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.

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.

 

The Place of Wildess and Wonder in Critical Thinking

*This blog was first published by Gillian Judson’s website, Education That Inspires. http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/26/the-place-of-wildness-and-wonder-in-critical-thinking/

 

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. But is this enough? I think you need to add imagination, mindfulness and empathy, and to think of critical thinking as a process enabling you to deeply engage in what you study and test your answers. How many times do you think you have the right answer, and then a minute, day or year later, you realize how wrong you were?

 

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or what’s real or true.

 

To analyze or mentally break what was originally whole into its component parts, you can easily conceive a dichotomy between the parts and the whole. However, to perceive the whole, you need to include the parts. To see the forest, you include all the trees. To perceive the parts, the whole always remains, as context or background. It is like the figure-ground principle of optical illusions, as in the vase-faces illusion. The lines of the faces and the lines drawing the vase are both always present, yet you only see one at a time. What you perceive changes from one to the other depending on your point of focus.

 

So, to clearly understand what you perceive or think about requires a process that lets the reality you contemplate BE whatever it is, as much as is possible. When you try to understand something, you use words to form concepts. This abstracts your experience from the perceived reality. You can then get lost in your abstraction. You might even love your abstraction; it is your creation. Words are wondrous but can be the subtlest of blindfolds and distractions.

 

To think clearly and critically requires constant monitoring, so you can mindfully shift perspectives, from abstraction to original perception— or from one theory to another, from thoughts to feelings, from object contemplated to the experience of contemplating. This allows you to engage more fully with whatever you focus on. You feel as well as think about whatever subject your mind touches, so it takes on a three-dimensional quality otherwise hard to see.

 

Your mind becomes the act of contemplating. You enter a place, or more accurately, the world becomes a place full of life, wildness, even wonder. It pulsates. The imagination flows from that place. Imagination is how mind transforms into time and language, into questions, and possibilities. Love and relationships are born in that place.

 

How Do You Utilize Imagination in Critical Thinking and Enter a Place of Wonder?

 

Begin by taking breaks from intellectual study to let your mind quiet and integrate material. Practice mindfulness meditation, sit by a waterfall, or take a nap and dream. Did you ever wake up from a dream and have an insight appear to you?

 

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you answer this question, which frequently came up in my high school class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further.

 

Students need to place themselves in the world of ancient humans by visualizing, for example, a world of few humans and many wild, animal species, no cell phones and no buildings. This requires not only imagination but also empathy. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy can come in different forms. There is a cognitive form, being able to read another person’s feelings, for example. There is also feeling along with others, and caring. Without immersing themselves as much as possible in the world they study, and adding empathy for the subject studied and the subject studying, understanding will be limited. When you use a process of critical contemplation, employing empathy and mindfulness, you allow whatever you perceive to be itself.

 

One form of art created by early humans was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels.

 

Students decided to research, in groups, various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, tools, other species populating the world at that time, and theories of the origin of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the other students form a line and one by one enter the stairwell. It felt like we were entering a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

 

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

 

This type of activity is not limited to a history class. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination and honoring the pulsating life of whatever you study.

 

*Photo is from the wall of the “cave” painted by students at LACS.

Teaching In A Period of Anxiety and Threat

How would growing up in an age of the minority-elected President influence our 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, a Muslim or a Jewish person, a 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?

 

Just a few years ago, teachers started noticing a clear increase in anxiety in the children they taught. Now, it’s even worse. Even back before Mr. T. was sworn in or elected, a negative effect was noticed in school children by the SPLC and NEA. Teachers recently have talked about how his election has led to children acting out more, being more argumentative, angry, anxious and less willing to listen to others, as if they were bringing into the classroom the emotions and arguments from home or the media. There’s been an increase in bullying, use of verbal slurs, harassment. So, what do you do?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by your response as a teacher, 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 by controlling how you perceive them. 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. “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 to you? What is kindness? What do you feel when someone is kind to you? 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, go with it. Start with a short mindfulness practice. Say to them: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight 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. Put your attention on the area around your mouth and notice how your mouth feels as you breathe in. Then notice what happens as you breathe out. Do the same with your shoulders. Notice how your shoulders respond, expand as you breathe in. Notice how your shoulders let go, relax as you breathe out.

