How Can We Determine What to do with Our Lives?

We just don’t know. We live surrounded by so many unknowns that if we think about it, we might never do anything. When we’re in high school or college, for example, we might not know what we’ll do after we graduate, or if we’ll get a good job. We might not even know what we want to happen. But in reality, that is the lesson. We don’t know. Yet we have to act nevertheless.

 

Some deal with this by selecting a theory, belief or desire for what will happen and treat it as a fact. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen how we will do on the next exam or who will win the next election or baseball game. Facing something or someone you know is usually easier to do than facing the unknown, (think about driving your car in some place you don’t know without GPS or google maps) especially if the known is shaped in our favor. Thinking positively is helpful. It makes us feel stronger. If we are taking a test or going on a job interview, we are more likely to succeed if we feel we can succeed.

 

Some of us perpetually do the reverse. We fear failure so much we don’t even try to succeed. Or we try to win by labeling ourselves as losers before anyone else can do so.

 

But if we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we don’t, we close our mind. This might serve as a temporary comfort or rest from something that frightens or stresses us, which can be helpful. But if we pretend we are finished learning when we’re just beginning, then we stop learning.

 

After I graduated from college, I went into the Peace Corps. When I returned, I was a bit lost. I tried traveling, writing, acting, psychology, teaching and decided to get a MAT in teaching English. After graduate school and a few years in education, I got lost once again, and tried out a few more areas of interest, like the martial arts and meditation.

 

At that time in my life, it was difficult to separate fantasy and desire from legitimate paths to a career. It was difficult to face a fear of failure and fully commit to any possible job. For example, I made a far-out proposal to a university that they introduce a new class in their education program.  The class would teach theatre improvisation techniques to teachers, both to improve their skills and to use with students to teach course material. However, I never expected a reply to my proposal. But I got one. A Professor wrote to me. There was no job opening at the moment, but he would like to talk with me about my idea. Because he said there was no job opening, I never went to speak with him. Later, I realized that was a legitimate opportunity lost.

 

But emerging from each moment of being lost was a clarity about one thing: I wanted to do something meaningful, steady, and creative….

 

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

My Roommate Was A Totem

We all have things we fear. For several people I know, spiders are high on their list. For me, it was only big, hairy ones. There is something so primal about them.

In 1969, I served in the Peace Corps in a small village in the jungle of Sierra Leone, which is on the equator in West Africa. My home was the guesthouse of the local paramount chief, one of the more powerful men in the country. It was a large cement block structure, one of the few in the village that wasn’t made of mud. He preferred the traditional mud hut to a cement building. And I grew to understand his reasoning. On the many days the temperature reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit or more, his mud home was much cooler than mine made of cement. And my roommate was a Mende spider.

To see the rest of the story, go to Open Thought Vortex Literary Magazine.

 

Why Teach? Why Do Anything?

“Why become a teacher? Why chose one profession or job over another? Why do anything? I have to admit that after high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I found education valuable, but the school I had attended was too big and restrictive. I wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful, alive, creative, like write novels, plays or poetry or do something adventurous….

I think teaching is … is one of the most meaningful things you can do. After a day of teaching is over, you don’t have to find other ways to make the world a better place—you do it daily….”

 

To read the rest of this blog, please go to the Good Men Project, which just published it today. It is a re-write of one of my earlier posts.

 

Honoring Differences

In 1969, I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, teaching in a village in the bush. One day, I left the village and went to visit a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. At that time, there was little public transport. If you wanted to go somewhere and couldn’t walk, you flagged down a lorry and rode in the back with other people and goats, chickens, and who knows what else.

 

On this day, we stopped at a crossroad and people got out to buy food. I was surprised to see a middle aged man standing at the edge of a group of people, looking out at a field. He had on a tie, and nothing else but a loincloth. I walked up to him, greeted him in Krio, a sort of universal language in the country, a combination of English, Portuguese and several African languages from the country. The greeting was leisurely and took about 5 or 10 minutes.

 

I then asked him as best I could, in Krio: “Why are you wearing a tie?”

