Studying The Dreaming Mind At Home Or In The Classroom: Mindfulness And Dreams

Dreams have fascinated, confused, scared and inspired people probably ever since there were people on this earth. How can we not wonder about the often bizarre images and stories that fill our nights and sometimes wander into our days? The Epic of Gilgamesh, the tales of the Mesopotamian hero-king and possibly one of the first stories ever written, cites dream narratives. The Greeks had dream temples to help cure people of their ills. The German chemist, Friedrich Kekule claimed his discovery of the molecular structure of benzene came to him in a dream. Artists and scientists throughout history have spoken of the role of dreams in their work. The famed psychologist and theorist, Carl Jung, amongst many others, have explored and written about the role dreaming plays in the psyche.

 

When I was teaching, I noticed my students shared this fascination. Every time the subject of dreaming came up in a class, students became excited and engaged. Many students expressed their wonder about the cause or source of their dream images. Dreams can wake us up to realize there is more to reality, more to our own minds than we thought. Or as Hamlet put it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

 

We dream every night, even if we’re unaware of it. Although neuroscientists still haven’t come to understand the full role of dreaming in human consciousness, many speak of the role it might play in integrating material from our lives and forming coherent memories. For example, how often have you gone to sleep with a question and woken up with an answer, or at least a clearer understanding of the question? We might think of dreaming as a phenomenon distinct and separate from other aspects of mind, but it is one part of the process we use to think about our lives and construct a viewpoint of the world.

 

In some of my high school psychology classes we left time to share dreams. I encourage other teachers to do the same—if students are interested. Or if you’re not a teacher, to do this with interested friends, or maybe parents when children wonder about a dream. Teachers should only do it if they take time to study methods of group dream work as well as study their own dreams. I don’t ask students to do what I won’t do.

 

For the last few days, instead of my dreams disappearing as soon as I woke up, like they usually do, some stayed with me. One question is why that is. Another is what the dreams are saying, if anything.

 

In one recent dream, I was standing by a bridge I drove over to get to the school where I used to teach and noticed a break in the metal under-structure. The exact problem changed as I explained it to people in the dream. The season changed too, as did the location of the bridge. In some renditions of the dream bridge, it was located in Queens, NYC, where I grew up. In that image, it was winter and there was snow on the ground. In others, it was in Ithaca, where I now live, and the season was a cool late summer.

 

As I tried to tell the dream people about the break in the bridge, there was a definite awareness in my mind of how others might take what I said. It was a little bit of lucid dreaming, or of conscious awareness while dreaming, and the present and past could change in one stroke.

 

In another dream, my wife and I moved our possessions into an apartment rented in some city that was new to us. When I went out to complete errands, I couldn’t get back to the apartment. I worried about my wife. Worried about what would happen to what I had left behind. And there were other dreams like this one. In one, I was back in college, trying to get to a morning class, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get to the class. Things kept getting in the way.

 

So, what in my life is getting in my way? What new activity do I want to start that I can’t manage to do? And what is the bridge to doing it—and what is the possible “break” (or “brake”) in the bridge to my future?

 

Dreams can mean so many different things. One approach I like is to think of them as stories built from residues of my day floating in my unconscious, as partly completed expressions of who I was in a particular moment, a partly realized idea, or partly recognized emotion. And I carry them in my mind and body until somehow, in the dreaming world or in waking life, I recognize or complete them.

 

So, to complete the idea or emotion, I try to let them speak through me and listen openly, without reacting judgmentally. They might complete themselves when openly witnessed and then no longer demand I rent then mind space. When I hide them away, the energy of hiding animates them. The energy of the suppressed joins with the energy of suppressing and thus lives in me in a distorted way. But when I step back as an audience and let them act on the stage of my mind, I know what’s there. I listen for and learn from myself. Instead of living the act of suppressing, I live the energy of open listening.

 

When you have trouble understanding what’s true, or can’t solve a problem, or can’t understand someone’s motivation—step back, take a walk in the woods, meditate— or dream on it. When you first get up in the morning and your mind hasn’t filled with thoughts of all you have to do for the day, this is the time to create a theatre of mind, or a listening space for dreams or the unconscious to speak to the daytime mind. This is the space for what was unheard in ourselves to be heard and embraced, and let go.

