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.

Question Authority! Taking Questions Deeply Enough

A question can be beautiful and exciting. A good question can be a gift. In education, for example, when a teacher asks students a real, honest question, it can fire up a real and honest discussion. Such questions are at the heart of education. To notice such a question you must be at least part way to an answer. The question reveals that, and possibly what, you don’t know.

 

“Question authority” can be a powerful and useful slogan. It can mean you can and should challenge, not automatically believe in, the power and viewpoint of those people in positions of power, whether it be institutional, social, or personal. It means you can question and challenge those who are charismatic and those you put on a pedestal or highly admire.

 

To question does not mean to denigrate but to elucidate the meaning, test the accuracy and applicability, or to do justice to the person or concept and reveal implications. There are different questions you ask when you doubt the truth of a statement, and those you ask when you simply want more understanding.

 

Sometimes, a question is asked facetiously, or to end or divert a discussion, so not all questions are honest, or insightful. I remember students taking “Question Authority” to mean there are no authorities; no one’s viewpoint has any more truth-value than anyone else’s. I think that all questions asked in a classroom should be heard; but the level of understanding of those with little or no experience in an area of life is rarely as deep or broad as those with actual experience, or who have extensively studied a subject.

 

To question that anyone who has experience in an area of life has a viewpoint that deserves a little more weight than someone without that experience, is to deny the value of experience and learning—is to deny there are truths to learn. The value of life itself can be undermined. Authority is not only a person in power but also a source of reliable information or truths, accurate observations and such. “What do you mean by ‘truth’” is one question a teacher must not ignore.

 

Sometimes, a question does not go deeply enough. People often question only up to the point of reinforcing their own, old viewpoint. A person, for example, might question whether the views of a climate scientist are biased by their science and not question how their own views are biased. They might inquire into what was in Secretary Clinton’s emails but not wonder what might be revealed by Mr. Trump’s emails or tax returns. They might question that teachers with experience with a student might be able to objectively describe the student’s learning, but not question the value of a score on a test created by an educational corporation. One of the most important times to question is when you assume your own viewpoint is the one and only truth.

 

‘Authority’ comes from ‘author’ or ‘creator,’ ‘originator.’ So when you assume your own ability to think, question, act, and you learn how to monitor and let go of thoughts and emotions, you are an authority. In Buddhism and mindfulness training, the meditator is taught to doubt any explanation, any conceptual thought, but not lose faith in one’s ability to understand—to doubt the thought until one’s awareness and clarity of mind and heart is sharpened.

 

Empathy is needed to take in, value and learn from other viewpoints. And a little humility regarding your assumptions or naming of what is true can be extremely useful. Such humility does not undermine your ability to think and act but enlivens it. Understanding, as Paulo Freire (and opposed to Professor Gradkind in the novel Hard Times by Dickens) and others have argued, is not like depositing money in the bank, not a thing to posses. It is more of a relationship, a guide, a clarity and a spark. It is not a wall to keep you or anyone else out but a hand to hold. Your understanding of the world and yourself is constantly changing, flowing. You need to make your questions into vehicles to help you navigate and work with the flow, not dam it up.

 

 

Compassion And Empathy Are Crucial For Critical Thinking

What is compassion? Empathy? I have to admit that I used to lump these two together. Some educators have trouble using the word ‘compassion.’ It sounds too “spiritual” to them, or too over-used, whereas ‘empathy’ is something most anyone could support.

 

Psychologist Paul Ekman defines three forms of empathy, the third being close to what many people think of as compassion. There’s “cognitive empathy” or an ability to read the mental state and emotional expression of another person. Then there’s “feeling with” or caring for others. (A sociopath, for example, might be able to read emotion but not feel for the other.) Then “compassionate empathy” or to have a concern for another and the energy to help.

 

I noticed my secondary school students can get very cynical about the possibility of compassion. I think they take a stance against it in order to dare me to prove otherwise. They argue that compassion, like altruism or selflessness, is impossible. People act compassionately only to get some reward or because it feels good. If it feels good, then it isn’t compassion, isn’t selfless. They think they have me or have compassion on the point of a logical dilemma. I am always gladdened by their recognition that compassion feels good. When you act for the good of another, there is a sense of joy. There is even good evidence that there are physical and psychological benefits from acting with compassion.  The problem is that the supposed dilemma masks the essence of it. When you act in order to get the benefits, then you lose the joy of compassion. The joy is embedded within the selfless caring.

