Saturday, May 6, 2017

Inspirational Quote – May 6, 2017

“As I declutter my life, I free myself to answer the calling of my soul.”

I don’t know about you but this certainly strikes a chord with me. It took me a lot of years to actually realize I needed to declutter my life, not just of material things, but old outdated beliefs/ideas and, to be honest, certain people too. I’m not saying it was easy, because it wasn’t, but a very gradual “weeding” process until bit by bit I began to feel less encumbered and weighed down. As this “weeding” progressed I began to experience a spiritual awakening which, as time has gone by, has brought me new friends, enlightening experiences, unending opportunities to learn more about what I feel is my calling, and a purpose to my life. It has taken me a while but I am gradually getting there and believe my soul has breathed a sigh of relief. If you haven’t already, why don’t you try “decluttering” and see what happens? I think you will be surprised by the results.

Belonging Creates & Undoes Us Both

Padraig O Tuama is a poet, theologian, and extraordinary healer in our world of fracture. He leads the Corrymeela community of Northern Ireland, a place that has offered refuge since the violent division that defined that country until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And Padraig and Corrymeela extend a quiet, generative, and joyful force far beyond their northern coast to people around the world. "Over cups of tea, and over the experience of bringing people together," Padraig says, it becomes possible "to talk with each other and be in the same room with the people we talk about." Here he discusses belonging and the power of language on OnBeing.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Inspirational Quote – May 5, 2017

“Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we are peaceful, life will be peaceful.”

We are motivated by energy and this is what drives us every day of our lives, in everything we do and quite rightly so or we’d never get anything done. However, there’s energy and there’s frantic energy! If we are frantic all the time, sure, we get things done quickly and probably appear to accomplish more in a shorter period of time, but let’s look at this realistically. Allowing ourselves to be totally driven by an out of control, impetuous, unstructured, unimpeded energy exposes us to that feeling within us, and being driven by this. It would make more sense, wouldn’t it, to let our energy work for us in a calm, focused, straightforward way enabling us to go through our days more peacefully which, let’s face it, is the only way to go.

Peak Performance: Lessons in Leadership from Mountain Guides

Leadership is needed in times of upheaval and transition -- but what are the qualities it takes to be an effective leader and a positive influence? Christopher I. Maxwell of the Wharton Center for Leadership delves into this question in an interview. In it he discusses his book, "Lead Like a Guide: How World Class Mountain Guides Inspire Us to Be Better Leaders." Maxwell interviewed mountain guides all over the world and found that most successful guides embody six essential leadership traits that can be translated to the world of business, or any realm of life where leadership is needed. While many misunderstand leadership to be leading others forward by direction, mountain guides understand that it is far better to help others discover their own power to overcome great obstacles. Learn how empowering others can help you be an agent for change in your work and in the world.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

How to Stay Empathic Without Suffering So Much

By Amy L. Eva

Here are four steps to transform your empathic distress into a healthier, more helpful, and more sustainable form of empathy.

What happens when we feel empathy for another person? What are you feeling when that chronically anxious student sinks further into his chair or your teenage girl sobs through her closed bedroom door?
Empathy, or the capacity to “feel with” and share others’ emotions, can be a beautiful gift that connects us with each other. Yet it can also feel heart-wrenching and even unbearable at times. Researchers tell us that our initial empathic responses can shift in one of two directions—toward empathic distress or empathic concern.
Empathic distress, associated with negative feelings, can lead to withdrawal, poor health, and burnout. Empathic concern, on the other hand, can lead to positive feelings, good health, and the desire to help.
Empathic concern, with its focus on others, can motivate us to relieve another person’s suffering, yet empathic distress can leave us trapped in our own suffering because it is a more self-focused response—an emotional tailspin of sorts.
If you frequently experience distress when you empathize with someone else, there is a biological basis for your heartache. A review of multiple brain imaging studies tells us that the person directly experiencing pain and the person empathizing with that pain can share very similar brain activation patterns.
However, when you experience empathic concern, you aren’t necessarily sharing the same painful feelings as the other person (e.g., sadness or fear). In fact, you may also be quite aware that you are distinct and different from the suffering person near you.
So, how can you protect yourself from emotional distress and differentiate from the suffering student or friend or family member in your life without becoming indifferent to that person? How can you nurture empathic concern and better navigate empathic distress? Here are some strategies.

