Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat

How do you teach when so many people feel and are threatened and the federal government is controlled by people who do not have your well-being in mind? How would growing up in this age, with this minority-elected President, influence your 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, Muslim or a Jewish person, 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?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by a teacher’s response, 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 how others respond to their actions. 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. I asked: “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? 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, ask them to close their eyes and answer in their own mind the following questions: What does ‘kindness’ mean to you? What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘kindness’? What does it look like? How do you feel when someone is kind to you? Who could you be kind to today and how would you do it? Then ask them to record and then share with the class what came to mind.

 

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.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. Ask students: How do you face what is difficult? Deconstruct what happens when you feel stressed, threatened, or anxious. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, 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.

 

Ask: What happens to your breathing when stressed? When stressed, your breathing gets more shallow and quick. When you notice this, deliberately take one–three longer, deeper breaths before you consider what actions to take.

 

What about your thoughts? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, or of being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. The novelist, G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life.

 

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. To teach this, you could have mindful moments in your classroom, where you ask students to close their eyes for a moment, and allow themselves to be aware of their breathing. Or start a class with a moment of silence. Or, if you practice mindfulness, start the day with a mindfulness practice. Always practice on your own before you do it with students. If you haven’t already done so, study how to lead students in such practices.

 

Say to students: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and at ease, 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.

 

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. You might focus on your shoulders. Simply notice your shoulders rise as you breathe in. And relax, settle down, as you breathe out. Then go to another place in the body. Notice how you body expands as you breathe in, and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. Notice also any thoughts. They are part of the water flowing. If your mind drifts away, or you lose focus on the breath, simply notice it. When you notice something, it means you are found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that. Just notice what arises with the inhalation, and let it go with the exhalation.

 

Take another, deep breath, open your eyes, and return your awareness to the classroom. Ask them to: look round and notice how you feel now. And then write in a journal or share how the experience was for them. Did they notice their thoughts or sensations? Do they feel more relaxed now then they did before?

 

You could ask students: What actions can you take to change their community or the nation to be a better place? How could they help others? By taking action, students feel empowered.

 

If physical exercise isn’t part of the school day or your day, add it somehow. It grounds you. Fear closes you off, divides you. When you engage both the mind and body, you feel whole, more patient, confident and you think more clearly. Take a walk in the woods, study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss with students, “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 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?

 

**This blog was also published by the Bad Ass Teachers Blogspot.

 

 

 

 

A Guest Blog: Gratitude Can Change Your Classroom and Your Life, by Owen Griffith

Gratitude Can Change your Classroom and your Life:

Guest Blog by Owen M. Griffith

 

Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. In addition, teachers have recently had new requirements added to their load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.

However, there is good news. Recent research and personal experience have shown that gratitude, a simple yet powerful tool, may be applied in our classrooms to improve the culture, as well as to raise students’ grades and goals.

The Challenges and the Miracles of the First Year

Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. During that first year, I am thankful that I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did connect with the students and felt the magic that happens when the classroom unites in learning.

Many nights, I would wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would do a personal gratitude list and still find the good things happening among all the apparent problems. This kept me going through those darkest hours. Just when I thought of quitting and going back to my old career, a major miracle happened.

 

Robert

Robert was a tough 7th grader who didn’t seem to care about school or anything else. By his own admission, he was on the brink of joining a gang and failing every subject. When I would pass out the science assignment for the day, he would say, “Mr. G., science doesn’t mean anything in my life.”

Then, he would ceremoniously crumple up the assignment and throw it in the trash saying, “I’ll take an ‘F’ for the day.” This bothered me tremendously, and I tried different things to reach him, but nothing seemed to get through.

After Winter Break, one day I handed out a new assignment about the scientific method. Surprisingly, Robert looked intently at the page and said, “Will you help me with this Mr. G?”

After what he said registered in my brain, I quickly went to his desk and guided him through the scientific method. On the way home that night, I found myself smiling and wondering what happened to Robert. The next thing that ran through my mind was, “Will this change last, or was it a one day anomaly?”

The next day, we delved further into the scientific method and Robert asked more questions. Even more shocking, he started helping some of his fellow students who used to throw the papers away right along with Robert.