 

He responded: “Don’t white men wear ties for dignity and power?’

 

I answered: “Yes, but they usually wear shirts to go with it.”

 

He continued: “White men’s shirts stink.”

 

And in Sierra Leone, which sits on the equator, the artificial fabrics manufactured in the west, at that time anyway, did not do well in the heat of the jungle.

 

I was reminded of this incident in school last week, when I noticed a male staff member, who years ago never wore a tie, was wearing one. Almost no one wore a tie in our school. He said students treated him differently, with more respect, since he started wearing a tie and a more formal shirt. Even in the supermarket, he said, people address him now as “Sir.” Most of the people who called him “Sir” would, if you asked them, say that wearing a tie, or any formal clothing, was just a superficial act, a remnant of classist symbolism, or something like that. But their behavior was still affected by the symbol.

 

The man in Sierra Leone was living life in his own way, telling the world with his tie and naked dignity that “I matter.” He was adapting social symbols to speak his own unique speech. And in his society, at that time, political speech was even more restrictive, and more dangerous, than the US was. He had to find his own voice. Our own country, which prides it self on free speech, or maybe did so until recently, and whose predominant religion speaks of “loving your neighbor as yourself,” is often intolerant of differences.

 

I hope we all find our own voice and learn to speak clearly in defense of honest, free speech⏤and the right to be different, or to be ourselves.

 

**Thank you, Cindy Nofziger, for the photo.

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Adventure of Teaching

For most of my childhood, my family lived in a house in Queens, New York, which is a suburb of NYC on Long Island. There was still a feel, where I lived, not just of suburbs but of the declining remains of a rural area. There were many trees. We were one block away from a huge golf course, with a lake and hills, where I ran with my dog, played football with my friends, and went sledding in the snow. It was quite a privileged and protected life.

 

I used to write all sorts of stories for myself. One fall, at the age of 6 or 7, I borrowed a little wagon from a neighbor. I invited 2 or 3 friends or relatives to hop on the wagon and took them on a guided adventure through my backyard. The adventure was partly a story I invented and narrated, partly theatre, partly a miniature midway ride. I had such a good time, I repeated it until there were no more customers and winter closed down the midway.

 

While my love of writing started in my early childhood, until recently, I thought of it only in terms of fiction. As I got older, I realized the motivation behind my writing was not just to entertain, but also to feel inspired. I loved the heady joy of pulling ideas, images, and feelings together. It was so alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say and to give. In other words, creative writing had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of creation.

 

And I discovered that it did.  After college, I joined the Peace Corps, in Sierra Leone. As a teacher, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country. I found this again in other teaching jobs, most notably at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. Part of my childhood desire was met. Now that my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, the other half of my yearning is about to come true. It is not a novel, but certainly describes a creative approach to teaching.

 

When you teach, you hold the hearts and minds of students in your hands. You have this amazing opportunity that you just can’t ignore and dread disappointing. You can take students on the greatest adventure imaginable—into the depths of their own minds and hearts. You can show them that there are these depths unrecognized in many schools, or maybe unrecognized since they were small and inspired children. You can show them how valuable and important they are. Show them the joy of play in PE, the miracles of nature in science, the creative spirit in literature, and in social studies classes, show the great diversity of possible ways of living and the importance of relationships, .

 

My book describes and illustrates methods to use in teaching as well as an overall conceptual framework for understanding the way the mind and heart can work together— to take in more of what’s around you and think more clearly and critically. Critical thinking is fueled by caring and feeling, and guided by mindful awareness to focus attention, and notice, formulate, and ask questions. Compassion and imagination help you understand and explore diverse perspectives and let go of distorting judgments.

 

When you quiet the mind by accepting, caring for and valuing it, you hear the world more distinctly. You hear what your own body is saying and how to befriend your emotions. The world is not at a distance but at your fingertips, or is your fingertips. What you think is right to do is evaluated more clearly. You feel more joyful, your life more meaningful, your relationships with others more conscious and honest. Now that is a worthwhile adventure to undertake—that is a way of teaching.

