Mindfulness Reveals Your Values and Improves Your Quality of Mind

The values you hold show up in the subtlest ways. Values can include the conscious principles or standards you hold as well as what you unconsciously hold dear and deem worthy of your attention and awareness. What is valuable to you is what activates your energy and attention. It motivates your goals, intentions and actions and is a basic part of how you feel each moment. If you feel off in some way, dissatisfied, in pain, studying what you value can be crucial in understanding how to not suffer and how to act effectively to end the dissatisfaction.

 

To understand what you value, it helps to be mindful not only of thoughts, but sensations and feelings. Notice not only what you like, dislike, or don’t care about, but what you approach or avoid. What do you open to, find difficult or confusing? Feelings give life to values.

 

Meditation is the science of studying mind and heart, thoughts and feelings. It develops not only depth of concentration and focus, but the ability to discern and examine both conscious and even some of what is usually unconscious components of experience. This ability can allow you to change your values and change your life.

 

But to do that, when you meditate, you need to value inner knowing, and value meditating itself, not what you might get from it. It might seem paradoxical, but if you meditate in order to reduce stress, what happens when you have a stressful thought or image? If you meditate in order to derive great insights, then as soon as you have an insight, you will want to stop and write it down. You will lose the meditation. Which do you want more—the written record of the insight or the mental state which produced it? Which is more important—telling others your deep realizations or living a depth of experience?

 

To meditate, you value whatever is there for you. You value presence. Otherwise, you are looking into an image, concept or abstraction, not what is actually there, now. You divide mind into a now and an idea of a then and lose the sense of present experience. Another definition for being distracted is thinking of another time or activity as more valuable than where you are, or what you’re doing, now.

 

The Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, said: “When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity.” The quality of mind that you have determines the life you experience.

 

For example, if you teach and value the very act of teaching, teaching will be all you need in that moment. You will be committed to it. Whatever arises, whatever happens, you will greet as something to learn from and incorporate into the lesson, not as a distraction, not as something to repress or hate. If you’re a student and you value learning, you focus on developing an open, clear, discerning mind, and you will learn a great deal. You might learn even more, or maybe something different, than anyone expected. You will feel more spontaneous, free, and engaged.

 

If you feel an injustice has been committed, and you respond with empathy and energy to better understand the situation, you will think more clearly about the situation than if you take the situation as another burden, as something life shouldn’t ask of you.

 

To concentrate on the quality of your mind is to value your life in a very authentic manner. It means you value all who you meet or whatever you encounter. Other people are not on the other side of an unbreakable wall, but are essential to your being. You observe others more closely and deeply. You observe even the constantly shifting stories your unconscious creates to explain and integrate the various elements of your life, and you create a life that goes way beyond any story.

 

 

Especially nowadays, with this President, I think it is important for you to value your own experience for itself, value its depth, which is the same as valuing life. Valuing life not for any reason, not for what it can get you, but for itself.

 

 

In this country, everything is consumerised. People are too often valued in terms of what they can do for you, or how much they make, not for who they are. Education is monetized in terms of how much “value [is] added” to a student by a teacher. This leads to thinking of your own mind in “value added” terms, or what a thought or an emotion can get you. The problems with such a way of thinking have been discussed by many people, Buddha, Karl Marx, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr.—just for a small sample. What is new in this time of history is that more people have access to more information on how a value system influences your life experience.

 

 

From one perspective, the election of this President has brought to the forefront the battle in our society about what it means to be a human being, or successful as a human being. Is success measured by how much money or power you accumulate? Or how you relate to others? Are you valuable because you are a living being? Or valuable only if you can earn more than others? Is power about controlling others and forcing them to agree with you? Or about controlling your own mind and behavior? Our nation in the past was too quick to monetize everything. This must be reconsidered if we are to continue as a democracy.

 

 

**If you’d like to do a short mindfulness meditation, here is one way to begin: Maybe set an alarm clock for two or five minutes. Set an intention that, until the alarm clocks rings, you will put your attention on the meditation. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.

 

Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. Notice if you feel tense anywhere, heavy or light. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body lets go, settles down, relaxes a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.

 

You might feel your attention drawn toward or away from an idea or memory. Just notice the response. If you find yourself drifting away, just notice that your attention drifted and has now returned. Gently focus your awareness on the breath.

 

If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inbreath, and then let go of them with the outbreath. This is simply the natural flow of mind.

