April 21, 2018

The conscious and connected student

While the mindfulness in education movement is still young, it has an increasing footprint in schools across the US and the globe. One can argue that most of the practices are body and sensory based practices- breathing, awareness of sound, mindful movement, etc. All in the service of self-awareness and emotional health, all well and good.

But some educators are trying to expand that interpretation of mindfulness.

Amy Edelstein is an educator in the Philadelphia schools where she has worked as an outside provider (meaning she is not a regular classroom teacher) teaching mindfulness to students for many years. She has developed her own program called  The Inner Strength System, and her most recent book is entitled, The Conscious Classroom (Emergence Education Press, 2017).

In this  wide-ranging book Edelstein shares her experience working in the urban schools of Philadelphia. She does not shy  away from describing the tremendous challenges her school faces, challenges which many urban districts are grappling with . Her tone is largely philosophical and abstract, but she weaves in tales from her classroom and her own life to keep the text grounded. She even includes the details of a horrific and transformative accident that she was involved in years ago.

What is unique about Edelstein’s work is her blending of the intellectual and sensory aspects of mindfulness. Or to say it another way, the abstract and the concrete realms. She talks of engaging students in large philosophical discussions, as well as teaching them to be intimate with their breath- to know their minds as well as stretching the parameters of their thinking.

The heart of  her book is where Edelstein draws on the idea of process (and the related idea of insubstantiality), which can be found in Eastern and Western philosophy. When students really understand their role in the larger sweep of history and change, they can have more compassion for themselves and others, as well as see the ways in which they are connected. Young people are not isolated fragments floating through the universe, but are influenced by forces set in motion years- even centuries- before. They are connected physically and psychologically, in a multitude of ways. In one dialogue she says to her class,

“How much can we separate ourselves  from everything going on around us? From all of the knowledge, and all of the media influence? ….. How much can you separate yourself from the food you eat? When did that piece of pizza stop being pizza, and become  you? “

Edelstein’s passion for her work and for young people, shines through every page. And she makes a powerful argument for mining our spiritual traditions for philosophical ideas- not to be forced on students, but to be explored together. After all, we are thinking creatures with a need to understand and manipulate our world. And for teachers wanting specific lesson ideas, Edelstein has published her classroom guide entitled, Inner Strength Teen Program: Teacher’s Manual.

March 13, 2018

Buy One Get One

My local grocery store has lots of "BOGOS" in their aisles- buy one, get one free deals. Instead of  getting just one bag of Tostitos with your purchase, you get two. Awesome, right? 

It struck me that emotional states often come as BOGOS too. Buy into one, and you get another right along with it- often the same one. But in our emotional life, the effects are not always so awesome, and sometimes, the price is high. 

For example, if I notice anxiety arising, I might feel anxious about my anxiety. If anger is present, I might get angry at myself for being angry. 

As the psychologist Albert Ellis put it, "If you look at what you are doing, you can often discover that you are making yourself anxious about your anxiety, depressed about your depression, and guilty about your rage. You  really are talented at upsetting yourself!" (from the book, How to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable about anything, yes anything). 

The problem is that the secondary emotion, or  reaction, often amplifies or prolongs the pain of the first emotion. Experts theorize that most emotions begin to wane after about 90 seconds. It's our thinking and ruminating that keep an emotion going. 

There's a wonderful parable- one of my favorites-  from ancient India called  the "Two arrows." In the story, a man is shot with an arrow. Soon after, he is shot with another arrow, magnifying his  pain immensely. The "second arrow" in the story is a metaphor for our reactions- the way we can magnify the inevitable pains of life, both mental and physical. For example, recently I was  feeling low- my wife was out of town, the weather seemed stuck in a perpetual freeze, the bill at my auto repair was high. I was tired, my dog wouldn't talk to me. 

In my old days, I would have added fuel to these feelings with my thoughts. I'd start bumming out about my state, resisting it, maybe cursing all these events. I might go get a drink. 

But over time I have learned I can change  my response: I might use some compassionate self-talk, practice acceptance, and then figure out what I could do till things passed. Meditation helps to interrupt these downward spirals. 

This "Bogo effect" can work in groups too. If , for example, my class is happy and calm, my emotions feel similar. If a class is agitated and disregulated, I might start feeling  anxious myself. A markedly angry student can arouse anger in me. And if I'm not careful, my reaction can escalate a situation further. The intense emotion of one person can have an enormous impact.  Psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter calls this emotional contagion or EC. In a post for the online Psychology Today, she says, " ....this process in which a person or a group influences the emotions and affective behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotions is referred to as emotional contagion."