 

*The release date for my book was delayed a few days, but the book launch in Ithaca, at LACS, on Thursday, October 13, at 7:00, will go on as planned–I hope. There will also be a book talk on Saturday, October 22, at Buffalo Street Books, at 3:00 pm. I hope you can come.

A Story of Different Perspectives

In 1969, after graduating from college, I served in the Peace Corps in a rural village in Sierra Leone. I taught English and sometimes math or health. Sierra Leone is on the equator. Much of it is, or was, deeply forested jungle. One day, the headmaster and I were walking together to visit a village deep in the bush. It was near the beginning of the rainy season, so I carried my umbrella with me.

 

As we walked, the headmaster and I got into one of our usual discussions. They were more like debates, and I don’t think I ever won. He often had a twist to his reasoning that put his point of view into a league of experience beyond my own. He was older than me, although I never knew his age. I would guess at forty.

 

As we exited from the tall thick trees of the bush into a clearing, it started raining. We had been debating whether change was possible. Back then, talking about political change in Sierra Leone could be dangerous. People could be imprisoned for what they said. I argued that change was necessary. He argued that change was impossible. I thought he was referring to the fact that corruption was considered a normal way of doing business in his country and so corruption was the only reality. To my mind, change was not only a reality but a necessity because the political and economic conditions in his country were undermining the quality of people’s lives. As the rain increased, I opened the umbrella, held it over our heads, and said: “I changed the situation. We are no longer getting wet.” “No, you changed nothing,” he replied. “It’s still raining.”

 

He taught me a great deal in those months that I knew him. Clearly, our points of reference, our very notions of ourselves were different. He identified more with the natural world around him than I did. For him, changing my position in relation to the rain was no different from changing the position of a raindrop. So, no change occurred. Raining was the world being the world.

 

Both of our perspectives had value. His pushed mine to a new place. By allowing myself to take in his perspective, I was able to learn from him, and think about identity and change in a new way. I learned a valuable lesson about how to think with a deeper and wider perspective. I think such a perspective is an important element of thinking critically, but goes beyond such thinking.

 

A Zen Master from the 13th Century Japan, named Daito Kokuji, wrote:

            No umbrella, getting soaked,

            I’ll just use the rain as my raincoat.

I don’t think I fully understand or can put into words exactly what this means, but I feel the rightness of it. Instead of huddling to get away from the rain, the cold and the miserable feeling of being soaked, I can allow myself to feel the cold and the raindrops as me, too. And then I am no longer a skin wrapped soaking package. I am something much more.

 

In the same way, we all can feel our self-judgments, our pains, as something to learn from and let go, as a raincoat, not our identity.

 

An Education in Human Development and Aging

I think all of us, certainly all secondary school children, need to learn about the psychology of human development and aging. Schools are largely islands of youth and as such are highly artificial and developmentally problematical. Children need to be around people of various ages, who can serve as models and provide care and support. Children do need to learn from other children. But it is easy for them, especially when largely isolated from other age groups, to over-value the example of their peers, the example of youth, and of what is new and popular. In the 1960s, I remember the talk about not trusting anyone over thirty. As a sixteen to twenty year old, I couldn’t imagine being thirty, let alone sixty. Sixty was a time of frailty that I would never get to. I am now sixty-eight and am constantly astonished that I am not anything like I once imagined a person of sixty-plus years to be like.

 

Another consequence of the isolation of youth with their peers is a fear of aging. It is easy to fear or distort what you hide away. A study of human development can show students there are many phases of human life and all of them are valuable and have their own rewards.

 

I remember a discussion in a psychological literature class. I commented to the class that our society needs to value the elderly more, instead of hide them away in institutions. Students asked why should the elderly be valued? Getting older, they said, does not guarantee wisdom, or even intelligence, so why honor them in any way? In reply, I told a story. When I was in the Peace Corps, living in a small village in Sierra Leone, I once went to visit the home of an older man, a weaver of beautiful blankets. He was thin and his hair was grey. He had gaps between his teeth which meant it was sometimes difficult (for me) to understand what he said. His eyes were alive. When his family sat down to eat, he was the first person to be served. Why was he served first? Because he was the elder. He was highly valued by his family and village. He had the most to teach and taught by his mere presence that each phase of life had meaning.

