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.

2

Is Social Media Promoting Or Undermining Democracy—Or Both?

Just two days ago, on October 25th, Mr. T once again treated the facts of a situation as clay he could shape any way he pleased. He accused Hillary Clinton of giving Russia “20% of American uranium and, you know, she was paid a fortune.” This, he claimed, is the real Russia scandal. Of course, this is another in a long line of lies and distortions. According to Politifact and the Washington Post, a one time owner of a uranium company that was sold to the Russians did give money to the Clinton Foundation, but this was before she was Secretary of State and before the uranium company was owned by Russians—plus, she had no hand in approving the sale to Russians.

 

Is this simply another example of a President who either has no care for the truth or who believes in the big lie, a lie so outrageous that people who hear it will think there must be some truth to it? Is he being so outrageous because he understands that social media, the internet, and news outlets that are more like organs of propaganda supports such behavior? Does social media promote or undermine democracy in this or any country? These questions are asked directly or indirectly almost every day lately, with Trump on Twitter and Russians on FB.

 

It wasn’t long ago that many people were proclaiming that social media would be a democratizing force in the world. In late 2010, early 2011, during the Arab Spring, we heard how social media led to powerful demonstrations that brought down established oppressive regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. According to an article in the Harvard Human Rights Journal, it enabled a “twitter revolution” to build extensive networks of protest as well as to gain information beyond the borders the government controls.

 

But as the authors of the article state, using the example of the failure of student-led protests to further democracy in Hong Kong in 2014, a very tech-savvy city, “the power of social media is mischaracterized, its potency exaggerated.”

 

It is so easy to get lost in the advantages of social media and ignore the dangers. One danger is an increase in oppression. The “Great Firewall of China” is “a giant mechanism of censorship and surveillance” that prevents information that opposes the Chinese Communist Party from reaching its citizens.

 

In a discussion at the Aspen Institute on the role of social media in diplomacy, Alec Ross, former State Department senior innovation adviser, described how Vladimir Putin built a digital information system in his country that has become a “truly effective propaganda machine.” He said the success of Putin’s efforts are illustrated by the fact that just a few years ago people throughout Europe believed that the United States shot down the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014, not the Russians.

 

In the US, the last election has led to an epidemic of “fake news,” much of it seemingly supplied by Russia to support Mr. T and increase divisiveness and anger in our country. It has intensified racial and religious divides, for example, as well as political, such as between Bernie vs. Clinton supporters. It has become increasingly difficult to know what’s true. According to an article by Hunt Alcott and Mathew Gentzkow, in the Stanford University Journal of Economic Perspectives, during the election 62% of US adults got their news from social media and “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on FB than popular mainstream news stories”—and they were believed. Fake news was both widely shared and heavily tilted in favor of Mr. T. “Our database contains 115 pro-Trump fake stories that were shared on Facebook a total of 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories shared a total of 7.6 million times.” The authors conclude that fake news most likely helped elect Mr. T president.

 

Madeline Albright also took part in the Aspen Institute discussion. As reported by Catherine Lutz in her article on the subject, Albright said, “We’re operating in a rudderless world.” Social media technology is helping create a “dangerous force” of nationalism. People are “grouping more and more with their own kind, whether it’s national, ethnic, or religious groups.” [Italics are my own.] This was in August, 2014, and Albright’s words are proving even more true today.

 

Ross said, at the Aspen Institute discussion, that the media is value-neutral, but I question that. I can’t forget Marshall McLuhan, in the 1960s talking about “the media is the message.” We have to look more at the effects of the media itself, not just its content.

 

One effect of social media and related technologies is an increase in the hold on us of a consumer-driven capitalist society. They enshrine ever more deeply the values of immediate gratification, distraction, us-them thinking and an over-simplification of how we view issues in our society. Ease of pleasure replaces depth of experience. Many of us recognize that usage of media has become a habit we feel we cannot do without. We worry if we are away for any length of time from our phones or social media platforms, “what have I missed?” We want the latest cell phones or other devices, despite the fact that this technology can be costly. Some studies claim American teens spend on average 9 hours a day on their cell phones and other media, more time than most of them sleep. According to the World Bank, Americans in general spend 1.7 hours a day on social media.

