Summertime Reflections, Vol. 5: Dreaming Aloud About What Could Be…

This has been an interesting summer full of reading and reflection. A few weeks ago at a recent HCPS board meeting, I spoke about all that I believe is wrong with public education in its current manifestation (watch here). Whether it’s getting kids to pound obsolete facts into their heads to be regurgitated on a meaningless state assessment or any number of other pointless activities we put students through so that they can receive a so-called “education”, none of what public education here in Florida (or the United States, for that matter) will truly help students thrive in life. Instead, as noted previously, our students succeed despite the system, not because of it.

But where do we go from here? What should the future of education look like? Well, I start to speak about it here, and I hope to convince you, dear reader, as to why mind training through meditation should be the foundation to not only a more holistic, human-centered public education policy, but something that you should begin in your personal life today.

As a lifelong lover of wisdom, most of my favorite philosophers hail from the Axial Age, a period from roughly 800 BCE through 200 CE when the world produced some of the most influential thinkers whose thoughts and ideas have stood the test of time. For me, the top five who have influenced my thinking and humanity the most are (chronologically): Siddhartha Gautama (the historical “Buddha“); Socrates; Aristotle; Jesus; and Aurelius. All of them in their own ways deeply inform who I am trying to become and, more importantly in this context, who I am as a teacher and exemplar in the classroom.

Beyond these sages from antiquity, very few other philosophers loom so large in my mind and worldview than my two 19th century favorites: Friedrich Nietzsche and William James, the latter of whom I hope to introduce you to and have you think about, especially if you are a classroom teacher.

William James is an intellectual giant for numerous reasons, chief among them being widely recognized as the “Father of American Psychology” after publishing his seminal work, The Principles of Psychology. Within this work, two chapters should be of particular interest to all educators, as they would be the ideal bedrock upon which to erect the edifice of an education: attention and habit. Both chapters are hyperlinked and are worth reading for a deeper understanding of James’ ideas, but I hope to demonstrate why these two critical facets would / could / should be the basis for any public education system as they are both foundational to a life well lived.

As mentioned in the second set of comments, most people do not fully appreciate the amount of cultural disruption that will stem from technological innovation, radically changing how we interact with our environments and, far more critically, with each other. Take a moment to think about this fact: the iPhone, which I believe is widely acknowledged to be the first true “smartphone” debuted in 2007. That was only twelve years ago; what will the next ten, twenty, or thirty bring?

Now think about how much our attention has been fractured during that same twelve year period. How much our devices beckon us. How much the siren song takes attention away very often from those who matter most–the closest people in our lives. Even now I have to admit the ironic use of this particular medium that is, statistically speaking, being read on said device or some similar type screen. Perhaps there is a reason we have witnessed the rise in diagnoses of ADD and ADHD in the last 30 years. Perhaps there is a reason we are all so constantly stressed by the demands that compete for our attention, which, in reality, is the currency of our personal time, life’s most precious resource…

And yet, without the proper habits, without the proper mental training to consciously develop the good habits of mind we want in all people, the brain has a tendency to hardwire much of what our environment and lack of self-reflection and self-awareness ingrain into us. William James, as a medical doctor at Harvard, became deeply interested in the human brain, and he was the first (that I am certainly aware of) in the West to diagnose the problems caused by bad habits and a lack of attention.

Among many other famous aspects of his great psychological work, James coined what is now an everyday phrase: stream of consciousness. He was deeply curious about how our waking experience could be used to shape our daily realities. As a philosopher, James is known as a Pragmatist (the chief reason he is one of my favorites), which focuses more on practical experience rather than theoretical or abstract ideas. So when he realized that our stream of consciousness could be nudged to develop better and better habits, he began to develop a philosophy around that idea.

And what better way to achieve this than by the willful use of attention. If we know how to rein it in and use it proactively, the  attention can be used to direct the stream of consciousness to what is most important in any given moment. Moreover, the long term effect of this mind training–something that has conclusively been demonstrated by neuroscience in the last twenty years–is an increased ability to focus as well as greater attentional stamina.

Why is this not something that is slowly taught to every single student starting Day One?

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So how can we can train students to maximize this ability? I believe the entry point into this mind-training is through meditation. The word meditation itself admittedly has baggage, because people hear the word and Buddhism automatically comes to mind (interestingly enough, Christianity had a very long and storied contemplative tradition that was de-emphasized during the Reformation and Enlightenment); my entry point to meditation ten years ago, however, was through the lens of the emerging neuroscience, yet tempered by my general skepticism with which I tend to approach most weighty claims. Like James, I realized that I had to become my own experiment. I had to live out the experience in order to see first hand if this could be beneficial.

As a Type A personality who always feels compelled to be moving, active, engaged, etc, asking me to sit down, close my eyes, and focus on my breath was an absolute insane idea. I distinctly recall trying to make it through one cycle of deep breathing and by the second inhalation my mind exploded with thoughts: I can’t do this! I’m wasting time! I have to send that email! What’s for lunch? How much longer?, and on and on. If you’ve ever tried meditation, I’m confident you had a similar experience. But that first step has taken me on journey I never would have expected or believed had you told me I would be this person a decade later.

The inward focus that meditation requires effectively asks us to step into that stream of consciousness, and one of the most interesting things I have learned and would be so beneficial to every child in the world is that you are not your thoughts. Here’s how I pitch it to students:

We all have a voice in our heads, right?

But sometimes it can be more than one voice, right?

And when there’s more than one voice, it’s usually a debate of some kind, so which voice is the real you?