This effect on a group is  masterfully portrayed in the short film, Merci, by Christine Rabette. A man walks onto a train and within minutes, his emotional state is transferred to the entire car. A great, short allegory- I've shown it in my classes several times. 

It takes self-awareness and intentionality not to  be sucked into negative emotional states. I still sometimes fall into a BOGO.  But with a bit of effort, we can find that  space of choice and decide for ourselves how we will respond to the inevitable "slings and arrows" of life. 

February 1, 2018

The rage within

Life has a way of knocking us  flat at times - but for some, that's not just metaphor. 

Recently my friend Michele told me a story about just that: being knocked flat in a violent encounter during a broom ball match. As she was scrambling after the ball, a member of the opposing team crashed into her hockey style, tripping her  and knocking her flat on the ice. She was  left with  with painful bruises on her side. She experienced a wave of intense anger flow through her. She "saw red",  and  noticed an impulse to strike back at her aggressor, whom she was sure made the hit intentionally. Her natural  impulse  to fight or flee was fully online, "completely out of the ordinary", as she says. 

But what really made her story memorable was what she did - and didn't do- next. After the hit,  she paused and said out loud, "I am experiencing rage right now!" She watched her rage- and thoughts of hitting back,  ebb and flow... but she didn't  retaliate. 

When she told this story, I was struck with  the way she worded her experience: "I am experiencing rage right now." 

Experts say it makes a huge difference how we frame and relate to our emotions.  Normally, when we experience a strong emotion, we identify with it, we are fully "within it." We say I am angry, or I am afraid. We become "fused" with it, to use a term from ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). But without some distance from our emotions, the danger becomes  that we can be pushed around by them, or act on them.  And sometimes we can regret those actions.  There are over 2 million people incarcerated in U.S.  prisons. How many of those are there because they acted on an overwhelming emotion? 

I once heard  a Buddhist teacher talk about his visit with prisoners. He  remarked that in essence,  they were not all that different from us. They just acted on an impulse that led  to devastating consequences. 

By developing the stance of an observer,  we get some distance from an emotion, and hence a degree of choice and control. Or as one therapist put it, it's like the difference between being in a fire, and being outside of it. We can feel the heat, but we don't get burned. Experts in psychology call this process, decentering.

The economist Adam Smith talked about our "impartial spectator." Meditation advocates refer to the "silent witness". Educators talk of meta-cognition, or self -awareness.  

Mindfulness practice is one way to cultivate this inner observer.  We learn to observe impartially- accepting whatever comes into our field of awareness. This can become a new habit as strong emotions arise. As meditation teacher Jeff Warren puts it, "The more we practice observing our emotional habits, the less potent they become." 

We can also, like Michele did, state our experience in more impersonal tones. For example, instead of saying I am afraid, we can say, Fear is present, or  I'm noticing  fear right now. How we frame things  matters. 

Another way to frame a difficult emotion is to simply label it as it arises. For example, if you feel a surge of anger, just note it, "anger, anger". Or,  use the word, "feeling", or "emotion." The goal is to  note the arising of an emotion, but not adding anything else to it. With this technique, we're not suppressing an emotion, but we're not exaggerating it or fueling it either. It can then pass on its own. 

Teachers are particularly vulnerable in the realm of emotions, as they deal with conflict and frustration all day long. Many times I have stood in front of a class or a group of students and observed intense frustration  rise and fall within me. Regretfully, I have at times unleashed my anger. Other times, I have paused while my awareness takes care of these strong emotions. 

Our expectations also play a part in our experience of anger. I remember early in my career when I realized that I was in for some regular frustration as a middle level teacher. I came across the journals of Marcus Aurelius, the famous Stoic philosopher, and photocopied a passage from his Meditations- and taped it to my wall. In book 2 he says, 

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

In other words, expect rudeness  and misbehavior. That's the business we're in.  (And kids' brains aren't fully developed anyway till their mid- twenties.) 

For my journey, I need constant practice and reminders, as do many  of my students.  And there are many ways to cope with -and prevent - anger, that complement mindful approaches. 

As Michele learned, the shocks of  life can be sudden and painful. But presence of mind  can help us keep a bad situation from becoming worse. It also helps to remember that no emotion defines who we are- they are temporary. We all get angry at times, but as Michele told me, "It's just a moment." 

A firm intention to remain calm also helps. The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote a famous treatise called, "On Anger" (De Ira) , published in the year 45 A.D.

