What it is at Heart and What is on the Surface Can Be Very Different
Guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking
Teachers know just how traumatized both adults and children have felt this past year, with all of the political tension and ongoing COVID crisis. As we hope for a more positive year ahead, mindfulness can be the first step in letting go of pain, but it has to be used in a trusting space, with awareness of what we as teachers and our students might be facing.
A trauma is an incapacitating form of stress. Stress by itself can be helpful or harmful. But when it is deep and we can’t integrate or face it, it can become traumatic. The DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,defines a traumatic event as exposure to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”
In his book Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness, David Treleaven makes clear that this exposure can come in many ways, from directly experiencing or witnessing a trauma or from learning about what happened to a relative, loved one or close friend. Children are especially vulnerable. One in four children in the U. S. have experienced physical abuse, one in five sexual. Then we add a pandemic, political instability, and oppression, whether it be sexism or violence directed at one’s gender identity, race or religion, etc. and we have a huge number of people who have suffered from trauma. We have not just a coronavirus pandemic but a pandemic of extreme emotions like hate and a craving for revenge.
Teach Compassion and Turn the Classroom into A Compassionate Learning Community
Compassion can include but is more than empathy. It is close to kindness, with the added commitment to taking action to relieve the suffering of others as well as ourselves. It is one of humanity’s greatest strengths. And when it lives in us, the hurt lessens or disappears. In fact, practicing compassion is a way to skillfully let go of any hurt. By acting with compassion, we walk a bigger road and rediscover our strength.
Having students research compassion can be a way for them to teach themselves the benefits. A wonderful resource is the Greater Good Science Center.
Explore what emotion is and specifically what revenge is.
How do we as teachers explore negative or hostile feelings if they arise in class, either online or with in-person instruction, considering the time restraints, stress, degree of trauma, and unique circumstances we face today?
A useful guideline especially on-line is be short and simple, with processing afterwards and weaving the practice into the subject matter of the day. Before introducing any type of meditation or visualization to your students, we must first practice several times by ourselves and then imagine how specific students would feel doing this type of practice. Provide choices in all aspects of practice, including postures, whether we keep our eyes open or closed, etc.
Start with asking questions to stimulate engagement and intellectual curiosity. What is emotion? Feeling? How do you know what you feel? Why have emotions? Work on increasing self-understanding and our ability to calm mind and body and focus through mindfulness. We strengthen ourselves and our students with visualizations, compassion, and other exercises, then apply those practices to better understand the person and situation that hurt us, and how to respond in the most healing fashion.
A student once asked me what to do about his “feeling” he needed to take revenge on a classmate. He obsessed over it. Young people can be especially vulnerable to this emotion, as they are so aware and sensitive to how others treat them
I told him that it was a difficult question, but like any emotion, the inner push or craving for revenge can seem like it is one humongous stone in our gut that we can’t handle. But it is not one thing and not just a feeling. It is composed of many components that can be broken down so we can handle them.
What is emotion? Daniel Siegel makes clear emotion is not just feeling. One purpose of emotion is to tag stimuli with value so we know how to think and act. There are phases in the process of constructing emotion. The first phase is jolting the system to pay attention, what he calls the “initial orienting response.” The second is “elaborative appraisal,” which includes labeling stimuli as good or bad, dangerous or pleasing. We begin to construct meaning and then prepare for action, to either approach or avoid something. This sets up the third step, when our experience differentiates further into categorical emotions like sadness, happiness, or fear. Memory and thoughts are added to feeling and sensation. Teaching about emotion, its uses and how it’s constructed is one of the most important subjects we could teach our students. In fact, it takes up most of my book on teaching compassionate critical thinking.
Revenge is a complex of emotions, like anger, hate, humiliation, fear and a sense of being threatened. According to Janne van Doorm, hate, anger, and desire for revenge are similar but have a different focus: “anger focuses on changing/restoring the unjust situation caused by another person, feelings of revenge focus on restoring the self, and hatred focuses on eliminating the hated person/group.”
Mindfulness and Self-Understanding
We start with only one-two minutes of mindfulness, to develop the awareness needed to sever the automatic linking of thought, sensation and feeling. We find mental and physical calm by sitting quietly, taking a few breaths, and if we’re ready, noticing one of the following. By saying we can notice we’re emphasizing our strength:
1) Sensations: Notice the feel of the breath, or what sensations are arising. Are the sensations strong or weak? And where in the body are they located?
2) Thoughts: thoughts and images come later in the internal process of constructing an emotion. They are the top layer of what feeling creates in us, often easier to notice, and not always comfortable to face. Simply notice what is there, breathe in and out, and move on.
3) Feelings: what exactly do we feel? Is there danger? Do we want to pay attention or turn away? Like, dislike, or feel neutral? Approach, avoid, or not care? We notice what we can in the moment so our mind becomes the act of noticing.
