Using Mindfulness and Empathic Imagination in Teaching the Story From Day One

I’d like to share with you what I learned from teaching a middle school class called “The Story From Day One,” which integrated mindfulness and visualization exercises with the language arts curriculum.

We often teach myths as merely literature, divorced from the cultural, spiritual, and historical context. But we pay a price for this approach. It limits the depth of meaning students can derive from their study.

Combine this with the narrow focus on the now that social media can foster, and students easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries, but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of how their lives today emerge from yesterday.

 

Suggested Myths to Teach in Your Class

 

In my Story From Day One course, we read several myths from around the world, of creation, of tricksters and of heroes, including:

 

Integrating Mindfulness with Academic Content 

Start lessons with a mindfulness exercise so students can calm and clear their minds, better understand how their inner lives affect their outer ones, and notice how they respond to words, stories, and other people.

After mindfulness practice, ask questions that challenge assumptions and reveal what was hidden, so each lesson becomes the solving of a mystery. For example, before teaching a class on language or vocabulary, ask:

 

How can words (mere sounds or collections of marks on a page or device) mean anything?

Do words have meanings, or do people give words meanings?

Imagine a time when words were almost magical, when to give your word was deeper than a legal contract today. If you felt your words were like magic, how would that change how you spoke? (Share this old Eskimo poem.)

 

To read the whole post, please go to Mindfulteachers.org.

By Finding The Courage to Look At Yourself, You Discover the Courage to Defend the World

Right now, take a moment to simply breathe in, and then out.  Listen to your own body and what is happening inside by resting your awareness wherever it is called.  Maybe you’ll feel a bar of tension in your jaw or mouth or shoulders. Maybe you’ll feel an expansion in your belly as you breathe in, or a relaxation, letting go as you breathe out. Simply feel it.

 

If a thought or judgment arises, if you think, “I shouldn’t have thought that” or “why can’t I concentrate better,” just notice whatever occurs as you breathe in. And as you breathe out, return your attention to your awareness of feeling. Instead of letting your awareness be captured by self-judgments, simply observe, learn, and be kind to yourself. In this way, mind and body become one. You live in your own body and mind. Your sense of time slows to the pace of your attention.

 

The more you maintain focus on whatever arises, the more you feel a timeless awareness.

 

Slowing time is a beautiful remedy for stress and anxiety, and for the emotional harm this GOP administration is trying to impose on us all. Most, if not all of us, know what happens inside ourselves when we see his face or hear his voice—attacking Democrats as the enemy, attacking those seeking asylum at our borders as invaders or criminals, attacking reporters who question him as  “the enemy of the people,” attacking even his own cabinet.

 

When hate hits our bodies, we react. We tense. We don’t want to hear it—or most of us don’t.  How we respond depends a great deal on our past, on how we think about our own strength, or what theories or stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. These stories determine whether we respond by closing our ears, shield ourselves with hate, or whether we oppose it.

 

His attacks are meant to spread fear. We often think of fear as warning us to flee. But as we flee and hide, fear can increase. We stop acknowledging what we feel, stop being aware of what is happening inside. And thus we give him this power over us. We feel powerless. We allow him to turn off our interoception or inner knowing. This allows the inner tension to escalate.

 

Or we feel anger. But how do we direct and interpret that anger? Anger is an emotion of awakening. It awakens our sense of threat or danger and can prepare us to act. But if we don’t have clarity of mind and feeling to direct it, anger becomes self-destructive. We can feel angry that we’re angry. Or when we feel anger in response to fear, we treat it like a savior, a weapon of safety, and we can’t stop wielding it. We become our anger. We lose control. We lose ourselves.

 

When we look directly at our own anger, when we feel what it does inside us, we might notice the pain it causes. And behind that pain is an enormous realm, of caring about what happens to others, our world, and ourselves. When we perceive what is behind our anger, it yields to clarity. We focus on a larger reality.

 

We need to honor and respect our own inner world, feel what we feel and hear what we say. This way we let go of things more easily and live more fully. There is no inner warfare, no constant rumination, and no unnecessary conflict with others. We can think with every part of ourselves without fear and so we feel free to allow every part of others to be acknowledged.