 

With compassion, you do not help others in order to feel superior; that is pity. You do not simply feel a sense of sorrow about what they are going through; that is sympathy. Both pity and sympathy are based on an emotional distance with the other being. With empathy, that distance diminishes. The situation becomes more close up and personal. With compassion, you not only “feel with” the other person but want to step in and act in accord with that feeling; you want to act in a kind, caring manner. You value the welfare of another person like you value your own welfare. A sense of closeness compels action.

 

And it is this closeness that the students want. They want to know that other people can act for the good of another person, because they want to know that people can be caring. They want to feel that care themselves, both in the giving and in the receiving.

 

But what does compassion do for us? Clearly, it assists our ability to cooperatively work with others. But what else? V. S. Ramachandran describes how, when you watch someone doing an intentional action, like reaching out for a sandwich, the motor control neurons in areas of your brain fire in a manner as if you were doing the action. You model in your brain what another person is doing and respond physically and mentally to your model. You understand what the other person is doing through reading your own response to your model. The neuron systems that enable this empathy have been called called mirror neuron systems. If you see a person experiencing pain, your pain neurons fire almost as if you were in pain. Did you ever flinch back when you saw a person hit? Or smile when you saw someone smile? In this way you break part of the barrier between yourself and others.

 

These neurons enable you to be a sophisticated imitator, which facilitates imagination, learning and understanding. You learn through imitating the sound of a word, how to hold a hammer, how to solve a formula. You understand a character in a novel by creating a model of the person in your mind and then “reading” your response to the model. You mirror mostly unconsciously. You can be so good at it that you need mechanisms in your brain and in your skin to prevent you from constantly imitating others. There is even a condition where people can’t stop their imitating; it is called echopraxia.

 

Even more, you can’t think without a context, and other people are part of the context in which you are embedded. The depth of your self understanding is proportional to your understanding of others. To understand how to hit a baseball, you need to see it clearly from your perspective, but you also need to know the baseball, what it can do, how it can curve or dive. The more you know about the baseball, the more capable you will be at hitting it. You and the other arise together.

 

But when anxious, jealous, or depressed you might think of yourself only as what distinguishes you from others. You might focus on your skin only as a wall meant to keep others out, enclosing an unchanging, isolated being, and you must constantly defend that wall. You need that wall to keep out germs and create the integrity of your body-mind system. Yet, your skin also breathes, in and out. It excretes—and it senses, touches. When your hand touches mine, we can join together.

 

What do you feel when you think of your skin only as a border and wall? You create the sense of being constantly uncomfortable, anxious, even at war. It is a big burden. But compassion recognizes your borders are also places of contact. It gives you a larger viewpoint. It recognizes that you exist thanks to an entire universe and you are never and can never separate from that universe. Compassion alters your very sense of self and thus can alleviate anxiety, fear, and other painful emotions.

 

Empathy and compassion can be strengthened with mindfulness practices. Mindfulness and compassion strengthen the insula, which is an area of the prefrontal cortex of the brain involved in understanding the emotion of others. The insula is also involved in the arousal of energy and focus. Compassion practices not only make the insula stronger; they ready you to act in a kind or helpful manner. Teaching mindfulness and compassion practices will lead to improving the environment in schools. It will improve learning, thinking and understanding. It will ready students and teachers to act in ways which improve relationships and to intervene in actions like bullying which undermine and destroy relationships. Students and teachers will act to stop bullying because when they see it happen, they feel the pain of being bullied, and they have the inner commitment and awareness to stop it.

 

So, when you feel a push to speak or act, especially when you are angry or anxious, use compassion. Think about what you want to say and then how you might feel when hearing it. If you pity the other person, or feel very distant, what happens to understanding? Only by an empathic modeling and understanding of another person’s intent do you understand what they meant to say and what you mean to say to them. This is a skill all schools could benefit from teaching.