Robert’s turnaround came at my darkest hour in the classroom. I don’t know if I would have kept going if it hadn’t been for this minor miracle. But I realized it wasn’t just a minor miracle. When a student who was thinking about joining a gang and failing every subject turned around and not only got an A in my science class, but also got straight As in every subject by the end of the year, helped other students in academics, and stayed out of trouble, I realized I was a small part of a major miracle.

When I asked Robert what had happened, he said, “You never gave up on me and kept trying with me Mr. G.” I was reminded of a saying from a pedagogy professor who would gently remind us, “All it takes to change a student’s life is the appropriate adult at the appropriate time.”

 

Gratitude – The Missing Element in the Classroom

To start the new year of teaching, I knew I needed to interject something powerful and positive into my classroom. One day as we were planning for the first day of school, I had the inspiration of trying gratitude in the classroom. I realized that this could be a breakthrough. If it worked for me and others, it would work for the students.

So, when the students arrived, we started a gratitude journal from the first day of class. That was over ten years ago, and as those original students enter college now, many of them still keep their gratitude logs, but some have updated them to their computers or iPhone.

Gratitude was one of the missing elements for me in the classroom, bringing about a positive and optimistic culture that only seemed to improve as the year went on. Furthermore, gratitude had a cascading effect that gave me more energy to devote to every aspect of teaching, from planning lessons to dealing with conflict between students, to keeping the students interested in school as the year dragged on.

 

The Gifts of Gratitude

Teaching gratitude promotes a positive classroom culture, as well as enables schools to elevate students’ engagement and academic achievement. In addition, an attitude of gratitude allows teachers to improve their own lives, as well as their students’ lives.

The many benefits of gratitude include:

  • Challenging the culture of complaining and replacing it with gratitude
  • Combatting materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism
  • Understanding the barriers to implementing gratitude and dispelling them
  • Healing losses in life with gratitude for students and educators
  • Balancing our busy lives with mindfulness in conjunction with gratitude
  • Helping teenagers utilize gratitude successfully and overcoming their resistance
  • Encouraging the entire families of our students to embrace gratitude and a variety of activities to help it become a permanent part of their lives

Owen M. Griffith is an educator and author living in Northern Georgia. His work has appeared on Edutopia and Huffington Post. This article is taken from his book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching. Grounded in scientific research, this book delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Success stories and step-by-step instructions are also included in order to implement gratitude in the classroom and schools.

Order Owen’s book directly from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers through 12/31/17 and save 20% with discount code RLEGEN17.

Owen’s book is also available on Amazon, and be sure to check out Owen’s blog at http://spirituallyteaching.blogspot.com/.

 

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

How Can You Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open with students? What do the students need? You can’t answer such questions solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness of feeling, will plan our classes or vacations so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend you’ve already done it.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom. …

 

This blog was just published by BATS (Bad Ass Teachers) Blogspot. If you’d like to read the whole piece, please click on this link to go to their site.

The Moment That Is Summer

Did you grow up with a longing for summer? Even if you have no connection, as an adult, to the education system, summer can remind you what it was like to be a child, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if you’re a teacher and don’t teach summer school or don’t have to work a second job (or maybe even if you do), or you’re a student, you can have free time once again.

 

The longing for summer is, for me, a longing for renewal. This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

 

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains (or if it doesn’t rain). This is it. I actually hear my own life speaking to me.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, a mountain, or forest. I meditated every day. I also took classes or read books about whatever interested me, or whatever would reveal something new about the world that my students and I faced, whether it was quantum physics, writing, mindfulness, neuroscience, philosophy, history, and karate. I wanted to learn something meaningful and feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, or life seems frightening, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

Summer can allow us to let go of last year so we can greet this year as something welcome and alive—so we can learn to find this very moment as unique and enticing. All seasons can do this for us. They provide a natural rhythm to life, if we can feel it. They provide a teaching. This very moment and this earth that we walk on—they sustains us, and are never separate, never distant.

