Teaching Mindfulness and Compassion Through Seasonal Moments

To understand the season, winter, spring, summer or fall, what must we do? What is a season? Understanding the seasons is not just a matter of looking at a calendar or being aware of what the weather was yesterday, and the week or month before that, or today.

 

It is not simply exploring the basic science: The earth rotates, causing day and night. And it is tilted on an axis, so it follows a path around the sun. In summer one half of the earth faces the sun more directly so it gets the light from the sun more intensely and for a longer period of the day. The other half experiences winter, as it is turned away from the sun.

 

To understand what the seasons mean to us, we utilize memories of past years, and past moments. We become aware of how everything is constantly changing. That life itself is change. One minute is different than the last.

 

And we must be aware how we, also, change. Not just our moods, sensations and thoughts, but how we feel as the earth changes.  We and the earth change together, although maybe not in the same way or at the same pace. Because the earth moves around the sun and is tilted at a certain angle, we experience sensations of cold or warmth. We become aware of what it feels like to be alive on this earth in this particular moment.* We become aware that to understand the seasons we must understand the being who is doing the studying, namely ourselves.

 

And one way to generate compassion for other humans is to imagine how people throughout history have tried to live a seasonal moment similar to this one. Here are two seasonal mindfulness practices. As with any guided meditation or visualization, please try these practices yourself before sharing them with your students. Make adjustments to fit their needs and history.

 

Winter

 

You might ask students: What purposes, ecologically and psychologically, might the seasons serve?  In the fall, when you see the first snowfall, what do you feel?

In November, when we set the clocks back, what do you feel?

 

I know some people love the snow and look forward to winter. When I was still working as a teacher, I remember the joy that filled the school with the first snowfall. Students could barely focus on the academic lesson when Mother Nature had a deeper lesson in store for us. They would rush to the window and look out with wonder. Each snow was the only snow they had seen, ever, so beautiful and exciting.

 

Yet, for others, winter is a turning in. We cuddle within an extra blanket of clothing to find something kinder than the chill we get from fear and doubt. We wonder if the warmth will ever return. Will the earth ever bear fruit again? Will the dark continue to dominate the light?…

 

*The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons, by David Loy, can be extremely helpful for developing lessons using modern fantasy literature and films to teach lessons about time, nonviolence, and engaging in the world.

 

To read the whole post, go to: MindfulTeachers.org.

 

What You Model, You Teach: The World Is A Miraculous Place, If Only We Can Imagine and Act to Make It So

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to imagine what might be and yet be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something and how to say goodbye.

You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenges. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight and violence with clarity.

In this way you create a community and you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You model with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future.  Without such a model, it is nearly impossible for a young person to imagine that such a community, or relationship, is possible.

You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing, now, with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us, in this world that we share, need this sort of gift daily.

Starting the School Day

So, before you enter the classroom, or maybe before you enter the school building, stop in a safe location, maybe near a tree or a place with a pleasing view, close your eyes, and take 2 deep breaths. You might then pick one area of your body to focus on ⎼ the area around your eyes or mouth, your shoulders or belly ⎼ and simply feel how the area expands as you breathe in, and relaxes, settles down as you breathe out.

You might imagine yourself in the classroom ⎼ calm, ready to listen to your students, emotionally strong. Then bring to mind your students. Imagine how they walk, stand, enter the classroom. If you feel tension with anyone, bring him or her to mind. Imagine how they might feel, and that they feel and think, in a manner similar to, yet different from, your own. Hold them in your heart for a moment.

Then take another breath in and out. Open your eyes and look around you, noticing how you feel….

 

To read the whole post, please go to Education That Inspires.

5 Improvisational Mindfulness Activities for Academic Classes

One way to increase student engagement and decrease anxiety in the classroom is to combine mindfulness and improvisation theatre exercises to teach subject matter. Improvisation develops a sense of trust in self and others, as well as whole body thinking and awareness. It is also fun.

 

Improvisational mindfulness activities can be used in most academic subjects. Personally, I have used them in English, Social Studies and Social Science classes. My colleagues have used them to teach foreign languages. They can also be used by teachers trainers to show how to present material in a lively way, relate compassionately with students, and face challenging situations with empathy and clarity.

