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While I was attending the Mind-Life conference in Washington D.C., I seemed different even to myself. Even though I spent hours in an auditorium seat listening or half-listening to scientists and educators discuss the possibilities of cultivating compassion, attention, and emotional regulation, I still felt rejuvenated. Somehow, all the talk about how other people could be happy was making me happy.
This was most apparent to me in the hour after I would leave the sessions. At 4:30 PM each day 1500 of us would file out of the auditorium and into the bright D.C. sunlight — the days were unseasonably warm that week and I spent one lunch hour basking in the warm of an 80 degree day. As I blinked in the bright light, I headed north on 17th street towards my hotel. The world looked different than it had that morning at 8 AM when I had walked to the conference. Colors seemed brighter, and I seemed more attentive to other human beings and objects. I stopped and noticed things that I would have walked right by before.
On the first day, as I walked leisurely back to the hotel, I noticed a man leaning against the wrought iron railing that surrounded a park statute. On other days, I might have seen that, but I might not have seen what I saw next. His had was stretched outwards to the grass, and I saw a squirrel walk towards him, place his tiny squirrel hands around the man’s finger, and bite a peanut. And, without hesitation, without my usual shyness, I stopped and said, “Do you feed them all the time?”
“Oh, sure.” He reached down into a black knapsack. “They come to me all the time.” He leaned forward and another squirrel rushed towards him, grabbed a peanut, and headed to a grassy patch at the base of statue. “The young ones won’t come to you, because they’re afraid of people. But the old ones come up all the time. If you’re afraid though, they won’t come to you.” And he held out a peanut to me. “Go ahead.”
I took one, kneeled down towards the grass, and held it out. A squirrel rushed towards me, and I felt his tiny paws with their tiny individual fingers grasp my finger, while he put the peanut in his mouth. I gave a small shriek. “Squirrel hands!” They have such tiny fingers, and I could feel each one as if it was my own. I stayed for another 15 minutes or so while we handed out peanuts and watched the squirrels shell them and eat the peanuts, or run to bury them in patches of grass. I introduced myself to the man, gave him my name, he gave me his, and we shook hands. As I walked away, and wished him a good day, he shouted back to him, “Hey! This one is saying ‘good-bye’.” And sure enough there was a female squirrel on her hind legs, paws in the air. I realized, soon after, she was really begging for another peanut.
That was the life at the conference, and then there’s the one I live now. The one that finds me typing this on my computer in a dark office early in the morning. There’s that life. The life where dishes are dirty in the sink, where dust collects forlornly in the corners of the apartment, and where a student drowses in the back of the classroom, his head leaning on the whiteboard, his mouth open slightly. There’s that life: flawed, imperfect, annoying. In Constitution Hall, where we sat for last week’s conference, even the most optimistic teacher and scientist could often think, “Compassion is all fine and good, but what does this mean for what I really do?”
And as I sit here, another stack of papers beside me, and another afternoon of teaching ahead of me, I wonder the same thing. “What does this all really mean?”
In the end, I have no answers. Sometimes I think that the classes feel slightly different if only because I am slightly different, because I have had a few days away thinking, plotting, about how others (and I?) could be happier. In class, the usual events occur. The students respond with wisecracks, the teachers bemoan the students, and the days have turned grey and cold.
I cannot say now that today will be magical, like feeding peanuts to squirrels, but I also cannot say that it will be inevitably flawed. I cannot that that they or I are definitely doomed to despair, regret, unhappiness. And, if that is all that I have received — the doubt in the faith that all the world is doomed to tragedy — then I have received more than enough.
One of the best and worst things I heard on this second and last day of the conference was also one of the last things anyone said. Lee Schulman, commenting on recent research on teacher education, said “No one understands adequately that of all the forms of professional work, teaching is the most difficult.”
Can I get a hallelujah?
I needed someone outside of myself who neither works nor lives with me to say that. An objective researcher helps to confirm the feelings of exhaustion and frustration I often feel at the end of the day. So, it’s not just me. This is good news and probably the best news I heard at the conference. It is easy to think at the end of the day that my failures in teaching are my fault. Or, alternatively — and this is not helpful either — it’s easy to think it is the students’ fault. In the end, it is neither. Building a collaborative approach to teaching with the students is one way I hope to overcome what could be the inevitable burn-out that teachers experience.
