Note: Sharon Salzburg, a pioneer in American mindfulness education, is a regular contributor to Ten Percent Happier and the author of nine books. I’ve quoted her previously in my discussion of lovingkindness in this post.
Everywhere I teach, people describe being exhausted by the mounting anxieties of contemporary life, from political uncertainty to climate change and now, the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need to remain calm and composed amid so much danger, real and perceived. But how do we do that?
Here are two steps that I recommend.
1. Distinguishing Anxiety from Fear
The first step in coping is to learn to distinguish anxiety from realistic fear.
Fear is immediate: a threat right in front of you that requires a swift response. My dear friend Sylvia Boorstein uses the example of finding yourself driving through a blinding snowstorm that prevents you from seeing even a few feet ahead. Without needing to think, all your senses focus so that you can respond in a way that ensures your survival and that of the other people in the car. This is a useful response to a dangerous situation.
On the other hand, Sylvia uses the example of trying to reach her son, and not being able to do so. “There could be a thousand reasons he is not answering the phone,” she told me once. “He’s in the shower. He fell in love. He’s sleeping. But my mind goes to the worst extrapolation of that. If I phone my son and he doesn’t answer, that means he must be dead.”
And so her eyes widen and her heart races, as she escalates into a state of hyper-alertness — even though all of this is only taking place in her imagination.
Even worse, anxiety feeds on itself. Sylvia describes it as a “free-floating hyperactivity of the mind.” I would add that anxiety doesn’t just float; it intensifies, building one conjecture upon the next. It can be very harsh. You might even feel anxious about having anxiety, and it gets stronger. A friend sent me an old Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown sitting up in bed in the middle of the night saying, “My anxieties have anxieties.” That captures the proliferation of anxieties perfectly.
Now, of course, sustaining ourselves requires vigilance, and the fear response accelerates you — heightens awareness, focuses the senses and alerts the reflexes.
But when those senses are piqued by imaginary threats, we become consumed by anxiety. The fact that anxiety grips the body in the same way as fear gives anxiety more credibility than it deserves. When your body reacts this way, it believes anxiety is alerting you to a genuine threat.
And when the brain is spinning out one horrifying outcome after another, it does not have enough space to clearly perceive the world around us as it is, and make careful, appropriate choices to protect ourselves and others.
So, first step: start by taking a breath or two to ground yourself so that you can determine if the threat you feel is real or a conjecture from circumstances. Is this a real threat? Or is my mind making it up, or perhaps exaggerating what’s actually there? Don’t try to forcefully calm yourself down — that’s too much. Just try to determine if this is a real fear, or an anxious conjecture.
2. Applying an Antidote
Next, once you know that what you feel is anxiety, consider an antidote.
One of my favorites is to cultivate some lovingkindness for yourself: both the chant-like nature of that practice, and the generation of lovingkindness will help. There are guided lovingkindness meditations on the Ten Percent Happier app, and on the internet. They’re very simple – often just chanting to yourself “May I be free from harm. May I be strong and healthy. May I be happy. May I live a life filled with ease.” And then extending those same wishes to the people you love and to the wider world.
When you say those wishes sincerely, every element of the practice is a relief. The phrases channel the energy instead of allowing it to proliferate. As you do this, you are back in charge and you can feel the body relaxing as the space around your anxiety opens up and releases. When you release control, you are free to choose how to react rather than being inhibited by frightening conjectures.
Another effective tool is to simply change your physical surroundings. Get out of the house, if there are things triggering your anxieties there. Go for a walk. The tools are simple – the key is knowing when to reach for them.
Let me conclude with another story from Sylvia Boorstein. Recently, Sylvia was walking through Costco and found herself in an aisle surrounded by big-screen televisions all of which were displaying news about politics.
Instantly her pulse started to race, and all her fears for the future ricocheted inside her mind, so much so that she had to stop shopping and pause.
First, Sylvia took a breath and then another to bring herself out of her mind and back to her body — in the here and now. Then, she could see that she was in a big public place, and she was safe. There was no immediate threat.
From that, she expanded her thoughts to her reliable car in the parking lot, her home where she has lived comfortably for decades. Rooting herself in the present — and in her larger context — shrunk the anxiety and thereby weakened it, allowing her to go about her errand.
Sylvia’s story illustrates the two elements of coping with anxiety. The first is recognizing it. Is the threat in the moment, or is it in the mind? Once you name it, it’s easier to address it. You, like Sylvia, can reach for a number of tools.
Now, nothing in life is a straight shot. Sylvia is in her 80s now, and she still works with anxiety all the time. We go forward, we fall down, we have to pick ourselves up or let someone help us up — we go forward again. That’s how change happens, that’s how progress is made — through resilient effort, not through self-punishment or judgment.
But change is possible. You can live a life that keeps anxiety in perspective.
Did you find Sharon Salzburg’s guidance helpful? Can you relate it to your own life?
Well, sure: the holiday season is, ironically, a time of stress. But we know there are high levels of anxiety that have preceded this supposedly joyous time and will surely follow us into the New Year/decade.
I don’t have to itemize the list: it’s as close as your newspaper or electronic device. All sorts of problems and calamities—natural and manmade—have been occurring just about everywhere.
We can’t change the world, but we do have some control over how we view the world and our place in it. And if enough of us exercise that control, we can make a difference.
How Can We Do That?
By learning from the fortunate fusion of Buddhist practice—validated and adapted by Western scientists. Science writer Daniel Goleman, who was interviewed in an article titled “Can Compassion Change the World?,” collaborated with the Dalai Lama on a book called A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.
Long a collaborator with scientists, the Dalai Lama set forth his views on how to improve the world with the help of science. When the interviewer asked Goleman why compassion is so important, he said the Dalai Lama wasn’t speaking from “a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence…which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.”[emphases mine throughout]
“This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion—for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of lovingkindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.”
Goleman speaks of “muscular compassion,” and he explained that the term is necessary to demonstrate that
“compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for taking social issues—things like corruption and collusion in business and government, and throughout the public sphere…for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.”
The Buddhist term for practicing compassion is Metta—and mindfulness meditators call it lovingkindness meditation. Sometimes lovingkindness appears as one word; sometimes two; sometimes it’s hyphenated. In the scientific literature, it’s abbreviated as LKM. My personal preference is lovingkindness, so for consistency, that’s what I’m using throughout this post.
A Quick Look at Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation per se, scientific studies have found, regulates attention to create a calm mind, and varied areas of the brain have been identified as showing changes (including increases in gray matter) among those who are regular practitioners—experts—as compared to novices.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who coined the term mindfulness and developed an eight-week course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction that is widely used, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Practitioners, of whom I’m one, use a focus on the breath to calm the mind. Sometimes people get discouraged meditating and give up too soon because their minds wander, but expert meditators will tell you that every time the mind wanders, you’re becoming aware that it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. You simply return to breathing in and out.
There are many techniques to help you stay on track. That’s a quick look at a complex process that has been scientifically validated to reap benefits as you explore your internal self–mind and body–and your place in the world.
