Thought Distortions and the Negativity Bias

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Beginnings: How Do We 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? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs 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 that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.

 

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.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are.  When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.

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 hear 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 when they feel they didn’t teach well or an issue remained unresolved. Stress arises whenever something lingers and you feel you can’t control or handle it.

 

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, 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 seem a total surprise. It can feel like something was going on of which you were totally unaware. You feel that you weren’t paying attention. So one strategy is to pay attention, moment by moment. You don’t want to mourn for your own life.

 

Why don’t we pay attention? There are all sorts of reasons. Certainly, frequent use of multitasking with social and other media doesn’t help. Another reason might be that we never learned how to do it well. 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. Attention is not automatic; it requires energy. It is an active reaching out. We show we care with our attention. Students might not pay attention because they don’t care or they consciously or unconsciously resist the experience. And then, at the end, they might realize what they have lost and they panic. Or they get so used to panic and stress that they think they need it to get anything done.

 

So, it’s helpful to teach students about attention. Mindfulness can do this. With mindful focus, there is more clarity about what needs to be done and less stress about the year ending.

 

Also, people might stop paying attention to the end because it reminds them of the very fluid nature of the world. Change can be upsetting. Change means endings but is so much more than that. Taking a breath means change. Talking means moving lips, breath, thought. To know and learn is change. Fear arises when you cling to an end as if it continues and does not change. But even endings end. Change is just another way to say living, feeling, understanding. So, trust in the ability to know and feel the living world.

 

Take a moment. Let your eyes close, your body relax and your mind turn inwards. 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, some very large. Yet, the water continued on, adjusting. 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 a sense of beauty in the whole? Notice that you can focus either on the constantly changing water, or the whole– the trees, the rocks, the streambed, the sky. The two perceptions, of the flowing water and the whole, support each other and you could go from one to the other fluidly. Now, just take in the 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 noticing the whole scene.

 

So, ending the year isn’t the problem. It is how we think about it. We all draw conclusions, about others, about the state of the world and, of course, about how our day, month, moment, or year went. We need to realize the nature of thought. Why do we have thoughts? What are they? When we think about how the year went, are we trying not only  to sum up a year but create an image of who we are? “The year went well; I am a good teacher. The year sucked. Do I suck?” We try to create a secure image of the past that can be projected into a secured future. But is any thought or abstraction of an event as encompassing as the event itself? Can we enjoy our memories without distorting them with judgments? Can we teach the importance of critical thinking and intellectual understanding, yet recognize that the world always exceeds our ideas about it? We need to hold our ideas more lightly and the world more intimately.

 

The value of reflection at the end is not only about what lessons have been learned, but about coming back to now. It is to view being in a classroom from a larger perspective. You are a human being living a life of which this school 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 class, that means that at the end of the year, reflect not only on what has been learned in school, but what being in this situation feels like right now. What do you feel about this new, unknown, ending, or 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.

 

A Story of Regret

Regret can be devastating. It can feel like an explosion, yet it is often set off by a seemingly tiny trigger. This happened to me just a few days ago. I gave an impromptu, short presentation to fill in for someone else and I felt that I didn’t do the best job. Suddenly, I had an explosion of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and images. I did a “good” thing, helping out a colleague, and then I felt “bad” about it.

 

So what do you do with regret?

 

I think the first step is analyzing what goes into the emotion—or any emotion. Sit with the question. Let your eyes relax, even close. Calmly breathe in, then out. Then ask: Why feel regret? How does the emotion help me? Emotions have real uses. If you experience an emotion, you say yes to it for a reason. There is something there for you. Regret is unpleasant. Regret makes you reconsider and re-evaluate something you did or thought. Or you can regret what you didn’t do or left undone. Generally, people turn away from what they regret. Or you can get angry about it, angry at yourself or at other people. Regret can thus serve an ethical purpose, so you learn from and do not repeat an action.

 

How is regret different from other emotions, like guilt, remorse, sorrow? Is regret as sharp as guilt or as deep as remorse? There is sorrow with regret. The Encarta dictionary defines regret as feeling sorrow or sadness “about something previously done that now appears wrong, mistaken or hurtful to others.” The root, regreter, from the Old French means “to weep much.”

