When the News Feels Too Upsetting, Try Mindful Logic With Your Coffee

When you awake each morning dreading the news, it’s time to add mindful logic to your coffee. And its time for schools to teach how to think more empathically, clearly, and critically, with more understanding of one’s own mental and emotional state. Current events and election coverage classes are not a new idea. But what might be new is to do more than just listening to news media and testing students on superficial knowledge. Students can learn to analyze the news, discern lies, distortions and logical fallacies, as well as become more aware of how they respond to and are emotionally affected by a news item. They need to go beyond the mere memorization often pushed by standardized testing and actually imagine what the real people in a news item might be experiencing. By intellectually taking hold of the world they can feel a sense of power and will be more capable of acting meaningfully in it.

 

Of course, many might think this blasphemy. Supposedly, assigning students the task of analyzing and fact-checking the statements of politicians, for example, can lead to indoctrination. But how is the questioning of real people and events indoctrination? And what is the alternative? A politician running for office who, by most criteria and a simple use of Google, lies or distorts the truth about 90% of the time? To counteract indoctrination, teachers need to understand and reveal their own positions with care and humility, understanding that they might be wrong or missing something. ( I, for example, deplore the lies, misogynist statements and actions, and racist insinuations made by Donald Trump, e. g. about Judge Ganzalo Curiel.) They must teach the necessity of doubting any theory until it is questioned in some detail and shown to be well reasoned and supported, even a teacher’s position.

 

Students need to be allowed, even encouraged, to ask questions like: “Does the corporate media report more extensively on one candidate for office over another? What is the evidence for this?” And ask what happens to public discourse, what happens to the power of the public, when the truth is made to seem unimportant? What is the cost to the level of public discourse when politicians constantly lie and many Americans believe it?

 

Teachers need to appreciate, understand and explain the necessity for examining a diversity of viewpoints in forming an understanding of an issue. To get out of the way of a car speeding toward you on a street, you need to see it from the perspective of where your body is standing. But you must also understand the car and you must know what it can do. You must know it from its own perspective. To understand, you need this relationship of multiple perspectives. Once you leave behind exclusively taking the perspective with you at the center, you perceive and can think more clearly and with less bias.

 

Students can greatly benefit from learning how to recognize persuasion techniques and formal or informal fallacies, which can enable them to recognize how salespeople and political leaders try to sway their thinking. For example, there is the bandwagon technique in advertising or ad populum fallacy, which creates internal pressure to do something because everyone is doing it—or everyone you identify with. It is a version of peer pressure. Or ad hominem—which means, you attack the person and ignore what she says. Or you appeal to emotion, like fear or jealousy to distort thinking. If a statement is repeated frequently enough in a context you trust, you tend to believe it, even if there is little supportive evidence. There is overgeneralization, which is at the heart of prejudiced statements. The mere semblance of logic can be persuasive, as when someone adds “because” to a request (as in “can I please budge in line ahead of you because I get so nervous waiting on lines”) you are more likely to accede to what is being asked.

 

But you must be able to distinguish the mere semblance of logic from sound reasoning. Sound reasoning is both true, meaning it is based on evidence that is reliably verified. And the argument is valid, which means the position taken by the speaker follows logically or naturally from the statements offered as supportive evidence. Ask: What was actually said? What is your proof? Verify statements offered as supportive evidence through online and other resources, and not just with fact-check sites. You could discuss what is a fact and how it is different from an opinion or theory. Are the supposed facts really facts? You could teach inductive and deductive reasoning and arguments by analogy.

 

Teach the following questions:

What are the implications of the position and the intent of the speaker?

  1. Intent: What did she actually say? What did she mean by that? What might he have been feeling or what was his line of reasoning? What is the statement trying to convince you of? Is the statement consistent with other, previous statements? Is there evidence, for example, that donors are paying the politician to take a position?
  2. Implications: How will the position affect the planet? Poor people? People in the Middle Class? The integrity of the community? What are the ethical dimensions of the viewpoint? Does this position increase or decrease suffering and social and economic inequity?