 

Parents and educators especially are seeing an increase in anxiety and difficulty concentrating in their children. This can partly be attributed to the “Trump Effect” and the fear engendered by this administration, but social media shares some of the blame. (I’d argue an increasing divide between the very rich and the rest of us is also to blame, but that’s for another time.) Psychologist and educator Larry Rosen, in his book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology And Overcoming Its Hold On Us, argues that social media has contributed to an increase in disorders like narcissism and anxiety in both children and adults. He goes further and argues that when hidden behind our media screens, our thinking is more easily distorted, and we display thoughts and actions that characterize different psychological disorders. For example, Rosen cites studies showing many people, on FB or other social media, display the “me first” grandiosity, lack of empathy, envy of others, sense of self-importance and entitlement that characterizes a narcissistic personality disorder.

 

According to Mark Matousek in his book Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good, words are never more than a small part of any face-to-face communication—one study showed as little as 7% of the emotional meaning of a message. The rest is expressed through facial expression, posture, gestures, and tone of voice. But on social media, we only have words, names, or photos to respond to. We can lose the feeling that the people we meet on FB have an inner life similar to our own. We have to fill in so much with our imagination and prior understandings that it is easy to misunderstand or not care. Matousek argues we suffer a virtual blindness that can undermine our sense of shared humanity and morality.

 

Truth has a difficult time competing against the pressures to fit in a group and believe what your friends believe. We understand only in a context, and one of the most important elements of any context is who we are with. This leads to a cognitive bias to believe what other people, especially those in our group, believe (bandwagon effect and herd instinct), and we are more likely to notice information that supports our pre-existing views than what doesn’t (confirmation bias).

 

Never before, thanks to the internet, have facts been easier to find. Yet, lies and distortions by politicians have increasingly filled the headlines. We have to take time to check sources of any information we read in order not to be deceived by a fake news story. Democracy is a complex, time consuming political system demanding more education on issues and involvement from its citizens. Yet, the internet itself fosters the expectation of immediate answers, undermines tolerance of complexity, and thus makes it easier for corrupt politicians to deceive and manipulate.

 

So, does social media promote or undermine democracy? Maybe both. I am disturbed by how easy it is to spread propaganda and fake news on social media. But besides the obvious (check sources, not rely on social media for news, take frequent tech/social media holidays and walk in the woods, replace the current administration with one that truly cares about the well-being of its citizens and one that cares about fighting, not supporting, Russian interference in our democracy), I have few answers. I do know that in order to think clearly we need to know how to create a mental silence when we need it, so we can mindfully hear our own thoughts and feelings. And we need to learn how to listen for the reality of others, both for all that we share and all that makes us different, even when we know little about them except a name in the headlines or a few words on FB. Mindfulness and compassion can be revolutionary.

8

Living and Teaching In This Age of Anxiety and Threat

How do you teach when so many people feel and are threatened and the federal government is controlled by people who do not have your well-being in mind? How would growing up in this age, with this minority-elected President, influence your 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, Muslim or a Jewish person, 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?

 

What children will primarily learn from today’s political situation is more dependent on the understanding, creativity, and empathy shown by a teacher’s response, 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 how others respond to their actions. 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. I asked: “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? 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, ask them to close their eyes and answer in their own mind the following questions: What does ‘kindness’ mean to you? What words come to mind when you hear the word ‘kindness’? What does it look like? How do you feel when someone is kind to you? Who could you be kind to today and how would you do it? Then ask them to record and then share with the class what came to mind.

 

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.

 

The next lesson is on facing adversity. Ask students: How do you face what is difficult? Deconstruct what happens when you feel stressed, threatened, or anxious. If you notice the sensations of fear and anxiety before they get too strong, 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.

 

Ask: What happens to your breathing when stressed? When stressed, your breathing gets more shallow and quick. When you notice this, deliberately take one–three longer, deeper breaths before you consider what actions to take.

 

What about your thoughts? We often turn away from what is uncomfortable and treat it as abnormal, or wrong. If you respond to feelings of discomfort, or of being challenged as if no normal life would be touched by them, you greet such sensations with fear and anxiety. The novelist, G. K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” A challenge is just normal life.

