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Sleeping Baby Post

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As I tap this message on my phone, a warm, clinging lump of baby is sleeping on my chest. I’m seated in a gray rocking chair in a dark, Winnie-the-Pooh themed room. A white noise machine breathes steadily as I turn my head from side to side every so often, doing my best to deal with the crick in my neck, since her little head is resting nearly atop my throat. 

For this sixteen-month old I hold, so much comes and goes, and so quickly: feelings, desires, irritations, joys. Distraction is the key that turns her universe. One moment, a bouncing ball, the next moment, a blinking toy. Both sides of the toddler coin — the unceasing curiosity and the fragile temper — challenge me to find my inner Buddha.

There’s the yin and the yang: the way her eyes always catch the gossamer white butterfly that frequents the backyard — a reminder to Look. On the other hand, when she leans in unexpectedly and chomps into my arm, I’m pretty well forced to cultivate compassion and breathe into the discomfort, whispering, “Gentle” until she lifts her teeth out of my skin.

I’ve been reading two well-known Buddhist authors recently, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh. Chodron writes about the middle path, which describes a way of living in which a person does not move “right” or “left” in response to the moving tide of desires or fears. Instead, she does nothing, moving straight through them as they inevitably pass. 

The “middle path” obviously requires an attention span longer than a few minutes, and thoroughly contradicts the existential reality of a toddler. What’s interesting to me, though, is how many full-grown adults’ inner monologues resemble the behavior of toddlers. How many of us are, in our heads, making an angry mess, of dare I say, sinking our teeth into someone trying to look out for us? How many of us would break into tears or flail our arms, metaphorically speaking, if asked to sit with our hunger, our boredom, our exhaustion? 

So it turns out that “Haley Grace,” the little person in my charge from 8:30-5:30 before I return to my desk (or more likely, my kitchen island) to work through the latest writing or reading assignment of my MFA, has something to teach me. Gentle, I repeat, gentle… as I try to walk the middle path. 

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Lesson Plan for “Growth Mindset”

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I’m in the middle of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because I’ll literally read ANYthing written by this man. I picked up a copy at an old haunt in Lincoln Square (Chicago) earlier this summer. So much nostalgia for The Book Cellar

Anyway, I’m about halfway through, and I confess I’ve lost interest. My mind is half in school mode already, and so I hit pause on Rushdie and finally got around to reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The central idea of this book sounds corny at a surface level, and to extent, the book is corny and a little repetitive. But it’s also a tremendously powerful concept: the idea that our personalities and IQs, our abilities, and for that matter all aspects of our lives, are in a state of ongoing development. Viewing ourselves, our lives, OTHERS, and the world in a constant state of growth has profound implications for how we seek and obtain happiness, overcome depression, lead, parent, teach, and so much more.

Instead of presenting you with my usual “book review” format of commentary embedded in summary, I’ve decided to post my during reading notes to pique your curiosity as well as a lesson plan I’ve created about growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets for high school students as a way to build a positive classroom culture in the beginning of the school year.

Thoughts?

Reading Notes

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over

Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow?

Howard Gardner, in his book Extraordinary Minds, concluded that exceptional individuals have a “special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.” It’s interesting that those with the growth mindset seem to have that talent.

  • p. 12 — “Grow Your Mindset”
  • Developing yourself versus validating yourself

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners”

  • CEO disease
  • Growth mindset — teacher versus student

When do people with the fixed mindset thrive? When things are safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging — when they’re not feeling smart or talented — they lose interest.

  • When do you feel smart?
  • p. 23, Marina Semyonova

Becoming is better than being

When [Nasa was] soliciting applications for astronauts, they rejected people with pure histories of success and instead selected people who had had significant failures and bounced back from them

The scariest thought, which I rarely entertained, was the possibility of being ordinary. This kind of thinking led me to need constant validation.

If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

  • p. 72, effort praise versus ability praise

What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.

Prejudice is a deeply ingrained societal problem, and I do not want to blame the victims of it. I am simply saying that a growth mindset helps people to see prejudice for what it is — someone else’s view of them — and to confront it with their confidence and abilities intact.

  • Girls grow up being praised, boys grow up being scolded, boys learn to dismiss outside criticism and girls learn to internalize it
  • p. 80-81 activities
  • Not knowing how to fail, p. 82
  • Do you know how to fail?
  • What is success? p. 98-99
  • What is failure? p. 99-100
  • What is something in an ideal world you’d love to do but you don’t consider yourself naturally good at?
  • Relationships and fixed mindset

You can believe that your qualities are fixed, your partner’s qualities are fixed, and the relationship’s qualities are fixed — that it’s inherently good or bad, meant-to-be or not meant-to-be. Now all of these things are up for judgment.