1. Check in with yourself

You see the fearful child in your classroom overwhelmed by her emotions again. Your heart is over there across the room with her, and you’re at a loss, emotionally. The trouble? In that state, you can’t help her.
This is what researchers Robin Stern and Diana Divecha call the “empathy trap.” When you notice yourself feeling distressed by someone else’s struggle, it’s worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking yourself exactly what you are feeling. What do you need right now? When and how might you respond to this child?
Those of us in the helping professions need to foster this level of conscious self-awareness on a regular basis. I’ve talked with many teachers who often feel as if their emotional energy is dispersed throughout their classroom, and they aren’t sure where to find themselves in the process.
There is a reason why we all keep using the oxygen mask analogy. It’s critical—not selfish—to check your own mask first (i.e., “Do I have what I need to move forward? Have I taken a deep breath and sensed my feet on the ground? Am I calm, composed, and able to respond thoughtfully?”). Otherwise, you may perpetuate feelings of distress and be unable to reach out with genuine empathic concern in the first place.

2. Question your thoughts and feelings

If you are navigating particularly distressful feelings, which are inevitably intertwined with thoughts and behaviors, consider one of the most research-based strategies for managing difficult emotions: cognitive reappraisal.
This involves changing your interpretation of a situation or event. It can help to lessen both emotional and physical feelings of anxiety, and it can also be used to reduce depression after stressful experiences.
If you are empathizing with a child in pain (or just feeling frustration, fear, or sadness), you can ask yourself a series of questions, whether in that moment or later in the day:
  • What is the situation that triggered me?
  • What am I thinking or imagining?
  • What does this thought make me feel?
  • What makes me think the thought is true or accurate?
  • What makes me think the thought is not true or, at least, not completely true?
  • Is there another way to look at this? If so, what is it?
  • Is there an action I might choose to take right now?
By regularly questioning your thinking in a structured way, you can begin to shift your perspective, tone down distressful feelings, and ultimately respond more thoughtfully to your students and colleagues.

3. Practice verbalizing your feelings

Another strategy to consider is simply naming your feelings with other trusted friends or colleagues.
In a recent study of health care professionals who received Non-Violent Communication (NVC) training, those who more frequently expressed their feelings during the training saw a reduction in empathic distress three months afterward.
Non-violent communication processes focus on expressing and receiving empathy for feelings and basic human needs, deeply listening to one another, and drawing on our innate capacity for compassion and connection. Participants in this study focused on expressing and responding to strong emotions like frustration and anger while they discussed real communication challenges at work. Facilitators provided tools and prompts for discussions while modeling how to engage in non-violent communication.
Participants who gave more clear and simple statements of feeling (e.g. “I feel satisfied/content/glad/happy” or “I feel disappointed/irritated/distressed/under pressure”), recorded and counted by researchers during group discussions, were also better able to manage work stressors later, when compared to a control group with no communication training.
Researchers speculate that NVC training may reduce empathic distress because it helps people to distance themselves from their emotions. If you can identify, name, and accept an emotion (whether out loud or in your mind), the emotion may lose some of its intensity.

4. Nurture a concerned, compassionate response

Perhaps more than non-violent communication training, compassion training proves to be helpful in reducing empathic distress. Researchers tell us that we experience empathic concern and compassion similarly and that both can lead us to help others—unlike empathic distress. Compassion includes both concern for another’s suffering along with a desire to help alleviate that suffering.
An eight-week compassion course I took last year sensitized me to my experience of empathic distress (particularly as a mom) and helped me to hold my feelings of distress while practicing the skill of differentiating myself from my child. I have ultimately been able to reach out to my child and my students from a place of greater strength since then. It’s not always easy, but the meditations at the heart of compassion training have helped me to regularly practice a few key skills: observing my empathic feelings, visualizing myself as distinct from the suffering person I care about, and sending concern and good feelings outward. 