 

 

 

 

Being A Leader in A Stressed World

What makes a good leader, especially in education? How do you teach people to be leaders? What strategies can educational leaders use to reduce stress and increase learning in the schools they lead? Caryn Wells provides answers to these questions in her new book, Mindfulness: How School Leaders Can Reduce Stress and Thrive on the Job.

 

I remember very well what life was like when I was teaching. During the school year, it was easy to feel like I was working all day long. I usually was involved in school business from 8:30 am to 8:30 pm, Monday to Friday. And on weekends, it didn’t end. I needed at least eight hours of time to process the old week and prepare for the new one. When I had to write evaluations or I was teaching drama or doing fundraising for a trip, the hours were greatly increased. I remember one year I counted the after school hours I put into a drama performance: 100 hours. Plus, students and parents sometimes called me on the phone in my supposedly “off” times (this was before texting). And at school, everything was condensed and sped up. I remember how it was in the halls when I needed to find a student or co-worker and talk with them. Often, the person I wanted to talk to, felt I needed right then to talk to, was engaged with someone else. Waiting felt impossible. Interruptions were constant. Yet, I loved the moments in the classroom working with students. I loved the creativity needed for a good lesson and the way my whole self was engaged in the job.

 

Caryn Wells discusses how easy it is to lose our way in the everyday busyness of the contemporary 24/7 world. In fact, our education leaders today have an enormous responsibility. They have to lead in a way that not only creates a rich educational environment but one that prepares students and staff to face the everyday feeling of catastrophe as well as possible disasters. She shows how to turn this situation from a “catastrophe” into a conscious recognition of the enormity of life and the tremendous opportunities it offers us.

 

Educational leaders cannot just be managers, cannot be concerned solely with getting things done, with high levels of achievement, and numbers. Educators are at the forefront of many of the most crucial issues facing our society today, such as poverty, inequity, social media distractions, drug abuse, emotional suffering and high levels of stress and scrutiny.

 

What is needed is compassion, a sense of the importance of educating young people, and mindfulness. Caryn Wells is a former teacher, counselor, and principal. She studied Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn who created a breakthrough program in stress and pain reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He defined mindfulness as “moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness” which leads to mentally slowing down the ordinary moments of life so you enter a state of inner stillness. In this state, instead of feeling crowded by the spatial limitations of the school or the constant demands on your attention, you feel a sense of spaciousness. Instead of blaming or judging yourself or the students for tough moments, you treat whatever arises as an opportunity to educate yourself. Instead of feeling closed off, isolated behind harsh boundaries, you feel open, empathic, patient, and caring.  Working with students or co-workers becomes “being with” them.

 

Think about leaders who inspire you. Wells points out that, most likely, many of the characteristics of inspirational people include qualities of emotional intelligence. A good leader hears what you say, sees who you are, and cares. They show self-awareness, flexibility, optimism, initiative, and transparency. All of these qualities are developed through mindfulness practice along with an improved memory, and reduced anxiety and depression.

 

Mindfulness does this by teaching you how to be as present as you can be—how to approach problems, difficult moments, discomfort, instead of turning away. It educates a conscious method of attention and observation as well as compassion for your own limitations. By developing an increased ability to go toward what is difficult or uncomfortable instead of turning away or attacking, you allow yourself to more fully take in a situation or understand a person. Your ability to observe and analyze increases. You create the conditions for in-depth understanding and insight.

 

Wells gives her readers both a clear intellectual analysis and specific, detailed methods to practice. Any principal, teacher or teacher-leader, superintendent—anyone can benefit from the practices and insights provided by this book. We need a transformation in approach to how we educate leaders and this book provides just that.

 

As Caryn Wells advises, when you feel your mind “out on patrol” looking for danger, bring it back to a place of calm. “Watch the thoughts that emerge…the emotions and  feelings… Just observe and label them… Watch the thoughts without developing accompanying stories about them…” And at the conclusion, one benefit will be a feeling of peace, another the insights that emerge.

When You’re Feeling Stressed, Anxious, and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time now was almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What might you do? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by questioning and being open to the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the end of year deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about the situation. You knew for months about most of the work you now need to accomplish. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed for time that you don’t want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off, to hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. You might feel that to let go of thoughts about the future or let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel you have more time to give; you feel more in control. In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.

