from ‘sci’ or the Latin ‘scire’ meaning ‘to know,’ as in the word ‘science.’ ‘Conscious’ is thus ‘to know with.’ It is both an instance of knowing, and a knowing awareness knowing something. The philosopher J. P. Sartre said consciousness is always consciousness of something. Sartre makes the distinction between being-in-itself, being as an object, material, in a specific place and time, and being-for-itself, a constantly changing stream of awareness constantly new, as a relating or point of view.

 

And since to ourselves we are always partly unknown and indistinct, we try to do the impossible and fill the unknown with the already known, or fill the unknown with what we think others think. This is another reason why we might be so ready to judge ourselves negatively. It is easier to accept a negative image of ourselves than to live with no clear identity at all.

 

We are always both a whole, distinguishable being in ourselves, as well as a part in an inseparable, larger whole. It is the role of our senses to make us aware of the world, to show us the whole of which we are part. Yet, our sense of who we are shifts according to where we are and whom we are with. We rarely speak baby talk to an adult or sit unmoved when everyone around us is shouting. When we feel isolated, there is someone or something we feel isolated from. No other, no self.

 

We are constantly trying to place ourselves both in the position of the other and of our distinct self. We need at least these two contrasting viewpoints to allow the world to come alive. In order to speak sincerely and clearly, we need to hear and feel what is going on inside us, as well as understand how others feel—and hear and see us. At the deepest level, we feel most ourselves when we can be sincere. Yet, we feel most sincere when words come seemingly of themselves, spontaneously, unedited by ego concerns. In other words, we feel most ourselves when we aren’t concerned or worried about our self.

 

So, when we feel somehow not good enough, the first thing to examine is our understanding of what we mean by a self. Our sense of self is adaptable and ever changing. It allows us to harmonize with others and act appropriately in any situation we are in, to the degree that we recognize and value its shifting nature. We feel most ourselves, and feel good about ourselves, when its not “me” who speaks, but the world, the truth of the situation, the truth of “me” with “you.” And this is a verifiable type of truth.

A Belief-Imposed Learning Disability And An Administration Unethical At Its Core

One question too rarely asked in education is: What relation is there between ethical behavior and learning? Or is there a meaningful relationship? Does unethical behavior interfere with learning? Of course, from this comes the question of “whose ethics” or “what is ethics?”

 

A similar question arises in politics. It can be argued that the heart of ethical behavior for a politician is to serve the interests of his or her constituents. And, if this is true, does the ethical behavior of politicians depend on their willingness and ability to educate themselves about issues, take on new positions—in other words, to be empathic and subsume their own personal interests to that of those they serve?

 

I am not a professional ethicist but I recognize that all of us ask ethical questions all the time. Every time we consider which action to take, or we ask “should I think long term or short?” Or “should I think only of my self-interest or other people’s?” Or we try to figure out which actions will create the best possible life for us—these are all ethical questions. Ethics is often defined as a system of, or principles of, morals, or the way we decide what is moral. Moral usually refers to what is right versus wrong, good versus bad, socially acceptable versus unacceptable. Today, ethical and moral are often used synonymously.

 

Ethics and morals thus have to do with how we act, especially how we act in relation with others. And we relate differently to people according to what we think we know or don’t know about them. We relate to our parents differently than our friends, to our lovers or close friends differently than acquaintances. We relate differently with those we assume agree with us versus those we think disagree with us.

 

When we think someone agrees with us, we assume we understand their point of view. However, how often have you assumed someone agrees with you and then been proven wrong? Corradi Fiumara, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, points out that when “perceiving one’s own mirror image in others, it then becomes difficult to accept others as ‘real’ persons.” We can easily reduce the other to an image of our self. In a like manner, when someone disagrees with us, or we assume they do, we often reduce them to “not-us” or in opposition to us, and refuse to see them or hear what they have to say. We label them as opponents or enemies and we lose the sense of them as full living beings. We see them merely as an idea, our idea.