And Now, Lovingkindness…
Lovingkindness is an associated practice to mindfulness. Specific studies have also shown that practicing lovingkindness reduces stress, helps those in the helping professions prevent burnout, aids veterans with PTSD, and possibly even extends life.
One study found that the telomeres—the ends of the chromosomes that prevent deterioration and whose length is associated with longevity—were longer in women who routinely practiced lovingkindness than in those who didn’t.
The Goleman article led me to the work of Tania Singer, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany. (There’s an irony here that I’ll detail shortly.) Her professional life has been devoted to studying empathy and compassion.
I learned from her that the empathy I’ve always valued isn’t always such a good thing. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is clearly important for interacting with other humans.
But it can have a stressful side—empathic distress—that leads to potential burnout and a lessened desire/ability to help. The high rates of physician burnout and suicides are examples.
Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve sharing another’s suffering, Singer has observed.
“Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
In fact, Singer and her group have found that the apparently similar traits of empathy and compassion involve different, and not overlapping, structures in the brain.
What’s more, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change based on training), compassion training can lead to positive results.
“Compassion may, therefore, represent a very potent strategy for preventing burnout. In light of high prevalence rates of burnout and stress-related diseases in Western societies, we anticipate that the present findings will inform other intervention studies on the plasticity of adaptive social emotions….[and] hopefully help to design new training programs aimed at increasing resilience and coping strategies in many domains, including health care, educational settings, and high stress environments in general.”
I watched two videos of Singer, a prominent neuroscientist. describing her work, which includes programs with economists to try to draw up models that more closely adhere to the compassion that Goleman described. She was a compelling and delightful speaker.
However, In 2018, this woman whose life’s work has focused on empathy and compassion resigned as director of the Max Planck Institute after eight colleagues accused her of bullying them and some said she’d reduced them to tears.
Alas! She practiceth not what she preacheth! Hard to fathom, but her poor behavior doesn’t detract from the validity of her research findings.
And it certainly doesn’t seem indicative of what I’ve heard and read about leaders in the field of lovingkindness.
I consider Sharon Salzburg, one of the most respected and beloved teachers and authors on the topic, a personal guru on the journey into lovingkindness that I’ve been taking for a couple of years now.
I believe she’s a reliable guide into how the practice can help us all, physically and mentally, improve our relationships—and even help us enrich the lives of strangers.
Want to Try It?
Though Singer’s neuroscientific experiments took practitioners nine months, it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it. For those who’d like to try it, here’s what you do.
Because so many of us are our most severe critics, traditionally, we begin by offering these unconditional good wishes to ourselves: “May I be happy, healthy, live with ease.”
We then draw an ever widening circle, extending these sentiments to those we love, to friends and acquaintances, to problematic people whom we wish we could more readily accept, to strangers, and finally, to the entire world.
And the practice of lovingkindness is portable: traditionally, you sit on a cushion, but you can just as easily be walking on a crowded street.
Jack Kornfield, another leading educator, has written that some people find it difficult to begin with themselves:
“We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering.”
If that’s how you feel, Kornfield says,
“Rather than start lovingkindness practice with ourselves, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about.” [Start where it’s easiest, he suggests.] “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our lovingkindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.”
If you choose that sequence, you might then circle back to yourself after that. Or move on to people whom you find difficult. Eventually, you open your heart to strangers and to all living beings.
How can this approach affect our everyday behavior? Salzburg has a short series of videos depicting various scenarios. In “Street Lovingkindness,” she hones in on Grand Central Station in New York City, a hectic place, during Rush Hour.
But, says Salzburg, “Don’t rush. Take in the world. Look at the people,” and silently send your good wishes to strangers, possibly adding “May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.”
She has also noted: If you’re stuck in traffic because an emergency vehicle is snaking through, you might say to yourself “I hope whoever needs that vehicle is OK.”
Standing in line, she acknowledges, can be frustrating. You want to move faster, to get somewhere. Instead of fuming,
“take a breath, savor the moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice those in front and behind you. Fully acknowledge each person [mentally]: ‘May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.’ Just as we seek happiness for ourselves, may all beings be at peace.”
Suppose you’re sitting in your car, in a traffic jam.
“It’s stop-and-go, you’re making no progress. You’re frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, tired of being stuck. Pause, take a breath, feel your body being seated, your hands on the wheel. Look at the others, all moving together. ‘May we be safe, healthy, happy, be at ease.’”
Salzburg speaks of compassion to self as being restorative, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome by events. She explores our thought processes: “I’m a terrible person.”
How is my holding onto negative thoughts healing me?, she asks. Detaching and running doesn’t work.
We can’t automatically make our pain—physical or emotional—go away, but holding on to our fear and projecting into the future adds to our suffering.
(There’s an oft-repeated phrase among mindfulness folks: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”)
Compassion, she says, is a unifying experience. It sparks the impulse to help someone else: we’re all vulnerable in some way.
“When a person says, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ having a sense of community is a tremendous asset. Doing it all alone is hard. That’s the context for this practice.”
If you’d like to listen to a delightful interview with Salzburg, click on this link. Sarah Jones is a gifted actor who creates believable, very diverse characters with her voice and motions. She interviewed her friend Salzburg, asking questions as several different personae.
It’s great fun to listen to. In something many of us can relate to, one of the points she made was “Most days I can barely stand to read the news. But when I do lovingkindness, there’s a shift.”
Salzburg stresses that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” If you see a street person asking for money,
“whether or not you feel giving the cash would be useful is one thing, but whether you look at that person as a human being is another.”
It’s not new that we feel good about ourselves when we show kindness to others. But it’s something to relearn. In the supermarket where I shop, a tall, thin man is responsible for herding all the shopping carts.
I assume his job is simply to bring order to the carts that shoppers leave wherever they choose (usually not where the sign says “Return carts here”).
But he goes well beyond that job description. He is unfailingly gracious, smiling pleasantly and offering everyone a cart who approachesthe store, or relieving us of the need to return them to the intended area.
Last week, as I was walking to my car, I had a sudden impulse. I turned around and walked toward him. He thought I needed a cart and was about to give me one. “I’m done shopping,” I said. “But you’re so good at your work, and so gracious and helpful, that I wanted to give you this.”
I won’t miss the money, and I’ll long remember the look on his face as he thanked me profusely and blessed me. It was a small act in the scheme of things, but it made both of us feel pretty darn good.
Salzburg has heard it all, and she says there’s a common idea that lovingkindness is stupid, or gooey, or yucky. I like Daniel Goleman’s term: Muscular compassion. And that should lead to action, Goleman said:
“The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, ‘Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.”
My Wish for Each of You–and for Us All
As the new decade dawns, I repeat, as I did at the end of 2018, the words I’ve learned from Jack Kornfield and other mindful meditators:
May you be filled with lovingkindness;
May you be safe and protected;
May you be well in body and mind;
Strong and healed;
May you be happy.
And may 2020 find us in a country and world of greater unity, peace, greenness, and kindness. We can make small gestures to move us in that direction.
