Tag Archives: Learning

29 at Twenty-Nine

Happy birthday to me, a blog post for you!

Since this is the last year of my 20s, I thought I’d begin with a list of 29 things that comprise my current self and world understanding, things I’ve learned along the journey so far. These 29 things might not be objectively true (my evidence leans anecdotal) but they’re my present subjective reality. I’d love to hear your thoughts on areas of commonality and disagreement. What have you learned about the world?

Here’s what I know:

  1. The world is a beautiful place. It might not always seem so, but look around and you’ll find it.
  2. Despite being a beautiful place, the world is full of suffering. Look around and you’ll find it. Look inside and you’ll find it.
  3. People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They’ll hurt you, they’ll hurt themselves, and then they’ll do it all over again. And again. And again.
  4. People are afraid. They’re afraid of their own minds, of rejection, of failure, of pain. And then they act in ways that cause rejection, failure, and pain.
  5. As individuals, we have very little autonomy. We have very little choice. We are constrained in almost everything we do unless we purposely set ourselves up to do otherwise.
  6. People want to be recognized. They want to be heard, seen, and listened to.
  7. Young people, students, want to be recognized. They want to be heard, seen, and listened to. They want to be treated like people.
  8. Compassion is a continuous practice towards others and towards ourselves. Practicing compassion helps us to care for individuals as well as for our planet.
  9. We often talk about love as a feeling, but love is also an action. Act in ways that show love.
  10. Dropping expectations expands the possible. Experience what is rather than what you were hoping for.
  11. Inefficiency wastes much of our time. Ask for help so that you can spend that time on things more important to you.
  12. It’s okay to say no. It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to give in or give up.
  13. There are many occasions when done is better than perfect.
  14. Being honest is painful; getting caught in a lie is more painful.
  15. It is possible to learn to control your mind.
  16. Be kind to everyone because who you know matters a lot more than what you know.
  17. Humans are social animals who evolved to connect with others. Technology both facilitates and distracts; use it wisely.
  18. Be aware of what you do versus what you say. If they don’t match and you want them to, look deeply and be better.
  19. Helping others sounds a lot better than it is. Monetary donations need to be carefully considered and calculated to have the greatest possible impact.
  20. Fresh food and clean water are luxuries that should not be taken for granted.
  21. Giving ought not require, anticipate, or expect a response. Giving is one action and receiving is another.
  22. A willingness to experience discomfort or stress provides great opportunities to learn from a wide range of new experiences.
  23. Much that is considered “wrong” should be questioned and examined. People will get upset when you start to do that. Let them.
  24. Don’t ask unless you’re willing to hear the answer.
  25. It’s okay not to know, but it’s not okay to plead ignorance as an excuse.
  26. Moving to a new place is an opportunity to be the most current version of you.
  27. Beauty can be found in people, in places, and in actions. It cannot be taken for granted and must be protected.
  28. Peace cannot just be a dream; it must be lived every single day.
  29. Changing your mind in the face of new evidence and understanding shows wisdom and strength of character.

I’ve considered making similar lists in the past, lists of what I know to be true, but I’ve never felt like I know very much at all. That’s not inaccurate here, except that I’ve learned to articulate what makes sense to me in the present moment and I’m comfortable knowing it will change. I’ve become willing to say it out loud and let others guide me to deepen and sharpen what I think I know. There’s so much freedom to learn once you can set aside being wrong, or making mistakes, or digging in your heels. That’s what I’m looking forward to this year, and what I wish for all of you: Take the opportunity to learn.

Learn and do something good with what you know.

Antisemitism Among the Internationally Minded

“How much is a taxi to the airport? I have to pay it myself. My school doesn’t give me a per diem.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Why not?”
“It’s a Jewish school so they’re stingy.”
“Hey!”
“Well that’s how they make all their money.”

And then we made eye contact and she looked away.

My only contribution to this conversation was the interjection, “Hey!”. I’m not sure whether it was enough. I’m never sure.


I’ve spent the last three days at an IB professional development workshop for the DP Psychology course that I teach. People came from all over – Singapore, Indonesia, China, Nepal, India, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Abu Dhabi were represented among 24 psychology teachers. And that’s just where they teach now; where they’re from is a completely different list.