 

For example, In English classes, improvisation can be used to examine a character in a novel, develop a plot for a short story, or explore the meaning of an essay. In history or social studies classes, it can be used to develop empathy and in-depth understanding of an event in history or explore the meaning of concepts like freedom, compassion, nationalism or the need for equal rights for all. In any class, it can be used to encourage class participation or to assess student understanding. For example, in a class on psychological literature, I asked students to take turns playing the main 3 characters in the novel Ordinary People in an imagined family therapy session. The school counselor played the therapist, and I observed the session and took notes on how the students’ words and gestures showed how well they understood and embodied their character.

 

A Few Games and Exercises: Before you introduce any of these activities to your students, practice the technique yourself several times and imagine how each of your students will respond. You may need to modify in order to better suit your students and your context.

 

  1. Mirroring: Mirroring can be a wonderful way for students to develop a subliminal understanding of and ability to harmonize with others as well as a way to pick up on body messaging. (See my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking, page 63.)
    1. If you have space or can move tables out of the way, ask students to stand up and pick a partner or assign partners.
    2. Have the pairs stand with feet shoulder width apart, facing each other, hands up and open, slightly in front, with hands facing those of their partner.
    3. Imagine that the surface of the mirror is halfway between you. Pick one of you to be the leader, the other mirrors. Move slowly, without breaking eye contact or breaking the mirror. An example of breaking the mirror would be if the leader’s right hand goes outward, toward her partner and past the partner’s left hand.
    4. After a few minutes, have them switch who leads. After a minute or two, before they tire, switch again⎼ and then again. After switching two or three times, of shorter and shorter intervals, tell them to move with no leader.
    5. After a minute or so with no leader, ask them to stop and close their eyes. Lead them in a body scan or an exercise in mindfulness of feeling and sensation .
    6. Have them thank and share their reactions with their partner.
    7. Ask the whole class how difficult it was to follow their partner without losing eye contact and if they were able to move freely without a leader.  Discuss the importance of being able to move with awareness in tune with others.
  2. Exploring images: Show the class a photograph of a group of people in a social situation (or in a social studies class, a historical event) who are discussing, arguing, celebrating, or having some other type of interaction. Then ask the class to intuit what is going on and why. …

To read the whole post, please go to MindfulTeachers.org.

Five Ways to Begin the School Year with Mindfulness and Compassion

For every teacher I know, the end of summer vacation means rising nervous energy, anxiety and excitement. It means getting ready to begin a new experience, with new students and sometimes a new curriculum.

To start the school year, or anything new, it is obvious that we must make plans. We need to determine where we want to go, and what we want to accomplish, in order to fulfill those objectives. But we often ignore the emotional side of getting ourselves ready.

  1. Meet Each Moment Mindfully

Take a moment to feel what you feel and notice your thoughts. Only if you notice your thoughts and feelings can you choose how and whether to act on them. Start with understanding what beginning the school year means to you and what you need. Then you can better understand what your students need.

Many of us plan our classes so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what is safe and already known. It’s not truly a beginning if you emotionally make believe that you’ve already done it.

Take time daily to strengthen your awareness of your own mental and emotional state.

If you arrive at school energized but anxious, get out of your car, stop, look at the building and trees around you, and take a few breaths. Then you’ll be in your body, present in the moment—not caught up in your thoughts. After greeting yourself, you’ll be more prepared to greet students.

 

Practice SBC: Stop, Breathe, Notice.  Periodically stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, take 3 breaths and notice your thoughts and feelings. Notice how it feels after such a break.

You can do this with students to begin each lesson, or in the middle of a heated discussion….

 

To read the whole post, go to MindfulTeachers.org.

 

A somewhat different blog for a general audience on the same subject was published last August by The Good Men Project.

Renewing Your Love for Teaching: The Moment That Is Summer

Did you grow up with a longing for summer? Summer can remind us what it was like to be a child ⎼celebrating the end of the school year, of warm weather, and vacations. And if we don’t teach summer school or don’t have to work a second job (or maybe even if we do), we can have free time once again.

The longing for summer is, for me, a longing for renewal. This morning, I woke up early and went outside. Our home is in a small clearing surrounded by trees, flowering bushes and flowers. Two crows were screaming as they flew past. The shade from the trees was vibrant, cool and fresh, the colors sharp and clear. The light was so alive it wrapped the moment in a mysterious intensity. Time slowed so deeply that once the crows quieted, the songs of the other birds and the sounds of the breeze just added to the silence.