 

What comes up for you when you think of emotion, in general? I think first of the power emotions can have. They can be overwhelming. We say things like “I was bowled over” or “floored” by some emotion. Emotions can seem solid, heavy. But they are not solid at all. I first realized this when studying the Buddhist teaching of the skandhas, which is a Sanskrit word meaning an “aggregate” of things or elements which make up how things appear. When you mindfully attend to the elements out of which emotions are constructed, the emotion loses its solidity and sense of continuity; it dissipates.

 

Imagine a time that you felt regret. What does the emotion feel like? When I go into regret, I first discover this sense of me isolated from others. I notice a group of sensations, sensations of a particular type and intensity, in a specific place. When I feel sadness, for example, my head and shoulders feel heavy and drop. They turn inwards, as if forming a shell. My mouth and eyes also drop and tense. My stomach feels heavy. With regret, there are sensations like sadness or sorrow but less demonstrative. There is also a touch of anger: a jumpy quality, a tension in my hands, a churning in my stomach. There is the sense of inward pressure.

 

Secondly, there’s a quality to the feelings. They feel pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. When you feel something as pleasant, what comes next? Desire. You want it to continue. You want more. But if it’s unpleasant, you want it to end. If it’s neutral, you might want to forget it. Regret feels unpleasant. When I feel it, I don’t want to be seen, or to see myself.

 

Thirdly, images and thoughts stream through my mind. I replay the scene over and over and try out different interpretations of what happened. This is the part I remember the most, because memories and labels get added to the feelings. In my case, I interpret what happened at school. I come up with a story to explain what occurred. I become a character in my own movie with a particular but somewhat new identity, an identity I wanted to avoid ever being. The sorrow of regret is like mourning; it is mourning the loss of an image I held of myself. I previously felt insightful, ready for anything. Now, I feel exposed as I picture people saying, “He’s not as aware as I thought he was.” I feel afraid of my image being diminished or attacked by others. I am no longer a hero in my story.

 

Fourthly, a mental state is constructed out of all these elements producing a way of thinking and perceiving the world. And I plan actions to end the regret. However, since all that I perceive is shaped by my emotion, how do I stop the planning? I wish I could hire a spin doctor.

 

The fifth skandha is consciousness, awareness, the ability to know. It is a two-edged sword. It can lead to suffering. But because I feel the pain of regret, I can do something about it. The initial pain is enough; my response to the pain is something else. Awareness allows a gap between feeling the initial elements of the emotion and doing something because of it. Mindfulness and other practices allow me to expand that gap. The gap allows a recognition that it is my own mental state and my storyline of a distinct, continuing self that is regretted; it is that story that I want to end. The regret brings my attention not only to elements of the remembered situation. It brings my attention to the image I held up in the situation as myself and the shadow cast by that me, the shadow I feared being. The regret is the recognition of that shadow. I feel exposed only when I imagine I am being seen as something I don’t like. Only because I am invested in not being seen a certain way do I care about it.

 

So, when the regret lives on beyond its usefulness, intervene. Go to the gym or do breathing exercises. Get a massage. Or end the storytelling directly. Enter and sit in your own theatre of mind. Watch the play without pretending to be a critic. Recognize that the actor on that stage who bears a resemblance to you is just an actor in a play. Enjoy the show as much as possible. Thank the Shakespeare inside you. And this is really important, although not easy: appreciate even what you think you don’t like in you, even the shadows. Only then will you be able to perceive clearly enough to learn from whatever happens and let it go. So notice what is there for you. And then let it go. Or: breathe in, notice what it feels like to breathe in, notice whatever arises as you inhale. Then breathe out, let go, and return your attention to the breath.

 

Note: I made a correction in an earlier blog after it was published but did not point this out. Sorry. The mistake was in describing the location of the insula or insular cortex of the brain.

You Don’t Teach Mindfulness, You Share It.

Bringing mindfulness practice into a classroom is one of the most productive and helpful things you as a teacher could do for your students and yourself. There is so much that mindfulness can teach you, about your own mind, about the relationship between your mind and the environment around you. So don’t even think of mindfulness as something you are teaching students. Instead, think of it as sharing something you enjoy and find beneficial. Think about it as something which facilitates a positive educational relationship between you and your students.

 

When you lead students in the practice, make leading your practice. Only introduce in the classroom what you yourself have digested. That way you lead not from something you have read about or memorized but from your own awareness in the moment. You open yourself to your own mind in order to be in touch with what the students are experiencing. You face your thoughts, feelings, sensations, fears, joys to show students that it can be done. And by entering the classroom with the mindfulness you have developed in your own practice, you illustrate the benefits of practice.