 

Almost every act of this American political administration tries to teach the opposite. It tries to create in all of us a sense of inner chaos, disharmony, war, so we will war against whomever or wherever they direct us. They try to dehumanize us so we will do the same to others.

 

So by listening to and caring better for ourselves, we resist this administration. By honoring our humanity, we realize and cherish the humanity of others. We see ourselves with clarity and thus see the world with more clarity. Then we can act politically and socially with determination, kindness, and insight. Then we preserve our freedom.

 

When we have the courage to look directly at ourselves, we find the courage to act with clarity to defend our world.

 

 

Here is an exercise (based on a Buddhist compassion practice) to help you find both calm and understanding when you need it, or when the mindfulness practice above is not enough:

 

Close your eyes and take a calm and deep breath in, then a slow, long breath out. Simply sit, quietly. With your next breath, imagine feeling care, love, a parental sort of love, toward a young pet, or a young person. Just allow the image of a young animal or person to come to your mind, or the words care, love, child. Where in yourself do you feel this care or love? What does love feel like?

 

Then imagine a friend. Imagine this person, too, feels a similar feeling.

 

Then imagine someone you don’t know, someone you saw on the street, or in a store. Or imagine someone you disagree with. Imagine she or he feeling love, care, just like you do. They are different from you in so many ways, yet they, too, share this capacity with you. They, too, can love.

 

This is a simple thing. Yet it is so often lost. Sit for another moment, and find the feeling of love inside yourself. Find the recognition that those around you—no matter how different in some ways, they, too, want to find and feel this love. They share this with you.

 

*This post was syndicated by The Good Men Project.

 

Teaching The Story From Day One

I’d like to share with you what I learned from teaching a middle school class called ‘The Story From Day One,’ which integrated mindfulness, visualization and inquiry exercises with the language arts curriculum.

We often teach myths as merely literature, divorced from the cultural, spiritual, and historical context. But we pay a price for this approach. It limits the depth of meaning students can derive from their study.

Combine this with the narrow focus on the now that social media can foster, and students easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries, but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of how their lives today emerge from yesterday.

Kieran Egan, educator and author, advises in his wonderful book Imagination In Teaching And Learning: The Middle School Years, to design lessons with a narrative structure, understanding not only the skills and knowledge we want to develop but the transcendent qualities in the subject studied.

To excite students, especially middle school students who are still close to, if not seeped in, this age of magic, and who have a natural yearning for adventure and awe: Use stories of facing the extremes of reality and limits of experience, of heroes braving dangers and encountering wonders, to connect to and utilize students’ romantic imagination and emotional awareness to better understand course material.

A good way to begin is with Gilgamesh, the protagonist in the first written epic story, recorded sometime around 2100 BCE. Gilgamesh is the first literary hero, actually the first greatly flawed superhero. The story also introduces a precursor to the biblical Noah and the flood, as well as central themes that have filled literature ever since.

First There Was Breath, Then There Were Words, Then There Were Stories.

The first step in teaching mythology, literature, and language is to create the space in the classroom so language comes fully alive to students. Where they feel as well as examine what they say and read.

 

To read the whole post, click on this link to the ImaginEd website which published this piece.

To Keep Love Alive, Know How Love Is Born

We all want to be loved, so it is no surprise that so many blogs, so much art, so many movies, plays and novels have been written or created about it. And no surprise that so many of us want to understand how to have a good relationship or keep love alive. When someone says to us, “I love you” or we say it to someone else, it is a pivotal moment in our lives.

 

When we feel loved, we can feel we have “made it.” We might feel not only that “life is good” but “I am good.” What we yearned for has been found. We feel whole.

 

But to keep love alive it’s important to know how love is born. When we look within our self and study how the emotion is constructed, we see that love, like any emotion, is not just one overwhelming entity. It involves so much of who we are. It is feeling and sensation mixed with memory, thoughts and how we view the world and ourselves.