The sessions continued the themes of the first day, but now the ideas seem to hold together more if only because we are hearing certain words repeated over and over again in tandem: compassion, social and emotional learning, neuroplasticity. It is various forms and combinations of those three words which, for me, hold the essence of this conference. The question became for me how do I cultivate feelings of compassion in my students so that they can use this skill — which it is, a skill rather than merely an inherent personality trait — to help themselves and others. The scientists and educators worked together to create a dialogue in which they can communicate about the same ideas with different languages and still comprehend each other. So, from the researchers we learn that students who can hold constant attention will learn more. That was obvious, but a student who can also regulate his or her emotions will also learn better. That was not so obvious. Emotional regulation was one of the more useful concepts offered by the panelists. If a person can regulate their emotions — regulate, not repress — it means he or she can deal skillfully with negative emotions and thereby create space for learning.
Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave one of the best overviews of this emotional self-regulation in regards to sympathy and empathy. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys. In watching this situation, she feels the same emotion as the rejected boy. This empathy may lead her to feel concern: sympathy. Sympathy overlaps compassion because it includes motivation to make the boy feel better. Empathy, however, does not always lead to concern. (This is when I felt myself strain forward in my seat.) If Isabella has been rejected once herself, Dr. Einsenberg continued, then when she feels the boy’s rejection she begins to remember her own experiences of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety. This becomes personal distress. Thus, a person becomes more focused on making themselves feel better rather the other person. With sympathy, focus is on the other; with personal distress, focus is on one’s self and alleviating the uncomfortable feeling. Choygam Trungpa calls this idiot compassion, and The Ven. Samu Sunim calls it grandmother zen. And I do it all the time.
As she spoke these words, I recognized myself. I recognized that when I often want to “help”others it is because their discomfort makes me uncomfortable and I want to feel comfortable again. This also explains why could be so pushy with advice and angry when people don’t take it. I need people to improve their lives, because it makes life easier for me. This, I realize, is decidedly not compassionate.
And His Holiness elaborated upon the levels of compassion recognized from the “buddhist view.” There are two levels of compassion, he offered. The first is biological compassion — we feel compassion towards others, but if they reject it or are not “nice” to us, we cannot offer it. As an example, an audience member had asked in questions sent to the panelists in writing, “How do I show compassion to students who call me vicious names?” This kind of compassion which is influenced by the others’ behavior is an example biological compassion. In contrast, there is “trained compassion” which is cultivated and not contingent on others’ acts, and this is the one we want to strengthen. His Holiness also added that we need a more “solid compassion irrespective of others,” and we don’t need religion. “It can be done through secularism.” At this moment, he interceded to stress another point: the purpose of the conference is not to have science be influenced by buddhism. “This is wrong,” he said. “We’re not here to prove next life — it is buddhist business. We never try to prove there is a god or heavens. This is none of our business. These are not universals. That is religion. What we are discussing is the potential to develop inner peace. We must remain strictly in the demarcation of secularism.” This was followed by a round of applause. An important point given that the audience members were mostly educators, scientists, policy-makers, and foundation directors and donors. He’s a shrewd one that Dalai Lama.
And even as I write all this, I realize I am creating a false impression. That these ideas as I summarize them were readily accessible at the conference. I had to concentrate hard for two days, and I have compressed my notes into a picture of a narrative with unity and coherence that, had you been there, you might not have felt yourself. In the end, this writing is a brief summary of what I could take away from a conference that at times left me fatigued from the effort to concentrate. The terminology could overwhelm me and I worked at understanding the definitions and the implications. In the end, I am left with questions. What does this mean for me? What would change in my teaching or life? What is compassionate action in a college classroom?
But, despite the unanswered questions, I came away with one really great story/joke told by Dr. Takao Hensch, a biologist. “There is an organism,” he said, “called a sea-squirt.” It is a tube-like organism at the bottom of the ocean, and it goes through a larval stage when it explores its surroundings until it finds a rock on which it can settle and it sticks itself there. At which point, he said, it ingests its own brain. “Sometimes I worry this is what happens when we grant tenure at universities.”
Big laughs from the audience.
And finally, there was one other good story from educator Linda Lantieri who asked if His Holiness had remembered a story from Gandhi’s Autobiography. In this story, she said, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi told the mother to bring the child back in two weeks. The mother returns in two weeks and Gandhi just gives him a lecture about eating sugar. The mother then asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?” And Ghandi replied, “Because two weeks ago when you asked I was still eating sugar.” Thus, we learned that the only real way to teach compassion is to embody it ourselves.