 

So you can’t lead students in mindfulness unless you practice it on your own. As my Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If you don’t want to practice mindfulness yet, you can still start the class with silence or progressive relaxation and imagery. Sometimes, I ask students to listen to a singing bowl and determine how long they can hear its fading song.

 

Only if you are familiar with the inner landscape revealed by mindfulness can you lead students through it. If you don’t practice, students will know it. Just be honest with students when answering questions. If you don’t know something, say so.

 

When I first started introducing mindfulness to my classes, I never led a practice until students asked me to do it. I wanted to give them a sense of autonomy, control. I always talked first about research on the benefits of mindfulness and how it had benefitted me. I told stories about proficient meditators. I wanted to make it personal, real, exciting.  One story was about the man many neuroscientists and magazines called “the happiest man alive,” Mathieu Ricard. Ricard holds a doctorate in Biology and is a Tibetan monk. A few of my students and I heard him speak at a conference on education and thought that he was one of the most incisive speakers we had ever heard. The result of all this was that students almost pleaded with me to give them instruction and time to practice.

 

In magazines and books on mindfulness, experts talk about practicing because it decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus, attention, and emotional clarity. But there is a hidden danger here. The answer to the question, “Why practice mindfulness?” is not to reduce stress, etc.. Practice mindfulness in order to practice mindfulness. Practice mindfulness because when you’re mindful you’re more fully awake in your own life. If you practice in order to reduce stress, what happens when, in your practice, you feel stressed? Or you feel frightened? Or bored? You then turn away. You feel like your experience was bad and that you were unsuccessful. No. If you feel your stress, but aren’t controlled by it, you were very successful. When you feel sensations and thoughts associated with stress as something you can study and learn from but don’t have to respond to, then you can let them go. When you notice your habitual response to a situation or sensation, then you can free yourself from the habit. You feel capable of handling whatever arises.

 

When you practice, thoughts, insights, fears, memories, and joy all come to you. The object of mindfulness, as I said, is to be aware of all this. This requires that you value that awareness and that the classroom feels like a safe place for you and your students. Before doing a practice, tell your students about the practice and let them chose to participate, sit quietly, or maybe write in a journal.

 

When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I sometimes get insights into my blog or what I might teach. I value the blog and my teaching, so I get the urge to write down the insight. I fear losing it. But when I begin to write, I am no longer aware of my awareness. I am also no longer in the mindset that fostered my insight. By grasping onto the thought as if it were a valued intellectual possession, I lose the insight-mind and replace it with a grasping mind.

 

Some teachers who practice mindfulness feel uncomfortable sharing it with students. They have this image of what a mindfulness teacher should be. This image has feelings attached to it, maybe feelings of not being good enough. Treat this image and the attached feelings in the same way that I have to treat my urge to write everything down. Just notice it and let it go. The image and feelings are just a construct that came into your mind only so you could notice how you were thinking and let it go.

 

Lead mindfulness practice as if it were a gift, not just from you to your students but to you from them, the school and your profession. Invite their participation, don’t pressure it. Then you will inspire your students. Mindfulness will grow. If you try to lead what you don’t value enough to practice, why should the students value it? Mindfulness will disappear. It will become just another good intentioned educational technique that people never committed to enough to make it transformational. Make it transformational for yourself. Commit to the practice and you and your students will benefit greatly.

 

A note: As I re-read this blog, I feel the influence of Hidy Ochiai in every aspect of it. A good teacher’s influence is ubiquitous. It hits us in unanticipated ways. In this case it made me deeper and kinder. Thank you, Sensei.

Concentrate on the Quality of Mind

When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Shunryu Suzuki

We need to teach ourselves and our students that if our quality of mind is good, what we do will be good. We feel more at ease with learning, more focused than confused, more peaceful than agitated, more energetic than lethargic, more open than resistant. The ultimate result I think most teachers look for is not the essay or test score or work of art our students produce: it is the emergence of a young adult. But, can we teach in this mindful manner and keep our teaching jobs? Yes. Students will be able to concentrate, score better on tests and learn more when they find the work meaningful, enjoyable, and connected to their lives. To enjoy learning students need to feel heard and be seen as people, not as test scores.

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