 

You could write down whatever you remember of a dream. Even if you remember very little at first, the act of honoring by recording might allow more to be remembered. And after you write something down, look at the words from different angles, or as puns. What you mindfully listen to, you hear. What you hide away continues on as a mystery you never solve.

 

Although sometimes a dream has a message, other times the purpose of dreams is simply to be dreamed and experienced. And most dreams are not to be taken literally. As Carl Jung and others have pointed out, dreams speak in their own language, a language more symbolic than literal. And like other symbols, there is more than one way to understand their meaning.

 

All humans dream. Every time you do it, just like every time you open your eyes and breathe, you share an experience with countless others. You share an experience humans have had for thousands of years. The bridge you cross over, as well as your destination, is this very moment, both uniquely your own and shared with billions of others. Being aware of your dreams can help you be mindfully aware in your waking life (and when mindful in your waking life, it can help you be aware in your dreaming). It can wake you up to your shared humanity, if you’d let it.

 

 

** If you’re a teacher and want to discuss dreams with students, I suggest you first establish an agreed upon process. One book to help think about a process is Jeremy Taylor’s Dream Work: Techniques for Discovering the Creative Powers in Dreams. However, Taylor’s techniques need to be adapted to the classroom. I would not share more than one or two dreams a day. I wouldn’t ask even for whole dreams. The purpose of dream discussion in a class is, of course, more modest than in a dream group led by a professional. It is to help students learn from peers about dreaming and to be better able to hear what their own mind and body is telling them. Maybe they might also learn more about the power of metaphor.

 

Students should agree to confidentiality and not sharing the dreamer’s identity out of class. Talk with students about not interrupting the person who is sharing. Only the dreamer can know what a dream means, so take the shared dream as one’s own. Instead of students interpreting each other’s dreams, ask them to notice their own responses, feelings and thoughts. They can say, after hearing another dreamer speak, ”I felt this when you said that.” Adopt an attitude of curiosity toward the dream. In dreams when you’re pursued and run away, the pursuer grows in size. When you turn toward the pursuer and study him or her, she gets smaller in size.

 

**Another resource is an insightful, recently published blog by Elaine Mansfield called “9 Ways to Unpack a Powerful Dream.”

 

***And remember to vote this Tuesday, 11/7. In New York, I urge you to vote against the Constitutional Convention, and vote everywhere for local candidates who will protect the environment, health care, public education, voting rights, etc. and oppose Mr. T. Exercise what power you have or you, we might lose it.

 

****The photo is from a bridge near the village where I lived in Sierra Leone. It had to be reconstructed every year and crossed over a river with crocodiles in it.

Engaging Students’ Imaginations in Their World: Some Features of Imaginative Ecological Education

A Guest Blog By Gillian Judson

 

Imagination and Place are two concepts that are rarely given the educational importance they are due. Each is often considered, for different reasons, peripheral to “real” learning and the work of mainstream schools. And yet, it isn’t difficult to stir up support for either one. There are obvious benefits of imagination for learning and many teachers are open to learning more about how to connect their students to Place, because, among other reasons, they see the value of developing students’ ecological understanding—a sense of connection with and concern for the natural world—or, increasingly, because they are being mandated to do so as part of their teaching. In addition to being of interest to teachers, if one knows where to look, there is theoretical and practical support for centralizing both of these neglected educational concepts in one’s practice.

 

Dr. Kieran Egan’s (1997, 2005) theory of Imaginative Education (IE) provides a theoretical framework and rationale for incorporating students’ emotional and imaginative lives in teaching and an extensive range of resources to translate this into practice. In IE, content is shaped in ways that connect to the imaginative and emotional lives of students. Imagination is acknowledged, thus, as one of the main workhorses of learning and not just a “hook” for grasping students’ attention. Similarly, there is an increasingly broad base of literature indicating the theoretical importance of Place and Place-Based Education (PBE) for cultivating ecological understanding and practical means for doing so. Bring imaginative engagement and an interest in Place together and we enter the new pedagogical terrain of Imaginative Ecological Education (IEE).

 

Three principles—Feeling, Activeness, and Place—guide an imaginative and ecological approach to teaching (Judson, 2015).