 

In the high school philosophy class I taught, we often read a book by Jeremy Hayward called Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, Awareness in an Enchanted World. It is a book written by a Buddhist teacher and quantum physicist to his daughter, to help her perceive the enchanted nature of the world, and not just the corrupt and threatening one many of us humans are taught to imagine and thus help create. He mentions a Navajo concept of Ho’zho, or beauty: “Beauty before me, beauty around me, beauty ahead of me.” (p. 16) We can walk the earth with beauty. Likewise, Japanese Buddhists have a term, sho shin or first, beginner’s mind. When we let go of the distractions, delusions and fear, and see the world in sho shin, the world is full, alive, and fresh. We see the world and other people more directly and clearly.

 

So summer is not just a time to let go, relax, and prepare for a new year. It is a time to invest in the only sure investment—into our mind and heart and how they (or it) reveal the world to us.

 

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.

Speeding Up Life Shortens Your Meaningful Moments: Time and Addiction

We obviously live in a fast paced political-social world. It is easy for most of us to get caught up in thoughts about job or school, relationships, money, health, or the new political reality. Thoughts move at lightning speed. Communication in the brain moves through neurons or brain cells as an electrical current, so ideas can register in tiny fractions of a second. And for many of us, thoughts constantly arise in our mind, whether awake or asleep. Just think how fast a thought can arise in your mind and then disappear. Having thoughts is what a mind does.

 

Emotions usually take longer to get underway, but once started, last longer. Try to make yourself love something or get angry. You need to evoke thought, memory, or sensation first. And emotions don’t evaporate and disappear so easily. They can lie hidden and their very intensity can make them difficult to process.

 

In fact, since thoughts arise so quickly, they can easily be used to hide away feeling. And as the pace of society quickens, we more easily get lost in our mental world. We think “the mind gets things done; feelings or emotions get in the way.” The more we use thoughts to cover emotions and feelings, the more we dread and avoid feeling. We thus train ourselves to fear our own feelings, and to experience anxiety and other forms of discomfort whenever feelings appear. We might not even relax when on vacation because that would mean lowering our guard. How often do vacations cause more anxiety than normal day-to-day life?

 

And when feelings or emotions come up in our daily lives, we react doubly. We not only try to respond to whatever situation we are in; we react against the formerly buried content. Our perceptions and thinking can get confused and distorted.

 

The result, as discussed by Stephan Rechtschaffen in his book Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, is that our ability to focus and experience a moment of life is shortened to the length of a thought. This book was published 20 years ago, but its central message is even more important now. When psychological reality moves too quickly, and the duration of a moment is too short, then life seems more superficial, and it is difficult to be intensely conscious and aware. We can’t process meaning well. In order for an experience to touch us at all, we need something very intense or dramatic.

 

The shorter the focal duration of a moment, the more groundless and isolated we feel. We cling more desperately to our thoughts and viewpoints, as if they were the only thing we could count on. We crave intense risk, stimulation or challenge to achieve any depth of experience.

 

As Rechtshaffen points out, this is also what happens with addictions.The rushing mind can be addictive. In an addiction, we turn to some substance like a drug, or to a media device, something external to ourselves, to get high or to distract ourselves, because our focus on the moment is too short to allow anything “mundane” to be exciting. The more we depend on externals, the more our length of focus decreases, and we need even more stimulation. We can be manipulated more easily because our connection and understanding of our own inner experience is diminished. We continuously focus in the wrong place and never satisfy our true yearning.

 

We humans desire peak experiences, highs, and pleasures. And the longer we allow the focal duration of a moment to be, or the longer we can maintain focus, the easier it is to think clearly and for any experience to feel real, important, touching. Thus, almost any experience can be meaningful, can be a high, whether it is taking a breath, cooking a meal, or kissing our lover.

 

I think the deepest yearning we all have is to feel loved⏤to feel loved not as a gift bestowed upon us by others, but as a mutual creation that arises when we love others, when our life has depth and meaning. And when we do that we are likely to live our moments fully. Only by improving our ability to focus and pay attention, to quiet the constant chatter, and trust our inherent abilities and feelings, can we do this. Mindfulness, taking time in nature, allowing ourselves to truly savor and care for each moment we live, is so important. When the mind quiets, we hear the world more clearly. To re-phrase the English poet, William Blake, we hear and feel eternity in a moment.

 

*Photo: Temple, Delphi, Greece.