 On the final page he writes: 

This breath that we hold so dear will soon leave us: in the meantime, while we draw it, while we live among human beings, let us practice humanity: let us not be a terror or a danger to anyone. Let us keep our tempers in spite of losses, wrongs, abuse or sarcasm, and let us endure with magnanimity our short lived troubles: while we are considering what is due to ourselves, as the saying is, and worrying ourselves, death will be upon us.


January 2, 2018

Embracing your life

Tom Odland dancing with his daugher, Maria
I met Tom Odland my freshman year at St. Olaf college in 1977. He was a typical college kid, full of life and had a great sense of humor. He was a talented trumpet player too, and was always after  me to sit and listen to his latest jazz hero. (He was part of  a small band that played Mexican and traditional rock music which I remember dancing to and having a ball.)

Tom eventually left St. Olaf, to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota, eventually becoming a successful research scientist for St. Jude's Medical for ten years. After that, he worked for a German medical company and later, went on his own as a consultant. 

He was happily married, with a wife and four  daughters, when tragedy struck. 

While fixing a toilet one day,  he realized something was going terribly wrong. When he tried to grasp a plunger with his right arm, he couldn't hold it. With his knowledge of biology, he figured he was having a stroke. 

By some miracle, he got himself  to a local clinic, and was immediately transferred to the University of Minnesota Hospital. He lapsed into a coma, where he remained for ten days. Doctors gave him a 1% chance of surviving. When he regained consciousness, he saw his daughter Maria, and gave her a big thumbs up. Unfortunately, he realized he could no longer understand words, and had to start learning them all over again. 

After more than 2 years of  intensive rehabilitation, he managed to go home. He has spent nearly 10 years learning to live with a  paralyzed arm and leg, and with a condition called, aphasia, which affects his speech. He often struggles to find words, or to express his thoughts completely. 

Tom couldn't continue with his former career, but now runs a lawn maintenance business, and also gives speeches about his condition. He recovered some movement in his arm and leg, and drives around in a Jeep. He visited my 8th grade class earlier this fall, where he talked about what it's like to live with a brain that no longer functions as it once did. 

Recently, I attended the wedding of his daughter Maria, where Tom gave a speech, toasting the bride and groom. As usual, he paused often, searching for his words, and sharing  the basics of his story. His speech was funny, honest, and had a charming simplicity that had the audience spellbound. His humanity and struggles were on full display for all to see. 

Thankfully, Tom is surrounded by supportive family and friends. When we meet for occasional  dinners, he limps into the restaurant with his cane  and curled-up fist, always with the same big smile on his face. Wherever he  goes, he is direct and upfront about his condition, at times handing people a small card that says, I have aphasia

But Tom sends other messages too, even if they're not written on a small card. One is to fully embrace the life you have, even with its challenges and frustrations- full self-acceptance, with no reservations. Second, the importance of support, whether from family, friends, or caregivers.  And finally, persist. As he told me recently, "Never, never give up." 

Tom speaking at his daughter'

December 30, 2017

The art of doing nothing

Enlightenment comes in many shapes and sizes. The classic story of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, or  Sir Isaac Newton getting hit  on the head with an apple, come to mind as examples of  insights that changed the course of history. 

But for most of us, insights come in more modest packaging. And  like the previous examples, they can come after months or years of preparation.  Suddenly, one day, we see something differently that changes our lives. 

I recall a moment  many years ago,  when something I knew intellectually, abstractly, I suddenly knew with my whole being.  

One of my own breakthroughs came as I was sitting on a noisy bus. 

I had been struggling with anxiety, and here I was again, feeling jittery.  And then, it hit me: I don't have to do anything. I can just let these feelings be there. 


Years of striving to find the right  way to cope with my emotions  just seemed to fall away-- at least for the moment.  All this struggling to fix things  was in fact, part of the problem. 

The real strategy was no strategy....not doing anything. And this non-doing was a revelation for me. 

In their wonderful book, Embracing the fear, Judith Bemis and Amr Barrada, outline several paradoxes on the road  to overcoming panic and anxiety. And one of those paradoxes  is  this: don't  try to fix it or get rid of  anxiety.  Accept it.  Allow it to be there.  

I also learned that emotions are transitory- they will pass.  (Some experts say that the average emotion sticks around about 90 seconds, unless we continue to feed it with our thoughts.)And by not doing anything, we shorten their life span.

 This isn't to say emotions should always be ignored. They may have important information, that we need to listen to - at times. We might even have to take action (e-motion) to change something. 