 

Now let come to mind the word kindness. Did you ever see someone being kind? Or meet someone you considered kind? What did he or she do that was kind? Just notice it in your mind and body. Who was the person who was kind? Who was she or he kind to? What makes an action kind? What words come to mind along with kindness?

 

What do you imagine the person felt when he or she was treated with kindness? Just imagine that feeling. What do you think the person felt who was kind? Just sit for a moment with the feeling of kindness, or being kind.

 

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. Also, if possible, add to the curriculum other social-emotional forms of learning to help children be more aware of how their actions affect others, affect their own emotions and the atmosphere in the classroom and their own sense of empowerment.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. How do you face what is difficult? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, stress, being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life. Only if you know that discomfort can be helpful and is not abnormal can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, 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.

 

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. How do you teach this? Start as you did with the mindfulness practice you used with kindness. 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. Then go to other places in the body. Notice also any thoughts. They are like whirlpools in the water. Just keep your attention on noticing what arises and dissipates, and, after you notice something, return your awareness to the breath. If your mind drifts away and you notice it, or you lose focus on the breath and realize it, the realization means you are now found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that, emphasize that.

 

This is just the beginning. I would also recommend intense physical exercise and the study of martial arts, for example, to develop inner discipline, gratitude, patience, and confidence. Physical strength and conditioning can aid mental clarity and focus. I would study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss “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 possibly even how to detect lies as part of the study of emotion. 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?

To Question, First Listen

Several teachers asked me: “How do you get students to question, or ask questions?” I often say that, to start any unit or start the school year, find out what questions students have about the subject. What do they want or feel a need to know? But, students don’t always know or won’t say. Their questions are not always clear to them. The same for most of us. So, what then?

 

What do you do when you’re unsure about what you feel or think, or you don’t know what’s bothering or driving you? In other words, how do you hear what you’re saying to yourself?  Or, how do you improve your ability to listen, not just hear; to see, not just look? That’s a big question, bigger than I can answer.

 

Some people think a question is a sign of ignorance. Actually, it’s a sign of strength. A question is halfway to an answer. You need to recognize that you don’t know in order to come to knowing or to changing a viewpoint. So, teach and learn how to live with not-knowing and to live with questions.

 

One important element of teaching questioning in school is creating an environment or school culture that honors questioning and honors student voices, both in and out of the classroom. For example, a democratic school honors student voices and gives students a sense that their viewpoints are important. If they think their views are important, they will be more motivated to listen to themselves. If the school does not give students a sincere voice, students have more of a struggle to recognize value in their own mind and heart.

 

But what if you don’t have or can’t create a democratic school? Or even if you do, it’s not enough. The teacher in a classroom can model asking and listening– and questioning. Teachers should make their thinking visible, so the student can do the same. When teachers enter the classroom as if they are guides to learning, not know-it-alls; if teachers admit they lack knowledge and have questions, students feel more inclined to do the same.

 

Teach model questions. For example, questions to ask when you’re discussing a topic or reading a text. Questions to ask to test the speaker and ones to ask to test your own understanding. My favorites are ‘what,’ and ‘why’ and then how. “What exactly was said? What was the context? What was meant?” And: “Why was it said? What reasons would/did the person give for saying it? What is the proof?” Then: “How did they or would you apply this?”

 

What you are after is interoception, a relatively new word that means “perceiving within,” or perceiving one’s internal state. Humans have evolved brain systems devoted to this skill. Interoception is crucial for thinking clearly and acting with awareness. Mindfulness or learning how to be aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feeling, and sensations is one way to train interoception.

 

Another way is to pick up a pen and write down on a piece of paper exactly what you hear, now, in your mind, without editing. Write even your wonder about what you’re writing. And then read Writing Your Mind Alive, by Linda Trichter-Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It describes a practice of revelation and understanding called proprioceptive writing.  The practice helped me find joy in writing, after I had lost it, and deepen understanding and self-trust.

 

Improvisational theatre games can be adapted to the classroom. They’re fun, and also teach you how to listen not only for your inner speech but for that of others. I’ll describe a few exercises I have used frequently in a classroom:

Show the class a photograph of a few people interacting in public. Ask students to study the photo and then write, “who-what-why;” who the people are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Tell them to simply listen to their intuition and let their imaginations work.