 

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. To teach this, you could have mindful moments in your classroom, where you ask students to close their eyes for a moment, and allow themselves to be aware of their breathing. Or start a class with a moment of silence. Or, if you practice mindfulness, start the day with a mindfulness practice. Always practice on your own before you do it with students. If you haven’t already done so, study how to lead students in such practices.

 

Say to students: Sit back in your chairs with your backs relatively straight and at ease, 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.

 

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. You might focus on your shoulders. Simply notice your shoulders rise as you breathe in. And relax, settle down, as you breathe out. Then go to another place in the body. Notice how you body expands as you breathe in, and lets go, settles down as you breathe out. Notice also any thoughts. They are part of the water flowing. If your mind drifts away, or you lose focus on the breath, simply notice it. When you notice something, it means you are found. Right now, you are aware. Take joy in that. Just notice what arises with the inhalation, and let it go with the exhalation.

 

Take another, deep breath, open your eyes, and return your awareness to the classroom. Ask them to: look round and notice how you feel now. And then write in a journal or share how the experience was for them. Did they notice their thoughts or sensations? Do they feel more relaxed now then they did before?

 

You could ask students: What actions can you take to change their community or the nation to be a better place? How could they help others? By taking action, students feel empowered.

 

If physical exercise isn’t part of the school day or your day, add it somehow. It grounds you. Fear closes you off, divides you. When you engage both the mind and body, you feel whole, more patient, confident and you think more clearly. Take a walk in the woods, study history and social justice movements and go deeply into the question of “Who are we humans?” I’d discuss with students, “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 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?

 

**This blog was also published by the Bad Ass Teachers Blogspot.

 

 

 

 

20

A Guest Blog: Gratitude Can Change Your Classroom and Your Life, by Owen Griffith

Gratitude Can Change your Classroom and your Life:

Guest Blog by Owen M. Griffith

 

Teaching is a challenging endeavor. With all the demands on a teacher’s time and energy, it is easy to lose the enthusiasm that brought us into the classroom. In addition, teachers have recently had new requirements added to their load, including standardized testing and dealing with changing curriculums.

However, there is good news. Recent research and personal experience have shown that gratitude, a simple yet powerful tool, may be applied in our classrooms to improve the culture, as well as to raise students’ grades and goals.

The Challenges and the Miracles of the First Year

Of all the things I have done in my life, getting through my first year of teaching was by far my most challenging undertaking. During that first year, I am thankful that I would occasionally reach those transcendent moments where I did connect with the students and felt the magic that happens when the classroom unites in learning.

Many nights, I would wake up at 3 AM, haunted by all the things going wrong with my teaching. This is when I would do a personal gratitude list and still find the good things happening among all the apparent problems. This kept me going through those darkest hours. Just when I thought of quitting and going back to my old career, a major miracle happened.

 

Robert

Robert was a tough 7th grader who didn’t seem to care about school or anything else. By his own admission, he was on the brink of joining a gang and failing every subject. When I would pass out the science assignment for the day, he would say, “Mr. G., science doesn’t mean anything in my life.”

Then, he would ceremoniously crumple up the assignment and throw it in the trash saying, “I’ll take an ‘F’ for the day.” This bothered me tremendously, and I tried different things to reach him, but nothing seemed to get through.

After Winter Break, one day I handed out a new assignment about the scientific method. Surprisingly, Robert looked intently at the page and said, “Will you help me with this Mr. G?”

After what he said registered in my brain, I quickly went to his desk and guided him through the scientific method. On the way home that night, I found myself smiling and wondering what happened to Robert. The next thing that ran through my mind was, “Will this change last, or was it a one day anomaly?”

The next day, we delved further into the scientific method and Robert asked more questions. Even more shocking, he started helping some of his fellow students who used to throw the papers away right along with Robert.

Robert’s turnaround came at my darkest hour in the classroom. I don’t know if I would have kept going if it hadn’t been for this minor miracle. But I realized it wasn’t just a minor miracle. When a student who was thinking about joining a gang and failing every subject turned around and not only got an A in my science class, but also got straight As in every subject by the end of the year, helped other students in academics, and stayed out of trouble, I realized I was a small part of a major miracle.

When I asked Robert what had happened, he said, “You never gave up on me and kept trying with me Mr. G.” I was reminded of a saying from a pedagogy professor who would gently remind us, “All it takes to change a student’s life is the appropriate adult at the appropriate time.”