 

Feeling

In order to know how to imaginatively engage their students with a topic teachers must, first, be imaginatively engaged themselves. This puts a spin on the idea of creating “wonder” in the classroom. Indeed, what it suggests is that teachers find, first, what it is that evokes their sense of wonder. This is the emotional connection that will then inform all subsequent planning for teaching. This is the source, often of “the story” on a topic, the emotional and imaginative insight that will inspire the way the teacher shapes her teaching. What the teacher’s initial engagement does is allow for the introduction of the topic to the student in an emotionally and imaginatively engaging way. The teacher’s role in choosing what aspects of a topic to introduce—when and where—is part of all classroom teaching. An IE approach simply makes the teacher’s decision about where or how to begin be informed by emotional and imaginative interests first. From here she uses her knowledge of the ways her students engage emotionally and imaginatively with the world around them, to shape her teaching in a way that leaves students feeling something about it. She employs tools of the imagination—what Egan (2005) calls “cognitive tools”—to engage her students in discovering the wonder in the topic.

 

Activeness

It is important to consider that simply being outside or doing things outside will not necessarily contribute to learning or to students’ sense of connection to nature (Blenkinsop, 2008; Takahashi, 2004). In IEE the aim is to cultivate what Arne Naess (2002) calls activeness. Activeness describes a profound internal form of relationship we can cultivate with the natural world that has the most potential impact on our understanding of nature. “To do a great many things is not enough; what is important is what we do and how it happens. It is those of our actions which affect our whole nature that I call activeness” (Naess, 2002, p. 76). Rather than a form of physical activity, activeness may be better characterized as “lingering in silence” or as “pause” (Naess, 2002, p. 2-3). Our somatic engagement in the world, the attunement of our senses with our surroundings and the engagement of our sense of pattern, musicality, among other tools of the body, contributes to activeness.

 

Place

There is a rich body of literature in PBE that discusses the educational value of students’ engagement in the natural world for making their learning meaningful. It is also argued that a long-term sense of care for the natural world and a sense of connectedness within it stems from direct, physical engagement in nature as a child. So, unlike most pedagogy created in the current climate of objectives-based teaching, IEE is teaching situated. It is connected to the local natural and cultural contexts in which students live and learn, through engagement of the imaginative means in which human beings make sense of place. IEE also considers place-making in imaginative terms; we are imaginative and emotional beings. We use our imaginations in making sense of the world around us. Through the engagement of place-making tools—the sense of relation, the formation of emotional attachments, and creation of special places—increased knowledge of place (including, for example, knowledge of flora and fauna, geological and cultural history, etc.) is paired with affective engagement.

 

Place-making Tools

One of the imaginative means through which oral language users develop a sense of place is through the formation of emotional attachments with particular features of their immediate environments as well as with particular processes or rituals they experience on a frequent basis. So, for example, the teddy bear or “blankie” contributes to the child’s sense of self and world, offering a needed source of comfort and security. That is, children often grow very attached to objects of permanence in their environments. The young child’s sense of self and place is often blurred, as they experience a highly participatory form of engagement in the world as oral language users. In addition to emotional attachments to objects, shared processes or rituals contribute to the child’s sense of belonging in a place, to the meaning of the place and what sets it apart in the child’s mind. One sees, of course, in the adult world, ways in which shared rituals or customs continue to contribute to the sense of place and one’s sense of belonging (e.g. raising of a flag or customary patterns of interacting).

 

Older students will be imaginatively making sense of a situation in ways that reflect their growing sense of an independent, separate reality. In terms of place-making, one notices more direct attempts by children to create special, and often personalized, places of their “own” as in forts and hideouts, personalized lockers or decorated bedrooms. The creation (or also discovery) of special places support a child’s attempt to deal with a new sense of reality by offering a secure place in which he often has autonomy and from which he can creatively—and safely—explore wider social, cultural or natural contexts. Place-making now seems to coincide with more direct forms of creative engagement in the world. A central premise of IEE is that by employing in our teaching, the place-making tools that students are already using to make sense of their situations, we can engage imagination in place-making as part of any unit of study. [For more information on cognitive tools of place-making see Judson (2010), or Fettes & Judson (2011).]

 

Concluding Thoughts

IEE offers means to teach a rich and varied curriculum in ways that acknowledge and nurtures the imaginative life of every child. I hope this far-too-brief introduction to imaginative ecological teaching principles and practices leaves you curious to learn more. (The IEE website: www.ierg.ca/iee or IEE posts).