Give students one word, one that easily evokes an archetype, such as ‘no’ or ‘wonder’ and ask them: say the word to yourself a few times. Then describe an imagined person who this word personifies. To take this to the next step, have students create three people, from three contrasting words, like ‘yes-no-maybe.’ Put these three in a situation and imagine what will happen.

A more physical exercise might be mirroring. Pair up students. Have the people face each other, hands up, palms toward the partner. You can begin by having one person act as the leader, and then switch back and forth until there’s no clear leader.  When one moves, the other mirrors the movement. Make the movements fairly easy, at first. Do not lose eye contact or break the plane of the mirror.

 

Mirroring is a good way to introduce empathy training. There are many meditation practices to develop empathy and compassion. According to Paul Ekman, who has studied emotion extensively, empathy can take different forms. It begins with recognizing or reading what someone is feeling or thinking. It can then progress to “feeling with” another. Add caring and the willingness to act for another’s welfare and you have compassionate empathy. Add putting yourself at risk and you have altruism. Empathy is not “self-sacrifice” in the sense of not valuing your life. Instead, valuing (and clearly perceiving) the messages of your own mind and heart allows you to value the mind and heart of others, and vice versa.

 

To question, first listen. To listen, first care. To care—hopefully needs no further reason.

The Good, The True, and The Beautiful

I love studying ancient civilizations. It takes me back to the roots of being human, when we were a younger species discovering our powers. And maybe it’s easier to see truths about ourselves when there were fewer of us and we lived in smaller groups.

 

The Golden Age Athenians certainly taught us a great deal, about abuses of power and colonial aggression as well as the love of wisdom and the creation of beauty. The philosopher Plato, for example, talked about possible links between the good, the true, and the beautiful. I find this fascinating. I certainly think the link offers great material for teachers. Howard Gardner pointed out, in a book from 2011, teaching the good, the true, and the beautiful is a wonderful framework for an education. Here’s my position on these three virtues.

 

The good: what does ‘good’ mean? There are so many meanings of ‘good.’ There’s a “good sandwich,” or “a good feeling.”  There are ethical “goods” like a “good person” or a “good act” and maybe “a good life.” ‘Good’ has to do with value. Inquiring into what we value and why, and what is ethical and why, makes for exciting teaching.

 

The true: Most of our teaching in schools is about defining or hopefully having students uncover what is true, uncover what ‘true’ means. Is a truth eternal or for the moment? Universally applicable or situational? Can we ever fully state all the conditions that make a truth true? It is true, for example, that this rose I hold in my hand is red, now. But is it red to a colorblind person? Or at night? Even in this relatively simple case, the question is more complex than it seems.

 

And what link, if any, is there between the good and the true? Does the argument, competition is ‘good’ or morally benevolent because humans are (supposedly) naturally competitive, a ‘good’ or sound argument if the supposed facts are true?

 

And the beautiful: What makes something beautiful? Is beauty all in the eyes of the “beholder?” And if so, what does that mean? Beauty is not just for the artist, English major, or fashion designer. Formulas or proofs in math can be beautiful. A relationship can be beautiful.

 

Viewing natural beauty can be healing. Sarah Warber and Katherine N. Irvine have researched how people recovering in hospital rooms with a view heal quicker. Workers in a room with windows to a natural scene report higher work satisfaction. Is this equally true with created beauty? Do humans suffer when deprived of beauty? If so, do we call it an illness, or a lack of skill? Can people be taught to see beauty?

 

I think we can be taught to better perceive beauty. One way to do it is by developing sensitivity through immersion.  The philosopher and Ph.D. in psychology, Jean Huston, said, in a workshop I attended, something like immersing yourself in poetry, for example, makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. This is one reason why eliminating poetry from the Common Core or cutting back on the arts in schools is detrimental to education.

 

The second way to teach beauty is to teach mindfulness and empathy. To feel empathy is to feel kinship, relationship. It is to recognize that another being senses, feels, thinks in some way like you do. It readies us for the beautiful as well as for anything else. The ability to open one’s heart and mind and clearly observe what’s happening in a situation or a relationship helps us to do the same with a work of art or scene in nature.