 

In either case, we have to be careful with our assumptions or we jeopardize our ability to learn⏤to learn who others truly are, or learn from them and their viewpoint. We remain closed-in. In order to learn from others, we must allow ourselves to change and take in something new. We can’t hear what we don’t listen to. We can’t listen without making ourselves vulnerable. We can’t be vulnerable to other beings without recognizing they are like us, but not us. That we know some things about them, yet don’t know so much more. Only when we realize that we don’t know can we begin to know others.

 

The philosopher Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” The self arises in relationship. There is no “I” without a ‘you’. ‘I’ come to exist in relation to something or someone. There is no understanding of self without an understanding of other, and vice versa. To relate with others, we need an understanding of who the other is. We need to let them in.

 

Thus, to act ethically, we must be drawn beyond our already assumed answers, beyond what we think is true or untrue, like and dislike, beyond our old images of who we are. If our inner voice is drowned out by past understandings and beliefs, we can’t hear anything new and can’t hear or see what is happening, what we are involved in, now.

 

The same has to do with learning material in a classroom. If we don’t sometimes question what we think and believe, it’s difficult to know what we don’t know. If we think we already know the material, we won’t listen to it or see it. If we think we can’t listen, we won’t. If we feel threatened, we turn away. We can’t learn anything. And we can’t act ethically.

 

One problem with our political system now is that we have politicians who not only don’t listen to others, they have an ideology that says they should not listen to others. What does not mirror back to them their own self-interest is mirrored as evil and threatening, or as a lie, as something not-to-be-heard. They believe in egoism, and probably agree with the philosopher Ayn Rand that only by being selfish will the good of the whole be served. They believe that only by being selfish can you be rational— and think it is the height of irrationality to be compassionate, or altruistic.

 

In this way they refuse, as Lisbeth Lipari says in her wonderful book Listening, Thinking, Being: Towards An Ethic of Attunement, to listen for others, so as to hear the otherness, the reality, of others. That other people (and species) are feeling beings, alive, valuable, both like them and different. They cannot conceive or feel that others can live or think in a way beyond what they imagine and believe. All they listen to are the internally pre-recorded announcements of what they have already assumed as true. And thus, they fail to understand themselves as beings reaching beyond what they imagine and believe, beyond what they already have known.

 

They do not recognize that who they are is shaped in relation to how they understand, feel for, and relate to others. To usurp, dismiss, ignore the humanity of others is to undermine their understanding of their own humanity and ability to learn about and from others. Thus, they have a self-imposed or belief-imposed learning disability. And if ‘I’ only arises with a ‘you,’ then we are born with and out of an ethical concern. The belief-imposed disability thus creates an ethical disability. This administration, as is clear to so many, is unethical not just about one policy or another, but at its core.

 

**I recommend Lisbeth Lipari’s book to educators, to anyone interested in language, compassion, learning.

 

The Power That Liberates vs The Power That Corrupts

Two articles in the recent Scientific American Mind (May/June, 2017), when read together, provide an extremely relevant, even fascinating insight into the situation in the world today. One is on the psychological effects of power on the powerful. The other is on self-compassion.

 

The first article was called Power Moves: Success Changes How People Think and Act—Often, But Not Always, For the Worse, by Theodor Schaarschmidt. The British politician and historian, Lord John Acton, has often been quoted as saying: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power to corrupt absolutely.” He was mostly speaking of Popes, Roman Emperors, and absolute monarchs.

 

But are the corrupting influences of power real? And if so, are they attributable to the mere fact of having power? Or is it that ruthless people are the ones most likely to search for power to begin with? The article discusses psychologist Susan Fiske’s research—as people gain influence, they change. They act more freely, with less empathy, and a reduced concern for details.

 

The research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, quoted by Schaarschmidt, adds depth to this picture. When we feel powerless, our actions are more inhibited; we are more sensitive to punishment and also the needs of others. As our influence and power increase, we become more sensitive to rewards and less inhibited. The skills needed to obtain power and to lead effectively are the ones most likely to deteriorate once we have power. The powerful tend to overestimate their skills, take greater risks, think in terms of stereotypes, and ignore outside viewpoints.