It’s been said that Dorothy DeLay was an extraordinary teacher because she was not interested in teaching. She was interested in learning

Lesson Plan for Growth Mindset
High School Juniors and Seniors
(About 90 minutes)

Pass around Mindset book and tell students that you recently read it over the summer. Introduce the book, e.g.: The book focuses on how having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset,” two terms we’ll eventually define in class today. These ideas can affect your relationships, your business, your education, your symptoms of depression, many facets of your life. We are striving to build a “growth mindset” as we prepare to deal with the challenges of a new school year. (3 min)

The following is a list of questions that came to mind as I was reading the book over the summer. Read all eight questions and then pick the one you want to free-write on for ten minutes. If you finish your thoughts on one question, move to another question. You should be writing for ten minutes. (10 min)

  1. What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?
  2. Can anyone learn to be a good artist?
  3. What do you think our society values more? Effort or ability?
  4. What is the best way to praise a child?
  5. What qualities are you looking for in a life partner? In your friends?
  6. Is it scary to be ordinary? Why or why not?
  7. How do you define success in life? In school? How do you define failure in life? In school?
  8. If you’re “somebody” when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

Stop writing — select students at random with popsicle sticks to share out responses — type into projector any comments directly related to growth or fixed mindset

Explain how each question relates to growth or fixed mindset. Example: #4, related to how we respond to feedback, #5, how to build healthy relationships, #2, how much of who we are is “nature” versus “nurture,” determined by genetics and pre-ordained ability versus environment and attitude (15-20 min)

Make a t-chart, fixed mindset on one side, growth mindset on another (3 min)

Project 10 scenarios and have students put them into each category into their t-charts. They are guessing according to what they think a fixed mindset is and a growth mindset is. Students can abbreviate the wording of scenarios to make the writing process less tedious.  (10 min)

Scenarios

1. An acquaintance says something mean about you on social media so you “throw shade” about that person on your own social media account.
2. An important criteria for your ideal life partner is that he or she challenges you.
3. You ace your math test and your teacher says, “Congrats, [insert name], you’re such a math wiz!”
4. You’re incredibly shy so you sign up for an improv class to come out of your shell.
5. You tend to procrastinate when you’re struggling in a class because if you fail, at least you didn’t try that hard.
6. A job application asks you to write about your biggest failure and how you bounced back.
7. You find it easy to objectively identify your own strengths and weaknesses.
8. A criteria for a good teacher is that they work to make you feel smart.
9. Healthy relationships — romantic and platonic — require work.
10. Some people just don’t have what it takes to be a performer.

Teacher tells students what numbers go in which category, students check their charts to see if they are “right” (5 min)

Discuss why given answers are “right,” students have the opportunity to question or challenge as teacher explains more about fixed versus growth mindset (10 min)

Based on discussion above, students work in pairs to define “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” (5 min)

Teacher selects pairs (popsicle sticks) to share their definitions, offers guidance on how to blend definitions into one class definition for both “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” (10 min)

Teacher gives instructions: Brainstorm a list of 10 common frustrating scenarios you experience as a student/at school and concrete ways you can approach that scenario with a growth mindset this year (t-chart format)

Teacher models 5 examples from their own t-chart (7 min)

Scenario #1: Lack of adequate access to technology (limited computer carts, computer labs)

Growth Mindset Response: Launch a crowdfunding website to raise money for additional chromebooks for the English department, view it as an opportunity to gain fundraising skills and build enthusiasm for next school year

Scenario #2: Eating in class leads to increased requests to leave the room for drink and bathroom breaks, and too many students don’t pick up after themselves

Growth Mindset Response: Put in the time to enforce the “no-food rule” — it’s worth it — and model all food rules yourself

Scenario #3: Too many students are on their cell phones while you’re teaching

Growth Mindset Response: Teach students about the philosophy of mindfulness, show students cell phone policies on college syllabi, teach students about growth mindsets, ask students to reflect on how they’re using their cell phones in class on a written self-assessment, make a poster reminding students how they can use their cell phones for learning, in addition to taking phones away when necessary

Scenario #4: The “amazing” lesson you planned didn’t engage as many students as you hoped.