This is what I look forward to. Even now that I’m retired, I so enjoy summer. It doesn’t matter to me if it gets too hot and humid or if it rains (or if it doesn’t rain). This is it. I can actually hear my own life speaking to me.

Techniques for Renewal and Re-energizing

When I was teaching, summer was a time not only to relax but to challenge myself in new ways. I would:

*Visit beautiful places ⎼to see an ocean, a mountain, or forest.

*Practice mindfulness every day.

*Take a class and read books about whatever interested me, or whatever would reveal something new about the world that my students and I faced, whether it was politics, quantum physics, writing, mindfulness, neuroscience, philosophy, history, or the martial arts. I wantedto learn something meaningful and feel like a kid again, and a student—open, fresh, playful.

We all need this, so we can renew our abilitytosee beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to door the world feels too dark to face, we know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders that renewal can happen at any time. You can let go. Time can dissolve into silence. Change happens all the time.

 

To read the whole piece, please go to MindfulTeachers.org.

How Did This Happen? Whose Interests Are Served by the Divisiveness in the U. S. Today?

How did politics in the US get so bad? Why is there such divisiveness? Why are Democrats seemingly so ineffectual and the GOP so ready to support whatever T does, even when he puts Russia before US interests, and dictatorship before Democracy? Why does the GOP walk so much in lockstep, ready to stomp on the humanity, rights, health care and income of so many in the middle and lower classes?

 

Pew Poll shows that we are more divided now than in the early 1990s. Despite living through Joe McCarthy and the struggles of the fifties, the great turmoil, assassinations and political changes of the 1960s, and then Nixon and Reagan, our political situation today feels worse than anything I experienced before, largely because the future of democracy has not been so threatened before by our own President.

 

And the lock stepping of the GOP is not just an example of politicians afraid of their base or afraid of losing their position, as many in the centrist media portray it. The base of the GOP itself is something relatively new in US politics, even though it has been developing for years. Since Reagan, the GOP has become increasingly intransigent and devoted to only one small group of people—the white super-rich. T is also something relatively new, but he a poison in a garden that was already laid waste by politicians unable and unwilling to halt the pressure by specific members of the super-rich to undermine any restraints on their power.

 

One book I’ve been reading to help me gain some clarity is Billionaire Democracy: The Hijacking of the American Political System by economist George Tyler. This is an important book to read. It talks not only about how democracy has been hijacked, but how to take it back. In 1980, according to Tyler, the richest 0.1% contributed less than 10% of all campaign contributions. By 2012, their share increased to 44%. In 2016, it increased to about 66% of contributions to Congressional candidates.

 

Along with this trend in political contributions is a trend many have noted in wealth controlled by the top 1%. In the 1920s, before the depression, the top 1% owned 44.2% of the wealth. During the depression, and even more, during the war, the taxes on the rich were raised to 94% for top earners, and the percentage of wealth owned by the rich by 1945 was down to 29.8%. By 1979, the percentage owned by the 1% was down to only 20%. Thanks to Reagan, the percentage of wealth owned by the super-rich went up. By 2013, the top 1% owned 36.7% of US wealth. The top 20% of the US population in terms of wealth owned 89%, leaving only 11% for the remaining 80% of people. In 2017, the top 1% owned 42.8%. It has been increasing by 6% annually since the mid-2000s. (See my chart on the last page.) And the GOP tax cut is only making income inequality worse.

 

According to more recent data, a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve showed that in 2018 the richest 10% of householders in the U. S. owned 70% of the wealth. These increases were mirrored by decreases for those households in the 50-90thpercentiles of the wealth distribution.

 

America’s wealthiest 20 people own more wealth than the bottom half the population, own more than 152,000,000 people combined. And among the Forbes 444, only 2 are African-American….

 

*To read the whole post, go to The Good Men Project.