After noticing our thoughts, we could record them or free write. Writing could also be a choice we give students instead of mindfulness of breath or sensations, or for any of the following suggestions. We could turn the internal play or story into one dramatized on the page.
If the class is reading a story or novel that touches on the emotion, imagine how the outcome would have changed if the main character had acted in a different fashion.
Ask our self some questions. What actually happened? Why would this person do what they did? What did we just assume without proof? Do we feel physically threatened by this person? If so, who could be helpful to us? If not, who or what do we feel is threatened? We might write down our responses.
What thoughts, memories, images, stories do we tell ourselves? Revenge can be a play we enact in our mind, often with the characters involved speaking lines we have created for them instead of what they actually said themselves. We can fear not what they said as much as what we imagine they might say to others. And we picture ourselves doing something to make the other person regret or be sorry, so we can restore our image of ourselves.
We might believe our thoughts represent the truth and reveal what the future will or should be. But thoughts are mind being mind. Just as there are pine trees, swamps, beautiful buildings and decrepit ones, there can be all sorts of thoughts. The whole scenario of revenge could be a play we enact for an audience of one. We rehearse possible futures in order to feel powerful when we feel powerless. But in reality, each time we enact the play, it hurts. Thoughts reveal our state of heart and mind so we can study how we are hurting ourselves, how to let go of a behavior and replace it with something more nourishing.
The author Laura Hillenbrand wrote, in her book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, that imagining and seeking revenge keeps the hurt in us alive. “The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when their tormentors suffer.” (Laura Hillenbrand contracted COVID-19. Possibly due to suffering from other medical conditions, her case was particularly virulent. Meditation helped her through it. An interview with her might be inspiring to share with some students.)
If revenge is a sort of dependency, should we treat it as an addiction? James Kimmel Jr., lecturer in psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine describes how the brain of someone who carries a long-term grievance or who desires revenge is like the brain of someone locked into an addiction. When you hold onto a grievance and desire for revenge for a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined, the same neural circuitry is activated as taking a narcotic.
Kimmel says revenge is easily spread to others and describes pilot studies of interventions used to prevent violent retributive behavior. In the studies, people who had such grievances were asked to picture in their mind the people who hurt or offended them being put through imagined, highly realistic, or detailed trials. They found this decreased violent feelings and led to “a revised outlook, greater openness, and enhanced understanding of their own habits and inclinations.”
Actions of compassion and restorative justice are needed as well. We also need to ask ourselves: what is the difference between revenge and justice?
Incorporate lessons on how to heal from revenge, what is emotion, compassion, mindfulness into course material
Mindfulness and visualization can be used not just to create a trusting, more comfortable, cooperative classroom but actually teach lessons. You could visualize alternative endings to stories, how it was to live in a different time in history, or how to better structure a paragraph. And critical thinking is not just one moment’s activity but a whole process. To do it well, we must, after filling our mind with relevant examined details and perspectives, give ourselves a break, take a breath, sleep on it, take a walk, meditate. When we let the parts settle in our mind and heart, eventually we get quiet enough to feel and see the whole.
Build our own strength first. One way to do this is to visualize:
What does ‘strength’ mean? What does an emotionally and physically strong person look like? How do they act? Feel? Imagine feeling strong?
Do the same with:
‘Courage’ and ‘kindness’ and kindness to yourself.
How was the other person hurting when they hurt you?
They recognize, acknowledge, and learn from their pain to be kinder to others.
They acknowledge they hurt you and others, regret it, and wish you to feel better, possibly wish themselves to be forgiven.
What could we do further in response? After we are clearer about what actually occurred, we consider not just our hurt but the broader situation that gave birth to it, and the consequences of any possible actions. We also realize that some people are beyond our ability to help, so our responses might be more directed at others or ourselves than the person who hurt us.
The desire for revenge can exert a powerful and complex influence on our state of mind. It is especially compelling today, due to the pandemic and the divisiveness, anger, pain, and raw feeling engulfing so many of us. It can lock our thinking firmly on a target and send our energy speeding towards it, as if that target were the source of all our ills.
And like many emotions, what it is at its heart and what at the surface can be very different. If we don’t understand what’s at the heart, then whatever action we take in response will at best fall short; at worst, it will make our life even worse.
So, we must ask⎼ what is most important for us? To make the person who hurt us hurt in return, or to feel stronger in ourselves? Remember, the consequences of whatever we do might be totally different from what we imagine they will be.
By carefully and compassionately considering the intentions of others as well as our own actions, and truthfully examining our motivations, we have already become stronger, more aware, and increased the chances that whatever actions we take will be of benefit not only to ourselves but others.
And by easing student anxiety we decrease our own and make instruction easier on all concerned. We need to be kind to ourselves, share with other teachers, and keep in mind how important our work is.
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