We know that the US is riven by deep divisions—and that other countries are going through similar struggles. We also know that most people are unhappy with the anger and hostilities—and anxiety about politics and world events is high.
Against this backdrop, I found the final question in the fourth Democratic Presidential debate, held in Ohio on October 15, instructive. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked each of the 12 candidates (the largest group of debaters ever) this question, involving Ellen Degeneres, a popular US talk show host who gained praise in 1997 when she publicly announced she is gay:
“Last week, Ellen Degeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”
“So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
I’m touching on the responses that I found most relevant (regardless of my opinion of the candidates who voiced them). I’ve shortened them from their verbatim rendering in The Washington Post’s transcript.
Julian Castro: “Some of the most interesting friendships that I’ve had have been with people…who thought different from me…and I think that that should be reflected more in our public life. I believe that we should be more kind to other folks. And there are people, whether it’s our former president, George W. Bush, or others…just as we should be kind, we shouldn’t be made to feel shameful about holding people accountable for what they’ve done.”
Amy Klobuchar: “For me, it’s John McCain, and I miss him every day…I remember being at his ranch when he was dying. He pointed to some words in his book because he could hardly talk. And the words say this: ‘There is nothing more liberating in life than fighting for a cause larger than yourself.’”
Cory Booker: “The next leader is going to have to be one amongst us Democrats that can unite us all,…teach us a more courageous empathy, and remind Americans that patriotism is love of country, and you cannot love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.
“And love is not sentimentality. It’s not anemic. Love is struggle. Love is sacrifice. Love is the words of our founders…the end of the Declaration of Independence that if we’re ever going to make it as a nation, we must mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Pete Buttigieg: “I think about the friendships that I formed in the military, people who were radically different from me, different generation, different race, definitely different politics. And we learned to trust each other with our lives…It’s also about building a sense of belonging in this country, because I think that’s what friendship and service can create.
“I think we have a crisis of belonging in this country that is helping to explain so many of our problems, from our politics being what it is to the fact that people are self-medicating and we’re seeing a rise in the deaths from despair…The purpose of the presidency is not the glorification of the president. It is the unification of the American people [to] pick up the pieces and guide us toward a better future.”
I’m focused on these responses because they capture what I believe is the most important and difficult task our next president will have: uniting us as a people. And that effort is needed in many other areas throughout the world.
Cory Booker’s exhortations to love reminded me of an exchange I had with one of my fellow bloggers: Gary Gautier, who blogs as Daedalus Lex and calls his blog “Shake My Head Hollow.” Gary is a very thoughtful guy who often examines philosophical and ethical concerns on his blog. (He also writes wonderful poetry).
Gary’s recent post–which stimulated this inquiry–was titled:
“The political thing no one wants to hear”
The post itself consisted solely of a quotation from Ram Dass, a revered spiritual leader (and former Harvard psychologist, then known as Richard Alpert) who has pursued numerous spiritual approaches, including Hindu, Zen Buddhism, Sufi, and Jewish mystical studies, according to his biography. His most influential work is the book Be Here Now, which has been called “the Western articulation of Eastern philosophy and how to live joyously a hundred percent of the time in the present, luminous or mundane.”
Here’s the Ram Dass quotation, followed by my discussion with Gary, who has graciously agreed to my including our exchange as well:
“You can only protest effectively when you love the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself.”
My Query to Gary:
I saw Ram Dass interviewed a while back. His stroke seriously impaired him, but as I recall, he reflected that he has been happier since then because now he really has time to observe and reflect.
I am having difficulty envisioning the kind of protest he describes. Did Martin Luther King and John Lewis love their oppressors? Forgive? Probably. Understand? Very possibly. But love? And Mandela? Same question.
Can anyone protesting the people who put babies in cages and open the gates to genocidal acts feel love for those they’re protesting against?
What am I missing here, Gary?
Gary’s Response (with citations):
When Mandela entered the prison on Robben Island, his white guards were predictably brutal, and yet he never gave up on them; he engaged them, believing that “our occupation of the moral high ground could make it possible for us to turn some of the warders round,” and as years passed he won many of them over into “appreciating our cause,” and several of those guards became allies and attended his first inauguration. (Anthony Simpson’s biography, 214, 275, Part II).
And how, Gandhi asked, could he be angry with his colonial oppressors when “I know that they sincerely believe that what they are doing today is right” (Autobiog, 166). Gandhi’s bottom line is that “it is quite proper to resist and attack a system” but one should never “attack its author” (242).
I think both had found Ram Dass’s truth – that beneath vicious action is generally a confused or mangled soul. Fight for what you know is right, fight against those who wreak havoc on humanity, lock them up if you have to, but don’t give up on the spiritual imperative to help those who are most morally fallen – from people on death row to the politicians whose actions you find vicious.
I believe Martin Luther King had reached the same transcendental space of love. In contrast to today’s woke crowd, who all-too-enthusiastically reduce people to “enemies” and “racists,” King saw white people as much more than just racists and was ultimately much more optimistic about America’s founding principles and about the American people — including white people.
This is all hard to see as we duke it out at street level, but these spiritual masters were able to view it from a million miles above, from the perspective of unlimited compassion, viewing themselves below fighting the good fight in the trenches, and viewing their opponents and all others in the same light.
I’m sticking with Baba Ram Dass on this one.
And My Response…
I thank you, Gary. I practice mindfulness meditation, and an important aspect of that is lovingkindness: “May you/I/we be filled with lovingkindness.” I have often sought common ground in my blog posts. I do try very hard to walk in the other person’s shoes, so I don’t rail against the folks at the hate-filled rallies with the vehemence of many people I know.
But I am a long way from loving those in power whose cruelty and/or indifference is damaging so many individuals and our society/world.
I shall try to dig deeper—without faulting myself if I fail. The Ram Dass bar is exceedingly high for us mere mortals.
My Questions for You, Dear Readers…
We are all tearing ourselves apart with our political hatreds now. It’s no good for us as a country, as members of the world community, and certainly as individuals: think of the levels of stress-induced cortisol coursing through our bodies. We need a better approach.
Can we get beyond this point via the Ram Dass message? Regardless of which side of the political divide we’re on, can we “hate the sin but love the sinner”?
If you share my strong feelings about this president and those complicit in his actions, can you and I, personally, look beyond all the devastation that we feel President Trump is wreaking on people and nations and try to find compassion for the clearly damaged, wretched soul that resides within him—and the frightened, worried people working with him or supporting him? (That doesn’t mean we don’t hold him/them responsible for their actions!)
If you’re on the other side of the political divide, can you find it in your heart to feel that those of us who differ with you politically are not your enemies? That our wants and needs as human beings are, on the most basic levels, quite similar to yours?
(I realize I’m leaving out the vast middle here, those who are just unhappy that things in their personal lives aren’t going as well as they’d like—and are simply trying to make do from one day to the next.)
Can we all shift our focus from people to problems, and work together for the greater good?