 

**This is an update of an earlier piece that appeared on this website.

Feeling Stressed and Out of Time: Ending A School Year ⎼ Or Anything

For many years, when I was a teacher and the month of May rolled around, the end of the school year would feel like a surprise. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now only a few weeks long. Earlier in the year, I had to plan extensively to fill each class period. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

I remember vacations I did not want to ever end, or conversations, concerts, a sunset over the Caldera in Santorini, Greece.  I felt this moment might never come again and I wanted to hold on tightly. Or I felt I had missed something, or I preferred where I was to where I was going next.

 

Understanding the passage of time and ending anything, whether it be the school or a calendar year, a project, a vacation, or a job can be difficult, painful ⎼or exciting. Just saying the word ‘ending’ can sound dramatic and consequential.

 

We might like what we are doing and not want to let it go.  We might resist what is new because it is threatening or scary or maybe something from the past is still calling us. Or it might be difficult to accept the end because we never fully grasped or embraced the beginning. To begin something new we need to let go of something old.

 

 

Compassion Can Transform the Energy of Stress into Helpful Action 

 

A school year or a work project is never just about the work. Relationships are formed. A community, maybe a family, is created. When the work is completed, the community ceases. This must be recognized, reflected upon, celebrated. The other people must be honored. After all, you came together, learned together, struggled through time and tasks together, and hopefully cared for each other. You pay a price if you forget this basic fact.

 

The fact of this community ending is part of the stress you feel. Some years, I created interactive final demonstrations for certain classes. For example, students had to discuss, in a small group, pre-selected essential questions related to the class subject matter and then answer follow-up questions posed by other teachers and university professors.  We did this at my home or at night at the school, so we did the work and then shared a meal. Years afterwards, former students have told me they remembered the event and had found it meaningful….

 

To read the whole post, please go to MindfulTeachers.org.

Befriending Yourself And Creating A Mindful Learning Community

One of the most valuable lessons a teacher can teach is how to be a friend to yourself and to others. You teach this when your classroom functions as a mindful learning community and when students cooperate in their own education. It needs to be taught both through modeling by the teacher as well as through designed lessons.

 

Before giving these practices to students, practice them yourself. They must be real to you in order for you to make them real to others. And then close your eyes and hold in your mind and heart an image of your students doing the exercise. Notice if you feel comfortable leading the students. If you feel discomfort, is it because you are not yet ready, or the students?

 

For too many of our children, unconditional love, and a sense of security and safety, are more of a yearning than a reality. They need to learn how to be kind, compassionate and non-judgmental to themselves so they can more easily show it to others, and the classroom provides a golden opportunity to practice this.

 

A Classroom Practice of Mindful Questioning and Inquiry

 

After you enter the classroom and greet students, you might ask:

 

What do you want from a friend? What does the word ‘friend’ mean to you? 

 

Then ask students if they would like to go deeper with this question. If they answer affirmatively, ask them to sit up comfortably and close their eyes partly or fully. Then:

 

Gently, place your attention on your breath. Breathe in, letting your body expand, be nourished by the air. Then breathe out, noticing what it’s like to let go of the air, tension, and settle down. Do that for another breath or two.

 

Then think of the word ‘Friend.’ What words describe for you what being a friend means or what marks a person as a true friend? What thoughts, images, feelings? Simply notice what arises and move on to the next word or breath.

 

Think of any books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen that describe a good friendship.What characters come to mind? What makes him or her a friend? How does one friend treat another?

 

Take one more breath and then return your attention to the classroom.

 

Write down what you heard or saw in your mind.

 

With the whole class, or in small groups, let students share what they feel comfortable sharing about the experience. List on the chalkboard the words that students say they associate with being a friend.

 

What marks someone as a friend? Did honesty come to you? Care? Stimulating conversation? Loyalty?

 

Loyalty can be a mixed bag. You don’t want yes-men or women. You don’t want fakes. Do you do want someone who values who you are, not who they want you to be? Do you want someone who will think of your well-being as being as important as their own?….

 

To read the whole post, go to Mindfulteachers.org.

 

Exploring Our Humanity with Mindfulness: What Our Bodies Can Teach us

How can we, as teachers, use mindfulness, visualization and inquiry practices to study history and what it means to be human? One way is to look clearly at our own body and the way our mind works. We often overlook the obvious. We are our own most direct example of what it means to be human. And what could be more important in this time of high anxiety and threat than a better understanding of our shared humanity and ourselves?

 

Ask students: Did you ever consider that inside yourself might lie answers to some of the deepest questions about human history and what it means to be a human being?