Testing For Social-Emotional Skills?

A trend I find encouraging in schools is consciously teaching social-emotional skills. This is often, but not always, accompanied by mindfulness education, or teaching how to be aware of your emotional and thought processes moment-by-moment. So, guess what administrators and politicians want to do with these programs? According to an article by Kate Zernike in the New York Times, “Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students Emotional Skills,” they want to use standardized tests to assess students in these programs. I mean, such tests have proven so beneficial with measuring other forms of learning and promoting learning in general, why not test a student’s “grit?”

 

No! Despite the fact that there are many indicators that demonstrate the value of social-emotional learning and mindfulness training in the classroom, all such testing will do is undermine the learning. Testing means teaching to the test. It is the test that indicates whether the standards or indicators of learning have been met. As Zernike asks in her article, how do you incorporate into a standardized test indicators of emotional awareness? Patience? Kindness?

 

Standardized testing motivates students to do well largely through fear of a bad grade. If they don’t pass, students might not move on in grade or complete high school, or their teacher might get a bad evaluation. Fear can undermine any form of learning, so it’s particularly perverse to use it to assess how well students understand their own emotional responses.

 

But wouldn’t a test motivate students to learn “grit” or hardiness in the face of fear? First, you can’t reduce emotional intelligence to having “grit.” Grit is one emotional trait that is very helpful in certain contexts but can be destructive in other contexts. As educator Alfie Kohn pointed out in a critique of “grit,” students need to question if the task they are being asked to persist at completing is worth the effort. Stick-to-itiveness and persistence is only valuable when combined with knowing how to prioritize what should be pursued and with empathy for the implications and consequences of a pursuit. It needs inner awareness of one’s motivation and the ability to critically examine the task itself.

 

Second, social-emotional learning and mindfulness do help students face fear more productively. But such learning does not happen through fear of punishment or a concern with how others assess your skills. To look within, as emotional intelligence requires, means finding your own intrinsic motivation to do so. If you are overly focused on how others assess you, as often happens with standardized testing, you will never learn to accurately perceive what is within you. You will always look in the wrong place. You look at yourself as you imagine others see you, not as felt by yourself.

 

As Zernike points out, in education, what is tested is what is valued. As things stand in the educational establishment, only if students are tested in a subject will it be valued. But this is the problem, not the solution.

 

Many people exercising power and influence over public education in this country, despite all the protests over recent years, think of tests and the simple numbers they generate as the tool for assessment, and they use it to nail down students and teachers. They have what appears to be a learning disability, or rigidity in thinking, as despite the lack of evidence to demonstrate that standardized testing promotes learning, they persist in their behavior. Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it the law of the instrument. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail.” Tests generate numbers that can be used to rank students, but just because you have a number doesn’t mean that the number signifies anything. Without such proof, test scores are an illusion of relevance.

 

You need numbers and other data to evaluate the effectiveness of these new programs. So, instead of tests look at drop out rates. Look at attendance. Look at student projects. Look at reduced rates of violence in the classroom. Look at the joyfulness of students. But don’t try to bury emotional learning in irrelevant, if not destructive, test scores.

Teaching About Grief

Grief is painful. No getting around that. So how do you face it? You can’t ignore it; or you can try to ignore it, but then it comes back to you in unforeseen ways.

 

Teaching students about their own emotions, especially painful ones like grief, is one of the most important studies a school can provide. By facing what is difficult, painful, even fearful you learn you can do it. You are empowered. But it must be done in a way that honors the value of the emotion as well as the student’s own experience with the emotion. Each emotion has a use, although the usefulness of the emotion can be easily lost when you get caught up in it. Teaching about emotion must be done with heart and sensitivity, so the discussion is real—but not so real that a student suffering their own grief feels overwhelmed. The teacher must first study his or her own emotional nature before asking the same of students.

 

When you feel grief, it can be so powerful that you lose sight of the fact that it, like everything, comes and goes. It can feel like it defines who you are. If your thoughts and feelings of the person you lost can come and go, then they are not all of who you are. There is something more. What is it? Meditation provides a way to study emotion moment by moment. When you take a few breaths, and allow yourself to mindfully notice whatever arises in your mind, you find an answer.