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?

Go Vote! And Consider What It Means To Be Free

We use the word all the time and often get worked up over it, so what does ‘freedom’ mean to you? The meaning has varied greatly amongst different people and times in history. For the early Romans, ‘freedom’ meant not being a slave, or being ruled by a Roman, not an Etruscan. Later on, it meant they could choose the rich Roman to rule them. At the height of Athenian democracy, it meant you could choose not only the rulers but the rules, and any citizen could be a ruler for a day (or lead the Assembly or Athenian Congress), but women and slaves were excluded from such freedoms.

 

Does freedom only involve political choices? Are you free if you can vote for someone to hopefully represent your interests, but in other areas of your life, choices are greatly limited?

 

Is having a choice the only criteria of freedom? My philosophy professor in college, Frithjof Bergmann, asked: What if you have many choices but none of them are meaningful ones? You can chose from twenty or a hundred cell phones or shirts, but none of them are what you really want or none satisfy the deep hunger in you. Or, is it free if you have ten insurance companies to choose from, but you can’t afford any of them, or can’t afford any that provide reasonable coverage? Or is it free if you have only one choice, but it’s a good one? And what if you have hundreds of choices of what to buy, yet the use of resources to provide such a selection shortens your lifespan or shortens the lifespan of humans on the planet?

 

What if your freedom means another person’s oppression? I frequently hear on the news Trump supporters say “now we will be free.” If they own a store, they will find religious freedom, for example, by not serving a gay person or pay for health insurance for a woman who makes the awful decision or medically needs to have an abortion. I had a discussion with a Donald Trump supporter who said one of the things most dear to him is freedom. He said he valued freedom to chose to have health care or not, or which health care provider. He said it was important to have freedom where to send his children to school. He also claimed that if tax money funded public schools, it should also fund charter and religious ones. But what if such policies meant the loss of a quality education for others, or the destruction of resources needed to provide people with the economic support they need to live? Which “freedom” is primary?

 

For many people, freedom means an absence of constraint. You are not locked up in jail, not forced to work in chains. It means, hopefully, that you are recognized as a fellow human being, with rights equal to all others. That is crucial, but is it enough? Defining ‘freedom’ as “not being in chains” is like defining ‘conscious’ as “awake” (not asleep). This is the beginning, not the end. You need to consider how aware you are when awake. And what if you are locked up for defending your principles? Or you “freely” act in ways that cause you and others suffering—is that freedom? Or you act only with your own interests in mind and, thusly, perpetually put yourself at war with all others. Is that freedom?

 

And what if one person out of ten or a hundred owns most of the wealth? Does that limit your freedom if you’re not one of the top 1%? In the US, approximately 1% of the population owns 60% of the wealth. When that happens, it means the richest people pay a smaller percentage of their wealth in taxes. It certainly means they have a much larger spendable income. Thus, they have more money to influence the political process, and less money is available for the infrastructure, health care, education, environment, emergency services and first responders, etc. that serve all of us. In the 1950s and 60s, the US economy was greatly expanding, but income tax rates for the rich were two – three times higher. As taxes go down on the wealthy, expenses go up for the majority. If you must work two jobs and have little “free” time, or spend most of your income to pay your bills, is that freedom?

 

Figuring out what freedom means is more complex that many realize. It is a great question for a teacher to raise with students, or a parent with children. My high school students loved such discussions. Not only what is freedom, but why is it important? If it is so hard to define, should it always be paired with love or compassion or equity? To me, it means not controlled by someone else’s interests, and not feeling stuck, confused, or lacking, not locked inside yourself so you can’t feel or respond to the suffering of others. To rule yourself, you must know your own mind, and be honest with yourself. As much as you can, you are aware of your own emotions and thoughts. You can’t act freely in the world if you don’t constantly expand your breadth and depth of understanding of it, and can’t feel the humanity of those people around you.

 

One basic freedom we have is to vote and participate in the political process in very basic ways. So, we need to use it, and as wisely as possible, or think about the consequences of losing it.

 

 

*This is a slightly amended version of a blog I posted earlier in the week.

*If you are in Ithaca, NY this weekend, I will be giving a talk on my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, on Saturday, November 12th, at 2:00 pm at Barnes & Noble.