 

References

Blenkinsop, S. (2008). Imaginative ecological education: Six necessary components. In G. Judson (Ed.), Imagination 360˚: Effective learning through the imagination (pp. 139-148). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Egan, K. (1997). Educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Egan, K. (2005). An imaginative approach to teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fettes, M. & Judson, G. (2011) Imagination and the cognitive tools of place-making. Journal of Environmental Education, 42 (2), pp. 123-135.

Judson, G. (2015). Engaging Imagination In Ecological Education: Strategies For Teaching. Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press.

Judson, G. (2010). A New Approach to Ecological Education: Engaging students’

imaginations in their world. New York: Peter Lang.

Naess, A. (2002). Life’s philosophy: Reason and feeling in a deeper world. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Takahashi, Y. (2004). Personal and social transformation: A complementary process toward ecological consciousness. In E. O’Sullivan, & M. M. Taylor (Eds.), Learning toward an ecological consciousness: Selected transformative practices (pp. 169-182). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

About the Author

Professor Gillian Judson is a consultant, researcher, and educator from Simon Fraser University, teaching courses in cognitive styles, environmental and imaginative education, and the awakening of wonder. She is the author of several books. Her latest publication is a co-authored book entitled Imagination and the Engaged Learner: Cognitive Tools for the Classroom. (Egan, K. & Judson, G. New York: Teachers’ College Press; 2016).

To Write Well, Write Truthfully

**This blog was also published by the Swenson Book Development website.

 

How do you write well? Probably thousands have written about this. On the surface, it seems writing is about language, which to a large extent it is. It seems it is about which words to use, or how to find a unique story or approach. But from my point of view, it really is about the mind and body that writes. It is about being truthful and real. If you fake it, your readers will know it. You will know it. The plot or argument won’t hold together. When it’s truthful to you, it will engage others.

 

And you don’t merely know a truth intellectually—you feel it. A word of beauty is really a path for feeling to follow, or it reveals the path feeling took to get to meaning. Without feeling, words are empty code. Dead. When a sentence feels off or incomplete or like it’s struggling for breath, it is wrong, no matter how attractive it looks. Don’t get distracted by good looks. It is the heart that counts.

 

Feelings arise before words and memories do. They arise with the first hint of awareness. You probably have experienced not knowing what you want to write until you put something down on paper, or in your computer. The act of writing opens up the conscious to the depths normally unconscious. It is creating and thinking. It is revelation.

 

So the first step in writing and creating is being aware of feeling. I do that by meditating, exercising and reading. Meditation clears my mind and increases awareness and focus. Exercise energizes me and clears away blocks and obsessions. Reading provides imagery, insights, and intellectual challenges.

 

The philosopher, psychologist, and writer Dr. Jean Huston said in a workshop I attended, that immersing yourself in poetry makes beauty readily available to you. Beauty will then percolate through the unconscious and emerge in one’s speech and writing. The same with reading stories, psychology, philosophy, history and such. Reading reveals doors which meditation unlocks.

 

One meditation is to focus attention on the tip of the nose and count breaths. This develops a focused attention which is also peripherally aware of what is going on inside you. All you have to do is count to ten. Listen to the count. The directions for meditation or mindfulness might sound simple. It is the mind which adds the complexities.

 

In school, on hard plastic chairs, we sit near the edge of the chair so we’re neither slouched nor rigid. Close your eyes partly or fully, rest your hands on your lap, and put your attention, continuously, at the tip of the nose and feel the sensations of breathing. Feel the moving air, its temperature, consistency as you breathe in—and out. Inhale. Then exhale and say “onnnnne” to yourself. Continue to be aware throughout the breath. When the exhalation completes itself, allow the in-breath to happen on its own. Then exhale with “twoooo.” Just count. Gently maintain your awareness without trying to change the rhythm of the breath. Continue in this fashion, counting the exhalations until you get to ten. Then, instead of saying eleven, go back to one. Do this sequence once more until you get to ten, and again.

 

If any feelings arise, be kind to yourself. Notice what’s there and then return to the breath. No internal commenting is necessary. The same if any thoughts arise. Just notice the arising or the whisper of thought. Then let it dissipate as you return your attention to the counting and the feel of air passing in and out. That’s how you start. Two minutes for the first time is good. Your body will ask for more if you don’t force it.