 

Further studies show the more power people get, the fewer social norms they tend to follow. They can become “Machiavellian;” they disregard moral or even legal limits and feel free to use others in their pursuit of status and advantage. According to psychologist Kibeom Lee, when Machiavellian traits combine with narcissism and psychopathy, people show less honesty and humility.

 

At first glance, it might seem from this research that empathy is somehow opposed to agency or the ability to act and assume power. Not so. In his book The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, Keltner says it is social intelligence, the power to understand, value and advance the goals of others, that yields true power and it is involved in every relationship and interaction. Without this social intelligence we “tend to act like patients who have damaged their brain’s orbitofrontal lobes” (parts of the brain critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior). The paradox is that we tend to “rise in power in the world due to what is best about human nature but we fall from power due to what’s worst.”

 

According to Schaarschmidt, the corrupting influence of power is slightly less likely with women, for example, whose path to power is often different than with men. As you might expect from the ubiquitous sexism in our society, women are more likely to be attacked for anything that might appear as dominating a group or asserting power, and rewarded with influence by looking out for others.

 

Self-compassion, according to the article The Self-Compassion Solution: Building On A Buddhist Principle, Psychologists Are Learning How Being Kind to Yourself Can Bolster Resilience, Buffer Against Stress and Improve Relationships, by Marina Krakovsky, means “treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would a friend.” In his research, psychologist Kristen Neff discerned three elements of self-compassion: kindness toward yourself, “paying attention to your suffering in a mindful, nonobsessive way,” and a cognitive component, where you understand that suffering is a normal part of life. Neff found that people who score high in self-compassion are less prone to anxiety and depression.

 

Krakovsky mentions the work by psychologist Juliana Breines, who found that self-compassion also helped people not get caught up in feeling their self-worth is dependent on approval by others. But Breines wondered if this diminished worry about the opinion of others would lead to a loss in motivation, as in schools. She found the opposite to be true. Students with self-compassion tended, for example, to study even more for a quiz than others.

 

And in a study with seniors, researchers led by psychologist Batts Allen found that people with self-compassion had a stronger sense of well-being. They were more mindful of what they were doing and feeling, and thus more capable of acknowledging and accepting what was true. Self-compassion apparently led to a better sense of, and valuing of, who they were.

 

Compassion in general is a readiness to act to reduce suffering. Compassion practices strengthen the insula, which is an area in the cerebral cortex of the brain, behind the frontal lobe, involved in emotional regulation, stimulating energy and focus. Compassion for self and others not only energizes us to act to relieve suffering; it energizes us to act with more awareness. It increases our ability to learn and discern what is going on. Especially when combined with mindfulness, it can help people think more clearly and critically.

 

We have this maladaptive, basically Machiavellian, idea in the U. S. that only by being selfish and ruthless can we achieve any political change; that ruthless behavior can somehow result in a “better” or more equitable world. The research on power shows the opposite to be true. And one of many reasons this idea is maladaptive is because it can undermine the motivation by ethical and empathic people to want to take political action. We have an example now of a leader whose craving for power, rewards, and status has clouded his empathy and understanding and caused political chaos, an increase in racist incidents, an undermining of democratic values, etc., etc.

 

If we want leaders who can think clearly and act with understanding, we need to learn more about the power of compassion, starting with compassion for ourselves. We need leaders trained in compassion so they can resist the distorting influence of power and more clearly empathize with and prioritize the needs of the great majority they represent, not just the rich few. The power that corrupts is power over others. The power that liberates is power over oneself. A wonderful, short novel based on the life of the Buddha, by Satish Kumar, called The Buddha and the Terrorist, makes clear the differences between these two types of power. The first is power based on opposition and so creates perpetual conflict and distrust. The second is based on understanding self and others, the power to learn and change, and thus creates trust and cooperation. And one way we can begin to advance the power that liberates is by teaching compassionate critical thinking in schools.