Growth Mindset Response: View this “failure” as valuable information. Was it how you executed the lesson? Was it how you designed the lesson? Ask your students for direct feedback. Talk to your co-workers. Keep organized digital versions of your lesson plans so you can keep what works, and change what doesn’t.

Scenario #5: Too many students don’t show up with a pencil and then steal yours.

Growth Mindset Response: Over the summer, purchase a glue gun, some fake flowers, and a set of ballpoint pens. Make “flower pens” so your students will think twice about walking out with your pens — and so they’ll have something to write with if they forget their pencil.

Students work on scenarios independently (15 min)
Teacher collects

Homework assignment: Make a list of 5-10 people you admire. Choose one to focus on. Research this person’s experience with failure, either in the form of an interview (if it’s someone you know) or online research, if it’s someone in the public domain. Summarize your findings in a few paragraphs (cite your sources) and identify whether this person has a growth or fixed mindset, in your opinion.

Chapter One, Willpower

star5112 Balancing or falling? CC BY-SA 2.0Picture a group of twenty year-olds scattered around a dance studio, facing each other in pairs, leaning forward on their toes, noses touching. This was the first day of a Performance Studies class I took — for one day, before dropping it — called “Performance and the Body,” or something to that effect. Our introduction to the weekly, four-hour class was to stand as close to our partner for as long as we could, as still as we could. Afterward we debriefed on the challenges of this task, and many of us remarked that it was really difficult not to lob their partner with a big kiss. Nobody yielded to the temptation — one of my stranger feats of willpower.

As mentioned last week, I’m in the middle of reading Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, part history, part psychological study, part self-improvement book. Chapter one begins with a discussion of pop singer Amanda Palmer, a Dionysian, Lady Gaga type who doesn’t exactly conjure the traditionally straight-laced, Victorian idea of “willpower,” and yet, as the authors are wise to point out, who possesses it in abundant supply. She first honed her powers of will by standing stock still on top of a box, dressed as a bride in the middle of Harvard Square. She could manage it for about 90 minutes at a time, not being able “to scratch if she had an itch, wipe her nose if a piece of snot started to dribble down, swat at a stray mosquito…” She was doing nothing, but the discipline of being totally blank-faced and nonreactive was itself a challenge. Reminds me of how my old drama teacher used to yell, “F— YOU!” at us, as in, “focus you.”

Actually, there are four categories of willpower, according to this book:

  • Control of thoughts — this is accomplished by focusing
  • Control of emotions — this is accomplished through “indirect strategies,” such as distracting yourself when you feel negative emotions
  • Impulse control — really a description of how people react to stray impulses
  • Performance control — the ability to complete a task with the appropriate mix of speed, accuracy, perseverance

In chapter one, the authors also suggest that willpower is like a muscle that gets fatigued after use. Apparently we use the same supply of willpower for all tasks: making decisions, writing a term paper, resisting chocolate chip cookies, waking up on time… Author Roy Baumeister coined a term for willpower fatigue, called “ego depletion.” It draws upon Freud’s energy model of the self, the idea that the self is comprised of various, competing energies that must be productively channeled. University of Toronto researchers Michael Inzlicht and Jennifer Gutsell found that ego depletion manifests as slower activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, and also in more extreme emotions — so next time your plagued by violent mood swings, ask yourself how much self-discipline you’ve had to exercise recently.

An amusing study conducted by two Australian psychologists proved the forcefulness of the ego depletion concept. In the study, they administered self-control tests to students at several points throughout the semester. During exams, the students smoked more, doubled their caffeine intake, spent money more impulsively, and generally took on a host of bad habits. Turns out that stress erodes willpower, which explains the students’ poor behavior.

In another study, scientists put hungry subjects in a room with warm chocolate chip cookies, radishes, and chocolate candy. Some were told to eat the cookies and the candy; a separate group was told to eat the radishes. Then they were instructed to work on insoluble puzzles. Those who ate the sweets worked on the puzzles for an average of 20 minutes, whereas the radish-eating participants only persevered for about eight minutes. Their willpower had presumably been depleted by the effort of resisting the cookies. To summarize,

“You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it [and] you use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.”