 

If, or when, you get lost, and you lose the count or awareness of the breath, just focus on the fact that you noticed you were lost. This is the prime lesson. Everyone gets lost sometimes. It is the fact that now you are found, and how you respond to it that is important. Enjoy being found.

 

The meditation develops a sense of presence that is inherently creative and curious. Understanding will come more quickly to you. If you look at your ideas or writing in this state, you will readily notice what feels off or incomplete.

 

Another wonderful practice is proprioceptive writing, created by Linda Trichter Metcalf and Tobin Simon. It is a “method for finding your authentic voice,” and hearing your personal truth. It asks you to use a pen or pencil instead of a computer because when you write with the hand, you actually shape the words and thus have a greater ability to feel and hear what you write. It is especially appropriate for the brainstorm or first draft. Put your pen to the paper and write whatever comes to you. Maybe you have a question or topic in mind you want to explore—respond to that. If you get lost or confused, write down your confusion. “Write what you hear. Hear what you write.” Don’t edit. Just let your self go free. Edit later. Write until what you hear feels real, honest, exciting, and large enough to do justice to the topic.

 

Sometimes, when you don’t know where to begin an essay or can’t figure out how to answer a question, you need to begin with the confusion. Start your brainstorm or the essay or story itself by voicing your confusion. By going directly into it, it unravels.

 

Study yourself. When are you most clear and awake? In college, my best time was late at night, when the world was quiet and my school day complete. Now, it is the morning, when I’m fully awake but still close to dreaming. The morning sun—the freshness of the light—gets to me.

 

Think of writing as a process. To prepare, you immerse yourself in a topic until you are clear on what drives you. Then you brainstorm or do proprioceptive writing, recording initial ideas without care about spelling or craft—with honesty and feeling. Then later you craft. You plot. And then you test it, share it, think about how others will hear it, and re-write it. Actually, you constantly repeat the steps of the creative process. You prepare through immersion. You propose sentences, plot lines, arguments and counterarguments and question them. You then allow yourself to be aware of frustration and feelings. Then you incubate; you step back, take a walk in the woods or meditate or sleep on it. And in the morning, or after the meditation, the answer will be there, or you will have a new perspective. The material will be integrated. Illumination will follow.

 

When you get lost or don’t know what to write, return to the source. Go quiet. Work with your mind and body, not against it. But be diligent and commit. Commit to your work and to the process of writing itself. If you focus on the result, you will force it. Instead of valuing the ends over the means—the celebration, acclaim, the satisfaction of completing a project—love the process itself. To love the process is to turn your whole life into a creative act. It is to value each moment you live.

 

What a beautiful way to live.

 

 

Teaching In A Period of Anxiety and Threat

How would growing up in an age of the minority-elected President influence our children? If you’re a parent, you might be thinking about this question too often. If you’re a child in a public school, a person of color, a recent immigrant, an LGBT, a Muslim or a Jewish person, a female, a person who believes in civil rights, a free press, or a democrat—the list of who might be threatened is almost endless. How do you teach?

 

Just a few years ago, teachers started noticing a clear increase in anxiety in the children they taught. Now, it’s even worse. Even back before Mr. T. was sworn in or elected, a negative effect was noticed in school children by the SPLC and NEA. Teachers recently have talked about how his election has led to children acting out more, being more argumentative, angry, anxious and less willing to listen to others, as if they were bringing into the classroom the emotions and arguments from home or the media. There’s been an increase in bullying, use of verbal slurs, harassment. So, what do you do?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by your response as a teacher, by all of our responses, than by the situation itself. Your response educates the child in what is possible, in what it means to be a human being. A person becomes a bully, not a clown or a desperate person, not only by his or her actions but by controlling how you perceive them. Your response is your freedom. Schools can begin with programs against bullying and increasing the understanding and practice of empathy; teach social-emotional skills.

 

In November of 2015, I wrote a blog about facing terror. In a way, what I said then is relevant now. “How do you talk with your children, or if you are a teacher, with your students, about… any acts of terror and violence, [or the new administration] or whenever something dreadful happens and you feel frightened or pissed off?  You might feel numb, scared, mute. You might want to cry out for revenge, or cry out to stop the killing. All understandable. All emotion is understandable. But what do you do with it? And how do you teach your children or students about it?”