Although the word mindfulness was never used in Judith's  book, it wonderfully fleshed out one of its key attitudes:  non-doing. This may be the most subtle aspect of mindfulness practice -beautifully outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn in his classic work, Full Catastrophe Living

The tricky part is that mindfulness can seem  like doing: you learn a bunch of "activities" and exercises  to deal with stress and anxiety- and hope that after a while, your  pain or troubles all go away. 


The real aim of mindfulness, like Judith's book, is not to make anything "go away." It is to change our response to difficult feelings and thoughts. The approach,  paradoxically, is to stop trying to always  fix things or  make them  "better." 

And for me, this took a long time to understand on a gut level. Like most teachers, I'm a fixer. I think, plan and problem solve all day- and sometimes at night, too. 

The other wonderful thing about Judith's book (and the metta  part of mindfulness practice), is the way it teaches us to replace the negative and critical self-talk  with kind and compassionate way of talking to ourselves. Again, this isn't achieved over night. It takes a long time to ingrain this new way of speaking to yourself. 

But  if we don't really have to do anything about our emotions or thoughts, why do mindfulness  at all? 

For some, mindfulness as a formal practice may not be necessary. Just the "accept and allow" attitude may be enough. Or people have other ways they've found to cope. There are probably as many methods of dealing with fear as there are people. 

However, habits, both mental and physical, can be deeply ingrained. "Not doing" can be a whole new way of approaching your experience, and it can take practice.

Mindfulness  is  one way to interrupt our patterns, and insert  new ones, like focusing on the present moment; taking some breaths; or saying some kind words to yourself. Slowing down. Being still. 

And if mindfulness is understood in the more general sense of self-awareness, it is definitely a necessary step for changing any behavior. 

September 5, 2017

The power of reframing

If you ask most kids to clean up their room, they're going to say, "No way", or be out  the door before you can finish your sentence. But when I was little, my older sister had an ingenious way of getting us to pick up the house. 

Image result for king and queen old photo
We'd be hanging out in the living room, and suddenly Sherry (my older sister) would announce, "Would you guys like to play "king and queen' ?" We would leap to our feet, all excited, and ready to go. 

She would then exclaim  in solemn tones, "King, I command you to go over and pick up that stuffed teddy bear"- or whatever the thing lying around was- and I would reply,  "Yes, your majesty", and run off to pick up the aforementioned item. Then it would be my little sister's turn. She would take her order and  run to pick up the next thing- and in a few minutes, the whole living room  would be clean, and my sister had achieved her goal of a tidy living space. 

 In her creative way, my sister had "reframed" an arduous task, and turned it into a special activity that others  were eager to do. Not only did she get her work done by someone else-  we had fun doing it. That's the power of reframing. (For an example of this in literature, see Mark Twain's famous chapter in Tom Sawyer, where Tom gets his buddies to paint a fence). 
Cognitive restructuring is the fancy term psychologists use for the process of reframing or rethinking events. The goal is to help people by teaching them alternative ways of thinking about things, ways that might have more healthy and positive outcomes. 

In the example above, my sister could have just yelled at us and said, "OK you punks... it's time to clean the house. Get on it, before I give you hell!".... Instead, by reframing the job as a game, she tapped our creative imaginations and role playing skills, which most kids love. 
In his book, Growing Up Mindful, Christopher Willard cites a famous study by play expert, Lev Vygotsky.  Lev asked four year olds to stand still for as long as they could -which they could do for a few minutes. But when he asked them to imagine themselves as guards at a factory, they could stand about four  times as long. 

Reframing can be very powerful when it comes to managing emotions like anxiety and stress. Nearly 20% of Americans, struggle with anxiety, and there are some powerful ways to reframe that emotion. 

Consider these phrases for reframing anxiety:

My anxiety isn't dangerous- just a nuisance. It will pass

I'm not anxious, I'm excited!

It's just my body/ brain stem  doing its thing

This is nothing 

Notice how in all of them, anxiety is reimagined- as either a pesky little event that will pass, or even more positively, as excitement.

Perhaps the most powerful way to reframe a stressful situation is by thinking of others.

Anxiety is often a byproduct of thinking about the self- protecting our self image, or hoping to project an image for others to admire. If that image is threatened, we can feel immense discomfort- similar in physiology to how we feel when we are truly in danger, like by being hit by a speeding car. When people fear public speaking, it's not death they fear, but shame or embarrassment: a blow to their self -image.

But if we go into a situation with a mindset of service, or thinking of helping others in even a small way (like making the speech about serving others) , then we have left the island of self, and will be much more comfortable. Or even if we continue to be uncomfortable, we can say along with Marcus Aurelius, "I do my duty; other things trouble me not."

Sounds like something a king might say.