Context is important here. What I like most about the IB, and what gives me legs to stand on when discussing controversial topics, is its mission:

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. . . .
These programmes encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right. (emphasis added)

To this end, the IB highlights international-mindedness throughout its programs, though the way this actually looks is heavily discussed and debated. The point, however, is that this is who we’re supposed to be as an IB community. We’re supposed to be internationally minded, emphasize intercultural understanding and respect, and accept difference.

I’ve seen antisemitism all over the world and it no longer surprises me. But I was taken aback to see it in a woman about my age, also a traveler, who teaches a psychology course that includes a sociocultural unit. She’s obviously frustrated at having to pay for what was likely a required workshop, so I’m not questioning that. Frustration is why she made the claim – we blame others when things that we don’t like happen to us. My question is why the claim was antisemitic in the first place.

Since she teaches at a Jewish school, she knows more than nothing about Judaism and she knows Jewish people. She likely has Jewish friends, even if they’re friends just at work. This means that I can’t use ignorance as an explanation, which is usually the excuse that I give people. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or lack of information and that’s clearly not the case.

As a teacher of psychology, she is familiar with Henri Tajfel’s work on social identity theory, which, ironically enough, stems from his experiences of persecution during the Holocaust. In short, we compare ourselves to others and categorize ourselves into groups in order to boost our self-esteem. “We” are the in-group and “they” are the out-group. “They” are this and “we” are not. “We” do this and “they” do not. Etc.

Much of our group categorization is unconscious. We are not necessarily aware when this happens because the brain naturally categorizes things in order to simplify and streamline our thinking. As a teacher of psychology, she knows about cognitive biases, which are mental shortcuts that the brain uses to make sense of the world around us. We’d never be able to make any sort of decision if the brain first had to process every possible option.

Stereotypes are also linked to implicit associations, generalizations that the brain makes based on patterns. Again, we don’t realize this is happening. Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test, which I do with my students, can be enlightening. Sometimes these associations, or biases, have little impact on our interactions with others but sometimes they can be quite significant. As I discuss with my students, having implicit biases is normal. Checking yourself when you come to a snap judgement is what it means to be mindful before acting.


To summarize, it is troubling to me that a psychology teacher in a global program with a mission to value international-mindedness, intercultural understanding and respect, and acceptance of difference made an antisemitic comment. I don’t have an explanation for this teacher. She should know and teach everything I’ve just described. And if she hasn’t been doing that, we just spent three days discussing it. She should understand this in her own life and adjust accordingly. And maybe she will.

So why the antisemitic comment? The nagging voice in my head says that some people are just antisemitic. Some people are just racist, biased, discriminatory, prejudicial, xenophobic even when they know better. Sometimes this comes from fear or uncertainty. Sometimes this comes from prior negative experience. (As one of my friends would say, “Sounds like textbook human.”)

Haven’t an explanation doesn’t rectify or excuse the behavior, but perhaps it can suggest ways that allow us to respond constructively. And perhaps, since this woman didn’t check herself but was ultimately checked, this particular comment can be a learning experience.

It is heartening that no one else in the room engaged with her comment at all. The conversation moved on immediately, which is a perfectly appropriate response once someone speaks out and the other backs down. It seems plausible that most people in the room recognized the bias, prejudice, and stereotype behind this comment and knew it to be wrong. In light of that, maybe we’re doing okay at building a better, more peaceful world.

But in light of that, we cannot pretend the work is over.

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. – Amelia Earhart

P1080876
An olive tree in Neot Kedumim, Israel – March 2017

Learning to Meditate

One
The unpleasant feeling of being lonely hit me really hard kind of out of nowhere when I was walking home from the MRT. And then I thought about Sam Harris’s meditation lesson from yesterday: “That which is aware of sadness is not sad. That which is aware of fear is not afraid.” As soon as I thought about that, and each time I went back to it in between episodes of masochism resulting from loneliness, the feeling went away. For a fleeting moment, but it went away.

And that amazed me because that, I think, is what it means to let the ego dissolve. Sadness is a sensation but I am not sad because there’s no I. Interesting.

Two
Tonight’s meditation about emotion, day twelve, came at a good time. Sam prompted recall of a situation that was unpleasant – something to leave you sad or anxious or upset in some way. Following his cues, the point was to notice first the thought itself and then where that unpleasant feeling lies in the body, giving rise to the emotion that we’d started with.