It is not in keeping for me to write about non-drumming topics on ChickDrummer. It wouldn’t make sense given the title of the blog. But in limiting the topics, I limit describing all the factors that go into my understanding of drumming and music. One of the influences in life and in music is my meditation practice. I have been a meditator since 2001 and I “taught” myself some basic principles of meditation from The Dummies Guide. Over the years, I have read and meditated more, and this week I am in Washington D.C. attending a conference titled “Educating the World Citizen for the 21st Century.” Panelists include neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives and H.H. Dalai Lama. For 6 hours a day for two days, I and about 1500 others have been hearing discussions about science, spirituality, and education.
I arrived in Washington D.C. excited but exhausted by a recent mini-reunion of friends from high school who flew in for a weekend in Chicago. I cooked omelets and french toast (“more butter, anyone?”) in a hotel suite and we ate, drank coffee, and strolled around the Lincoln Park Zoo. That time with my high school friends, it turns out, was a perfect preamble to a conference on education. The first day, in 2 sessions, panelists discussed the challenges of teaching young people. And throughout the day, I could not help but remember myself as a teenager. My time with my high school friends reminded me that late adolescence was confusing for me, just as it is for my students. The first session outlined the questions the conference panelists will tackle. What are the positive qualities that future citizens will need to respond to recent global challenges with compassion, wisdom, creativity, and skill? How do educators meet these challenges? And how can recent developments in neuroscience help?
Unlike a typical conference in which there are dozens or hundreds of concurrent sessions in conference hotel rooms, all 1500-2000 participants meet in Constitution Hall and listen to presentations by neuroscientists, contemplatives, and educators, who are then questioned by H.H. Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama’s critical intelligence has often been described, but we were able to witness it firsthand as he questioned Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist. Recent research on the brain has discovered two things: 1) the brain is “plastic” meaning it can respond to environmental factors and can change, and 2) the brain makes new cells to the last day of life — neurogenesis. In education, then, the question is: how do we capitalize on the brain’s plasticity? Davidson, in describing plasticity, offered research that suggested early intervention in the development of the brain is better, but it is never too late. The Dalai Lama paused and then asked: “Does this apply to dementia?” Davidson replied, “That’s a very good question.” The Dalai Lama asked a question so good that one scientist observed, “As usual, Your Holiness, you have created a whole new field of research.” The Dalai Lama’s question shows that he cannot only absorb scientific information readily, but he can move one step beyond and ask for the next possible application. His question is astute: if the brain can make new cells to the day we die, can we exploit this to aid those who suffer from dementia? In the end, Davidson said that they did not know if it applies to dementia. The reason being that studies are done with terminally ill patients with non-neurological diseases. They are injected with a chemical that can mark the new cells, and once they have died, the brains are studied. There is no way to study this in a non-invasive procedure. My guess is that a bunch of scientists are now going to try.
A presentation by Ronald Dahl, a scientist, expanded upon Davidson’s as he suggested that not only is the brain plastic, but at certain ages there is “unique plasticity.” Between the ages of 10 and 15, new interactions are being created by different mental systems. So, while puberty may be an emotionally and physically challenging time, it is also a time when motivation and passion are accelerated. “The skills to use control, effort, and attention to keep goals a part of behavior are strong at this time,” said Dahl. But this period between 10 and 15 also has many challenges; the body has entered puberty, but the prefront cortex has not fully developed so the necessary cognitive processes are not yet in place. The brain is not mature just when we need reason to calm our troubled teenage souls. “This is a precarious time,” said Dahl,”and increases in mortality have to do with this imbalance.” And that was one of the stunning statistics of this conference offered by Davidson. When we compare the 10 year period before adolescence (ages 4-14) with the next ten years (15-25), there is a 300% increase in mortality. The increase in deaths is attributed to factors such as violence, drug abuse, and drunk driving. Translation: being a puberty-driven teenager could kill you.
So, day one of this conference has brought some revelations. Your brain will grow until you die. You are not stuck in your life. And if you survived the high school years in one piece, you’ve won half the battle. In the end, this conference and the findings of researchers has everything to do with why I became a drummer at 37. I and my brain needed the stimulation that drumming gave me. When I learned how to play a drumset, I built new neural pathways. It helped with depression, anxiety, and ennui. I also became more physically dextrous. My right and my left foot can play different rooms: eighth notes on the right, quarter or whole notes on the left foot. This desire to drum towards the end of a long tour of graduate school helped me complete my studies. I don’t think I could have finished my doctorate if I had not started drumming. My plastic brain made it possible. Thank you, brain.
Stay tuned…day two of the conference is tomorrow.