 

What happens if we de-value the elderly? Since we all age, what does that de-valuing do to how we think of ourselves? To devalue aging, we devalue ourselves. As our lives go on, we become less and less important. If youth is the prime of life, then most of life is involved with regretting what was lost. Fear of death and the unknown is multiplied by fear of aging and fear of losing who we are. By valuing the old weaver, I said to my class, everyone in the village felt valued. As they aged, their core of selfhood grew ever larger.

 

Another purpose for teaching human development to teenagers is to help them realize what young children need, how they change, and thus, how to be parents in the future, and help raise younger siblings now. Many teachers recognize the value of teaching about adolescence. But teens often don’t want to hear about adolescence. They think they know it all too clearly, as they are living it. They might mistake learning about adolescence as the school prescribing what they should be as adolescents. They might all too readily anticipate being judged. However, if you start the unit by talking about infants, how their perceptual system and brain develop, their unique needs, then there is no apparent threat. Students get excited. They are learning about themselves but at a safe distance. Then you can move closer and closer to the psychology of who they are now, what is going on with their brains and bodies, what their unique needs are.

 

And for all of us, to value aging is to value life as a whole, to value human life in all its stages.

 

**Sometime, I hope to write a blog suggesting materials you could use to learn about and teach human development.

Model What You Teach

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.

 

In this way you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You create a community. You state with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future. You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing now with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us in this world that we share need this sort of gift. This is what I hope to celebrate and wish for all of us this season.

 

My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in the bush in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees” but I don’t know if that was true or not. To get rid of the bees, I got out insect spray that I had somehow acquired and gathered my students, in a line, outside the classroom door. Each was armed with a bucket of water to throw on the bees, and me, in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm from the room. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.

 

The next day, my neighbor, the paramount chief (one of five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and Sierra Leonean languages; she certainly did not speak English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende. Anyway, she was in trouble. She had heard about how I had chased the bees from my classroom. Another swarm had invaded the hut where the chief’s beer and food was stored. The maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility, so she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees without using the spray or protective clothing. It didn’t work. She had twenty to thirty stings and was possibly in shock. The chief said I had to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. There was a shaman living near the the village, but no medical doctor within hours. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid and medicine kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin—I did what I could, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.

 

Three or four days later, while I was resting on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people. I lived in the Paramount chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and one person, a woman, left the group on her own and was walking toward me. I got up to meet her. It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I don’t know if what I gave the Chief cured her, or whether it was her belief in the power of the medications, or what. She walked up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English. Good English. I started crying. And laughing. Then came a celebration. After that, she no longer made fun of me. In fact, when I got extremely sick a few months later, she helped me get to a doctor.

 

The world is a miraculous place, if only we can make it so.

 

 

**The Good Men Project is a great site to check out. They also published a blog of mine today, on the relationship of all humans.

Presence

My cats Milo and Tara often wander the world with me. If I sit at my computer, they sleep nearby. If I go outside, they follow me. They seem to like simply being in my presence. I sometimes feel a very silly sort of happiness seeing them sleeping by my feet. This happiness doesn’t just happen with cats, although the people I know luckily don’t follow me around or sleep at my feet. I love simply being with my wife, family and close friends. When I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, I lived in a big house by myself in a relatively small village in the bush. When I first arrived, there were no other Peace Corps people or friends within miles. A few of the villagers liked to come and sit with me. If I talked with them, they would often leave. When asked why they came, the response was that they didn’t want me to feel lonely. Talk was unnecessary, even an obstacle. What is it about presence that is so satisfying?

 

What is presence? It is certainly not well defined. Is it about feeling safe? My cats feel safe with me, I hope. I certainly feel safe with them—and certainly with my friends and wife. I can relax and open up. There is little or no need for pretense. Presence is an absence of pretense, a type of mirroring back. One party opens, trusts and the other feels it and gives it back. One hears, sees, feels and is in turn heard, seen, felt.

