Lucid Dreaming and Breathing, to Reduce Pain and Clear the Mind

Last night around 3 am, I woke up due to pain in my upper chest. The pain was a weight pressing down on me. I didn’t know what was causing it, so there was also a little panic. I was sweating and my heart started beating faster. I thought about trying to just go back to sleep but realized the pain was too strong and my worry too present. I got out of bed, put on warmer clothing, grabbed a book, and went downstairs to sit in the recliner in the living room.

 

But I didn’t feel like turning on the light. I was too tired. So I just focused on breathing into my chest. I felt my body expand as I inhaled, and relax, settle down, as I exhaled. I focused on the sensations and let go of the thoughts.

 

And when I breathed in, the expansion of the chest decreased the pain. The pain was no longer one solid block. And I noticed it was not as continuous as I first thought it was; there were gaps. Sometimes, my hand would hurt instead. Or I could feel my back pressing comfortably against the chair, or my stomach expand and contract. My breathing got slower and calmer.

 

I went deeper into the pain and remembered similar ones from the past. I realized I could feel a restriction in my esophagus. It was not a heart attack causing the pain but probably acid reflux.

 

And then I fell asleep. But the sleep was unusual, and in spurts. I would wake up mentally, check in on myself, while my body was largely frozen and asleep. I couldn’t move my arms or legs. At first, I felt very vulnerable and scared, but then realized this inability to move was normal. Normal sleep is called paradoxical because you are unable to move your larger muscles, yet your mind, especially while dreaming, can be very active.

 

What was not normal was that I was mentally awake while being asleep. I could see one of our cats sleeping under the nightlight in front of me. Another one jumped off the couch and went to eat from his bowl. I could hear him but couldn’t move my head to see him. This state is called lucid dreaming. In some cultures and traditions, it is taught as part of meditation or healing. I entered this state rarely⎼ usually to change or escape from a dream I didn’t like. I decided I could wake up if I needed to do so.

 

And then I relaxed and fell asleep again, only to awaken a little later. And then I fell asleep for about three hours.

 

It might seem counter-intuitive to mentally go toward a pain instead of trying to immediately cut off all feeling. Certainly, pain can set the mind to screaming, so this is sometimes impossible to do. But to actually go toward the pain can signal to yourself you can relax, you can face the situation, and this can often decrease it and stop the mind from imagining threats that aren’t there.

 

Calming your mind can also allow you to feel and think clearly enough to gather the information the pain is sending you. You can then close your eyes and imagine taking a certain medication and discern if the feel of that pill would be helpful, or if drinking a certain tea or walking around or eating would increase or decrease it. Or whether you should call an ambulance or ask your partner or roommate to wake up and drive you to the emergency room. You could feel out different courses of action with more clarity.

 

However, the time to practice how to be calm in emergencies is now, when you are not experiencing one. Practicing closing your eyes partly or fully and taking 3 slower, deeper breaths when you notice you are angry or feel threatened is a good way to start. Or practicing mindfulness each day.

 

Of course, sometimes you immediately need that pill or ambulance. But how you respond to pain can either increase or decrease it. Simply allowing yourself to be aware and to be calm can not only reduce the pain, but clear the mind so you know better how to act.

 

This blog post was syndicated by the Good Men Project.

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.

 

Embracing Winter: And the Dread that Spring Will Never Return

I am looking out my second story bedroom window into the old orchard that surrounds the house and is being covered in snow. The snow makes the wind visible in constantly shifting currents. One minute, the whole earth seems to pause as if it was taking a breath in. The frozen wind disappears. And then, it breathes out and the frozen fury appears.

 

In November, when we set the clocks back, I felt a sense of trepidation, a fear of the approaching winter and of what it might bring with it. This year might bring more fear than most, due to the unstable political climate. Now, it’s almost the solstice and the holidays. Winter is clearly here, despite the calendar date. Snow covers the ground. It’s cold and the nights are longer and the daylight disappears faster each day.

 

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. The first snow, beautiful and exciting.

 

Yet, for others, winter is a turning in. We cuddle within a new skin or shell, not only of warm clothing, but of doubt. We wonder if the warmth will ever return. Will the earth ever bear fruit again? Will the dark continue to dominate the light?

 

And probably ever since there have been human beings, ever since there has been life on this planet, this dread has been experienced. Not only due to snow⎼ or ice-covered orchards and roads ⎼ but the earth itself turning within.

 

Somehow, we need to embrace rather than turn away from this challenging time, and appreciate this snow fall, the light reflected off snow drops, even the feel of being cuddled by warm clothing. The felt need to get to work, school or wherever can create a conflict within, set us at war with ourselves, and make it difficult to embrace this time. So, we need to be aware of our own warmth. …

 

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

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.

Listen for the Earth Breathing: How About A Moment of Calm and Clarity?