Compassion training often features “loving-kindness” meditation, where you extend feelings of warmth and care toward yourself, a close person, a neutral person, a person in difficulty, and a complete stranger. Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation enhances our ability to respond compassionately to the distress of other people. There is also a more specialized compassion meditation. Finally, Stanford’s eight-week Compassion Cultivation Training focuses on developing empathic concern, compassion, and kindness for yourself and others through mindfulness practices (like the ones above), as well as discussions and activities that draw on psychology and compassion research.
There are tools at our disposal to help us navigate difficult emotions and emerge with a greater capacity to be present and helpful to our students, family, and friends. By checking in with ourselves, questioning our thoughts and feelings, verbalizing our feelings, and nurturing compassionate concern through mindfulness practices, we can become more resilient at work and at home.

Inspirational Quote – May 4, 2017

“When I accept myself, I am freed from the burden of needing you to accept me.”

Accepting ourselves means being happy and confident that we know who we are and what we, not only want from life, but what we are prepared to give to life. We are realistic about our imperfections and shortcomings, but feel these are just something everybody has to be a balanced human being. This realization also enables us to be free from the restrictions others may attempt to impose on us. However, not all of us are this fortunate, perhaps through another’s interventions or actions, to be able to do this. The first step to being free to be who you are, is to be aware and admit that you are NOT free and consequently take the steps you need to in order to rectify this.

Graduation: A Song & Speech for the Ages

Just in time for the millions of students around the world preparing for the milestone of graduation, comes this powerful music video! Written by be-the-change rapper Nimo Patel in India and animated by the French animators 'Superfruit Collective', it features a chorus of students from the Philippines, and excerpts from a graduation speech in America by ServiceSpace founder Nipun Mehta -- a true global labor-of-love collaboration! Whether or not you are graduating this year, the profound messages of this song, the catchy tune, compelling animation, and the energy behind it are bound to lift your day. Included here are Nimo's lyrics and the complete text of Nipun's graduation speech that went viral some years ago.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What Happens in a Child’s Brain When They Learn to Empathize?

By Summer Allen

A new study explores what brain changes happen when children start to think about other people’s thoughts.