 

One book that helped me deal with grief is Leaning Into Love: A Spiritual Journey Through Grief, by Elaine Mansfield. The author shows you how to face grief and learn from it. She shows you grief is part of love. You grieve because you love. It is not something to hide away. By facing it head on you learn to live and to love head on.

 

I feared her book would depress me. Instead, it filled me with life. Elaine’s writing is direct and honest. She goes into detail about the last years and seconds of her husband Vic’s life and the three years that followed. She gives us her life as an example and thus guides us in fashioning our own lives. She shows us the importance of friends and ritual in facing grief. She shows us her feelings so we can feel our own.

 

At one point, she describes the moments after Vic’s death. Ms. Mansfield says, “Even though his hands and feet are cold, warmth emanates from his heart.” I felt like crying. Maybe I was beginning to feel, not just hear her words. That warmth made the loss and the importance of living honestly so real. What a gift!

 

I taught the novel Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, published in 1976, in a high school English class. Although the book portrays an upper middle class life many students thought was fading away, the insight it presents into the importance of facing your feelings as honestly as you can is extremely valuable. Fear of emotion made one of the characters in the novel turn away from grief and turn away from her family. The novel thus gives students insight into how emotion shapes experience and opens the classroom to discussions of grief, guilt, depression and love. It also presents a very positive view of psychotherapy.

 

Grief reveals the intensity of loss. It can lead to obsessive thoughts and anxiety, but it is not just pain. It is a valuable and necessary part of healing and living. It requires time. It can be a mirror to reveal how your mind and emotion works. Grief can give the moments of your life tremendous feeling and meaning and thus studying it can give a class tremendous meaning. And this is one function a good education should fulfill. We can learn to better help each other face the pain, and joy, of living together.

 

*Photo of cave in Cappadocia, Turkey.

When Feeling Bad Leads To Doing Good

I get angry and a little depressed, probably just like most of you, at the increasing social inequities, at the actions of many of the richest individuals to undermine public schools and the public commons (our air, water, even the parks and common spaces), the lawlessness and intractability of our political system, at the instability of the weather, etc. It’s a crime that, in the richest nation in the world, one million school children are homeless, one quarter of all children live in poverty. Last week there was a report of drones getting in the way of aircraft fighting fires out west. Such shortsightedness and delusion.

 

Many people tell themselves things like: “There’s nothing I can do. Politics is a waste of time. The system is rigged. I’d rather just go about my life.” Such an inner dialogue is probably responsible for the fact that, in most U. S. elections, fewer than 50% of Americans vote or protest or, possibly, even educate themselves on the state of the world and the campaign issues. (In 2012, 58.6% of registered citizens voted; in 2014, 36.6%.) In a democracy, this is your life. Politics is personal. To have a say in politics, you must speak.

 

The fact that you feel discomfort, outrage, depression is an indicator that you care, not that you shouldn’t. It means that you want to take action, not that no action can be taken. Maybe you grew up feeling there is no way to face discomfort or you must get rid of, medicate away or let the emotion take you over. Instead of attacking, hiding, or letting the feeling take you over, you can feel the feeling, rest in it, and understand it. Only by knowing your feelings can you know what they have to tell you, act on them appropriately or let them go.

 

Schools need to educate young people about how to participate in democracy, and how to understand and be mindfully aware of their own emotions. To do that, they need to teach mindfulness and become democratic communities where students can grow up familiar with taking responsibility for their lives, communities, and nation. Students need to be given the space to verbalize, analyze, and discuss what they feel and think about the state of the world today. In my school, community service is a graduation requirement and some teachers build political/social action into the curriculum. In my historical development course, on the first day of classes, I often asked: “What are the biggest problems with our world today?” Once students named the problems or concerns, I then asked: “Which of these is most basic?” Each student then had to decide which named concern they considered most basic and follow its historical, cultural, and intellectual (and sometimes artistic or other) roots through all the times and cultures we studied during the year. The final assessment became analyzing and describing how this problem developed, and how other cultures dealt with it. Students need to be helped to recognize that their way of conceiving the world and themselves is crucial in how they act and in the responsibility they assume for the state of the world.