 

For example, when we fall for someone, we usually think it is the other person who fulfills us or makes us feel so alive and complete. But it is not the other person who completes us. It is our loving that completes us. It is the way we relate to another person, by caring so deeply that we feel open, vulnerable, and yet strong enough to take whatever occurs. It is our ability to recognize another person is not the same as us, yet part of us, which completes us.

 

If we think of the other person as the source of our love, all kinds of craziness can ensue. We can think our happiness lies in someone else’s hands and we are powerless—or that this other being exists entirely for us. We can feel so overwhelmed by our attraction for the other person that there is little room left for the reality of that person.

 

This is why love can turn to anger, possessiveness, even violence. We come to see the other only in terms of how he or she fulfills our image of whom they should be, and we never see who they are….

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

 

 

Humility, Clarity, and Critical Thinking

How do our actions differ when we feel secure in ourselves versus when we don’t? Or when we are unsure what to do, but have to do something? Or when we are very sure of what we think, but someone disagrees with us? If we want to think clearly, a little humility can go a long way.

 

When I first started teaching at the Lehman Alternative Community School in 1985, I hadn’t taught an academic class for ten years. I had taken a break in my teaching career. Walking into a large public building, with the sounds of hundreds of people in the halls, and working 10 or more hours a day to create and teach five or more lesson plans—all was new and stressful.

 

And since it had been ten years since I last taught, it was a struggle to remember the techniques I had used in earlier years or what I had studied in college or graduate school. I felt I had to appear to be an interesting person, and to provide something engaging and worthwhile for students. Only later did I realize the job was to help them find their own lives interesting and worthwhile.

 

It is often when we are unsure that we speak the loudest. I was unsure of so much, so I tried to sound sure about whatever I was teaching. It was difficult to admit what or how much I didn’t know. It was difficult to feel the school was a home where my true self could live.

 

But that changed, thanks to the students, the structure of the school, gaining experience, many hours of study—and practicing mindfulness, both by myself and with students. As I grew more comfortable with myself, students grew more comfortable with me, and it was easier to admit what I didn’t know. The classroom became a second home. I realized it was more honest and real to model asking questions instead of dictating answers, so students could discover reasonable answers on their own.

 

We all think our view of reality, of politics, of certain people, is correct. This is partly due to our biology. Even when we doubt ourselves, we can believe our self-doubt.

 

When we see a red rose, the redness arises from the way our brains interpret a certain wavelength of light. Red is the way our consciousness recognizes and interprets the light reflected off the rose. A colorblind person, or another species of animal, won’t perceive the color at all. For a red rose to appear in the world, we need at least three things: the thing seen, enough light, and a brain capable of learning about and providing color. But we don’t perceive red as a gift of our own mind, or as a way we make sense of the world. We see it as an inherent quality of the rose itself.

 

A similar thing happens in social situations. We think someone is a “good” person, or beautiful or ugly and think those qualities are permanent and totally inherent in the person, not supplied by us. The other person is just, forever, good, bad or beautiful. Or we think our solution to a problem is the only good solution, and think the goodness we perceive is objectively true. So, we never understand our own role in the world; never understand the world or ourselves.

 

We might even think, when someone disagrees with us, they are being stupid or  ill informed, and they should adopt our viewpoint over their own. And they might be ill informed, or unreasonable, but so are we if we think we can simply dictate to someone else what to think. Or if we imagine any viewpoint is objectively the only truth, and we forget that a viewpoint is just that: one way (hopefully based on reliable and verifiable evidence) to view a particular situation from the context of that particular person’s brain structure and life experience.

 

It might seem a contradiction, but feeling some humility about our own ways of understanding the world might reveal answers when none are apparent. It might help us look before we conclude—to notice what we might otherwise ignore or hear what we might otherwise never listen to, and thus save us from situations that seem impossible.

 

Humility is the quality of being humble. To be humble has very different connotations. For some people, it has negative connotations, as it can mean to be brought down low, even humiliated. Or as Wikipedia points out, in some religions, humility can mean submission, even self-abasement, to a deity. It can mean one is economically poor. Or it can have positive connotations, and mean being simple, modest and unassuming, even virtuous, in contrast with being narcissistic, vain or greedy.