Just days ago, we lost an invaluable American statesman: Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland, who died at age 68. “A Pillar of Baltimore Who Was ‘Loved by All,’” wrote The New York Times. In his years in Congress, he worked assiduously across the aisle to get things done for the people he represented and the country he loved.
Apparently, when President Trump attacked him on Twitter this summer, calling his district a “rodent-infested mess,” some of Cummings’ constituents wanted a full-throated response. Instead, Cummings calmly observed: “Mr. President, I go home to my district daily. Each morning, I wake up, and I go and fight for my neighbors.”
Being “nice” to the President was an example of the spirit that made him unique, according to his friends. His church pastor said Cummings was…
“…so much larger than what he was…He was something so different. He was not the angry protester. He was not the passive peacemaker. He was the deliberate man who stood for right and wrestled wrong until right became the natural winner.”
I have a strong sense that Congressman Elijah Cummings was the embodiment of the Ram Dass credo that Gary Gautier has brought to our attention.
Tell me, please: What do you think of all this—as political strategy and/or guidance for life? Can you accept the concept of loving the person whose ideas you are protesting against as much as you love yourself? Even embrace the idea and consider/try putting it into practice? Feel it’s a fine idea, but…?
Or does this concept strike you as naive and unworkable? Do you think I’m nuts to even raise the issue in today’s political climate?
If the latter, do you have any other ideas concerning how we as individuals move ourselves out of our current angry divisiveness?
Did you know that Facebook Addiction Disorder is really a “thing”—and not a FAD? (Sorry, another bad pun—and so soon!) It’s not in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but it, and obsessive Internet use in general, is increasingly drawing the attention of psychiatric researchers.
I plead guilty. Not to checking Facebook frequently, though I do look at it most days. But I am heavily Internet-dependent—so much so that I recently had to upgrade my iPhone because I ran out of space and couldn’t get access to many of my apps (including my mindfulness app, which is, coincidentally, supposed to keep me in the moment).
There’s just so much stuff out there to learn, including what all the wonderful bloggers I’ve become acquainted with are up to, and why the plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi (which I’ve written about), and what’s the name of that movie I saw years ago/last week, and, in truth, how many people are visiting my current post?
(My new phone has a feature that I could live without—almost as though it’s in league with these researchers [?]: it tells me my average daily screen time from the previous week, in hours and minutes.)
None of this may sound very serious, but it’s all tied up with how our brains function. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s connected to all those other areas of our lives that we know we should better control—such as overeating, smoking, and stressing about things real or imagined.
Why, if we’re so smart, and we know what we should do, is it so hard for us to follow through? Are there ways that we can take better control of our lives—without investing a fortune of time, money, and energy?
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, thinks there are. Brewer is an addictions expert, an associate professor in psychiatry at the School of Medicine at Brown University, where he serves as the Director of Research and Innovation at the Mindfulness Center, as well as a research affiliate at MIT.
He’s the author of a book with the less-than-succinct title: The Craving Mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love, why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits, published by Yale University Press in 2017.
Brewer has successfully used mindfulness training to get people to stop smoking, lose weight, reduce anxiety, and break all sorts of bad habits. I haven’t read his book, and none of the three videos of him that I watched mentioned “love,” so I regret that I can’t enlighten us in that regard. The quotations in this post are primarily from a TEDMED Talk he did in 2015. The bolding for emphasis throughout is mine.
If you’re thinking, “Oh, Annie, not another thing about mindfulness,” I can tell you that although I am a practitioner and I believe both individuals and the world would be better off if more of us were, I think you can put some of Brewer’s insights to work without getting deeply involved in the practice.
Let’s start with the brain because that is, of course, central to this approach. The prefrontal cortex, which Brewer points out is “that youngest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective,” is where cognition resides.
So we can figure out, for example, that having a dozen brownies in a single sitting is not a smart thing to do. But they taste so good, and if we’re sad, or stressed, we just keep that hand-to-mouth action going. Sometimes we don’t feel very good afterward, but that doesn’t stop us from doing it again.
This behavior is linked via evolution to our needs for survival. In a convoluted way, here’s how we get to that dozen brownies. Calories equal survival. And sugar, as we’ve increasingly learned, holds a special allure. As Brewer explains, our bodies send a signal to our brains:
”Remember what you’re eating and where you found it…See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.”
Then we learn that the food we began eating for survival can serve other purposes:
“You know, next time you feel bad, why don’t you try eating something good so you’ll feel better? We thank our brains for the great idea…and quickly learn that if we eat chocolate or ice cream when we’re mad or sad, we feel better.”
What began as survival has become something more complex.
“We’re fighting one of the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes currently known to science, one that’s conserved back to the most basic nervous systems known to man.”
That is positive and negative reinforcement. And the problem is that, as sharp as our thought processes may be, they’re simply not strong enough to hold back the forces of stress. As Brewer says:
“We’re using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out.”
Of course, the process is more complicated than this, involving the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, as well as other portions of the brain, but I think we can get the idea without a detailed neurology lesson.
Brewer doesn’t mention the reptilian brain, the oldest portion, the one that enacts the fight/flight/freeze response under stress. When we need cognition the most, the reptilian brain slithers to the forefront. (I’ve written about my personal struggle between my prefrontal cortex and reptilian brain previously. Guess who won?)
To find out how to break this cycle, it’s worth looking at the success Brewer and colleagues have had in helping patients stop smoking, which is the toughest addiction of all to overcome. They tested whether mindfulness training could help people quit.
Brewer has explained that when he started practicing mindfulness meditation, it was a terrible strain to keep his focus on his breath, to try to continue paying attention. I think anyone who’s ever tried mindfulness understands this challenge; I certainly do.
But he resolved the struggle when he realized that he needed to turn to the “natural reward-based learning process” of “trigger, behavior, reward,” adding what he called “a twist: What if we just got really curious about what was happening in our momentary experience?”
He applied the concept of curiosity to the smoking research. Instead of telling their patients not to smoke, he and his colleagues said the reverse. “Smoke, but be really curious about what it’s like when you do.” And here’s a report of how it worked. One woman said:
“Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. YUCK!”
“Now she knew, cognitively, that smoking was bad for her; that’s why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like s—t.
“Now she moved from knowledge to wisdom….the spell of smoking was broken. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior.”
This happens over time, he emphasized: “as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.”
Brewer refers to one study they did that found mindfulness training (MT) was twice as effective as the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking (FFS) treatment, which is considered the gold standard. The MT group both reduced their smoking and showed continued greater abstinence during followup.
It’s still not easy. The prefrontal cortex, Brewer says,
“understands on an intellectual level that we shouldn’t smoke. And it tries its hardest to help us change our behavior, to help us stop smoking, stop eating that second, third, fourth cookie. We call this cognitive control.”
And then we fall back into our old habits. But like the woman smoker, once we understand our habits on a deeper, more visceral level, our interest in pursuing them lessens.