In these times of great fear and anger over the inhumanity and chaos in our political system, we need to find some sort of calm and clarity inside ourselves or we’d want to turn away from the news or go nuts. If we don’t find some sort of clarity, how could we have any idea of what political or social actions to take? How could we help anyone else in need if we can’t help ourselves? So one thing I do is meditate, and treat myself and others as kindly as I can. If I can do nothing else, at least I can do that.

 

Close your eyes, take a comfortable breath, and simply listen. Many of us do this too infrequently. We don’t give ourselves a break to listen deeply to other people, to our own inner voice, or to the earth breathing. So give yourself a break. Give yourself this one moment. And listen for the earth breathing. Can you hear it?

 

Maybe it’s summer and a cool wind breathes in and out, cooling the day. Sometimes, it is a deep breath. Sometimes it’s very shallow. Sometimes, you can’t hear or feel it and you wonder if the earth is alive at all.

 

Then you hear bird calls, especially in the morning and at dusk. And bees and maybe other flying creatures…..

 

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

How Do We Better Understand the Monkey Mind? ⎼ Thoughts of Mysterious Dogs, Garage Bands, and Arguing Cooks

Last week, I signed up to take a class in a subject that greatly interested me. But today, as the day of the class drew near, the thought went through my mind, “Why did you sign up for this?” The class would demand considerable attention and necessitate driving to a near-by city. I chose to take this class; there was no force or compulsion involved, just a desire to learn. Yet, suddenly, I was “at two minds” about it.

 

Our minds can be so bizarre. Sometimes, thoughts, images, or feelings that seem to have nothing to do with me can appear in my mind and dance around inside me, act out some drama, and then disappear.

 

Some thoughts I can understand, like thinking about a project I am working on or a past event that concerned me or trying to understand a painful sensation in my body. But I’ve also had images of mysterious dogs walk through my mind. I’ve walked in space, seen stones levitate, watched people I don’t know argue about what to cook for dessert ⎼ all produced by my imagination in the theatre of my mind. This morning as I woke up, an image of a garage band popped into mind, and I don’t have either a garage or any inclination to play music.

 

Buddhists talk about “monkey mind” or how the mind leaps about like a monkey in the trees. This monkey or where he comes from is a mystery we all partake in.

 

We could enjoy all this creative drama except sometimes thoughts hurt or confuse us. We feel hurt by thoughts about people disliking us or we imagine others condemning us for not saying hello or missing a friend’s birthday. Or we condemn ourselves for not being brave enough to take a political action or falling asleep while meditating.

 

It would be great if we could just ignore such thoughts, (and sometimes we need to do so) but it’s not so easy. And a thought ignored can grow in size and fearsomeness by the energy of denial. Just like when we are confronted with a monster in our dreams, if we run away the monster grows in size and chases us. But if we look straight at it and hold our ground, the monster changes into something smaller in size, more familiar, and it slinks away.

 

And there are times that the actors in these wandering side shows in our mind actually have important truths to share with us, if we can take the time to listen clearly.

 

So, how do we understand and deal with thoughts that just pop into our heads?

 

Knowing Ourselves Directly with Mindfulness

 

Mindfulness is one such method for dealing with our thoughts. It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the world around us. We develop it through different daily practices. Such practices provide a methodology and curriculum for educating ourselves about the workings of our own mind and of how we relate to the world.

 

For example, sit up comfortably, close your eyes partly or fully, and turn your awareness to your breath or your hands resting in your lap. Gently notice how your body or your hands feel as you breathe in and then breathe out. If any thoughts arise, notice them, then let them go as you return attention to the breath.

 

Only by calming our mind and hearing our thoughts or seeing the imagery coursing through our mind can we exercise some choice about what we do with them. We can then make the best out of our experiences and are more likely to be helpful to others and less likely to cause pain. And this also works in reverse ⎼ the more pain we cause others, the noisier our mind tends to be.

 

Our Theories and Beliefs About Ourselves Affect How Much of the World We Perceive

 

Our thoughts are part of the process of using language and imagination to integrate, organize and make sense of our experiences. We can learn more about this process by researching cognitive behavioral therapy, thought distortions, and common ways our brains bias perceptionand thinking. We can study Jungian psychology, particularly the shadow⎼ that part of ourselves that we hide away, reject, and instead of owning we project onto other people.

 

We can study the role the human brain played in our evolution, enabling us to survive even when confronted with other bigger and stronger species. Our thoughts and imagination give us the amazing power to see in our mind what doesn’t yet exist and hear symphonies not yet written.

 

Yet this amazing mental ability to imagine works of art and technology that don’t yet exist also allows us to imagine threats that don’t exist.  When our thoughts and images are misunderstood, they can take us in harmful directions. Psychologists talk about a negativity bias; we are too ready think of the world in negative terms and we do so in order to prepare ourselves to face any tough situation that might arise.

 

Another common bias that can make it difficult to perceive the harm that we do to ourselves and others is a confirmation bias. If we believe human beings are by nature untrustworthy, we are more likely to see evidence that confirms that bias and to ignore what might contradict it….

 

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

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.