How to Let Go of Stress and Save the World

It is easy to forget how your mental attitude affects the world you perceive. It is easy to get so stressed about the problems you perceive in the world and your lives that you can’t act or can’t clearly understand what you face. So not understanding stress can be a significant block to feeling good and acting skillfully.

 

What is stress? Many people think of it as a physiological response to a threat that you can’t control or shape. It is the fight-flight-freeze response, mostly the flight or freeze aspects. But it’s not just that. As Joseph LeDoux makes clear in his new book, Anxious: Understanding The Brain To Understand And Treat Fear And Anxiety, the feeling of fear and anxiety is not simply a physiological response. There is a cognitive component to it.

 

The physiological threat response arises to enable many different kinds of activities, from facing an actual physical threat, such as a knife-wielding robber, to when you think your sense of self is endangered. It can arise when you need to take a test, drive in traffic, talk with a friend about a difficult topic, or write a blog. It can underlie a great many emotions, like fear, worry, anxiety, jealousy and anger.

 

Daniel Siegel, in The Developing Mind, describes steps in the construction of emotion. The first step is arousing attention and energy, what he calls the initial orienting response. The second is appraisal, which includes what we might call feeling and interpreting, labeling stimuli as good or bad, to approach or avoid. Memories enter the picture. The third step is your categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, fear. Without the initial signals to pay attention and to approach a task, motivation is absent; and learning, clear thinking is nearly impossible.

 

You can learn to notice what happens in your body as it occurs. If you don’t become aware of what is going on inside you, you can’t do anything about it. You can notice:

*Location: where the sensations of stress are in your body

*Quality: type of feeling you experience, like discomfort, pins and needles, squeezed or pressured, hot or cold.

*Intensity: strength.

*Direction of motivated action: do you feel like approaching, turning away, or being neutral?

*Mental attitude: what thoughts, images— what sense of who you are arises in your mind?

 

The threat response is thus the combination of awakened energy and attention, added to a sense of being uncomfortable, and the internal pressure to relieve it. Stress, at its earliest stage, is simply awakened energy. It is useful and necessary. What turns awakened energy into unwelcome stress is the interpretation or the stories you construct from the memories and sensations and situation. For example, do you think you are capable and strong enough to handle the situation?

 

Unwelcome stress is, thusly, meeting discomfort or any situation with resistance. It is being uncomfortable with discomfort, afraid of being afraid. Once you resist, your thinking gets further skewed, and limited. Emotional awareness or mindfulness of the moment by moment arising of sensations, feelings, thoughts, and images allows you to notice, recognize and thus let go of any emotion before it becomes overwhelming. It allows you to think and act with more clarity, speed, and concern for self and others.

 

Sometimes students express a fear when they practice mindfulness. They say, “if I let go of my feelings, what would be left of me? My emotions are me.” On one level, this is the expression of fear of fear. On another level, mindfulness adds a level of awareness students might not be used to. However, when you let go of fearing fear and other emotions, you notice an even more authentic you, and a deeper realm of feeling.

 

To practice this mindful awareness, take a moment to sit up, possibly close your eyes, and turn inward for a moment. Maybe notice the air entering your nostrils as you breathe in—and breathe out. Or become aware of how your body, as in your shoulders or jaw, expands as you breathe in—and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. You might hear a thought and simply notice it as you breathe in—and let it go as you return your attention to breathing out. Simply take a breath or two, noticing what you do, and then open your eyes, stretch and return fully to the room—awake and refreshed.

 

You can use mindfulness whenever you want to clear your mind: before you enter a class, begin a project, a test, a heavy conversation, or make an important decision. Or when you want to appreciate something more deeply, let go of pain, or take political or social action to reduce inequity, injustice, or suffering.

 

In the US, being constantly busy supposedly signifies you are valued and important. But being on the go all the time means you don’t let your body fully settle. Mindfulness, especially when combined with compassion, gives you the opportunity to let your mind calm and quiet. It can help you discover what you truly feel and guide you through the thinking process. Doing it for just a few minutes at a time can help you better discern which actions are of the most benefit to you and others and help ”save” the world.