In Today’s World, Reading Books and Caring for Others are Acts of Defiance

One of the biggest threats of this administration is to your sense of who you are as a human being. It is difficult to believe in mutual love and caring when faced with the actions and words of Roy Moore or Steve Bannon, or compassion when faced with the actions and words of Paul Ryan, or beauty when faced with Mitch McConnell. It is difficult to believe courage is possible when many Republicans, who once criticized the president’s racism or spoke out for health care for children, now support his agenda and this tax bill. It is difficult to believe learning, clear thinking, and scientific research is possible when faced with Betsy DeVos or Mr. T. In today’s world, reading books on topics such as (but not limited to) science, philosophy, anthropology, history or poetry is an act of defiance.


So, as a new year draws close, dedicate yourself to rebel not only against the abuses of this administration, but for the possibilities of human nature this administration seeks to squash. Seek to understand the actions of people like Mnuchin, Pruit, Sessions, and Flynn, but also Elizabeth Warren, Doug Jones, and the courage of women who spoke out against abuse by Moore, Mr. T, and others.


Rebel not only out of understanding how destructive this administration is to our health care, environment, democracy, and national security—but for love, compassion, and a desire for beauty.


When you come home from work tired, tired of long hours of work. Or you return from a protest or from completing phone calls to congress and you feel you have lost the sense of what hope is, read Rubin Alves’ poem Tomorrow’s Child. Or if you need to quiet the noise inside and aren’t able to meditate, or walk along a seashore, read Pablo Neruda on Keeping Quiet. Or you don’t know if you should take a chance on your dreams, read about what happens to a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes.


When you feel taking action or even listening to the news is too difficult, or “When despair for the world grows in me,” read Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things. Or when you feel you are catching the illness of fear and selfishness, or that you have no power, read about the power of Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye— “…it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”


When you feel alone in the struggle even though most Americans, most people in the world, agree with you, read The Low Road by Marge Piercy:

“…it starts when you care

to act, it starts when you do

it again after they said no,

it starts when you say We

and know who you mean, and each

day you mean one more.”


And, along with Mary Oliver and her poem What I Have Learned So Far, “Be ignited, or be gone.”


Do not forget that love is a possibility in every life. (I don’t know about psychopaths.) We all share more than we differ. But for some, love is a possession and a wall. They hold tightly onto the few as if to possess them, and wall away all others. And in doing so, they wall away themselves. But for many, love is a second skin. It is a boundary allowing you to feel life, to feel yourself, more intensely, and to contact, open to others, more securely.


Yes, do what you can to find the power in yourself not only to take action and rebel against injustice and ignorance, but to make joy, kindness, education and care for others the central point of what life and even politics is about. This is the greatest gift you can give anyone, including your self, in this or any season.

How Mindful Focus Can Help Free Your Mind From Painful or Repeating Thoughts

How often do you feel plagued by a thought? Or you feel pushed around by an idea or image, as if it were a phantom bully, disrupting your concentration or making a moment of life, of school or work, more difficult? You begin to look more at the ghost that trails you than the people or events that face you. Especially in times like this, it can be difficult to find comfort and clarity.


One way to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought is to center your mind on feeling a sensation. In this way you break the apparent chain of thought. Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing. And focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. Mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.


You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.


Then notice how your body automatically strives to open itself and take in air once again. Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.


Notice the pause between breaths. You get quiet. For a second, you are simply there. For a sweet second of life, all that is important is the simple enjoyment of life.


And then you want to let go of the air, and let go of tension. You settle into the sensation of letting go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale. Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. You become aware of the thought precisely in order to learn from it and let it go.


Breathe in and out through the nose. This is the cycle of a breath. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.


If you are leading a group or class, first study and practice, daily, on your own, to know it from the “inside,” and possibly find a mindfulness teacher or counselor. You might give students a choice of where to focus, on the upper lip, on the shoulders, or on the bottom of your feet—focus wherever it is easier to focus. Focusing on the feet can be helpful for facing anxiety and fear as it helps you feel more grounded, or centered. You breathe out and feel your feet pressing down against the floor or earth as you push the air up, from your feet and out your nose. You focus directly on the breath and let everything else go. Then as you breathe in, feel the air enter your body and go all the way down to your feet. Feel your body expand slightly—your feet expand down, into the floor or earth.


Do this for three breaths, or three minutes, whenever you need it, or at a set time of day. Just a small investment of time can be significant. Start small and your body will ask for more.


You might feel that if you’re not rushed, you’re not important. In our society, it is easy to think the busier you look, the more important you feel. Being constantly connected to social media, for example, means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected from technology or from busy-ness can mean to them they are less valuable or they are missing something. If you don’t fill each moment with tasks or texts or thoughts, you are wasting your time. But being connected to media often means being disconnected from yourself. You miss yourself. When you quiet your mind, you hear the world more fully and clearly.


Focusing on feeling is only one of many methods you can use. You can teach yourself to mindfully face uncomfortable emotions and question thoughts. If you turn away from feeling fear, for example, you let it rule. Usually, when you face something directly, you can break its hold on you. When you face what bothers you, you feel more powerful. Distraction is another technique many people use, reading a book, working out at a gym, or taking a walk in the woods when you want to “get out of your head” and back into the rest of the world.


To let go of a thought, it might also help to understand why you have thoughts. So study yourself. Thoughts are an expression of mind testing and abstracting from reality to create a viewpoint. The initial level of any mental state is what psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel calls an “orienting response.” Brain and body systems become alerted and energized and you begin to feel. Then you get “elaborative appraisal” which involves activating memory, directing energy, and creating meaning. You feel bad, good, or neutral. You explain the world to yourself and you get the desire to hold, as in the emotion of joy or love, or push away, as in distaste or hate.