 

Gratitude – The Missing Element in the Classroom

To start the new year of teaching, I knew I needed to interject something powerful and positive into my classroom. One day as we were planning for the first day of school, I had the inspiration of trying gratitude in the classroom. I realized that this could be a breakthrough. If it worked for me and others, it would work for the students.

So, when the students arrived, we started a gratitude journal from the first day of class. That was over ten years ago, and as those original students enter college now, many of them still keep their gratitude logs, but some have updated them to their computers or iPhone.

Gratitude was one of the missing elements for me in the classroom, bringing about a positive and optimistic culture that only seemed to improve as the year went on. Furthermore, gratitude had a cascading effect that gave me more energy to devote to every aspect of teaching, from planning lessons to dealing with conflict between students, to keeping the students interested in school as the year dragged on.

 

The Gifts of Gratitude

Teaching gratitude promotes a positive classroom culture, as well as enables schools to elevate students’ engagement and academic achievement. In addition, an attitude of gratitude allows teachers to improve their own lives, as well as their students’ lives.

The many benefits of gratitude include:

  • Challenging the culture of complaining and replacing it with gratitude
  • Combatting materialism and entitlement with gratitude and altruism
  • Understanding the barriers to implementing gratitude and dispelling them
  • Healing losses in life with gratitude for students and educators
  • Balancing our busy lives with mindfulness in conjunction with gratitude
  • Helping teenagers utilize gratitude successfully and overcoming their resistance
  • Encouraging the entire families of our students to embrace gratitude and a variety of activities to help it become a permanent part of their lives

Owen M. Griffith is an educator and author living in Northern Georgia. His work has appeared on Edutopia and Huffington Post. This article is taken from his book, Gratitude: A Way of Teaching. Grounded in scientific research, this book delves into numerous integral aspects of gratitude as it relates to education. Success stories and step-by-step instructions are also included in order to implement gratitude in the classroom and schools.

Order Owen’s book directly from Rowman and Littlefield Publishers through 12/31/17 and save 20% with discount code RLEGEN17.

Owen’s book is also available on Amazon, and be sure to check out Owen’s blog at http://spirituallyteaching.blogspot.com/.

 

Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

How Can You 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 with students? What do the students need? You can’t answer such questions solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness of feeling, will plan our classes or vacations 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 you’ve already done it.

 

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. …

 

This blog was just published by BATS (Bad Ass Teachers) Blogspot. If you’d like to read the whole piece, please click on this link to go to their site.

8

The Moment That Is Summer

Did you grow up with a longing for summer? Even if you have no connection, as an adult, to the education system, summer can remind you what it was like to be a child, the celebration of the end of the school year, warm weather, and vacations. And if you’re a teacher and don’t teach summer school or don’t have to work a second job (or maybe even if you do), or you’re a student, you 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 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 actually hear my own life speaking to me.

 

When I was teaching, summer was a time to fill up with life outside my classroom. A big desire was to visit beautiful places, to see an ocean, a mountain, or forest. I meditated every day. I also took classes or read books about whatever interested me, or whatever would reveal something new about the world that my students and I faced, whether it was quantum physics, writing, mindfulness, neuroscience, philosophy, history, and karate. I wanted to learn something meaningful and feel like a kid again, and a student, open, fresh, playful. We all need this, so we can renew our ability see beauty even in winter; so even when there is too much to do, or life seems frightening, we can know moments of freshness and quiet exist. Not just as memories but reminders. Renewal can happen at any time. We can let go. Time can dissolve into silence.

 

Summer can allow us to let go of last year so we can greet this year as something welcome and alive—so we can learn to find this very moment as unique and enticing. All seasons can do this for us. They provide a natural rhythm to life, if we can feel it. They provide a teaching. This very moment and this earth that we walk on—they sustains us, and are never separate, never distant.

 

In the high school philosophy class I taught, we often read a book by Jeremy Hayward called Letters to Vanessa: On Love, Science, Awareness in an Enchanted World. It is a book written by a Buddhist teacher and quantum physicist to his daughter, to help her perceive the enchanted nature of the world, and not just the corrupt and threatening one many of us humans are taught to imagine and thus help create. He mentions a Navajo concept of Ho’zho, or beauty: “Beauty before me, beauty around me, beauty ahead of me.” (p. 16) We can walk the earth with beauty. Likewise, Japanese Buddhists have a term, sho shin or first, beginner’s mind. When we let go of the distractions, delusions and fear, and see the world in sho shin, the world is full, alive, and fresh. We see the world and other people more directly and clearly.