What’s the take away? Focus on accomplishing, changing, or mastering one thing at a time. And be patient with yourself, whatever the challenge 🙂

A Brief History of Willpower

Sarah Robinson An Affair with Chocolate CC BY 2.0I find myself invoking the old D.A.R.E. mantra, “Just say no!” when face-to-face with a bag of Peanut M&Ms or a gooey brownie or say, an entire jar of Nutella. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, and “just say[ing] no” ain’t that easy. I was at my wit’s end a few weeks ago, bemoaning my lack of self-control, when I happened upon The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I can’t say I bought it entirely devoid of the hope that it would help me unlock my potential for resisting temptation, but it’s also just an interesting read that unpacks a rather elusive concept. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the introduction:

According to psychologists, two qualities determine success and well-being in life: intelligence and self-control. The latter is a malleable quality — like a muscle, it “can…be strengthened over the long term through exercise,” according to Baumeister. When Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study of over 200 Germans wearing beepers that randomly sounded, requiring the participants to report on the status of their desires, they concluded that “people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires,” that “desire [is] the norm, not the exception.” (The desire to eat topped the list, a temptation the participants claimed to be only mediocre at resisting, as compared to the desire to sleep, have sex, or spend money, which made me feel a little better about the moments when I’ve been caught licking spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar…) Point being, exercising willpower is tough. The authors suggest that it’s gotten tougher throughout history, citing a rigid social hierarchy, a reduced set of temptations, and the enforcing powers of the Catholic church and the threat of public disgrace as reasons why the notion of willpower didn’t exist during the Middle Ages.

The term came about during the Victorian Age, when the decline of religion and the societal changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as urbanization, led people to fret about the upholding of moral standards. “They began using the term willpower,” according to Baumeister and Tierney, “because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved — some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.” The popularity of the willpower concept declined in the twentieth century, not least because the mindset of duty and self-sacrifice led to mass deaths during World War I, as well as the Nazi party’s exploitation of such values as obedience and self-denial, even titling propaganda films “The Triumph of the Will.”

Following World War II, the advertising industry in the newly booming economy encouraged Americans to strive for popularity and prosperity, with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking replacing Self-Help and The Power of the Will. Self-help authors espoused the “feel-good philosophy” of achieving success through self-confidence, the “believe it, achieve it” mentality. It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined somewhat. For example, in The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis wrote that as a result of declining self-discipline, his clients had an easier time getting in touch with their neurotic tendencies (less “character armor” to break down) but they encountered more difficulty in making changes to their lives. Another reason for “the decline of the will” has to do with the prevailing belief among psychologists and social scientists that the conscious mind is ever subservient to the subconscious, that free will is essentially a fallacy. Even author Roy Baumeister was more focused on fostering self-esteem than self-control when he started his career in the 1970s, riding the wave of personal empowerment philosophy, with books like I’m OK — You’re OK and Awaken the Giant Within. 

The resurgence of self-control as an influential force in human life didn’t come from new theories or hypothesizes, but rather materialized as scientists were testing for other phenomenon. A man named Walter Mischel led a study in the 1960s testing how children resisted immediate gratification, in which children were given a marshmallow that they could eat at any time. If they waited to eat it until the experimenter returned, they would also be allowed to eat a second marshmallow. Most of the children who held out succeeded in delaying gratification by distracting themselves, an interesting finding in itself. Years later, Mischel tracked down the children from the experiment, discovering that the four-year-olds who resisted eating the first marshmallow possessed a host of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index.

In Losing Control, Baumeister and his wife, Dianna Tice took stock of the benefits of self-control, and prompted a new wave of experiments on the topic. Self-control was found to be the best predictor of a student’s grade-point average, over IQ and SAT scores. It was also associated with higher levels of empathy, lower rates of mental illness, healthier relationships at home and at work, and better finances, among other things. Meanwhile, anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, concluding that humans developed larger brains along with the capability of self-control because of our social nature. The authors write, “Primates are social beings who have to control themselves in order to get along with the rest of the group… For animals to survive in such a group without getting beaten up, they must restrain their urge to eat immediately.”

The introduction ends by defining the elusive concept of “the will” as making conscious choices with a broader awareness of time, “treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.” I think that’s what I’m after re the spoonfuls of Nutella — “just saying no” enough so that giving in is the exception, not the rule, even if desire is a constant. In “Why Will Yourself to Read This?” the authors do promise some practical wisdom on that front, bolstered by social scientists’ understanding of what willpower is, how it works, and how it informs our understanding of the self. For anyone out there seeking greater productivity, better health, or just a sense of self-mastery, this book is worth a read. I’ll continue to post with more insights gleaned, but for now, more power to you.