You might hold on to a thought in order to control what you feel can’t be controlled. You might worry about something occurring in order to magically prevent its occurrence. You might think your viewpoint is the absolute truth in order to prevent yourself from noticing how contingent and subjective a truth is. You might hold on to a thought out of fear of having nothing to hold on to.


When your mind quiets, you are more likely to directly notice the feeling that precedes thought. You can notice an idea without being caught by it. When you mistake the thought about an event or person as the entire story, you miss so much. When you focus on feeling, it shifts your perspective so you perceive and live more deeply the entire reality out of which the thought arises. You feel more centered and enjoy more fully the individual moments of your life. When the mind is calm, you act, teach, and learn more effectively.

The Mystery You Solve As You Live

When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.


I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.


But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?


Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.


Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.


You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.


So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?


The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.

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?

Thought Distortions and the Negativity Bias

How often do you teach a class or do something, do anything, and afterwards all you can think about is what you might have messed up? I recently led a ninety-minute workshop on different teaching strategies for a group of teachers. After the workshop and the thank yous and other compliments were over, I had a few minutes of being on my own, excited and happy about what I had done. And then, wham; I started thinking about one of the few things I didn’t do so well. All sorts of imagined negative judgments from people in the workshop jumped into my mind. It’s good that I’m fairly proficient at letting things go. But why did my mind jump to the negative?


There’s a so-called “negativity bias,” which causes humans to remember negative memories before positive ones. As described by Dr. Julie Haizlip et al, “humans are more attentive to and are more influenced by the negative aspects of their environment than by the positive.” I understand that this bias has great survival value. If we’re ultrasensitive to what might hurt us, then we will be ready to fight it off. The negativity is just the face of the fight-flight-freeze response. But this negativity jumps in even when the threat is imagined, when it’s social, not physical, or even when there’s just a small chance of being true. It is almost as if the mind creates the negative to fend off something even worse.


This bias interferes not only with clear thinking but clear perception. So, in a way, it can make us more, not less, susceptible to being hurt, and the primary hurt is self-generated.


Let’s say you’re a teacher in a class and the students are giving you a hard time. Young people can zero in on your vulnerabilities extremely well. Your frustration builds until it becomes anger and you’re about to explode, or “lose it.” What are you losing? It’s not “control” so much as awareness. You are afraid and angry at your own fear, which you then direct to the students. They are the threat and your response is a classic flight-flight-freeze response. Your thinking gets narrowed and only takes in what reinforces the sense of being attacked. You don’t notice how you create a narrative in your mind. You call yourself all sorts of names and imagine other people saying all sorts of things about you. And how does your narrative portray you? As a successful teacher? I don’t think so. You want to attack, escape, or hide and just get it over with.


This, too, is the negativity bias. We interpret reality as a threat, our thinking obscures and narrows and we lose awareness of our mental process. I remember another incident where this happened to me. It was in a middle school class near the beginning of the school year. One of the students asked what I interpreted as a facetious question. At first, I thought he was just trying to push my buttons. Then my mind quieted and I realized that maybe he needed to see someone face a challenge without anger and fear. Maybe he needed me to be someone different from what he knew at home. I realized that this situation was exactly why I was a teacher. This was what I was meant to deal with. I asked him if he was being facetious. He said he didn’t know the word so we looked up the meaning. I said I would never be facetious with the class, and asked what had teachers done in the past that was most helpful to them. And then I told a story from my own life about being threatened by a gang and how I dealt with it. The whole atmosphere in the room changed. Instead of joining the student mood of attack, I was present and kind. Teaching does not often conform to our images of what we’d like it be, and we can’t always conform to our images of who we think we should be. I chose awareness even when the object of awareness was painful. Kindness, taking a larger perspective, and awareness are powerful teaching tools.


This insight can help teachers with students who think everything they do must be “perfect.” Possibly all teachers know of students whose perfectionism is so extreme that they can barely turn in an assignment. A perfectionist wraps her or himself in a tight circle guarded by very strong narratives, and won’t step out of that circle for fear of reprisal.


Actually, I think we need to re-think the “negativity bias.” The bias arises as a component of a certain way of interpreting and responding to the world. It has to do with how I create a sense of myself. Notice how, after the workshop that I taught, I went from feeling really good to feeling bad. When I felt good, my self-image was glorious. When I felt attacked, my image was awful. When we feel ourselves as a thing enclosed in a bubble of skin, which separates us from the world, then we easily feel threatened, alien, insecure. A bubble easily bursts. Any good feelings must of necessity soon be followed by ones of threat.


So, what can we do? We can learn and teach the basics of cognitive therapy or how to identify and talk back to thought distortions like overgeneralizing, personalizing, jumping to conclusions. This is tremendously empowering. We need to learn and teach how to stay with awareness, to hear the comments we make in our mind and recognize the physical sensations of fear and threat. When we do so, the fear does not take hold of us because we do not turn away. Our attention is on noticing and not on living the narrative. This is mindfulness practice, learning to be continuously aware not only of what we are giving our attention to, but how. It develops empathy and kindness. When students exercise empathy for others, they can apply it to themselves. Being kind to others relaxes the borders of their circle. And if they can learn how to see their own thoughts and behavior from a variety of perspectives, not just one, then they will be more likely to let go of the narratives of threat.


Responding to noise with quiet, to a lack of awareness with awareness, or to someone else’s fear and anger with kindness and empathy, can make a tough day into a remarkable one.