 

Sit for a moment with a sense of your mind being quiet, at ease with whatever arises.

 

With your mind quiet, you can ask yourself: What is it I most value? What is most important to me? And then notice the thoughts and the feelings that arise when you think of valuing what you do.

 

**The more I meditate, the more I recognize how often my thoughts go to others, the more I recognize how interdependent I am with others. So speaking out against the racism, anti-democratic speech and actions of this administration is one result of mindfulness⎼and one way to remember and honor the work of people like Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a “true revolution of values” in his speech “Beyond Vietnam–A time To Break Silence.”

Those Who Lie to Create Fear vs Those Who Face Even Death to Reveal the Lie.

As the inauguration nears, or as any feared event draws near, what do you do? If you’re a teacher and your students are anxious and fearful, maybe it’s due to a test or a presentation, or a difficult situation in the world, what do you do? Do you go on, and basically ignore the situation, or do you acknowledge and face it? How do you face it? How do you allow yourself to notice and understand what hurts and oppresses you so you can take action to end it?

 

Take a moment. Too often people rush through life and miss the simple things, simple pleasures. Without knowing yourself and the feeling, emotion, the anticipation in your body and mind, all that you do can be compromised. So, begin with the simplest thing. Close your eyes and put attention on your breath. Simply breathe. Breathe in. Breathe out. You do it every second of every day. It can be your lifeline, your awakening. Breathe in and be aware of breathing in. Breathe out and be aware of breathing out. Breathe in and notice what you do. Notice the sensations of taking in air, taking in the world. Breathe out and notice letting go, pushing out, settling down, focusing. It’s ok to take a moment for yourself. 

 

Notice any place of discomfort as you breathe in. Just notice its feel and placement. And breathe out and move on. Notice any thoughts or images that arise. Simply notice with your in-breath, and let go with the out-breath.

 

As you breathe in, allow to come to mind a time that you helped another person, or stood up for a principle, stood up for what was right. What images come to mind when you think of helping others or helping one other person? Have you ever witnessed one person helping another, or imagined doing so yourself? What happened or what did you imagine? It doesn’t have to be dramatic, like in the movies. It can be something simple, like sticking up for someone or speaking out—or putting yourself at some risk.

 

If you imagined someone else taking action, what do you think this person felt afterwards? Or if you saw yourself doing such an act, what did it feel like for you to do this? Imagine the feeling, when you’re home, safe, knowing you could do what you did. Would you do it again? Was it the right thing to do? Sit for a moment with the feeling of knowing you could imagine and take action to help others or do the right thing.

 

All through history people have been helping others, facing adversity, taking risks. Study history. You are not alone. This struggle needs to be awakened, refought and refined, improving it, strengthening your self, as it is needed. When have your parents helped others or faced fearsome events? When have you? When were people in the past as afraid for the future as many people are now? When were people of this nation afraid of the government or people in the government?

 

Think of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his version of the Witch-Trials. He “rose suddenly to national fame in February, 1950 when he asserted in a speech that he had a list of ‘members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring’ who were employed in the State Department.” It was a lie. He stoked the fears of communist takeover during the Cold War and went after writers and actors as well as people in the government and gay men and others, accusing them of disloyalty or being communist sympathizers or committing sex crimes, when for most the only crime they committed was being different from or opposing him. He destroyed the lives of many good people all to fuel his own selfish desire for power. Many times in history, the fear of an external threat was distorted into a fear of our own neighbors, all to fuel the hunger for power by a few.

 

McCarthy was eventually censured by the Senate and the lies of the man who was once popular and feared were revealed. He died a despised man. That can happen again. When did people in the US and other nations fight such oppressive leaders or fight to change the government or social institutions? Think of the Women’s Suffrage movement, for example, or the anti-slavery or Civil Rights movement. Think of people who faced even death to do what was right and awaken the “conscience of a nation,” Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

 

We are here, now, in a new moment. I hope we all learn from history the importance and power of facing fear and injustice.

 

When you’re anxious and afraid, you can feel brittle. You can hold onto the fear as if it was your identity and fear letting it go. But it is fear itself that is brittle. Fear serves a purpose. It is telling you to wake up. Beyond that, it no longer serves you. It is telling you to beware and turn away from some person or event, but it is too easy to interpret it as telling you to turn away from this moment that you feel it. As little children, we learned to turn away from many uncomfortable feelings. But when you notice and simply study it; notice “I know that biting sensation in my stomach, that trembling in my knees.” And you take a deep breath anyway and move on. The fear dissolves. You think more clearly. Your life takes on more meaning. You come back to this very moment, this very breath, now. That’s a powerful place to be.