 

The root of humility is humus, earth. The connotations of the word might arise from how we think of earth. Is it dirty, lowly, as contrasted with heavenly? Or does it mean grounded, or focused on the place out of which all life emerges?

 

In the martial arts, to move forward with power, we push down and back against the earth or floor. We curl our toes to grip the earth and be grounded. There is no place else we want to go, nothing else we want to do. We are thus at home in the situation and ourselves.

 

When we feel at home wherever we are, with whomever we are with, and with whatever role we play, we are more present and open. We don’t need to try to be what we aren’t but think we are supposed to be.

 

And when we realize how much our own minds color the world, we are more humble and real. We are able to perceive other people and our world with more clarity, more compassion, and more depth. Thus, we are more able to help others perceive and think about the world with more clarity, compassion and depth.

 

This is a powerful way to be and act, a powerful way to teach and relate. Humility and critical thinking should be two core elements of a modern education. This might help us save ourselves from the political and economic situation we are in. In my “humble” viewpoint, acting with some humility towards our own viewpoints, and compassion for the lives and needs of others, is certainly better than the narcissism, greed and lack of self-knowledge that we too often face today.

 

 

Compassion Develops the Strength to Reach Even to Our Enemies—Sometimes: Compassion Does Not Rob You of Power But Multiplies It

“…You can’t argue others free from their viewpoints. But if you can find the strength to embrace your own values and humanity and, yet, recognize and feel for the suffering of those others, maybe they will recognize your own. If you can disagree with others without dehumanizing them, maybe they will begin to listen to what you need to say. Maybe. But certainly, you will grow stronger and learn how to speak more clearly from the effort. Compassion does not rob you of power but multiplies it.”

This post was published by the Good Men Project. To read the whole post, click on this link.

Mindful Listening: Only If You Listen Can You Hear

I had a discussion with a friend yesterday. I made what I thought was a logical and possibly obvious suggestion to help him with a difficult problem he was facing. The result was my friend yelling back at me all the reasons not to do what I suggested—and then apologizing.

I realized he wasn’t arguing with me but himself. He was shouting back against the universe that had sent him the problems, hoping the vehemence of his objection would obliterate the reality. So today, when he brought up the topic again, I just listened, sometimes asking questions to check if I understood, and empathizing with him. The result: he came to his own conclusions.

I’ve seen this dynamic many times in the classroom. Students often argue a point not because they truly believe it, but because they don’t want to believe it. They hear something from friends or family and don’t want it to be true and want you or the class to argue them free of it. They might feel conceptually stuck and want a way out. They might say there is no such thing as love, for example, or all actions are selfish, because they fear a life without love or they have been hurt by the selfishness of friends, and don’t want to feel their own lives are meaningless.

This post was published by mindfulteachers.org. To read the whole post, please follow this link to their website.

A New Review of My Book “Compassionate Critical Thinking”

The organization, mindfulteachers.org, a wonderful organization, just published a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The book was published by Rowman & Littlefield. It is a book that, I hope not only will help teachers, students, and parents in this time of anxiety and threats, but maybe help anyone trying to understand him or herself and what is happening in our world.

The review begins:

“Often, you have little choice in what material you teach; the only choice you have is how the material is taught… When a teacher enters the classroom with awareness and genuine caring, students are more likely to do the same.”


Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching is based on Ira Rabois’ thirty-year career teaching English, philosophy, history, and psychology to high school students. 

Rabois includes six types of practices in his teaching:

 

To read the whole review, go to the website. Enjoy.

Studying The Dreaming Mind At Home Or In The Classroom: Mindfulness And Dreams

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Dreams have fascinated, confused, scared and inspired people probably ever since there were people on this earth. How can we not wonder about the often bizarre images and stories that fill our nights and sometimes wander into our days? The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of the Mesopotamian hero-king and possibly one of the first stories ever written, cites dream narratives. The Greeks had dream temples to help cure people of their ills. The German chemist, Friedrich Kekule claimed his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene came to him in a dream. Artists and scientists throughout history have spoken of the role of dreams in their work. The famed psychologist and theorist, Carl Jung, amongst many others, have explored and written about the role dreaming plays in the psyche.