With mindfulness, instead of turning away from unpleasantness or fighting it, we turn toward it and regard it with curiosity, which is naturally rewarding. And it helps us see that cravings are discrete sensations that come and go, so we can manage them from one moment to the next, “rather than getting clobbered by this huge, scary craving that we can choke on.”
In an interview, Brewer differentiates between intellectual curiosity and experiential curiosity. The one that makes a difference is the latter.
Our curiosity, he contends, permits us to
“step out of our old, fear-based reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting that next data point.”
So people who smoke or eat due to stress or feel compelled to do any of a myriad of things they know they shouldn’t can be encouraged to be curiously aware when the urge hits them. To paraphrase an old adage: Curiosity becomes its own reward.
And now we return to the Internet. Do you surf or check your email when you’re bored, or lonely, or just feel you have to? And then feel bad about all the time you’ve wasted, and what else you could have accomplished, but didn’t?
Brewer suggests trying instead to be curiously aware of what’s happening in your body and mind at that moment. You’ll have the chance either to “perpetuate one of our endless and exhausting habit loops—or step out of it.”
“Instead of ‘see text message, compulsively text back, feel a little better,’” he says, do this:
“Notice the urge, get curious, feel the joy of letting go. And repeat.”
How does all of this strike you? Do you find it feasible? Are you tempted to try it? Do you have stories to share about how you have overcome bad habits—or have failed to do so?
His blog bears the subtitle: “The Life, Thoughts, and Reflections of a Vampire Hunter,” but if that topic turns you off (my initial reaction), don’t let it. An enormously creative and well-informed mind weaves together past and present, real and unreal, mythic and surreal into well-crafted stories that are often hilarious and frequently pointed observations on the foibles and wackiness of our time.
Thank you so much for this nomination, Dracul.
WHAT IS THE MYSTERY BLOGGER AWARD?
“Mystery Blogger Award is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.”
Dracul, I am delighted that you think I deserve this award.
1. Put the Award Logo/Image On Your Blog. Here I feel justified in patting myself on the back. As those of you who have read my descriptions of my technical snafus well know, the fact that I have actually pulled together sufficient technical knowledge to have a functioning blog is amazing enough.
One of my first posts was published with nothing on it, and my scramble with the help of the WordPress Happiness Engineers to find the mysteriously disappearing text devolved into what I’ve described as a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). On that particular night, I still vividly recall, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.
So I had little hope of actually capturing that image and importing it onto my post. But voila! There it is, in the place where I believe it belongs. And maybe, just maybe, by accomplishing this task, I’ve forged a couple more neural synapses in this non-techie brain…
2. List the Rules.
I believe I am in the process of doing that at this moment.
3. Thank the creator of the award and provide a link as well.
I think I’ve checked that box as well; see above.
4. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself (Here’s where the challenge begins. See below).
5. Nominate 10 to 20 people (See below for this one too).
6. Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog (I promise to do so).
7. Ask your nominees any 5 questions of your choice; with one weird or funny question.
3 THINGS ABOUT ME
1. I am seriously dog-deprived at present, so if you have a floppy pup or any kind of retriever, you should keep your distance from me so that I don’t accidentally walk off with him/her/them. I readily acknowledge my preference for long snouts, so you bulldog and sharpei owners needn’t worry.
2. I try to practice mindfulness meditation, but I still haven’t learned well how to deal with my “inner critic,” the judgmental voice in my head. Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness teacher, suggests naming one’s inner critic and then simply accepting the criticisms with kindness and interest. She calls her inner critic Lucy, after the Charles Schulz character who said to Charlie Brown: “The problem with you, Charlie, is that you’re you.” She gave me permission to borrow Lucy, whom I evoke when I remember. (You see, Lucy, we’re all friends here; it’s gonna be OK.)
3. I’ve long harbored the rather modest goal of wanting my words to change the world—preferably for the better. These days, if I can just make people smile, I’m happy to do so.
If you were stranded on a desert island and the film projector you miraculously managed to rescue from your sinking ship only had 5 movies available on its reels, what 5 movies would you wish they be?
Well, here we turn to mystery—or certainly miracles—presupposing that a) I could swim to safety carrying a film projector (I lift weights, but I’m not such a strong swimmer); and b) I’d have the technical expertise to run the darn thing once I got to dry land (or perhaps to a luxury yacht…that would solve concern b). And would I have to rescue the large screen as well? North by Northwest Casablanca The Lives of Others Cinema Paradiso Midnight in Paris (I know, I know, it’s Woody Allen, but I still love it.)
What would be an ideal dinner for you?
One of my most memorable meals was rijstaffel in Amsterdam: I loved the variety and deliciousness of all the small dishes. I’d really like a redo—perhaps in Indonesia…
If you could have coffee with any person in history, who would it be and why?
Eleanor Roosevelt because she was such an extraordinary person and had such a positive influence on her husband. I would have questions, though, such as: How could you have let Franklin exclude African Americans from the benefits of the New Deal? How could you have let him turn back the St. Louis, carrying Jews fleeing Nazi Germany? Did you try to stop the Japanese internment camps? Variations on these questions unfortunately resonate in our time.
What person in literature do you wish had actually lived in reality?
One or more of Shakespeare’s strong women: Rosalind in As You Like It; Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing; or Viola in Twelfth Night. Lady MacBeth? Not so much…
What type of water do you prefer to swim in? Fresh water or salt water?
Any water that when I stand up, the bottom isn’t slimy and little critters aren’t nibbling at my toes. I am not one who wishes to swim with the fishes, literally or figuratively.
1.What is the single thing about blogging that you value the most?
2.What episode or aspect of your life would you be most eager to “do over,” if you could?
3.What brings you the greatest personal satisfaction?
4.What musical instrument best describes your personality—and why?
5.If you could perform a single act that you felt would contribute to world peace, what would it be?
A few items before I note my nominees.
1) I know there are many wonderful bloggers out there whom I’ve never had the opportunity to come across, in part because you are so numerous; in part because I’ve been so busy writing and learning the technical aspects of this new adventure that I haven’t yet had the pleasure of your acquaintance. Thus, my nominees are people I know about because for the most part they found me–or we found each other.
2) My nominations do not necessarily mean I endorse their views. In fact, sometimes I emphatically disagree with them. But I believe they display lively minds, often tackle difficult issues, and are effective in conveying their thoughts, and I enjoy reading their posts.
Memo to all, especially my non-blogging subscribers: As you know, annieasksyou emphasizes dialogue, so although this format is different from what you’re used to, please feel free to register your thoughts and comments as always.
When the world is too much with us—as it occasionally is for me lately—we often turn to nostalgia. My fellow blogger JP recently wrote a delightful post about a childhood “Freeze” moment: while playing a piece in a piano recital, he lost his place, couldn’t find it, recovered as best he could, and somehow lived through the humiliation.
I guess we all have “Freeze” moments when we wish we could turn back the clock and get a do-over. JP’s post reminded me of mine, which occurred when I was a high school senior. My current self finds all this quite amusing, but those decades ago, my sensibilities were different.