 

“This is a complex question and I think answering it needs to be part of the discussion in families and in the curriculum. There are at least two directions this can take. One is teaching children how to face emergencies. The other dimension is helping students learn about the situation and learn about the attacks, what led to them and what might be done to prevent further violence.”

 

“First, I suggest starting by feeling and hearing what is going on in yourself. You have to be honest and willing to face uncomfortable feelings and look deeply into your own ways of thinking. To get out of the way of a thrown object you have to first see it. Then you need to hear from students. What do you feel? What responses to the violence have you heard or seen? [Or what do you feel about the administration?] By listening, you say to yourself and your students, ‘you are strong enough to face this and I care enough to listen.’ You teach empathy and emotional awareness.”

 

Ask students: How can you feel more comfortable and less anxious here, in the classroom? Work together with students to make explicit what you and the students need in order to create a supportive, caring atmosphere—that is within your power. Ask the children open-ended questions followed with more explicit ones. For example, What does caring look like to you? Is being kind important to you? What is kindness? What do you feel when someone is kind to you? What about being heard? What about feeling the discussion is relevant to your life?

 

If you can, lead the students in imaginative inquiry practices using questions based on student responses. For example, if they pick out kindness as one characteristic of a supportive classroom, go with it. Start with a short mindfulness practice. Say to them: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and either close your eyes partly or fully, or let them rest on a blank surface in front of you. Can you feel your breath? Feel yourself take a gentle breath in. Then feel it go out. Do that again; focus on your breathing in—and then breathing out. No hurry. Put your attention on the area around your mouth and notice how your mouth feels as you breathe in. Then notice what happens as you breathe out. Do the same with your shoulders. Notice how your shoulders respond, expand as you breathe in. Notice how your shoulders let go, relax as you breathe out.

 

Now let come to mind the word kindness. Did you ever see someone being kind? Or meet someone you considered kind? What did he or she do that was kind? Just notice it in your mind and body. Who was the person who was kind? Who was she or he kind to? What makes an action kind? What words come to mind along with kindness?

 

What do you imagine the person felt when he or she was treated with kindness? Just imagine that feeling. What do you think the person felt who was kind? Just sit for a moment with the feeling of kindness, or being kind.

 

Once you share what you and the students think about kindness or caring, and what is necessary to create the supportive community children say they need, pledge to each other that you will do all you can to act accordingly. Also, if possible, add to the curriculum other social-emotional forms of learning to help children be more aware of how their actions affect others, affect their own emotions and the atmosphere in the classroom and their own sense of empowerment.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. How do you face what is difficult? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, stress, being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life. Only if you know that discomfort can be helpful and is not abnormal can you allow yourself to be aware of it. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, and recognize them for what they are, you can act in ways that utilize their energy without them dominating you. You learn from them and let them go. You can’t always control what arises in your life, or mind, but you can determine your response.

 

The more aware you are of your own mental and emotional processes, the more freedom you have in your actions and the more readily you learn. How do you teach this? Start as you did with the mindfulness practice you used with kindness. Then ask students to: notice any sensations that arise. Do it as you would if you were on the shore of a stream and were seeing and hearing the sounds of the water, noticing any stones in the bed of the stream. Notice where the sensations are, how they begin and end. They are like the water flowing and bends in the course of the stream. Then go to other places in the body. Notice also any thoughts. They are like whirlpools in the water. Just keep your attention on noticing what arises and dissipates, and, after you notice something, return your awareness to the breath. If your mind drifts away and you notice it, or you lose focus on the breath and realize it, the realization means you are now found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that, emphasize that.

 

This is just the beginning. I would also recommend intense physical exercise and the study of martial arts, for example, to develop inner discipline, gratitude, patience, and confidence. Physical strength and conditioning can aid mental clarity and focus. I would study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss “What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy?” I’d add media literacy to the curriculum so students learn to spot bias, and possibly even how to detect lies as part of the study of emotion. And compassion: we need to dig deeply into what compassion is, for ourselves and for others. But these topics are for another day.

 

What are you doing, if you’re a teacher, to help your students? If you’re a parent, to help your children? If you’re in a relationship, to help your partner? If you’re feeling anxious yourself—what are you doing to help you face adversity with as clear a mind as you can bring to the task?

Beginnings: How Do We Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?

There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.

 

To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.

 

To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.

 

First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.

 

The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.

 

I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development.  You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.

 

Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions.  Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?