 

When I was teaching, I noticed my students shared this fascination. Every time the subject of dreaming came up in a class, students became excited and engaged. Many students expressed their wonder about the cause or source of their dream images. Dreams can wake us up to realize there is more to reality, more to our own minds than we thought. Or as Hamlet put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

We dream every night, even if we’re unaware of it. Although neuroscientists still haven’t come to understand the full role of dreaming in human consciousness, many speak of the role it might play in integrating material from our lives and forming coherent memories. For example, how often have you gone to sleep with a question and woken up with an answer, or at least a clearer understanding of the question? We might think of dreaming as a phenomenon distinct and separate from other aspects of mind, but it is one part of the process we use to think about our lives and construct a viewpoint of the world.

 

In some of my high school psychology classes we left time to share dreams. I encourage other teachers to do the same—if students are interested. Or if you’re not a teacher, to do this with interested friends, or maybe parents when children wonder about a dream. Teachers should only do it if they take time to study methods of group dream work as well as study their own dreams. I don’t ask students to do what I won’t do.

 

For the last few days, instead of my dreams disappearing as soon as I woke up, like they usually do, some stayed with me. One question is why that is. Another is what the dreams are saying, if anything.

 

In one recent dream, I was standing by a bridge I drove over to get to the school where I used to teach and noticed a break in the metal under-structure. The exact problem changed as I explained it to people in the dream. The season changed too, as did the location of the bridge. In some renditions of the dream bridge, it was located in Queens, NYC, where I grew up. In that image, it was winter and there was snow on the ground. In others, it was in Ithaca, where I now live, and the season was a cool late summer.

 

As I tried to tell the dream people about the break in the bridge, there was a definite awareness in my mind of how others might take what I said. It was a little bit of lucid dreaming, or of conscious awareness while dreaming, and the present and past could change in one stroke.

 

In another dream, my wife and I moved our possessions into an apartment rented in some city that was new to us. When I went out to complete errands, I couldn’t get back to the apartment. I worried about my wife. Worried about what would happen to what I had left behind. And there were other dreams like this one. In one, I was back in college, trying to get to a morning class, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the class. Things kept getting in the way.

 

So, what in my life is getting in my way? What new activity do I want to start that I can’t manage to do? And what is the bridge to doing it—and what is the possible “break” (or “brake”) in the bridge to my future?

 

Dreams can mean so many different things. One approach I like is to think of them as stories built from residues of my day floating in my unconscious, as partly completed expressions of who I was in a particular moment, a partly realized idea, or partly recognized emotion. And I carry them in my mind and body until somehow, in the dreaming world or in waking life, I recognize or complete them.

 

So, to complete the idea or emotion, I try to let them speak through me and listen openly, without reacting judgmentally. They might complete themselves when openly witnessed and then no longer demand I rent then mind space. When I hide them away, the energy of hiding animates them. The energy of the suppressed joins with the energy of suppressing and thus lives in me in a distorted way. But when I step back as an audience and let them act on the stage of my mind, I know what’s there. I listen for and learn from myself. Instead of living the act of suppressing, I live the energy of open listening.

 

When you have trouble understanding what’s true, or can’t solve a problem, or can’t understand someone’s motivation—step back, take a walk in the woods, meditate— or dream on it. When you first get up in the morning and your mind hasn’t filled with thoughts of all you have to do for the day, this is the time to create a theatre of mind, or a listening space for dreams or the unconscious to speak to the daytime mind. This is the space for what was unheard in ourselves to be heard and embraced, and let go.

 

You could write down whatever you remember of a dream. Even if you remember very little at first, the act of honoring by recording might allow more to be remembered. And after you write something down, look at the words from different angles, or as puns. What you mindfully listen to, you hear. What you hide away continues on as a mystery you never solve.

 

Although sometimes a dream has a message, other times the purpose of dreams is simply to be dreamed and experienced. And most dreams are not to be taken literally. As Carl Jung and others have pointed out, dreams speak in their own language, a language more symbolic than literal. And like other symbols, there is more than one way to understand their meaning.