 

 

 

Anger

So much anger around lately. Like any emotion, anger can be more complex and multifaceted than it seems. It can save your life, energize you to fight off a threat or oppression. Or it could harm a relationship, fog your thinking, and lead to regret.

 

It’s not the emotional feeling that causes the problems, however. Emotion is a natural response to a stimuli and a motivator to act in a certain way. It directs your way of thinking and remembering. You often create stories in your mind to support and explain your own emotions. It is these stories, how you respond to the emotion, and how you act, that cause the problems or reveal a solution.

 

Anger can arise out of fear and in response to fear. When afraid, you want to turn away and run. When angry, you want to stay and fight or even run toward what frightens you. So it can be powerful and intoxicating. Anger can come as a balm, feel like a cure, or create an identity for you when one is lacking.

 

Think about times you were angry. There is a righteousness to the emotion. You are at a check out line in a big box store. The cashier charges you two dollars more than the labeled price and you notice it. You interpret the situation as a purposeful act. You tell yourself the cashier is a dupe of corporate thieves (which does occur too often). You start to get angry—until the cashier turns red in his face, apologizes, and explains he entered the wrong price in the computer.

 

You might rail against man’s inhumanity to man, or how the political system is rigged and unjust, or how other people’s lack of awareness and responsibility negatively impacts your life. And all this can be true. You feel imposed upon and isolated. You say to yourself you refuse to be a part of the inhumanity. You then use the anger as an identity; you think of yourself as a fighter against evil. You walk around with anger as your shield of righteousness. As a result, you bring anger everywhere you go. You push people away. You ignore or are unaware of how your shield negatively impacts yourself as well as all those you meet and you become what you rail against. How often do you walk into a room full of angry or fearful people and you feel their fear or anger like an assault? Anger is contagious.

 

In our modern world, culture and cultural institutions are arguably the prime influence on human behavior, not “raw nature.” We don’t, on a daily basis, fear attacks by “wild” animals. We can’t pretend that any anger we feel is just a natural response to a threat and must be acted upon as if our existence were threatened. We predominantly feel threatened by or get angry about not a tiger’s claws but a human who belittles, disrespects or treats us unfairly—or by or a systematic attack on our ability to lead a full, meaningful, happy life. It is human society and how other humans treat us and mirror us that we most often fear and that angers us most deeply.

 

We are all part of a system of relationships and must do our best to honor those relationships. How we think we stand in relation to others is extremely important to us. Being treated fairly is extremely important. If our society treats some of us poorly, or actually militates against our ability to get our needs met, we get angry. We feel society doesn’t see us and is denying our humanity. As many writers, activists, and spiritual leaders have pointed out, if one of us is treated poorly, all of us are affected.

 

What can we do? There is no easy answer to this. We can start by studying our own emotional experience and learn to differentiate at least two of the many directions anger can take. There is the anger that arises as we blame others for the pain we cause (to self and others) or we project onto others the anger we do not face. And there is anger that arises when we witness hurt and injustice. The first arises because, ultimately, we want to feel good. We want to feel loved and be loving and we don’t know how. We might judge ourselves too harshly for our mistakes and forget that we are not born with all the knowledge and wisdom we need to survive. We forget learning only comes through making mistakes. We need to learn that to feel loved we must be loving. We need to learn, as much as it is possible, how to let go of this anger and the stories we tell ourselves which fuel it. The second arises because we care and feel empathy. We want to act to end any suffering we witness as if it were our own.

 

Anger at oppression and injustice can spark resistance against it. Yet anger can cloud our thinking. When we’re angry, our ability to perceive can be narrowed to looking for threats, and we isolate ourselves from what we’re angry at. We mentally convert thinking, breathing, feeling people very much like us into enemies filled only with the intent to harm or denigrate us, who exist only as our nemesis or oppressor.

 

You can’t fight what you don’t see. You can’t see what you rail against in anger and push away with hate. You can’t unite with those you push away. When you’re angry, it is easy to lose sight of those who are your natural allies.