 

In our concern and outrage lies our salvation. Our loves, our willingness to act not just for our own welfare but for the welfare of others, combined with our openness to study, analyze and understand what might be in the greater good–this can counter hopelessness. And a comprehensive education, which includes learning mindful self-awareness in a democratic school, serves the possible realization of that salvation.

Sometimes, The Best Thing To Do Is Sit With It

Some people think critical thinking is very difficult and that it’s all about hard work and great, even unnatural effort. This is obvious in many schools, where learning is considered work prescribed by teachers, administrators, even politicians who know “what is best for students.” They want students to learn on schedule as if they were products on a factory assembly line. They try to cement this attitude in place by testing and judging students in ways that are convenient for policy makers and administrators, not students; that yield easy numbers, even though the meaning of those numbers is highly unclear and the evidence predominantly shows such assessments do more to interfere with learning than assist it. When the mind is overfull and frightened, focused on appeasing others with test scores instead of meeting and uncovering one’s own drive for understanding, then learning and thinking is difficult. ‘Education’ comes from ‘educere,’ meaning ‘to draw/lead out,’ but too many forget this.

 

If we want clear thinking, that is critical, independent and creative, we need to work with our students, not against them. We need to bring their lives, their questions into the curriculum. This can be done in ways as simple as asking, at the beginning of the year, what they already know about the topic of study and what questions they want answered, to giving choices on assessments and projects or even creating a class based on their questions. This can be done by thinking of the classroom as a supportive learning community, not a factory or competitive raceway. We need to teach in ways that utilize natural mental processes. We need to teach how to hit “refresh,” clear away mental and emotional obstacles and lethargy.

 

Ask yourself, when is your mind most fresh and clear, most ready for thinking? For me, this has changed. When I was in college, my mind was clearest late at night, when everyone else was asleep, the city was quiet, and I let go of what I felt I “needed to accomplish.” I could just sit with whatever.  Nowadays, it’s in the morning. I wake up with my mind refreshed. Any concern or question I had before sleep was now unconsciously processed. Creativity theory calls this aspect of mental processing, of finding ways to let the mind go quiet, “incubation.” Incubation is not only about sleeping on a question. It is “letting something sit.” It is a time to take three deep breaths, relax, do something different, exercise, sit under an apple tree, smell a rose, and have fun. For teachers, it’s time to give your class a sunshine break. So, why not apply this knowing of how and when you think most clearly to critical thinking? To learning? Let your mind-body marinate whatever questions, problems, concepts it faces. Incubation, or “sitting with it” refreshes mind.

 

Another way to refresh mind is mindfulness practice. It helps you monitor your thinking moment-by-moment so you know better when you are losing focus or getting diverted by other interests or emotions. It uncovers whether an answer “feels right” and not just intellectually looks right. It clears and focuses mind so it is attentive, ready, present. It is like waking up in the morning with a clear, attentive mind.

 

You need a break because when you have to examine complex materials in-depth, the brain has a great deal to handle. It can’t organize and digest too much material at once. So, once you’ve immersed yourself in the material that you need to understand and analyze, once you’ve engaged in thorough research and explored different theories or explanations, then stop the direct mental push and the effortful striving. Stop the urge to jump to hasty conclusions and easy or habitual answers. You need to allow the mind to switch out of conceptual understanding and analysis. Allow the brain to work at its own pace to integrate all the material and work with the natural processes of your mind. The result of this process is an inner quiet, decreased anxiety and increased insight. Later on, you need to test, question the insight. But first, you need to let it come.

 

Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then and focus on one breath, then another. For example, at the end of the school year, when you have so many tasks to complete. By giving yourself time, you gain, not lose, time. Why is that? Your mental attitude changes. You focus on one thing each moment and so feel less rushed and think more clearly. You sit silently in the center of your life so you hear the universe, in one location, speaking to itself. And what a beautiful sound that can be.

 

 

*Photo: Maui, Hawaii.

Endings

What are helpful ways to bring the school year, or anything, to an end?* How do you pull everything together so the year concludes on a high note and you don’t try to cram in too much and stress yourself and everyone else? One complaint I heard from students (about other classes, of course, not my own) is that by the second week of May they suddenly have too much to do and they claim no one prepared them for this.