 

All humans dream. Every time you do it, just like every time you open your eyes and breathe, you share an experience with countless others. You share an experience humans have had for thousands of years. The bridge you cross over, as well as your destination, is this very moment, both uniquely your own and shared with billions of others. Being aware of your dreams can help you be mindfully aware in your waking life (and when mindful in your waking life, it can help you be aware in your dreaming). It can wake you up to your shared humanity, if you’d let it.

 

 

** If you’re a teacher and want to discuss dreams with students, I suggest you first establish an agreed upon process. One book to help think about a process is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Powers in Dreams. However, Taylor’s techniques need to be adapted to the classroom. I would not share more than one or two dreams a day. I wouldn’t ask even for whole dreams. The purpose of dream discussion in a class is, of course, more modest than in a dream group led by a professional. It is to help students learn from peers about dreaming and to be better able to hear what their own mind and body is telling them. Maybe they might also learn more about the power of metaphor.

 

Students should agree to confidentiality and not sharing the dreamer’s identity out of class. Talk with students about not interrupting the person who is sharing. Only the dreamer can know what a dream means, so take the shared dream as one’s own. Instead of students interpreting each other’s dreams, ask them to notice their own responses, feelings and thoughts. They can say, after hearing another dreamer speak, ”I felt this when you said that.” Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the dream. In dreams when you’re pursued and run away, the pursuer grows in size. When you turn toward the pursuer and study him or her, she gets smaller in size.

 

**Another resource is an insightful, recently published blog by Elaine Mansfield called “9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.”

 

***And remember to vote this Tuesday, 11/7. In New York, I urge you to vote against the Constitutional Convention, and vote everywhere for local candidates who will protect the environment, health care, public education, voting rights, etc. and oppose Mr. T. Exercise what power you have or you, we might lose it.

 

****The photo is from a bridge near the village where I lived in Sierra Leone. It had to be reconstructed every year and crossed over a river with crocodiles in it.

Is Social Media Promoting Or Undermining Democracy—Or Both?

Just two days ago, on October 25th, Mr. T once again treated the facts of a situation as clay he could shape any way he pleased. He accused Hillary Clinton of giving Russia “20% of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune.” This, he claimed, is the real Russia scandal. Of course, this is another in a long line of lies and distortions. According to Politifact and the Washington Post, a one time owner of a uranium company that was sold to the Russians did give money to the Clinton Foundation, but this was before she was Secretary of State and before the uranium company was owned by Russians—plus, she had no hand in approving the sale to Russians.

 

Is this simply another example of a President who either has no care for the truth or who believes in the big lie, a lie so outrageous that people who hear it will think there must be some truth to it? Is he being so outrageous because he understands that social media, the internet, and news outlets that are more like organs of propaganda supports such behavior? Does social media promote or undermine democracy in this or any country? These questions are asked directly or indirectly almost every day lately, with Trump on Twitter and Russians on FB.

 

It wasn’t long ago that many people were proclaiming that social media would be a democratizing force in the world. In late 2010, early 2011, during the Arab Spring, we heard how social media led to powerful demonstrations that brought down established oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. According to an article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, it enabled a “twitter revolution” to build extensive networks of protest as well as to gain information beyond the borders the government controls.

 

But as the authors of the article state, using the example of the failure of student-led protests to further democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, a very tech-savvy city, “the power of social media is mischaracterized, its potency exaggerated.”

 

It is so easy to get lost in the advantages of social media and ignore the dangers. One danger is an increase in oppression. The “Great Firewall of China” is “a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance” that prevents information that opposes the Chinese Communist Party from reaching its citizens.

 

In a discussion at the Aspen Institute on the role of social media in diplomacy, Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation adviser, described how Vladimir Putin built a digital information system in his country that has become a “truly effective propaganda machine.” He said the success of Putin’s efforts are illustrated by the fact that just a few years ago people throughout Europe believed that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014, not the Russians.