A remarkable milestone occurs in children around their fourth birthdays: They learn that other people can have different thoughts than they do. A recent study is the first to examine the specific brain changes associated with this developmental breakthrough.
The new study specifically explored the brain changes that occur when a child is able to recognize that another person believes something that the child knows is false. Once children gain this ability, they can better predict other people’s behavior and modify their own—like denying a wrongdoing that Mom didn’t see or helping out a friend who doesn’t know the rules of kickball. 
Recognizing the false beliefs of others is a key step in developing what psychologists call a theory of mind, the understanding that other people may have different thoughts, beliefs, intentions, or perspectives.
“Theory of Mind constitutes a key role for complex interaction between human individuals, including behaviors such as cooperation, social communication, and morality,” write Charlotte Grosse Wiesmann, Jan Schreiber, Tania Singer, Nikolaus Steinbeis, and Angela D. Friederici of Leiden University and the Max Planck Institute in their Nature Communications paper about the study.
To look for the brain changes that may underlie a child’s development of a theory of mind, Grosse Wiesmann and colleagues scanned the brains of 43 three- and four-year-old children using a technique called diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI), which can detect the structure and organization of white matter within the brain.
White matter is made up of nerve fibers that transmit messages throughout the brain. It is white because it contains a fatty substance called myelin that wraps around the nerve fibers, acting as an insulator to speed up neuronal messages. Increases in myelination correlate closely with various developmental milestones, but the growth of white matter pathways involved in theory of mind had not been explored in detail prior to this study.
In addition to undergoing MRI scanning, the preschoolers also performed two tasks that tested their ability to think about the beliefs of others.
In the first task, the child and a mouse puppet were shown an empty box and a little bag containing a piece of candy. After the mouse left the room, the experimenter moved the candy from the bag to the box. When the mouse reentered the room, the child was asked questions about what the mouse would think about the location of the candy. Most three year olds said that the mouse thought the candy was in the box, whereas the four year olds were more likely to realize that the mouse would think the candy was still in the bag.
For the other task, the child was shown a chocolate box that contained pencils. When a mouse puppet (who had been outside) entered the room and encountered the closed box, the child was asked what the mouse would think the box contained. Again, most three year olds assumed the mouse knew what they knew. They said that the mouse believed that the box contained pencils. The four year olds, however, were more likely to realize that the mouse would believe that the chocolate box contained chocolates.
So what was different in the brains of the four year olds that allowed them to put themselves in the mouse’s shoes, so to speak?
The researchers discovered that maturation of the white matter fibers in a brain structure called the arcuate fascicle was specifically linked to the children’s ability to recognize the mouse’s thoughts, but not to other co-developing cognitive skills (which were tested via other tasks). These fibers connect parts of the temporal lobe, which is involved in processing other people’s mental states in adults, with the medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the frontal lobe that processes abstract and hierarchical thinking.
“Our findings show that the emergence of [theory of mind] is related to the maturation of core belief processing regions and their connection to the prefrontal cortex,” write the authors.
While the researchers hypothesize that connecting these two areas allows a child to build a mental representation of others’ beliefs, future work will need to examine the extent to which this relationship is causal. One way to do this could be to scan the same children multiple times to see whether development of the arcuate fascicle in an individual child predates their ability to recognize others’ false beliefs.
Intriguingly, the authors note that non-human primates have very weak arcuate fascicles. Great apes, like younger human toddlers, can pass some false-belief tasks, but they seem to lack the ability to form more explicit mental representations of others’ false beliefs. This study may shine light on why, at least on a neural level. 
Indeed, theory of mind underlies some of the best elements of humanity. Our ability to show compassion and forgiveness, to cooperate and work towards common goals, and to undertake moral reasoning about what is right and wrong are all greatly expanded by our capacity to conceptualize how other people think and feel. This study provides new insights into how human brain development sets the stage for these essential social skills and virtues.

Inspirational Quote – May 3, 2017

“Breathing in, I send myself love. Breathing out, I send love to someone else who needs it.”

Wonderful isn’t it? Breathing in we send ourselves life-giving oxygen, which we don’t often stop to think about do we? We just do it as it comes to us as naturally as breathing, if you know what I mean? We are continually nourishing our life-force if you like. Also, what if we held the intent that every time we breathed out we were able to send love to someone in need of it. Wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to send out healing and restorative love with each breath so, not only nourishing us, but also those who need it most? Wonderful!

Robert Bengston: Inspiration Campaign

In 2012 artist Robert Bengston started a new participatory, people-powered project, Inspiration Campaign, that involves beautiful, empowering, nothing-for-sale advertising. The aim was to inspire the human spirit, and to transform mainstream media into a source of inspiration. The campaign uses crowd-funding to run uplifting, crowd-sourced messages on traditional physical advertising spaces. Messages like, "Humankind. Be both." "You belong." "Love first." Over the last four years the campaign has led to more than 14 million media impressions. Read more about Bengston's journey and creative vision.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How One School is Teaching Empathy After the Election

By Michael Fisher

The story of a group of sixth graders learning to bridge political divides after the U.S. election.

I teach at the Millennium School, a new independent middle school located in the heart of San Francisco. Mindfulness and compassion are essential parts of our curriculum.
Yet on November 9th—the day after the presidential election—the sixth-grade classroom I walked into was anything but calm or kind.
Students from the Millennium School in San FranciscoStudents from the Millennium School in San Francisco
What I noticed that morning was more troubling than understandable shock, anger, or confusion. In chorus with half the nation, our students voiced sentiments that had been reverberating across the U.S. for months, albeit from different political vantage points. In their attempts to make sense of the election, I heard enmity, callousness, even what struck me as the blithe onset of not-quite-innocent hatred. 