 

So, to find answers, you must enter the mind and heart of others to understand what drives them and how they think. Then your anger, as much as it is possible, can give way to the empathy and care which might underlie it, and be replaced with a commitment to take appropriate action guided by emotional awareness and intellectual understanding. Gandhi said something like, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Buddha said something very similar. They weren’t being “nice” when they said this. They were being practical.

Discussing Religion

Discussing religion in public schools is obviously controversial. Religion (and opposition to religion) is very close to the core of many people’s understanding of reality and so must be treated with sensitivity and awareness. There are also constitutional and legal constraints.

 

Although the implications of the first (and fourteenth) amendment are still argued in some circles, the purpose is to protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and religion. It forbids congress from promoting one religion over another. It states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson and before him, Roger Williams, spoke of a “wall of separation” between church and state. The prohibition against religion in public institutions is a prohibition against combining church and state, or making church the state.

 

But does this mean that religion should not be discussed in schools at all except in very limited circumstances? Circumstances such as world history classes, where history textbooks give relevant dates, name important people, central practices, teachings and terminology? These references are usually very superficial, dry, and do little to help students understand or learn about religions other than their own (if they have one).

 

I think religion must be discussed in schools. For one thing, students have many questions. It is in the headlines, often in very negative terms. We hear about religion fighting religion, about religious extremists and terrorists. A report by Media Matters, in 2007, found the coverage of religion oversimplified, with a consistent bias in coverage in favor of conservatives. “Combining newspapers and television, conservative religious leaders were quoted, mentioned, or interviewed in news stories 2.8 times as often as were progressive religious leaders.” Some students have no experience with religious teachings at all. Others go to a church, synagogue, mosque, center or whatever but rarely do they get to ask questions or think about religion from a perspective of someone not a member of their community. Students need a deeper and more inclusive picture. A reality ignored or oversimplified is a reality distorted and abused and we have enough of both in our world.

 

The questions about religion that concern secondary students most and I think should be predominantly examined in schools are psychological and philosophical or ethical. What is religion? Why has it been part of human life, history and culture since the initial days of humanity? What is the place of reason and doubt in the face of belief and faith? Discussing religion easily leads to deep questions and concerns, about purpose, morality, mind, soul and death, about truth and how you know what’s true, about compassion and love. Throwing out religion as a topic of study often leads to throwing out what is crucial to the lives of each and every human being. Do we want to empty schools of the deepest and most meaningful questions and concerns? If so, we know why many think of school as a wasteland. In fact, is religion another way to speak about one’s central concerns in life? Is religion so tied to culture that the two can barely be separated? If you can’t discuss religion, at least discuss these philosophical questions and how to humanize and respect those with views other than your own.

 

The discussions need to be real and in-depth, the questions mostly open-ended, with no one right answer. There are not “two sides” to any deep religious or philosophical question (or maybe any important question) but multiple sides. There are also factual questions that need to be researched and reliable “experts” in the field interviewed (historians, psychologists, philosophers of religion, theologians, and spiritual leaders, in person, or through YouTube and books). For example, students told me that in many classes when religion was discussed, it was portrayed as a way to explain the unexplainable or to give people comfortable answers to uncomfortable questions. Although I think there is some truth to this, this explanation of the “why” of religion is woefully inadequate. It might even be a way to sneak in a dismissal of the religious as lazy or poor thinkers. Anyone who argues this has never read the writings of, or listened to, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama or others. Also, it is untrue. Some religions do not give comfortable answers. One example is Buddhism, which speaks of the suffering common to most people’s lives. Overcoming suffering does not come easily and is not from belief but through an almost scientific examination of how the world is, of mind and awareness.

 

Of course, I am arguing this viewpoint with some trepidation. Open-ended discussions of religion can be difficult to lead, very personal and require great trust on the part of students in the teacher and the classroom community, a trust that has to be earned. And schools are already being attacked from many sides and often unfairly so teachers might feel themselves vulnerable to attack. Religious groups pushing their particular doctrines and corporate groups doing much the same assault them.

 

But schools are the closest we have to common places where, maybe, perhaps, wisdom might be found and encouraged, even taught, along with compassion and understanding. Or where there are people, namely teachers, who are deeply committed to developing such attributes in themselves and young people. It’s about time to let schools attempt such a mission instead of being bogged down with test prep and superficial knowledge. And discussing meaningful questions might actually increase engagement and learning in the classroom.

 

Next week: How do you foster and lead such discussions without distorting the discussion with bias? What do you think?

 

 

**The photo is of my wife, Linda, in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.