 

One year, my wife and I visited Greece. We had a cave-room in a hotel on the island of Santorini looking down on the caldera, an area that almost 3600 years ago was a live volcano and now is mostly filled by the Mediterranean. A large sailboat was making its way from the caldera to the larger sea. It was nearing sunset, and the view was so beautiful, I felt like I was in a movie. I felt each moment was eternal, as complete in-itself as could be imagined. The beautiful calls forth in us a sense of life being full and meaningful, maybe good and true. Maybe, whole. The Navajo, if I understand it correctly, have a word ‘Ho’zho,’ meaning beauty, also “harmony, happiness, health, and balance.” To “walk in beauty” is to walk in balance and peace.

 

I think that it would be a worthy achievement to graduate students who have this sensitivity to beauty or the whole of life, to what is good, ethical, and true. To “walk in beauty.”

 

 

*Photo: By Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece (View from Fira  Uploaded by Yarl) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Taking A New Perspective

I served in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in 1969, teaching English and sometimes math or health, in a rural village. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions that were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty. At possibly forty, he was already a few years older than the average male from his country.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a constant reality but a necessity. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different than changing the position of a raindrop. So, no substantive change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

By taking in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. This openness to and empathy for totally new perspectives is important in thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking. A Zen Master from 13th Century Japan, Daito Kokuji, wrote: “No umbrella, getting soaked,/I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.”

 

 

Maybe there’s a kinship between the headmaster and the Zen master. What experiences have you had where your perspective was suddenly turned on its head?

Awareness Is Political

I woke up this morning about 6 am. It was still dark. I got out of bed, walked around and almost stepped on my 7 month old kitten, Milo. Instead of being freaked out, I was happy, not only that I didn’t step on him but that I could see him, or just see, period. Maybe because of now being a “senior citizen” I am more aware of what someday I will lose. There was fear at the opposite side of the joy, fear of losing sight and my other senses. And hurt. I felt what I imagined Milo might feel if I stepped on him. He would not know why I hurt him.

 

Perception is not just about information. My seeing makes it possible to step around and reach out to pet him. As I sense him, a feeling of approach or avoidance arises, then like, dislike or indifference. Then memories, of how he rolls over to get my attention or how he chases our other cats. There is relationship.

 

Our perceptions and emotions link us to others and our world, a world from which we are never, even for an instance, separate. Yet, do we always feel this? Of course not. We can lose the sense of connection even more easily than we lose the sense of sight. Never forget that sensing connection is a sense. And we pay an enormous price for its’ loss. We pay with violence. We pay with suffering. Once painful emotions are aroused, it is easier to enact them on others. Feeling disconnected or isolated hurts and makes it easier to get angry, blame and hurt others. Thinking gets confused. Manipulation is easy. A population that is hurting is easily manipulated.

 

Empathy is the heart of connection, love and ethical action. It can take different forms. According to Paul Ekman, there is recognizing what another being thinks or feels. There’s feeling with or caring about others, and lastly, being ready to act for their welfare. I feel the pain I could cause Milo and thus shudder at the imagined hurt. Because I experience his pain, I am more careful. Some argue that such empathy will not stop violence or hurt. People often hurt themselves. Others hurt the ones they love even more frequently than those they don’t care about. If empathy doesn’t protect us from hurting those we love, when will it protect us?

 

But examine the hurt that arises with the emotion of love. To love is obviously a highly complex state that comes in all sizes and shapes. Feeling love is feeling the edge between two strong polarities. You feel entirely open and vulnerable, “connected.” You care. You feel joyous and valued. You say “yes” to the world. On the other side, you feel the possibility of loss. With love, you feel alive; you feel the moment strongly, which means you feel its impermanence. From there, it is easy to fear loss, hurt, the world saying “no” to you. You desire security, continuity, even control. When you hurt the one you love, you are trying to stop the fear. But that is the same as stopping the vulnerability, which is to stop the love. You try to protect love by ending it. It is not love that causes the hurt. It is the fear that you can’t love. Living on the edge of a sword is a highly prized skill. When you hurt yourself, instead of feeling too much, you feel too little. You hurt yourself because feeling something, even pain, is preferable to feeling nothing or feeling dead.  There is danger in feeling too little or too much.

 

So, to educate love, empathy and connection, awareness of thoughts and emotions, is a politically and socially responsible act. It makes us better citizens and neighbors. It is difficult to manipulate those who are emotionally and socially aware. It is revolutionary. I wish schools would teach it more. In the late 1960s, the slogan “the personal is political” helped rally the student and women’s movements. Maybe “awareness is political” will rally each of us today.