 

Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are.  When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.

 

What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.

You Don’t Teach Mindfulness, You Share It.

Bringing mindfulness practice into a classroom is one of the most productive and helpful things you as a teacher could do for your students and yourself. There is so much that mindfulness can teach you, about your own mind, about the relationship between your mind and the environment around you, you and others. So don’t even think of mindfulness as something you are teaching students. Instead, think of it as sharing something you enjoy and find beneficial. Think about it as something which facilitates a positive educational relationship between you and your students.

 

When you lead students in the practice, make leading your practice. Only introduce in the classroom what you yourself have digested. That way you lead not from something you have read about or memorized but from your own awareness in the moment. You open yourself to your own mind in order to be in touch with what the students are experiencing. You face your thoughts, feelings, sensations, fears, joys to show students that it can be done. And by entering the classroom with the mindfulness you have developed in your own practice, you illustrate the benefits of practice.

 

So you can’t lead students in mindfulness unless you practice it on your own. As my Karate teacher, Hidy Ochiai, said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” If you don’t want to practice mindfulness yet, you can still start the class with silence or progressive relaxation and imagery. Sometimes, I ask students to listen to a singing bowl and determine how long they can hear its fading song.

 

Only if you are familiar with the inner landscape revealed by mindfulness can you lead students through it. If you don’t practice, students will know it. Just be honest with students when answering questions. If you don’t know something, say so.

 

When I first started introducing mindfulness to my classes, I never led a practice until students asked me to do it. I always talked first about research on the benefits of mindfulness and how it had benefitted me. I told stories about proficient meditators. I wanted to make it personal, real, exciting. One story was about the man many neuroscientists and magazines called “the happiest man alive,” Mathieu Ricard. Ricard holds a doctorate in Biology and is a Tibetan monk. A few of my students and I heard him speak at a conference on education and thought that he was one of the most incisive speakers we had ever heard. The result of all this was that students almost pleaded with me to give them instruction and time to practice.

 

In magazines and books on mindfulness, experts talk about practicing because it decreases stress and anxiety, improves focus, attention, and emotional clarity. But there is a hidden danger here. The answer to the question, “Why practice mindfulness?” is not to reduce stress, etc.. Practice mindfulness in order to practice mindfulness. Practice mindfulness because when you’re mindful you’re more fully awake in your own life. If you practice in order to reduce stress, what happens when, in your practice, you feel stressed? Or you feel frightened? Or bored? You then turn away. You feel like your experience was bad and that you were unsuccessful. No. If you feel your stress, but aren’t controlled by it, you were very successful. When you feel sensations and thoughts associated with stress as something you can study and learn from but don’t have to respond to, then you can let them go. When you notice your habitual response to a situation or sensation, then you can free yourself from the habit. You feel capable of handling whatever arises.

 

When you practice, thoughts, insights, fear and joy all come to you. The object of mindfulness, as I said, is to be aware of all this. This requires that you value that awareness. When I meditate or practice mindfulness, I sometimes get insights into my blog or what I might teach. I value the blog and my teaching, so I get the urge to write down the insight. I fear losing it. But when I begin to write, I am no longer aware of my awareness. I am also no longer in the mindset that fostered my insight. By grasping onto the thought as if it were a valued intellectual possession, I lose the insight-mind and replace it with a grasping mind.

 

Some teachers who practice mindfulness feel uncomfortable sharing it with students. They have this image of what a mindfulness teacher should be. This image has feelings attached to it, maybe feelings of not being good enough. Treat this image and the attached feelings in the same way that I have to treat my urge to write everything down. Just notice it and let it go. The image and feelings are just a construct that came into your mind only so you could notice how you were thinking and let it go.

 

Lead mindfulness practice as if it were a gift, not just from you to your students but to you from the students, the school and your profession. Then you will inspire your students. Mindfulness will grow. If you try to lead what you don’t value enough to practice, why should the students value it? Mindfulness will disappear. It will become just another good intentioned educational technique that people never committed to enough to make it transformational. Make it transformational for yourself. Commit to the practice and you and your students will benefit greatly.

 

A note: As I re-read this blog, I feel the influence of Hidy Ochiai in every aspect of it. A good teacher’s influence is ubiquitous. It hits us in unanticipated ways. In this case it made me deeper and kinder. Thank you, Sensei.