Lovingkindness and Positive Psychology

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha.

vice1, Buddha in a car, Traffic jam with a camera in Bangkok. Everything seemed to move except the Buddha. CC 2.0

It seems appropriate, following the anniversary of so much death and destruction, to share the Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation, something I’ve been practicing lately in honor of September being National Yoga Month. Just kidding — I only know that September is National Yoga Month because of a few instructor shout-outs at my gym, whose classes, if we’re honest with ourselves, definitely lift our collective mood for their powers to tone and tighten, but can also remind us, spiritually speaking, of our inherent interconnectedness, even if it’s just a momentary “ohm” that does it.

The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of “psychological Buddhism,” where we integrate certain principles and practices of the Buddhist religion into our lives for therapeutic purposes. On September 11, 2001, I distinctly remember being despondent and silent as I rotated through my set of high school classes, and being unable to stomach any food. As a matter of fact, I remember my mom made lasagna that night. Hah, my sharp memory for all things edible has been with me long before I became one of those people who takes pictures of food and blogs about recipes. As I pushed it around on my plate, my dad, with his characteristic rationality, put things into perspective by pointing out that this was the first national tragedy that my brothers and I had lived through. Actually, I think he used the phrase “our generation,” words that somehow normalized the awful, horrific events of the day.

Earlier that afternoon, my AP European History teacher had asked me and a friend if we were okay, that we seemed quiet and scared. A classmate cracked a joke about my demeanor, and then, in a rare instance for my high school self of not caring what my peers thought of me, I snapped back about how I was “empathizing with all the people in that plane.” Everyone sort of stiffened, respectfully, and then another friend after class approached me, saying “I can’t believe she asked you why you were scared.”

Undoubtedly, we all have our own distinct memories of what that day felt like. Looking back, I’m almost proud to share that I was viscerally affected by what happened, even if my rational understanding of the international politics was null, and AP history classes were the bane of my high school existence (until I took elective history classes, and then grew to really like history, especially historical fiction, and then taught high school history, if dance history and theatre history count…)

Lately I’ve become interested in practicing positive psychology. According to “Psychology Today,”

“Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. It is a call for psychological science to be as concerned with strength as with weakness; as interested in building the best things in life as in repairing the worst; and as concerned with making the lives of normal people fulfilling as with healing pathology.”

“Pathology” is the study of diseases. The lovingkindness meditation falls into the category of positive psychology, with its emphasis on recognizing our spiritual interconnectedness with people and the environment, and by reminding us of our potential to subtly affect the outside world by projecting positive energy.

In this article, Buddhists and psychologists compare beliefs about managing emotions in order to achieve overall well-being, comparing the tenets of Buddhism and the status quo in modern psychology. According to the authors, Buddhists view emotion and cognition as part and parcel — they don’t even have a word for “emotion.” In Buddhism, what’s more important than shifting through distortions of thought is cultivating suhka, a state of general happiness and emotional equilibrium. Suhka

“includes a deep sense of well-being, a propensity toward compassion, reduced vulnerability to outside circumstances, and recognition of the interconnectedness with people and other living beings in one’s environment.”

To achieve this state of mind takes decades of mindfulness training — mindfulness, I also know from personal experience, from practicing “psychological Buddhism,” means to observe your experience in the moment, from your environment to your own thought process, and distinguish between reality, versus subjective ideas or beliefs that you are projecting onto that reality.

Buddhists categorize negative emotions more broadly into three fallacies: cravings, animosity or hatred, and the belief in a fixed, concrete self, apart from the world. I find it so interesting that these emotions are viewed as inherently toxic because they inherently deny our interconnectedness with other people and our environment. When we crave something or feel strong hostility toward someone, in both cases, we exaggerate the qualities of the object we desire or resent, and we seek to claim ownership of it in some way. In reality, according to Buddhist philosophy,

“the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux, arises in different ways, and is profoundly interdependent with other people and the environment.”

In my opinion, there’s something so eye-opening and soothing about this concept of the self, however much it clashes with Western culture. It’s so refreshing, may because of “the dynamic flux,” element, which suggests that the self is eclipsed and the universe at large is broadened, buzzing. At church, I often find myself wrapped up in my own, individual worship, and then it takes a conscious internal reminder to simply look up and acknowledge the other Christians who are present with me, undergoing the same weekly, re-conversion. Psychological Buddhism, and the lovingkindness meditation in particular, gives me a chance to broaden my immediate awareness. I think it benefits us all, so here are two versions, borrowed. (One’s a transcript and the other is an audio download.) Namaste.

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Sergiu Alistar, YOGA 2, CC 2.0

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