Sam went through the exercise three times, twice with situations that bring about negative emotions and once with a situation bringing about positive emotions. He then talked about emotions as just “patterns of energy” and about how powerful it is to recognize emotions in this way. Just energy in the body, like any other feeling. Sam used knee pain as an example and I’ll follow suit because it worked. It seems the idea is to see “the feeling of sadness” in the same way as “my knee is sore” but not let the self become the sadness anymore than the self becomes the sore knee, which is not at all.

During tonight’s meditation, as always, I felt the negative emotions in my chest. When I’m anxious, afraid, or sad, my chest tightens and it’s difficult to breathe. At least once during the meditation exercise I gasped and opened my eyes, certain I was going to cry. But when Sam prompted thinking about something positive, I felt the same clench in my chest. And it rose into my throat just like tears do, but this time the feeling manifested as what I usually call “a bubble of joy”. It was so interesting to observe the same sensation and label it with a different emotion.

At the same time, though, I also started to wonder what a person becomes without deep feelings. But it’s not a lack of deep feelings, is it? It’s a lack of attachment to them during a full experience of them. The purpose of meditation is to notice whatever it is I’m actually noticing. I realize this now, writing, but at the time I worried a little, worried just for a fleeting moment, about becoming an empty shell, something not quite human.

But now, reflecting, I realize that’s not it at all. Instead it’s being able to recognize what’s there with an open mind instead of judgement and have the experience instead of letting it pass by.

Three
With tonight’s meditation experience, I thought in a different light about an earlier conversation with a friend that really upset me. I was talking about how frustrating it is to want something that has eluded me and my friend asked if I ever meditated on letting go or living without. My immediate response internally was defensive outrage, but tonight it struck me that perhaps I can separate the feeling of wanting from that which is I. And if the feeling is just a feeling and the conscious mind is what processes the feeling, there’s no need to attach any of it to I at all. Because I is just a construction of the mind. But the point is, “I can walk away from the feeling because the feeling isn’t me.”

I’m not there yet. But I think that’s the point.

Four
I’ve been finding it helpful to focus on sound. Sound comes in and out of conscious awareness and there’s nothing we do to make that happen. It’s just there and then it isn’t.

It’s the same for thoughts, though harder to grasp because I don’t find myself beginning to have a thought; rather, I find myself when I’m already lost in them. But it’s the same thing. Thoughts just appear. Like sounds. We notice them and then they’re gone, too, and we don’t notice them anymore.

Five
Watching my emotions change over the last week has been really interesting. As best as I can, I’ve tried to step outside of myself and observe what I’m feeling rather than just letting it swallow me.

I went to the climbing gym twice this weekend because I disappear when climbing. As a friend explained once, “There’s no room for ego up there.” It’s easy to lose myself in my own head when I’m running but not so easy at dance or doing yoga or on the climbing wall. I’ve been trying to engage in ways that let me spend less time lost in thought, an experiment to see what happens.

And so far, I’m not too sure.

Six
I had a conversation today that indicated ego is alive and well. Frustration for other reasons bubbled up and got the better of me and I was defensive instead of open-minded. As I teach my psychology students, we are cognitive misers and it’s less taxing to rely on emotion than reason. Knowing the traps doesn’t mean immunity from falling into them.

I didn’t realize this conversation was still bothering me when I sat down to meditate tonight, day nineteen. But as soon as I turned my attention to the breath, I noticed an elevated heart rate even though I was breathing deeply without effort. For several minutes, I couldn’t slow my heart down even though I guessed its cause. So I observed that and tried not to judge it.

While I’ve been familiar with loving-kindness meditation for a while, Sam’s inclusion of it tonight was most welcome. In its full form, you begin thinking about someone close to you and wishing them well and then expanding the well-wishing, over the course of several stages, to the whole world. Tonight’s meditation centered on just one person.

I thought about a very dear friend. And that’s when I felt my heart rate slow down. I felt better turning my focus towards another person and wishing happiness, which really means sending pure love.

May you be happy.
May you be healthy.
May you be peaceful.

Mindfulness is a journey to travel, a journey without signposts and without end. But even as a novice along the journey, I’ve had moments of utter simplicity where I’m left stunned by what is sometimes so easy and other times so challenging.

To be mindful is to be aware. Aware of what we see, hear, and think. It is to experience. It is to look outward and take in with an awareness of what we’re doing instead of just letting it happen. It sounds like doing nothing. But as I’m learning, it’s actually doing quite a lot.

Newport Beach
Newport Beach, California – December 2016