 

When You’re Feeling Stressed 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 was now 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, about school, job or whatever, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. In fact, any time is a wonderful time, but especially if you feel stressed or out of time. 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 can you do to reduce the stressful feeling? 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 hearing and questioning the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the deadlines that cause the 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.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed that you don’t even 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 and hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. Or you might feel if you let go of the thoughts about the future, 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 time rich, that you have time to give, and 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.

Michael Moore’s “Where To Invade Next”

I have been watching Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. I watched it after the third debate. I watched it in-between reading news stories of demonstrations on the streets and the police abuses at the North Dakota pipeline. I watched it for relief from post-election news. I realize that the countries Moore talks about as examples of good policies also have awful policies and aren’t utopias. However, there are scenes that stick in my mind and make me ache for what could be:

 

In the movie, the father of a boy killed by a terrorist in Norway insists that it would be a violation of human dignity for his country to kill the crazed man who murdered his son. I can hear the outrage from many of my fellow Americans, but I just marvel at him.

 

Moore shows us wall-less prisons in Norway where murderers and rapists are housed, and are actually reformed, by being treated well, with dignity, and by eliminating personal conflict in their lives. And the result is a greatly reduced recidivism rate, one ridiculously lower than ours. (One fact check shows this policy and reduction in recidivism began in 1995 with a new policy focusing on rehabilitation and in 2007 with the opening of one of the prisons depicted in the film.)

 

Women’s rights are recognized not only in terms of equal treatment in the law, as it is here, but in terms of personal control over one’s own body and health, including abortion—a right most Americans recognize but too many politicians, including our possibly new President, rail against.

 

Police in Portugal advise the US that if we want a more peaceful society, we have to do away with the death penalty, as a start. Drug use (but not sales) was decriminalized leading not to chaos but a decrease in serious drug use and drug-related crime. And in Iceland, the bankers responsible for the severe recession were actually tried and sent to prison.

 

So many of us struggle to earn enough to support our families with comfort and dignity, and work in dreary jobs or dreary factories with no windows, or go to schools that look like factories, while in Germany and much of Europe, it is considered just good economic sense that workers and students should be treated well. This means workers are given health care, made part of the management and design teams, are given enough paid time off each week and each year so they can live good lives and have good relationships outside the workplace. (According to Moore, the average workweek for full time workers in most of Europe is less than in the US. Germany is 26 hours, Sweden 30. See this ABC news report to fact check his figures.) And students go to school for fewer hours, are better educated, are fed better food and not given unreasonable numbers of tests. And in Slovenia, a college education is free.

 

In the US, too many of us get caught up in retribution and revenge, and it’s too easy to lose a sense of mutual respect. We too easily lose awareness of how others are as valuable, as human, as we are. Why is that? Is it because of a Calvinist type of ideology, that if you’re rich, you must be favored by the Divine? So the rich are to be admired, and their privileges protected, even more than the loss of power, freedom, and income of most of us is deplored? Is it from our history of class divide and slavery warring with a dream of equity and democracy?

 

Is it from our country being so rich and powerful that we are too covetous, too afraid of what we might lose so we don’t see what we have already given up? Are we too shackled by the idea of capitalism and competition that we don’t see how such competition can turn everyone not on “our team” into an enemy, and everyone on our team into some thing to be valued only in proportion to what we earn or what we contribute to a “winning” record?

 

How can we understand the film now, after the election? As a wake-up call? As a reminder of what we once thought could be possible so we don’t normalize fear and oppression? Or as propaganda? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that it’s time for a revolution of mutual caring and a deep examination of how what we think we want affects our ability to get what we need.

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Testing Teaches, But What Does It Teach?

I recently talked with a teacher who said she felt stressed and boxed in at school. The problem was a familiar one: testing recently enacted with the Common Core.  Standardized testing contributes to a climate of anxiety and fear. This is not just a response to something new, but is inherent in the psychology of such tests. Any test can be stressful, but when students know that their grades, the school standing, and teacher evaluations are based on them, the level of anxiety is raised considerably.

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