 

So summer is not just a time to let go, relax, and prepare for a new year. It is a time to invest in the only sure investment—into our mind and heart and how they (or it) reveal the world to us.

 

The Place of Wildess and Wonder in Critical Thinking

*This blog was first published by Gillian Judson’s website, Education That Inspires. http://www.educationthatinspires.ca/2017/04/26/the-place-of-wildness-and-wonder-in-critical-thinking/

 

What is critical thinking? One element of critical thinking that most everyone agrees on is “higher order thinking,” which includes evaluating the appropriateness of evidence, the truth of propositions, and the soundness of arguments. But is this enough? I think you need to add imagination, mindfulness and empathy, and to think of critical thinking as a process enabling you to deeply engage in what you study and test your answers. How many times do you think you have the right answer, and then a minute, day or year later, you realize how wrong you were?

 

‘Critical’ comes from the Greek ‘kritikos’, able to discern, and ‘krinein’, to sift, judge, or separate. To separate, as in analyze or break down into component parts. But ‘discern’ also means to perceive or understand what is not immediately obvious or what might be beyond your previous viewpoint. It means to perceive, as much as possible, the whole or what’s real or true.

 

To analyze or mentally break what was originally whole into its component parts, you can easily conceive a dichotomy between the parts and the whole. However, to perceive the whole, you need to include the parts. To see the forest, you include all the trees. To perceive the parts, the whole always remains, as context or background. It is like the figure-ground principle of optical illusions, as in the vase-faces illusion. The lines of the faces and the lines drawing the vase are both always present, yet you only see one at a time. What you perceive changes from one to the other depending on your point of focus.

 

So, to clearly understand what you perceive or think about requires a process that lets the reality you contemplate BE whatever it is, as much as is possible. When you try to understand something, you use words to form concepts. This abstracts your experience from the perceived reality. You can then get lost in your abstraction. You might even love your abstraction; it is your creation. Words are wondrous but can be the subtlest of blindfolds and distractions.

 

To think clearly and critically requires constant monitoring, so you can mindfully shift perspectives, from abstraction to original perception— or from one theory to another, from thoughts to feelings, from object contemplated to the experience of contemplating. This allows you to engage more fully with whatever you focus on. You feel as well as think about whatever subject your mind touches, so it takes on a three-dimensional quality otherwise hard to see.

 

Your mind becomes the act of contemplating. You enter a place, or more accurately, the world becomes a place full of life, wildness, even wonder. It pulsates. The imagination flows from that place. Imagination is how mind transforms into time and language, into questions, and possibilities. Love and relationships are born in that place.

 

How Do You Utilize Imagination in Critical Thinking and Enter a Place of Wonder?

 

Begin by taking breaks from intellectual study to let your mind quiet and integrate material. Practice mindfulness meditation, sit by a waterfall, or take a nap and dream. Did you ever wake up from a dream and have an insight appear to you?

 

How does critical thinking utilize imagination? For example, how would you answer this question, which frequently came up in my high school class on the history of human ideas: “Why did early humans create so much art?” Or maybe, “Why did they do any art?” Students often reply, “They did it because it was fun.” But that answer needs to be questioned further.

 

Students need to place themselves in the world of ancient humans by visualizing, for example, a world of few humans and many wild, animal species, no cell phones and no buildings. This requires not only imagination but also empathy. According to the psychologist Paul Ekman, empathy can come in different forms. There is a cognitive form, being able to read another person’s feelings, for example. There is also feeling along with others, and caring. Without immersing themselves as much as possible in the world they study, and adding empathy for the subject studied and the subject studying, understanding will be limited. When you use a process of critical contemplation, employing empathy and mindfulness, you allow whatever you perceive to be itself.

 

One form of art created by early humans was extensive wall paintings in caves in southern Europe, Africa, Australia and other places. In France, for example, some of the caves were extremely difficult and possibly dangerous to access. Access involved crawling though long, narrow tunnels.