 

In the US, the last election has led to an epidemic of “fake news,” much of it seemingly supplied by Russia to support Mr. T and increase divisiveness and anger in our country. It has intensified racial and religious divides, for example, as well as political, such as between Bernie vs. Clinton supporters. It has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true. According to an article by Hunt Alcott and Mathew Gentzkow, in the Stanford University Journal of Economic Perspectives, during the election 62% of US adults got their news from social media and “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on FB than popular mainstream news stories”—and they were believed. Fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Mr. T. “Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” The authors conclude that fake news most likely helped elect Mr. T president.

 

Madeline Albright also took part in the Aspen Institute discussion. As reported by Catherine Lutz in her article on the subject, Albright said, “We’re operating in a rudderless world.” Social media technology is helping create a “dangerous force” of nationalism. People are “grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups.” [Italics are my own.] This was in August, 2014, and Albright’s words are proving even more true today.

 

Ross said, at the Aspen Institute discussion, that the media is value-neutral, but I question that. I can’t forget Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s talking about “the media is the message.” We have to look more at the effects of the media itself, not just its content.

 

One effect of social media and related technologies is an increase in the hold on us of a consumer-driven capitalist society. They enshrine ever more deeply the values of immediate gratification, distraction, us-them thinking and an over-simplification of how we view issues in our society. Ease of pleasure replaces depth of experience. Many of us recognize that usage of media has become a habit we feel we cannot do without. We worry if we are away for any length of time from our phones or social media platforms, “what have I missed?” We want the latest cell phones or other devices, despite the fact that this technology can be costly. Some studies claim American teens spend on average 9 hours a day on their cell phones and other media, more time than most of them sleep. According to the World Bank, Americans in general spend 1.7 hours a day on social media.

 

Parents and educators especially are seeing an increase in anxiety and difficulty concentrating in their children. This can partly be attributed to the “Trump Effect” and the fear engendered by this administration, but social media shares some of the blame. (I’d argue an increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us is also to blame, but that’s for another time.) Psychologist and educator Larry Rosen, in his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, argues that social media has contributed to an increase in disorders like narcissism and anxiety in both children and adults. He goes further and argues that when hidden behind our media screens, our thinking is more easily distorted, and we display thoughts and actions that characterize different psychological disorders. For example, Rosen cites studies showing many people, on FB or other social media, display the “me first” grandiosity, lack of empathy, envy of others, sense of self-importance and entitlement that characterizes a narcissistic personality disorder.

 

According to Mark Matousek in his book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, words are never more than a small part of any face-to-face communication—one study showed as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message. The rest is expressed through facial expression, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. But on social media, we only have words, names, or photos to respond to. We can lose the feeling that the people we meet on FB have an inner life similar to our own. We have to fill in so much with our imagination and prior understandings that it is easy to misunderstand or not care. Matousek argues we suffer a virtual blindness that can undermine our sense of shared humanity and morality.

 

Truth has a difficult time competing against the pressures to fit in a group and believe what your friends believe. We understand only in a context, and one of the most important elements of any context is who we are with. This leads to a cognitive bias to believe what other people, especially those in our group, believe (bandwagon effect and herd instinct), and we are more likely to notice information that supports our pre-existing views than what doesn’t (confirmation bias).

 

Never before, thanks to the internet, have facts been easier to find. Yet, lies and distortions by politicians have increasingly filled the headlines. We have to take time to check sources of any information we read in order not to be deceived by a fake news story. Democracy is a complex, time consuming political system demanding more education on issues and involvement from its citizens. Yet, the internet itself fosters the expectation of immediate answers, undermines tolerance of complexity, and thus makes it easier for corrupt politicians to deceive and manipulate.

 

So, does social media promote or undermine democracy? Maybe both. I am disturbed by how easy it is to spread propaganda and fake news on social media. But besides the obvious (check sources, not rely on social media for news, take frequent tech/social media holidays and walk in the woods, replace the current administration with one that truly cares about the well-being of its citizens and one that cares about fighting, not supporting, Russian interference in our democracy), I have few answers. I do know that in order to think clearly we need to know how to create a mental silence when we need it, so we can mindfully hear our own thoughts and feelings. And we need to learn how to listen for the reality of others, both for all that we share and all that makes us different, even when we know little about them except a name in the headlines or a few words on FB. Mindfulness and compassion can be revolutionary.