Using Mindfulness and Empathic Imagination in Teaching the Story From Day One

I’d like to share with you what I learned from teaching a middle school class called “The Story From Day One,” which integrated mindfulness and visualization exercises with the language arts curriculum.

We often teach myths as merely literature, divorced from the cultural, spiritual, and historical context. But we pay a price for this approach. It limits the depth of meaning students can derive from their study.

Combine this with the narrow focus on the now that social media can foster, and students easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries, but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of how their lives today emerge from yesterday.

 

Suggested Myths to Teach in Your Class

 

In my Story From Day One course, we read several myths from around the world, of creation, of tricksters and of heroes, including:

 

Integrating Mindfulness with Academic Content 

Start lessons with a mindfulness exercise so students can calm and clear their minds, better understand how their inner lives affect their outer ones, and notice how they respond to words, stories, and other people.

After mindfulness practice, ask questions that challenge assumptions and reveal what was hidden, so each lesson becomes the solving of a mystery. For example, before teaching a class on language or vocabulary, ask:

 

How can words (mere sounds or collections of marks on a page or device) mean anything?

Do words have meanings, or do people give words meanings?

Imagine a time when words were almost magical, when to give your word was deeper than a legal contract today. If you felt your words were like magic, how would that change how you spoke? (Share this old Eskimo poem.)

 

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

Teaching The Story From Day One

I’d like to share with you what I learned from teaching a middle school class called ‘The Story From Day One,’ which integrated mindfulness, visualization and inquiry exercises with the language arts curriculum.

We often teach myths as merely literature, divorced from the cultural, spiritual, and historical context. But we pay a price for this approach. It limits the depth of meaning students can derive from their study.

Combine this with the narrow focus on the now that social media can foster, and students easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries, but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of how their lives today emerge from yesterday.

Kieran Egan, educator and author, advises in his wonderful book Imagination In Teaching And Learning: The Middle School Years, to design lessons with a narrative structure, understanding not only the skills and knowledge we want to develop but the transcendent qualities in the subject studied.

To excite students, especially middle school students who are still close to, if not seeped in, this age of magic, and who have a natural yearning for adventure and awe: Use stories of facing the extremes of reality and limits of experience, of heroes braving dangers and encountering wonders, to connect to and utilize students’ romantic imagination and emotional awareness to better understand course material.

A good way to begin is with Gilgamesh, the protagonist in the first written epic story, recorded sometime around 2100 BCE. Gilgamesh is the first literary hero, actually the first greatly flawed superhero. The story also introduces a precursor to the biblical Noah and the flood, as well as central themes that have filled literature ever since.

First There Was Breath, Then There Were Words, Then There Were Stories.

The first step in teaching mythology, literature, and language is to create the space in the classroom so language comes fully alive to students. Where they feel as well as examine what they say and read.

 

To read the whole post, click on this link to the ImaginEd website which published this piece.

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

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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.

The Story From Day One

Words were once magic. They did not speak about ideas but were acts of creation. You said ‘sun’ and a sun appeared. You said ‘happy’ and it was so. You said ‘devil’ and you ran. (See Eskimo poem, 160) Students are seeped in or not far from this age of magic. If they’re lucky, even in high school some of this magic still sticks to them.

 

This insight helps explain why young children love myths and tales of ancient civilizations so much. Without such words, there would be no myths. Without myths or a similar context, there would be no words. Myths are magical words sculpted into storied beings and worlds. Myths are not and should not be taught just as literature but as the art of world creation. We need to teach students to try and understand these worlds, and try to understand and enjoy the great differences in perspective they represent. Understanding these differences in perspective teaches us what it means to be human. William Erwin Thompson said myths are not just read but enacted. And Joseph Campbell said they are stories that you live. They are, or once were, sacred. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…”[John 1:1, Genesis 1:3]

 

So much of our lives are lived within words that we forget their magic. This was true in the past and is still true for many of us in the present. Plus nowadays, more of us use and think of words from a distance. We study words, how they can be implements of construction and destruction. This study brings word histories and meanings to the surface but also might keep us close to the surface, obscuring depths of experience.

 

I used to teach a class called The Story From Day One. It began with worldwide myths of creation, heroes and tricksters. I loved to share stories like the Haida (Native American) “The Raven Steals The Light,” and Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf. Sometimes we read Grendel and Ishmael. Or, if it was middle school, Whale Rider. And we ended up with a contemporary novel like Animal Dreams.

 

Many people I know have an urge to learn more about their family roots. One goal of the course was to reveal the roots we all share. Imagery we use even today can be traced back to works created by ancient humans in the Paleolithic art caves. For example, images of bulls, horses, snakes and other animals, horns of plenty, venus figurines, all can be seen in the caves. The snake becomes the Greek Hermes. The bull becomes Zeus, born in a cave in Crete. The venus figurines become goddesses, like Gaia and Aphrodite. Modern heroes, heroines as well as monsters and figures of evil and can be traced back to mythical figures.

 

One such figure is the Sumerian Gilgamesh, the protagonist in the first written epic story, recorded sometime around 2100 BCE. The character, Gilgamesh, is the first hero, actually the first greatly flawed superhero. Much about the story is very familiar to us. It tells about a very powerful but out of control, egocentric, and sexist King, who oppresses his people until the gods send his opposite, Enkidu, to wrestle with him. Enkidu, a seeming monster created by the gods, is a wild man who runs naked with the animals until he is “civilized” by sex with a priestess. (If you teach this, you’ll need an appropraite way to discuss this early episode of sex.) She cuts his hair, introduces him to human food, and tells him of Gilgamesh. Enkidu turns out to have “a good heart.” He goes to the walled city of Uruk to end Gilgamesh’s oppression of women. He wrestles Gilgamesh until the two become deep friends. The story is about facing monsters and facing grief, death and urges for immortality and what can be learned from all three. The wise man of the story is Utnapishtim, who is very much the biblical Noah. The women evoke later mythical figures of Greece and other patriarchal cultures, like the Sumerian Inanna, a jealous goddess becomes the Babylonian Ishtar and the Greek Aphrodite. There is Shiduri, the tavern keeper, who turns out to be a sybil or soul guide. These myths introduce archetypes, patterns of human thought and behavior. The archetypes and imagery are not just literary devices to create a good story, but perceptual devices. They reveal what guides how people view their lives.

 

Students, especially in high school, too easily feel isolated on an island of self, cut off not only from their contemporaries but from a sense of the continuity of life. They have little grasp of the wealth of possibility human history can illustrate. They have little grasp of what they share and how they differ with early humans. I attempted in this course to give an intuitive sense of these possibilities, through literature, meditation and imaginative exercises, and an intellectual understanding, by analyzing and discussing the historical context of each work studied.

 

In meditation, there comes a magical moment when you realize you have drifted. You are being mindful, aware moment-by-moment of thoughts, feelings, sensations—and before you know it, you lose the awareness. You are gone, lost in a thought and the story it has to tell. Then you return and realize: “I am drifting.” What do you then do? Do you berate yourself for getting lost and drifting? If you do, you get lost once again. Or do you stay with the awareness, let your mind clear, be free from any thought? You then take in the whole situation. Everything gets to be included in that moment. All that went before, everyone and everything. Yet, nothing need be said.

 

This is our challenge today, and it has always been our challenge. Do we allow ourselves to learn enough from history and other sources so we can assimilate the lessons and let our minds take in the present situation with clarity? Or do we forget ourselves again and again with thoughts of attack and retribution? We can get lost in the stories we have created or we can live with an awareness of the magical possibilities of mind. Which will it be?

 

 

*The photo is of ancient Troy, in modern Turkey.