Taking this in, I felt immense sadness. The room appeared to be a splintered microcosm of the country as a whole. In progressive circles, it is common to decry the hatred, bigotry, and intolerance underlying much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Here was the opposite side of that same coin.
Evidently, political divisiveness fuels dehumanizing portraits of distant others regardless of ideology. At that time, it had become passingly acceptable to hope for the death of the president-elect, or to write off one’s fellow citizens as sub-human. How else would sixth graders feel comfortable expressing these sentiments in a progressive school in one of America’s most progressive cities?
Following an impulse to improvise, I Googled the electoral map and put the image up for students to see. “What do you notice here?” I asked in a near panic. “Does anyone know any Trump supporters?”
A few students said yes. Guardedly at first, they began to discuss some of the reasons people might have voted for Trump. We talked about the differences between Red and Blue states, and why the electoral map looked the way it did.
“This is an alternative to blaming and being afraid,” I said, more didactically than I might have. “You don’t have to agree with someone to try to understand them.” They knew this intuitively. It just took some work to get there.
That very afternoon over lunch, I met with my co-teacher, Stephen Lessard, to chart a new course for the students. At the Millennium School, students engage in interdisciplinary Quests that center on broad, debatable questions. Each four- to seven-week term includes two simultaneous Quests, which we distinguish as Humanities and STEM.
Up until Election Day, students in Humanities had been asking “Do Our Voices Matter?” Throughout the fall, I was consistently impressed by their ability to examine complex political questions from multiple points of view. Regular mindfulness practice clearly helped hone their academic skills.
But on that day, it was clear to us that we needed a new Quest. It centered on a simple question: “Can I Get to Empathy?”
Stephen and I began with the intention to enhance our students’ awareness of the difficulty of relating to others who are different from ourselves. What we witnessed over the next several weeks was a transformation that may yet be possible in the world beyond our classroom.