First, some background: In my junior year, I had been a member of what our school called the “Marching Corps.” During half-time of the football games, we marched onto the field carrying large white flag/banners, which we twirled in unison to the band’s music. We assembled ourselves into various choreographed formations—sometimes spelling our high school’s initials, a welcome to the opposing team, or a similar visual. At the same time, the baton twirlers performed their routines. It was great fun.
Then an astonishing thing happened. At the end of the school year, the music director, a very tough-love but inspiring educator, selected me to be THE DRUM MAJORETTE for our senior year.
This was truly a big deal. The drum majorette led the color guard carrying the flags, the band, marching corps, and baton twirlers. It was an honor and a responsibility. My selection also evoked some envy and consternation—Josie Gorman, for one (not her real name) let me know that she was far more suited for the position than I was.
It had never occurred to me that I’d be chosen. All my predecessors had been tall, leggy, statuesque, and usually blonde. I was (e): none of the above. The uniform I inherited required extensive alterations.
And then there was the high hat, topped by a large plume. The rim rested on the frames of my thick eyeglasses. My nose was fine, but the full set of metal braces that uncomfortably filled my small mouth glistened in the sunlight in a manner bereft of any esthetic value. I sometimes worried flocks of birds would be attracted by me, shiny object that I was.
What did that heroic music director see in me when he made his decision? He certainly was far ahead of his time in terms of female stereotyping, bless his heart!
Though I never knew his reasoning for sure, I concluded it was based on his confidence that I knew my right from my left, which may not have been a universal skill among my fellow marchers. He could therefore depend upon me to get the band to its destination in a safe and timely manner. And yes, I could strut up a storm and twirl a baton, though I faked that part in a way that the baton twirling squad never could get away with.
I could do nothing about the braces—they remained with me throughout most of my senior year—but I persuaded my parents that contact lenses were essential. I’m pretty sure I paid for them from my previous summer’s earnings, but that could be a false memory arising from my sense of drama about my plight, as in: Desperate kid scraped up enough to save self from mortification.
Anyway, they agreed, and voila! I got my contacts. I not only felt better—I could also see better, thereby improving my chances of keeping the band intact. (As anyone who’s severely myopic and has been fitted with contact lenses knows, contacts—positioned closer to the eye—can sharpen vision more than glasses do.)
It was a glorious time. On Saturdays during football season, we would march from the high school to the stadium about a half-mile away. Children would line the streets to cheer, and elderly veterans would take off their hats and salute as the American flag passed by. That scene remains vivid to this day and often brings tears to my eyes. To my mind, it was a slice of Americana that holds up in retrospect. We were oblivious to the outside world; all was right in ours.
The final game of the football season was held each Thanksgiving Day, and our rivals were the team from the local parochial school. That game always received the largest attendance of the season, as many alumni returned to see old friends and cheer on their local team.
I was psyched. The weather was great, as I recall, and our practices had been terrific. Everyone looked snappy in our crisp, clean uniforms; we were all dressed up with someplace really special to go.
The first half of the game ended, and the players left the field for the locker rooms to rest. The cheerleaders, having energetically bolstered the team with physical and vocal stamina, also got a chance to recharge.
This was our moment. I blew my whistle and marched the band onto the field. Strutting my stuff, I blew my whistle again and held my baton high and to the left, signaling it was time for us all to turn and begin marching into formation.
And then it happened.
I dropped my baton. In front of the crowd in a stadium with nary an empty seat, I dropped my baton.
I quickly bent down to pick it up, but as I did, the band kept marching toward me. That’s when I froze.
Instead of turning around and continuing my strutting and twirling, I spent the rest of the time marching backward. I faced the band while holding my baton in both hands, moving it up and down to slow their advance and prevent them from trampling me. It was inglorious. My magical moment had turned into a self-preservation scramble.
Though I felt that I had disgraced myself and ruined the band’s performance, I don’t recall anyone saying anything to me afterward. Perhaps the crowd assumed I had intended to march backward, directing the band. Maybe they even thought: Look at that drum majorette—she can lead the band marching backward!
Or maybe not. But one thing was clear: nobody cared about it as much as I did—not even the music director whom I felt I’d failed.
These days, I try to practice mindfulness meditation, which encourages focusing on the moment—looking neither forward with worries nor backward with regrets. Mindfulness also urges us to respond to our “inner critic”—that merciless self-judge residing in our heads— with kind acceptance: “OK, so that happened. Interesting, isn’t it?” Though I didn’t know the term at the time, my inner critic was in full mode berating me for my personal catastrophe while most of those around me were oblivious to it.
Obviously, in the scheme of things, my youthful disappointment from dropping my baton was a small blip. And with the passage of time, it hasn’t sullied that happy memory of leading my fellow students through the children’s cheers and veterans’ salutes, never confusing my left from my right, and bringing us all—safely and on time—to our destination.
Please share your reactions, thoughts, and, best of all, your own “Freeze” moment(s) and any lessons learned. I appreciate, enjoy, and often learn from your responses.
I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for quite a while, and I am very serious about it; it’s had a beneficial effect on my life. But in my description of my blog, I speak of “seeking dialogue to inform, enlighten, and/or amuse you and me.” The emphasis here is on “amuse.” I realize things have been pretty heavy in Annie’s blog world, with focus on climate change, the political scene, and race relations, so I thought it was time to lighten up a bit in this holiday season.
What follows is a piece I wrote some years back, which was published in a now-defunct humor magazine. It still amuses me, and I hope it will elicit a smile from you as well. Perhaps it will also evoke feelings in concert with my desire to find common ground…
Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, is positively nuts about housework. She claims if she were to let someone else do her housework for her, she would feel alienated from her own life. Cleaning one’s house, she says, is like “Zen meditation.”
Because I, too, would like a clean house, inner serenity, and best-selling novels, I decided to apply Ms. Oates’s philosophy to my own life. I first endeavored to wash the kitchen floor while seated in the middle of it meditating in the zazen, or cross-legged, position. As one might imagine, this was a rigorous exercise, requiring great self-discipline and flexibility. I felt myself stretched beyond what I had earlier assumed to be my limits. After fifteen minutes, I had grasped a Higher Truth, which I quite willingly share: Life Must Provide Us With a Longer-Handled Mop.”
One of the foci of Zen is the koan, an unsolvable riddle or nonsensical proposition. Surely, housework provides us with the ultimate koan: Why Dust? Why devote time and energy to casting motes into the air, only to watch them reconvene above one’s head tauntingly in anticipation of their certain descent?
Vacuuming, on the other hand, puts one in touch with the Cosmos. It is the practice of piecing together disparate elements of nature in one location as a cohesive whole. However, the vacuum cleaner is an artificial device, separating the true Zen student from the kind of self-reliance necessary to approach enlightenment.
The serious Zen-cleaner uses masking tape wrapped around the fingers to effect the same essential unity. This process, painstaking as it is, leads to contemplation at close range of the complexity inherent in what had appeared to be a superficial layer of carpet debris. William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. The Zen-cleaner sees contemporary civilization in a piece of sticky tape.