 

Researchers have argued that teaching logic does not necessarily transfer to clear critical thinking. But in my experience, it is helpful. It can work with social-emotional learning to focus the students on the matter at hand. If students learn to spot fallacies not only in the speech of politicians, classmates, as well as themselves, they will have an additional tool of self-control.

 

Students can be taught to mindfully recognize the speeded up heartbeat and breathing, the shakiness and sense of being pressured, as well as other sensations and thoughts which arise when they feel a threat or unconsciously distort what they hear, so they can let it go. When you listen to the news, hear what your mind and body say in response.

 

It is important both for your mental health and for acting as a responsible citizen to analyze the news with an understanding of your own mental-emotional state, your inclinations, desires, theories about the world, and how others influence you. This part of the curriculum needs to be expanded in our schools, or added if it is missing.

 

*For more assistance in teaching about the election, I recommend the article in Teaching Tolerance: Teach 2016. For more assistance in teaching critical thinking, see my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking.

Discussing Ethics With Children and Teenagers

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Should ethics be taught in schools? Many people shudder at the thought. It would be like teaching religion in public schools, some respond. It would be like teaching not just how to make a rational decision and think critically, but how to live one’s life.

 

And I am sure that position is valid in many cases. Some people think teaching is about telling students what is right and true—how to interpret historical events or understand a character in a novel. They would teach science or social studies by having students memorize facts from a textbook. So, to teach ethics in schools would mean having students memorize rules and make their thinking and behavior consistent with what is prescribed by the teacher or school system. So, maybe the first question needs to be, what does it mean to educate a person?

 

If education means something like providing the background knowledge and ability to analyze information, and think clearly and critically. If it means learning how to raise questions and cooperate with others, so children can live a meaningful life and contribute positively to their community, then how can ethics not be part of education?

 

In fact, how can ethics not be taught? Ethics means learning how to inquire into and figure out how to act morally, understand right versus wrong and what is good or proper. It has to do with figuring out principles to guide your actions. To provide any guideline on social behavior is thus teaching ethics. Don’t schools begin to teach ethics on the very first day of school, when children are given rules for classroom behavior? And do you want students to graduate without having examined how and by what principles they make or could make ethical choices? Or how to evaluate the implications and consequences of those choices? Considering the political climate in this country, can we afford to graduate students with a distinct lack of such understanding?

 

And students, particularly in secondary school, yearn to ask ethical or moral questions. They want answers. They want to know how to act, how to live, what is right.

 

So, to teach ethics, teach students to question using real, ethical questions. Such questions are essential to any discipline. In English classes, you could study the consequences of ethical choices made by characters in literature. In Science you could not only study atomic theory but the ethical dimensions of using atomic energy. Imagine asking the following in a class: Should you always try to tell the truth?

Imagine one student responds: “There is no truth.” Or asks, “How do you know what’s a truth or what’s a lie?”

Does a lie mean that you know you’re lying?  If you think you’re saying the truth, then are you lying?

Another student replies: “No. Then it’s a mistake. A lie is saying something you know to not be true.”

A third student: “So, maybe a lie and the truth are like opposite ends of a scale?”

 

Such discussions are important, for anyone, but I think especially for young people trying to figure our how to live their lives. Essential ethical questions are a crucial part of an education. They enliven a classroom and intrinsically motivate students by bringing their real lives and questions into the classroom.

 

What are the consequences, if any, of lying?

One student says: “None— unless they find out, of course. I’m the only one who usually knows.”

Another: “You can’t just lie once. You have to maintain your lies, keep creating new ones to cover the old ones. You create a fiction.”

A third: “Since you know you lied, it does something to you. I feel bad when I lie. I feel that, in some way, I failed or wasn’t strong enough.”