*Most students are smiling, laughing, or deep in thought by this point, as most human beings have never had their attention consciously directed to the interior experience of their minds*

FINAL QUESTION: WHO OR WHAT IS WATCHING THESE VOICES ARGUE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

One of the most important discoveries that William James intuited through his own experience is that the thoughts are not consciousness itself. Setting aside the more metaphysical dimensions of what the consciousness may or may not be (we still cannot pin down physical correlates to consciousness with brain function at this point, but it would seem to be an emergent property of the entire neural network), we can at least use this simple set of questions to pierce the illusion of thoughts-as-consciousness and understand the metaphor of the stream that James was using in his psychological framework. Consciousness is always there, flowing like a stream; some times it is calm, some times it is raging torrent that is overflowing with a powerful emotion such as anger. Thoughts and emotional states are like rocks being thrown into the river, some of which are large enough to divert its flow and carry us off in a new direction*. The trick is to realize that, through mind training, we can better control the stream, so to speak, because the more meditation wears down the identification of consciousness with the thoughts themselves, the more we realize we have the power to choose and cultivate the thoughts that will benefit ourselves and each other.

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The ultimate goal of any education should be to produce lucid yet malleable minds that are able to keep pace with the coming cultural and technological change. Education should focus on the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, or human flourishing. We should be teaching our students first and foremost how to navigate their daily experiences by providing the mental tools that have been scientifically proven to: 1) decrease stress and anxiety; 2) increase mental acuity, focus, and attentional stamina; 3) enhanced executive functioning, with great access to fluid intelligence/working memory; 4) improved well-being in the form of a strengthened immune system, better emotional regulation/impulse control, and an increase in pro-social behaviors.

Who would not want this to be part and parcel of every child’s education in preparation for life? Is the goal not to produce human beings who have the capacity and freedom of thought that results in lateral, critical and creative thinking that will produce innovative solutions to our most vexing problems? Because I guarantee training children to fill in bubble sheets all the time will not get us there. While meditation should be the foundation, ideally each level would focus on different aspects of education:

Elementary: constructive play for the earliest ages with a focus on communication and collaboration. This seems to be the critical ages at which the innate curiosity and creativity are ground out of children in the name of the factory model. Scrap standards based learning and go back to holistic, content-rich thematic units that provide the basic building blocks of our world, with a focus on literacy across all curricula.

Middle: continued emphasis on relationship building and empathy, while allow students to explore ideas within generalized domains that they may find personally interesting. Provide more robust project-based learning that allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of the world in various ways, especially through demonstrations to further enhance communication abilities.

High: beginning of specialization for those who demonstrate the aptitude and desire to focus on a particular path in life. For those who are still unsure, a continued open exploration of topics of any choice with continued emphasis on producing evidence of learning and problem solving in novel ways.

These are only some ideas about how our education system could be radically altered for the better if there were the political and cultural will to do so. As it is now, our system fails a great many students. If you have read this longer piece to the end, thank you for taking the time and interest in thinking about these things. I honestly believe, as nearly all teachers do, that being successful at this craft is really all about our relationships with the students. My meditation practice has helped me bring a palpable presence into my room each and every day, and I do my best to infuse that space with love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience, five of the key values that motivate my life and with which I feed my mind thoughts on these subjects every day.

May you have a wonderful year with your students!

P.S. – I realize this piece is a little light on sources/links, but it’s only because in the ten years I have been meditating I have had a love affair with neuroscience. On the low end, I would venture to guess that in that same decade I have read at least 50 books on either the brain, meditation, or how the latter impacts the former. And I still continue to read at least 3-5 books on these topics every year.

So have a piqued your curiosity about possibly beginning your own meditation practice? I hope so. If you are interested, here are some essential resources that I recommend to others with some frequency.

Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World – written by Oxford professor Mark Williams and award winning journalist Danny Penman, the book is written as an 8-week course of MBCT, or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. They provide all the rudiments of basic mindfulness meditation while reviewing much of the basic neuroscience that speaks to the efficacy of these mind training practices. Even 10 minutes per day in as little as 8 weeks will create both functional and structural changes in the brain. The associated website with a few guided meditations can be found at franticworld.com.

Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment–and Your Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn was a practicing Zen Buddhist in the 1970s who understood the power of meditation; he was also a physician working with terminally ill cancer patients at UMass General, so he developed what is now commonly referred to as MBSR, or “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” to help his dying patients make the best of their end of life experiences. This book is best listened to rather than read, as the audio version contains several guided meditations.

Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity – For those of you who may be interested in the more traditional, spiritual dimensions of meditation, B. Alan Wallace’s text is a wonderful blend of the science behind the brain, various meditative practices, as well as a history of how meditation developed within two different spiritual contexts of the East and West.

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion – This is an excellent read for those who are agnostic or atheist. Regardless of how much I try to share the power of meditation through neuroscience, a few friends still write it off as religious mumbo-jumbo no matter how many fMRI scans I show them or information I quote from the many books I’ve read. Sam Harris, though, is both a neuroscientist and an atheist, so his book, which is both a personal exploration of how his own meditation practice developed as well as the neuroscience explaining the changes to the brain, has won over a few of my irreligious friends.

And if you’re feeling really nerdy, you can watch my “Neuroscience of Mindfulness” presentation that I delivered at USF Health five years ago. Word had gotten around that I start my classes with a “Mindful Minute”, and I was invited to be a panelist discussing the use of mindfulness in education settings. Between professors, principals, psychologists, counselors, and social workers on the panel, I felt a bit out of my element, but it made for an engaging discussion after the presenters had delivered their respective sections. The PowerPoint is below the video as well.

The Neuroscience of Mindfulness v2 (PowerPoint I’m using in the video)

Basic-Mindfulness-Practices – Basic instructions for breath focused meditation either seated or lying down.

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