Sorting clothes provides another koan, elegant in its simplicity but profound in its implications. Whither the Other Sock? I leave the reader time now to meditate on this Universal Question…
Like Zen, housework poses the kind of paradoxical problems that will shock the student out of dependence upon ordinary logic. No other human accomplishment is apparent only when it is not accomplished. All is process. The devoted Zen-cleaner knows never to seek the sense of satisfaction other mortals derive from their work when the job is done. One operates with constant awareness of an Eternal Verity: The Cleaning of a House Will Lead, With the Passage of Time, to a House That Must Be Cleaned.
The practitioner of Zen incorporates a love of nature into one’s life. It is important, then, that the house be properly aired and smell of the great outdoors. When I had completed my tasks and felt myself approaching Nirvana, I flung open the windows, inviting the world into my home. A small brown sparrow accepted my invitation. It flew across the living room, swept into the kitchen, and lighted briefly in the middle of the freshly waxed floor, almost precisely on the spot where I had meditated not long before. It then departed, leaving behind a tiny organic reminder of our transcendental experience.
With that symbol, I had reached satori, the ultimate insight. I now had a penetrating vision of the value of housework. Thank you, little brown sparrow. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates.
Happy holidays, everybody! See you in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to browse through the posts you may not have seen yet. Backstage in My Blog World, written immediately after I experienced a frenzy resulting from an early technical snafu, may also make you smile.
I hope 2019 brings us a calmer, more unified, and democratic nation in a more peaceful world. And, in the mindfulness tradition, I offer this message, which I learned from renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield:
Decades ago, when Transcendental Meditation (TM) became a hot topic in the US, some New Jersey schools began a pilot program to introduce it to their students. An immediate furor arose from people objecting to what they saw as a religious incursion into the public schools. I wrote a letter to the editor of the newly introduced New Jersey Weekly section of The New York Times, which the Times ran as an Op-Ed titled “A Word in Favor of Meditation in the Schools.” (See About Me.)
I stated that while I agreed with the critics that the public schools aren’t the place for the mystical trappings that TM incorporated, meditation was also effective without them, as Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School had demonstrated.
Concurring with the pilot program’s stated purpose—to help students improve their learning skills, behavior, and levels of aspiration—I said I was also drawn to it because we are a stress-filled society, and the evidence is mounting that stress plays a significant role in ailments ranging from migraine headaches to heart attacks and strokes.
Here I shamelessly quote myself:
“If we can educate young people in relaxation techniques that will enable them to handle stress before they are exposed to the eventual stresses created by employment, marriage, child-rearing, and the like (in other words, everyday living), we may well be setting them on the way to longer, healthier, and happier lives.”
Unfortunately, all these years later, school children are being exposed to stressors that didn’t even exist then, and they are showing the impact in terms of anxiety, depression, and attempts at suicide. At the same time, mindfulness meditation and yoga have become all the rage among adults. So I decided to explore the extent to which mindfulness has been incorporated into public education, and how effective it’s been. The topic is vast, so I’m just scratching the surface here.
As a reminder, here’s the definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who coined the term: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.
Two of the largest programs are MindUP, which was initiated by the Goldie Hawn Foundation (yes, that Goldie Hawn), and Mindful Schools, based in California. Both organizations have developed curricula now in schools; taken together, they’ve trained more than 175,000 teachers and reached over 8 million kids. Their websites provide details and scientific papers validating their approaches.
Much of the positive information about mindfulness in schools is anecdotal. One teacher, Becca Wertheim, after a year of practicing what she called Morning Mindfulness and focus on breath awareness with her second graders, made the case for mindfulness training sound so reasonable: “All of my students naturally crave mindfulness practice,” she wrote. “They crave a sense of peace and calm…they also deserve them. In just one school day kids can be completely overwhelmed socially, emotionally and academically,” and the result may be “attention-seeking behaviors. I, like most teachers, have tried a myriad of classroom management strategies. Some stick, some don’t. But I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice. I’m going to repeat that because it’s just that important.
I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice.”
It took Wertheim just a few weeks to get a bunch of fidgeting, giggling second graders to reach the point that they became better listeners—to her, to their fellow students—and to themselves. She offers “4 Simple Ways to Teach Mindfulness in Schools.”
Significantly, some of the most successful mindfulness efforts have occurred with at-risk kids. In a poignant article in The Atlantic, Lauren Cassani Davis describes the efforts of an English teacher, Argos Gonzalez, in a small satellite school in one of New York City’s poorest districts. Though most of the students want to graduate, their life circumstances make school attendance extremely difficult.
“On the day I visited,” Davis writes, “one of Gonzalez’s students had just been released from jail; one recently had an abortion; one had watched a friend bleed to death from a gunshot wound the previous year. Between finding money to put food on the table and dealing with unstable family members, these students’ minds are often crowded with concerns more pressing than schoolwork.”
Gonzalez was certified in the Mindful Schools curriculum. His training encompassed child development, the specific neuroscience underlying mindfulness, and the workings of the nervous system. He also received guidance in trauma. He’s augmented this with his own mindfulness practice and training in applying what he’s learned to his students. He uses the typical mindfulness techniques in five-minute intervals, Davis notes: “from counting breaths and focusing on the sensations of breathing, to visualizing thoughts and feelings…to help train their attention, quiet their thoughts, and regulate their emotions.”
Davis recounts her conversation with a young woman who had transferred to the school two years previously. She cried during the periods set aside for mindfulness, thinking of her older brother who’d been killed by a car and a friend she’d seen die in the street of a gunshot wound. She’d routinely rip up the worksheets that accompanied the daily mindfulness exercise.
Davis ends with this passage. “But one day when she was in a particularly dark mood, something clicked.” The student told her that when Gonzalez instructed the class to close their eyes and connect to their breath,
“I noticed that I could feel my breath in my chest. And at that moment, I felt so relieved. The only thing I could think in my mind was, ‘I’m Ok.’ And, I don’t know—from that day on, it just didn’t hurt anymore.”
To be sure, mindfulness in schools is no panacea. The concept isn’t always understood well and conveyed properly, and some worry that it’s used to control kids rather than help them. Many critics feel it hasn’t been sufficiently rigorously studied over the long term to draw conclusions about its efficacy.
But there seems fairly solid evidence that it helps in varying school populations, especially the most disadvantaged children—and that seems to be a huge accomplishment. A non-profit called Headstand defines its mission this way: “Empowers at-risk youth in K-12 to combat toxic stress through mindfulness, yoga, and character education.”
According to another Atlantic article, written by Amanda Machado, “Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child defines toxic stress as ‘severe, uncontrollable, chronic adversity’” that can negatively affect the developing brain, frequently resulting in problems with learning and both physical and mental health.
Machado points out that Headstand’s curriculum includes focus on character education, centering on specific traits.
“A unit on ‘responsibility’ is framed around questions like ‘What does it mean to accept personal responsibility?”, “How does being irresponsible affect the people around you?” and “How are responsibility and power related?”