A quest toward empathy

Feeling an obligation to define our terms, we asked students to first distinguish empathy from sympathy. Empathy (“feeling into”), they decided, is like putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while sympathy (“feeling with”) means feeling bad for them. The distinction is not perfect, but the working definition allowed us to begin investigating our empathic capacities and the barriers that stand in the way.
According to the GGSC, “Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”
The former, known as affective empathy, is more controversial than the latter, known as cognitive empathy. The psychologist and cognitive scientist Paul Bloom has argued recently that an excess of affective empathy can lead to what he calls “empathetic distress,” where rational deliberation and sound decision-making are impaired by too much feeling of other people’s emotions.
What this critique misses, however, are the important ways in which both kinds of empathy can be balanced to widen our perspectives of diverse others. As Arlie Hochschild writes in her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, the disciplined practice of listening and feeling into others’ experience does not cede ground on moral and ethical principles. Instead, it contributes to understanding the “deep stories” at the root of all experience in our shared world, enabling deeper conversation, engagement, and, ultimately, solidarity.
The value of this approach was self-evident as Millennium sixth graders watched clips of the movie Ruby Bridges. The film tells the story of the first African-American first grader to join a white elementary school in 1960 New Orleans. As students inhabited multiple points of view within this complex social context, they saw more clearly why different characters on both sides of the integration debate felt and argued the way they did.
With a handout, we analyzed diverse characters’ feelings and motives, the obstacles they faced, and the strategies they used for overcoming them. We discussed some of the moral and political issues behind school integration in the American South—and we focused on the role of feelings apart from political context.
With the sound turned off (this was Stephen’s brilliant idea), we reviewed several key segments of the film to analyze emotions in facial expressions. Early on, Ruby’s mother looks terrified as she sees a news clip of white protestors opposing integration on television. Later, a white mother’s anger is revealed as subtly similar in its underlying fear and anguish.
Our sixth graders got it. Regardless of their beliefs or roles in the social conflict, these were all human beings. Getting to empathy allowed us to understand where each character was coming from, which lent a fuller appreciation of the complexity they were facing. This did not absolve the injustice of segregation. It clarified the deep stories underlying it.
A more profound reckoning may have come when we examined a more current political conflict. Just before the election, CNN’s Van Jones traveled to Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, a historic site of American division, to talk to several groups of voters. The resulting conversations, uploaded as episodes 1-3 of “The Messy Truth,” offer a warning to a nation beset by bitterness, mistrust, and hostility.
“I’m worried,” Jones says as he introduces himself to a living room full of Trump supporters. “So are we,” a voice responds. This underlying symmetry points to an oft-overlooked agreement between the two sides in the so-called culture war. Yet without a willingness to listen and understand the other, there is no chance for them to hear and heal.
At first, Millennium students were reactive and judgmental as they watched Trump supporters explain themselves. Several called out at the screen to loudly voice their disagreement. As we repeated the same experiment of analyzing face work, however, the timbre of their engagement changed.
The key scene we analyzed—first with sound, then without—shows a woman break down as she relays her experience of being attacked by a close friend on social media for her political views. “It broke my heart,” she says through tears.
As we watched without volume, her pain is undeniable. This time students responded with care, compassion, and more nuanced understanding. They got to empathy by listening more deeply. Upon reflection, many saw that what stood in the way initially was their own self-righteousness.
This same approach to listening and understanding extended through our group reading of The Julian Chapter, part of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder series told from the perspective of a school bully. Students kept a running log of their feelings toward the main character as they read, then led several discussions around whether it’s possible to feel empathy for a bully.
Toward the end of the term, Stephen and I each led a loving-kindness meditation. Our hope was that students would discover the outer bounds of who they can feel compassion for. 
As they focused on sending love and kindness to a difficult person in their lives, many landed on their own personal obstacles, which we encouraged them to stay with and experience fully. After this exercise, each student wrote a letter to their difficult person as an experiment in emotional bridge building. I’m not sure if anyone chose to send theirs.
The Quest’s final project was a longer essay modeled on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. Our question was, “What have you come to believe about empathy?” Students approached this in a variety of ways, and one recurrent theme was the need for kindness and respect for others who are different from ourselves.
The deep well of compassion that flows through these essays is touching. And one in particular stands out for its eloquence.
I asked Millennium student Ben Hobson if I could quote him at length, and his essay is a fitting note to end on. It leaves me wondering what might be possible if more Americans can learn to model the wisdom of this single sixth grader:
Empathy is so important. Whether it’s helping someone who’s going through a hard time, or understanding. Empathy is the most important skill you can practice. It will allow you to become happier the more you practice.      
Personally, I am definitely not a Trump supporter. I believe in equal rights for black people and women, and I do not think that America should build a wall on the border of Mexico and the U.S.
It may sound weird, but I still have empathy for Trump supporters. I say this because everyone has their own opinions, and everyone’s opinions should be respected.
Everyone’s opinions should have equal power. Everyone’s opinions are determined by what other people have convinced/influenced them to think.
I think that all opinions have an equal right to be heard, whether they are Donald Trump votes, or thinking jumping off a cliff is a good idea.

The thing is, we think that some things are wrong, and it makes sense that they are wrong. But maybe to others, it makes sense so much to them that it is right.
Maybe, our whole idea of what is right and what is wrong is wrong. 
My main idea I am trying to convey in this essay, is that empathy is quite different than agreeing with someone.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another being. Empathy, at its simplest, is the awareness of the feelings and emotions of other people. It is a key element of emotional intelligence, the link between self and others, because it is how we as individuals understand what others are experiencing as if we were feeling it ourselves.
Agreeing is to have the same opinion about something with someone. These are vastly different. I have empathy for Trump supporters not because I am one, but because I understand their position. This is possible…. You can have empathy for someone, without having to agree with all of their opinions.