 

Standing Practice:

 

Ask students to stand up from their chairs and stretch. Raise their hands over their heads, rise up on their toes and reach up to the sky. Then drop their heels and stretch to one side and the other without getting too close to their neighbor.

 

Say to them: Now stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, hands resting comfortably at your sides, eyes partly or fully closed. Put your focus on your breath. Feel how your body breathes in, and then out.

 

Put your attention on the area around your eyes and feel what happens there as you breathe in. Do you feel a slight expansion in the area as you breathe in? Then breathe out, and feel how that area breathes out. You might feel a release of tension, a settling down. You can feel the same in your jaw as you inhale, and exhale.

 

Then put your attention on your shoulders as you breathe in. Do you feel your shoulders expand as you breathe in? And as you exhale, feel how they contract, pushes air up and out.

 

Then put your attention on your hands. They, too, breathe. As you breathe in, feel your hands expand with the in breath—and let go, settle down with the outbreath.

 

As you breathe in, feel the air with your whole body. Feel the space around you, in front, behind, at your sides. And as you breathe out, just allow your attention to take in how it feels to stand there, strong, relaxed, and attentive.

 

What does standing upright like this enable you to do? Dogs or cats are amazing beings. They can leap, twist, and run for a short distance faster that you. They can smell and hear better than you. But not see better, not see over the grass or tables as well as you. A dog or cat uses their paws to run. But by standing upright, you can walk for long distances and free your hands for other activities. What else does standing enable you to do? What are the limitations of standing?

 

Now slowly breathe in. And as you exhale, open your eyes and come back to the room, noticing how you feel.

 

Sitting Mindfulness, Visualization and Other Inquiry Practices:

 

Choose and combine practices from those that follow, which fit your course material, age and interests of students. Have students sit up comfortably, breathe calmly, and close their eyes partly or fully. Then ask them to:

 

*Rest your hands comfortably on your lap or desk in front of you. Feel how your hands feel resting where they are. Move your fingers and feel their dexterity and strength. How many species are there that can do that? How are your hands different than a paw, your fingers different from a claw?…

 

To read the whole post, go to MindfulTeachers.org.

 

Relieving Student Apathy: Apathy Is A Symptom of Greater Societal Problems

Recently, I read a discussion on a FB page for educators and social action (the Bad Ass Teachers) that hit home for me. The discussion was about the omnipresence of student apathy and the expectation that teachers were responsible for entertaining and freeing students from this curse. I remembered this exact feeling from 20-30 years ago. Not only did I have to shape lessons to fit a wide variety of student ability levels and interests. I felt I had to be as clever and exciting as the tv or movies they were used to watching. (There were no or few cell phones then.)

The situation has become even worse today. One teacher-author, who had written a post about the situation, spoke about teachers being expected to “be all things to all people” and students have become “consumer learners.” She described a workshop where she was encouraged to design her teaching to be like a video game. How else could she expect to hold student attention? She questioned if a video game is the best model for how to shape a lesson. 

Teachers face a long list of problems every day the corporate and media attacks on public education, the detrimental effects of standardized testing, the tremendous inequality in school resources and funding, the poverty, homelessness and increasing anxiety and depressionexperienced both by young people and adults, etc..  And, of course, let’s add the addiction to drugs or digital devices. But should we also add apathy to this list?

Student apathy is not the main problem. It is but a symptom of all the problems listed above all of which can reach deeply into a child’s psyche. Many students can’t find the motivation to engage in their own education because they can’t find themselves. They don’t see themselves in their own lives or are afraid, or too traumatized, to do so.

They have been taught to think their emotions come from someone or somewhere else, not themselves. When they feel anger, they think the object of the anger is the cause of it. Or they experience love or jealousy and feel the object of their love is in control, not them. When they get bored, they think someone other than themselves is responsible. They do not understand how their emotions arise

Students feel apathy and boredom when a wall has been constructed between what they feel, think, or yearn to engage with and what is presented to them as the possibilities of their life and education. They have been conditioned to not let anything too real get too close¾or their lives have been too real and frightening, and they can’t or don’t know how to face it. This might help explain why one of the biggest concerns for young people in this nation today is safety….

To read the whole blog, click on this link to the Good Men Project.