Those strike me as terrific questions—ones that I would like to see asked and answered far beyond the walls of schools for at-risk children. And they lead me to believe that while we should certainly study the application of mindfulness in schools with academic rigor, we should simultaneously look for programs and approaches that merit replication and can benefit our school children—and thus our society. In the adult world, mindfulness has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Surely our school children, who are our future, deserve the best that we can offer.
Do these ideas resonate with you? And if you have teaching experience, how does all of this strike you? Do you think it would work in your situation?
Please also click on “like” and “share” if you feel this post deserves wider circulation. Thanks!
I’ve long been aware that the mindfulness community is devoted not only to helping individuals find inner peace, but also to creating a more peaceful world. But I was pleasantly surprised this week when I received the letter below from one of my favorite mindfulness guides, Tara Brach (whose letter was more nicely formatted than what you see here).
Brach describes her role, as part of a group of Buddhist mindfulness leaders, in an interdenominational effort, Faith in Action. Its vital mission is to get out the vote on Election Day, November 6, in order to vastly expand the electorate.
Faith in Action provides a four-step plan: 1) Register (and help others do so) in September; 2) Activate (in October); 3) Engage; and 4) Vote by November 6, 2018. Details and resources are found in this link: Mindful Vote 2018.
And while Faith in Action consists of various religious groups, it also refers people to the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. And I’m sure that this inclusive coalition would be equally welcoming to atheists and agnostics as well—to everyone who believes that our nation can and must follow a kinder, more humane path in the treatment of its own citizens and people throughout the world.
Tara Brach’s Letter:
The November elections are coming soon and there has never been a more important time to make our voices heard.
Recently, I joined nearly 130 Buddhist teachers and leaders in supporting Faith in Action’s Mindful Vote 2018 initiative to ensure that all who are eligible are able to cast their vote.
Now we need your help. Please take a few moments to read the letter below and consider participating in Mindful Vote 2018.
I hope you’ll feel inspired to join us in actively empowering the voice of our larger community!
With prayers for peace, justice and healing in our world,
NOTE FROM ANNIE: The link below will take you to the letter to the Buddhist community, which contains the names of all the signators. (It had been part of Tara Brach’s message, but I am including the link here for easy downloading and sharing.)
After my last couple of posts, several people said they appreciate my optimism—a trait that is clearly in short supply these days. As I don’t think I’m either ostrich or Pollyanna, and I’ve done plenty of ranting and yelling at the images on the TV news and on my often too-smart-by-half phone, I’ve been exploring the source of the hopefulness that I’ve been conveying to you.
I think that the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practicing for more than a year now has finally reached fruition, and I’d like to share some of my discoveries and resources.
I’ve been meditating with help from various gurus offering guided imagery through CDs and phone downloads for quite some time, and last Fall I took an 8-week course on Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I took the course near my home; it’s available in many areas and involves walking, sitting, and standing meditations, gentle yoga, body scans—with your mind, not technology—and the like.
Kabat-Zinn also coined the term “mindfulness,” which stems from early Buddhism, calling it “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.
Kabat-Zinn’s program has actually been associated with positive changes in the brain: an article in Psychiatric Res (2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43, which for some reason won’t hyperlink) noted “changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.”
Who wouldn’t want that? But for the longest time, though I was a diligent student and meditated daily, I felt I wasn’t getting the full benefit. I was “stuck,” allowing the same dopey stories—sometimes annoying, sometimes worrisome—to race around in my brain. And my “inner critic” wouldn’t let me get away for a minute with that non-judgmental stuff Kabat-Zinn talks about. What’s so hard about this? I’d berate myself. I’ve been doing it forever. Why can’t I master it?
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon Salzberg, a well-known and beloved teacher and a founder of the highly acclaimed Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Salzberg suggests dealing with the inner critic by giving it a name or persona.
Hers is Lucy, the Peanuts character who told Charlie Brown: “The problem with you is that you’re you.” When she has negative feelings about herself, she acknowledges them by thinking, “Hi, Lucy,” or “Chill it, Lucy,” in a friendly manner.
I’ve adopted my own Lucy, and finally, finally, I realize I’m spending more time living in the moment. Granted, there are some pretty scary moments all around us these days, but once you don’t dwell on them and continue to replay them, they lose their heft.
The whole point, which I’ve known for some time but only just become able to internalize, is that if you accept these feelings, thoughts, and fears and don’t fight them, knowing they’re transitory, they pass fairly quickly. You simply move on.
I am bolstered by imagery like that of the man standing outside his house, burdened by two heavy suitcases. One contains “regrets”; the other holds “worries.” First he drops one; then the other. His step is considerably lighter as he walks away.
I am also bolstered by the oft-repeated quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “I’ve lived a long and difficult life filled with so many misfortunes—most of which never happened.”
Tara Brach, one of my favorite mindfulness gurus, encourages smiling. In one of her talks, she says, “Smiling affects areas of the brain associated with happiness; it can’t cause happiness, but it can tip you in that direction.” If you want to try it, begin by sensing a smile around your eyes, then your mouth, your heart, and then sense and feel that smile throughout your body.
I find Brach’s talks so helpful that I listen to them repeatedly. One of them, “Meditation: The Radical Acceptance of Pain,” has on occasion freed me from a migraine headache without medication. The talk is less than 12 minutes long, and I recommend that anyone suffering from pain locate it via Google and listen to it—maybe even twice. There’s nothing like relieving one’s pain to open a path to optimism.
Mindfulness recently got a nod from Bill Gates in The New York Times Book Review (September 9). Reviewing the new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Gates says the author insists “that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness—getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to the suffering in our own lives.”
Acknowledging that this idea is “easy to mock,” Gates writes: “As someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.”
Though mindfulness is helpful to the individual, its proponents see its widespread practice as beneficial to the larger society. Emphasis is placed on the concept of lovingkindness. As Salzberg has said: “Lovingkindness and compassion are the opposites of fear.”
Another favorite guru, Jack Kornfield, speaks of the importance of equanimity, “the ability to meet all experience with a balanced mind.” Acknowledging that sometimes situations demand a strong response, he asserts that even such a response can be done with equanimity.
Equanimity arises from “living with a deep understanding of the passing of all things,” and leads to a peaceful heart. “With a peaceful heart, you can see clearly and respond wisely.”
The best leaders, he says, “combine strength and wisdom with a steady and peaceful heart.” And so I say, optimistically: If enough of us follow this path–and if we elect leaders who meet that definition–perhaps we can make the world a little less crappy.
It’s been quite a journey for me to reach this point, and I’ll readily acknowledge there are times when reality’s bite makes me feel optimism is kind of nutty. But then I breathe, smile, and the shadow passes. We really don’t have to live in anger and fear.
Perhaps you’ll join me? Have you tried mindfulness? Are you tempted? As always, I’m eager for your thoughts. And even if you don’t care to comment, if you like this or any of my other posts, please feel free to share and/or click on “like.”
I’ll close by echoing Kornfield’s message: May you–may we all–live with a peaceful heart.