 

And teachers, when preparing students for the standardized tests at the end of the year, can wonder if they did enough. They can be angry at the state for imposing new requirements; angry at the principal, a student or themselves if they feel they didn’t teach well enough or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers that you feel you can’t control or handle.

 

While it might seem difficult, a teacher should begin the year by planning the end. Ask yourself, what do you want students to be able to do at the end of the year? What skills, knowledge, and deep understandings do you think they should have? What standards must they meet? This is the backwards design process. Once you know where you’re going, you can develop a process for getting there—and let students know the plan. I encourage you to take a further step and have students help in the course design. Find out, once you have answered the above questions for yourself, what students want to know and think they need to know. By incorporating students into the course design, they will be better prepared, and engaged. Maybe part of the crisis mentality at the end of the year comes from students having distanced themselves from the class at the beginning.

 

In a good year, the end energizes me. I wake up to the fact that I have so little time left with the students. I want to give them whatever I can. Even if I am tired of all the effort teaching takes, I don’t mind so much. I pay closer attention. I feel the value of each moment. During the year, I sometimes resist the work; now I can’t.

 

Not being prepared for the ending can occur not only in school, but anywhere–when a relationship breaks up, or there’s a death, or you’re preparing for an event. It can be a total surprise or shock, make you feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You might feel you weren’t paying attention. If so, one strategy that might help is to pay attention, moment by moment, to your feelings, or to whatever arises.

 

Why don’t people pay attention? Think about why you don’t. Some scientists argue that frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. And attention training is not usually part of education. ‘Attention’ comes from the root ‘attendere’ which literally means to reach or stretch towards and can also mean mental focus, interest, and caring. You show you care with your attention. Attention requires energy. You might not pay attention because you don’t care or you consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. To attend well, embrace well.

 

Also, you might stop paying attention because it reminds you of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting, or a relief. Taking a breath means change. Perception is change. Learning is change. This goes way beyond what I understand. But I do know that fear arises when I cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. Even endings end. Change is another way to say living, feeling, understanding. I need to trust in my ability to know, however incompletely, and feel the living world.

 

So, it’s helpful to learn for yourself and then to teach students about attention. Teach about caring for the moments of your life. Mindfulness can do this. With mindfulness, there is more clarity about what needs to be done, more kindness, and less stress. Try the following practice:

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close and your mind relax. Have you ever just sat by a stream and watched the water pass by? Picture that stream, the water, the scene around it. Maybe there were trees nearby. Maybe there were rocks in the streambed around which the water streamed. Eddies were formed by these rocks. Some were small eddies, some large. And the water continued on, adjusting. Notice that you can focus either on the constantly passing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two types of perception, on an individual rock or drop of water, or on the whole scene, support each other. You can go from one to the other fluidly. Maybe you could see the sunlight reflecting off the water, sparkling, like a jewel. Maybe you could feel a sense of comfort in looking at the stream as a whole and the scene around it. Just feel it. Isn’t there is a sense of beauty in the whole? Just take in the whole scene and rest in it. If any thought comes, or feeling, let it be carried away in the stream and then return your mind to the whole.

 

We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, or year went. These conclusions can be a way of trying to exercise control over our lives, trying to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. We are also creating an image of who we are. “The year went well; I am a good teacher.” “The year sucked. Do I suck?” But can a year be summed up in any judgment or statement? Is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Specific lessons can be learned. But other than that, is it possible to hold our images and ideas more lightly? Can we enjoy our memories without being so judgmental?

 

It’s helpful to reflect on and appreciate, at the end, all you’ve done and learned. The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons you have learned but about coming back to your life right now. It is to view being in a classroom or anywhere from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school, this situation is just a part. The purpose of an ending is to bring you back to where you began: vulnerable, not knowing what will happen, but open to what occurs. In a classroom, that means at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what does being in this situation feel like right now. What do you feel, now, about this new, unknown, beginning, and about going on with your life without the structure of this class? Always return to the reality of being a human being, in relation with others, now.

 

*This is a newly edited version of an older blog about endings.