 

So you suffer when you lie? The students said it. When you lie, you can create a fictional self that is weak and lacking in some way. You join the ranks of the walking wounded. And how does lying affect your sense of isolation or closeness to others? When you lie, what are you saying to yourself about the person you’re lying to? How does lying influence how much you can feel trust for others? And how does it influence the integrity of a community? Conversation or speech is not simply self-expression. When you speak, you are speaking to another living and feeling being. It’s a relationship. Lying, or any unethical behavior, has consequences. It can cause suffering and distort thinking.

 

So, why lie? What are your intentions? Your intention, if you lie, might be to help others or to advance yourself at the cost of others. Should the intention behind your actions be important in evaluating your choices?

 

What do you do when you act ethically? Which principles or ethical systems do you apply? Study this deeply and honestly and question your understanding of any topic or situation that calls for action. Study the ethical systems used by different people, systems like J. S. Mill’s utilitarianism, Greek or Confucian virtue ethics, Kant’s idea of universalizabilityBuddha’s 8-Fold Path, or the Golden Rule. Students can work to discern if the principles or values they use to make ethical decisions actually make their lives, and the lives of others, better or worse. What role does compassion play in acting ethically?

 

And besides applying an intellectual and personal moral analysis, you need training in social-emotional awareness so you can actually do what you intend and think is right.

 

*The photo: a part of my yard after rain ended, hopefully, the drought.

Why Not Practice Mindfulness?

I just read a great article on how teaching mindfulness and social-emotional awareness to students improves the atmosphere and learning in a classroom or a whole school. There is also an interesting website (WKCD- What Kids Can Do) that the founding principal of my former school, Dr. Dave Lehman, recommended, which provides student views on how social-emotional learning greatly impacted their lives. I recommend both resources. I also recommend the practice of mindfulness.

 

In discussing “why practice mindfulness” with people, I frequently say, “Why not?” Most people I know sincerely want to do something positive with their lives, want to help their students or fellow workers and friends. So, why not do it?

 

“It’s too hard,” some people say. Or “I don’t have the time. How can I fit it in?” It is difficult to rearrange your schedule. That’s often true. But I also know that the times I doubt myself, feel in emotional pain, get lost in worry and anxiety, can take way too much time. Would it be worth putting five minutes into mindfulness so you spend five minutes less worrying?

 

And five minutes is all you need to get started. After you get up in the morning and stretch, or after you take a shower but before you eat. Or when you get home from work, and need quiet time for your self to let go of or process the events of the day. For five minutes, do nothing but a little mindfulness.

 

Then some people say, “Mindfulness is just a way to forget pain, forget the oppression in the world, to be selfish.” Acting to reduce oppression, inequity, injustice is important work. But what happens if you can’t recognize how hate, fear, or the desire for revenge affects your thinking? Do you want to have people leading a movement who have no insight into what drives them and little ability to control their emotion? Emotion can be a motivator for action, but it needs to be observed with some clarity and focus so your thinking can be clear and focused. When you do compassion practices, you don’t just develop compassion for yourself. You are readied to act for the well-being of others.

 

“I don’t know how to do it. You had a background in meditation; I don’t.” It’s true. I meditated for many years before I used it in classes, or used it regularly in classes. However, how many times do you use a technique at work or in a class that you were taught to use but had little experience with? Or you read about but hadn’t tried more than a few times? So, why not do the same with mindfulness and emotional awareness? The important point with mindfulness is that you practice it on your own, before, during, and after you do it with your students. It’s important that you don’t pretend to be other than who you are. If you are just learning, share that with students. But you need to also open yourself to continuous learning. You take classes. You read books. You find an experienced teacher. And you listen to your students or fellow workers and learn from them how to teach them.

 

You don’t do mindfulness to forget the world. You don’t do mindfulness to improve grade scores or productivity or even to reduce anxiety. You do it just to do it. You do it because of what happens in you when your attention is focused clearly on what you are doing and nothing else. As a result, it just happens to be true that you think more clearly and deeply and you feel better about your abilities. It just so happens that you appreciate your life more.

 

By taking action to change your life, just doing little things, you learn how to take action in other areas. You learn you can act.