 

Presence is not just being in the same space with someone, and not just with other beings. It can be on one’s own or with any place, object or situation. Recently, there was an opinion piece about presence in the NY Times called, “Being There: Heidegger on Why Our Presence Matters.” The author, Lawrence Berger, said many cognitive scientists argue that, “We are information processors rather than full-bodied human beings.” For these cognitive scientists, human beings don’t experience anything “outside” us, like another person or a tree, directly but only some sort of “internal” representation of it created by our senses and brain. We supposedly respond not directly to the tree or person but the representation. We are, in principle, locked away from the world. What is ultimately real are the physical and physiological processes, synapses, neurons, myelin sheaths, not presence. But on other “levels,” we can speak of electrons jumping around, or on another there are chemical interactions, etc.. So, isn’t each person a universe of multiple perspectives? Aren’t each of these perspectives equally about what’s “real”? And isn’t one of these perspectives, and an important one, the sense of a face lighting up in your presence?

 

One neuroscientist mentioned by Berger said that conscious awareness is “a cartoonish reconstruction of attention that is as physically inaccurate as the brain’s internal model of color.” These cognitive scientists remind me of different, older theories which “reduce” consciousness to something mechanical, physical and measurable. For example, the behaviorists of the early twentieth century argued that consciousness could not be studied and was irrelevant to explaining human behavior. It had no causal significance. Human behavior, they theorized, is conditioned, basically “programmable,” like machines. This position led to some important discoveries but also abuses.

 

The cognitive scientists focus on the mechanisms of what happens in the body when we attend. For Heidegger, a 20th Century phenomenologist philosopher, attention is not just selecting what in the world we take in, but what becomes present to us, or what takes on life, being. The “beingness,” or the mere sense of aliveness becomes primary. Attention is not just selecting what we pay attention to and with what strength or intensity, but the quality or the “feel of” that attention. So, if this is true, isn’t presence crucial for constructing meaning, understanding, and clear thinking?

 

Berger said, “When we feel that someone is really listening to us, we feel more alive, we feel our true selves coming to the surface — this is the sense in which worldly presence matters.” Presence is a recognition of our subjective experience as an event in the world, not separate from it. It is not just internal physical mechanisms or processes which have an effect. The quality of our awareness, our presence has an effect on the world.

 

And for scientists to say that conscious experience has no causal relationship to our behavior, or is merely a representation separate from a reality it simplifies and depicts, is untenable. To date, there is no clear or definitive understanding of consciousness from either science or philosophy. Anyone can theorize or have an opinion, of course, but must recognize the tentativeness of their position.

 

In my high school classes, I sometimes asked students: What are the implications of these different theories of consciousness on how you act or feel about yourself? If humans are totally programmable, would it be ethical or humane to hurtfully experiment on them and then just wipe away the memories of pain? What happens to how you treat other people when you conceive of them as machines, even computers? Which understanding of your own mind would best enable you to do school work—one which conceived mind as a cartoon, or one which thought of mind, consciousness as powerful?

 

And, you are never separate from the physical universe. If what you experience are representations you construct or cartoons you draw or theorize, this is an event inseparable from the universe that you construct. Thus, when “I” see “my” cat Tara, the perception is inseparable from me, Tara is inseparable from me. I and cat, (I-Thou) arise together. The theory by which I explain the universe is a metaphor I use to view and act in that universe. Thus, shouldn’t the effects on behavior of the theories you use be considered as part of the evidence by which a theory is evaluated?

 

If you’re a teacher, you must do the physical things, like prepare, bring in supplies, give clear directions and ask meaningful questions (and eat a good breakfast). But, as Berger said, you must also remember your “worldly presence matters.” For the student, the aliveness of the teacher, the caring, the “being heard,” the feeling that your is life mirrored, held and valued by the other—these matter. You model and teach presence and how to make theoretical questions “present’ or alive to your students. And when you do so, the mere act of listening with your whole being means you are heard, you matter. You give, you receive. This, I believe, is clear.

 

 

**The photo is of the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul, Turkey.