 

So, how do you begin? Close your eyes and just feel your breath. Feel the air entering your body. Feel the sensations in your body of taking a breath in, and out. Your body makes slight adjustments with each stage of the breath. Notice those adjustments and changes. How does it feel to breathe in and out? Or open your eyes. Look outside right now. Here, now, it is morning, and raining. When I look at the sky, I see places that look almost black, others gray and hazy. And one place where a little sunlight appears. I see drops of rain strike the window. Each drop, for barely a second, is one with the window, a tiny dome that reflects what’s around it—colors, shapes. Or put your hand on the window and just feel the window—the temperature, the texture, the hardness or softness, how your hand coheres to the window. If its raining at your home like it is at mine, hear the raindrop against the glass. Notice how you feel when you focus intently on the raindrop. How does it feel when you listen to and hear the rain hitting the window or dropping onto the street or the roof of your house?  Just calmly notice what you observe. Then return your attention to your breath.

 

If a thought arises, notice it like you noticed the raindrop, with open interest. Watch it, then move on to the next moment, of rain or whatever. When you do this, rain will no longer be only something to resist, an interference. Instead, it will be something to observe, appreciate and learn from. By doing this, your life will continuously be something to take in and appreciate and learn from.

 

That’s one way to begin.

 

If you’d like more resources, check out my links page and:

Building Emotional Intelligence: Techniques To Develop Inner Strength in Children, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman

A Still Quiet Place: A Mindfulness Program for Teaching Children and Adolescents to Ease Stress and Difficult Emotions, by Amy Saltzman

Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community

Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, by Ira Rabois (Soon to be published.)

Brussels

The attacks in Brussels shake my mind. I read the details of the attacks, 35 dead in two locations, of explosions from suicide bombs, of nails embedded in the bombs, and imagine the feeling of nails striking me. What do these attackers feel? Are they too wrapped up in their doctrines to feel the pain of others? Does the pain of the people of Belgium and other nations somehow alleviate their own pain? And what do our leaders say and feel? Do they think that fueling anger, fear and hatred will stop the violence?

 

It doesn’t. The pain continues. The attacks continue. The “ventilation fallacy” in psychology says “venting” anger does not alleviate it. You might imagine if you just expressed and let loose your anger, the pain of it will be lessened, but it only increases. More dimensions of pain are added to the original emotion. The consequences of the angry outburst, the people you hurt, the guilt is added to the original feeling. There is a gigantic world of possibility between unrestrained expression and suppression. When the emotion expressed is hate, the consequences of expression are in a different league altogether than anger and they spiral out in wider and more chaotic circles.

 

When I hear news of such awful violence, I easily feel the social network and the goodness and beauty of the world are falling apart. Maybe you feel the same. It is too easy to hide away in fear or to let the news of all the attacks numb you to what is happening. But the horror of each attack is not diminished with a new one.  When children are faced with the news of such attacks, what do you, as a parent, teacher, or friend do? I wrote a blog about this in November, following the attacks in Paris, Beirut and Mali. About the need for learning how to be strong in mind and body so as to not meet hate with hate and ignorance, but with understanding, compassion, a critical intellect and a readiness for appropriate action. I would add to what I said earlier the need for a critical inquiry into the force of communion and relationship that makes a community and society possible. When students say there is so much hate, ask them about what they enjoy most in their life. If they love music, ask them about all the people who made the music they hear on their ipod possible. If they love food, ask about all the people who had to work together to make their lunch. Ask them about what makes a class or a friendship work. Ask them what they find beautiful.

 

But even more, educate students about mindful action. They can write to children in Brussel’s schools, as well as in other schools in their area. They can do community service, learn about the effects of inequity and abuse, study the frustration, anxiety and anger in their own communities and learn steps to be taken to improve the social-political network. When faced with fear and hate, they can learn how to recognize the love and cooperation that makes their lives possible. They need to feel the connection they have not only to the victims but to all humans. Instead of giving in to the forces of distortion and destruction, they need to understand that without relationship, no society or community is possible.

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.