 

Students decided to research, in groups, various aspects of how the cave painters lived: their food, religion, tools, other species populating the world at that time, and theories of the origin of language. A group of five or six studied the paintings in detail and then reproduced the art on the walls of a rarely used stairwell of the school. One day, when the work was complete, this group had the other students form a line and one by one enter the stairwell. It felt like we were entering a cave. The only sound was the music of a flute. The only light source was a series of small lanterns placed near the painted walls. When we had all entered and sat down on the floor, I led the students in a visualized journey into what being in the caves might have been like. Then the student-artists discussed the paintings.

 

We created the activity together. I bet most still remember the experience. It enabled the class to feel engaged and develop a more in-depth perspective. They could then analyze evidence, evaluate theories and derive their own conclusions.

 

This type of activity is not limited to a history class. In an English class, you could imaginatively journey into situations depicted in a novel. Or in a science class you could journey though a cell or the orbits of electrons. Or outside of class you could journey into the mind of a friend that you had an argument with. Critical thinking is not just logic or problem solving. It requires imagination and honoring the pulsating life of whatever you study.

 

*Photo is from the wall of the “cave” painted by students at LACS.

Speeding Up Life Shortens Your Meaningful Moments: Time and Addiction

We obviously live in a fast paced political-social world. It is easy for most of us to get caught up in thoughts about job or school, relationships, money, health, or the new political reality. Thoughts move at lightning speed. Communication in the brain moves through neurons or brain cells as an electrical current, so ideas can register in tiny fractions of a second. And for many of us, thoughts constantly arise in our mind, whether awake or asleep. Just think how fast a thought can arise in your mind and then disappear. Having thoughts is what a mind does.

 

Emotions usually take longer to get underway, but once started, last longer. Try to make yourself love something or get angry. You need to evoke thought, memory, or sensation first. And emotions don’t evaporate and disappear so easily. They can lie hidden and their very intensity can make them difficult to process.

 

In fact, since thoughts arise so quickly, they can easily be used to hide away feeling. And as the pace of society quickens, we more easily get lost in our mental world. We think “the mind gets things done; feelings or emotions get in the way.” The more we use thoughts to cover emotions and feelings, the more we dread and avoid feeling. We thus train ourselves to fear our own feelings, and to experience anxiety and other forms of discomfort whenever feelings appear. We might not even relax when on vacation because that would mean lowering our guard. How often do vacations cause more anxiety than normal day-to-day life?

 

And when feelings or emotions come up in our daily lives, we react doubly. We not only try to respond to whatever situation we are in; we react against the formerly buried content. Our perceptions and thinking can get confused and distorted.

 

The result, as discussed by Stephan Rechtschaffen in his book Time Shifting: Creating More Time to Enjoy Your Life, is that our ability to focus and experience a moment of life is shortened to the length of a thought. This book was published 20 years ago, but its central message is even more important now. When psychological reality moves too quickly, and the duration of a moment is too short, then life seems more superficial, and it is difficult to be intensely conscious and aware. We can’t process meaning well. In order for an experience to touch us at all, we need something very intense or dramatic.

 

The shorter the focal duration of a moment, the more groundless and isolated we feel. We cling more desperately to our thoughts and viewpoints, as if they were the only thing we could count on. We crave intense risk, stimulation or challenge to achieve any depth of experience.

 

As Rechtshaffen points out, this is also what happens with addictions.The rushing mind can be addictive. In an addiction, we turn to some substance like a drug, or to a media device, something external to ourselves, to get high or to distract ourselves, because our focus on the moment is too short to allow anything “mundane” to be exciting. The more we depend on externals, the more our length of focus decreases, and we need even more stimulation. We can be manipulated more easily because our connection and understanding of our own inner experience is diminished. We continuously focus in the wrong place and never satisfy our true yearning.

 

We humans desire peak experiences, highs, and pleasures. And the longer we allow the focal duration of a moment to be, or the longer we can maintain focus, the easier it is to think clearly and for any experience to feel real, important, touching. Thus, almost any experience can be meaningful, can be a high, whether it is taking a breath, cooking a meal, or kissing our lover.

 

I think the deepest yearning we all have is to feel loved⏤to feel loved not as a gift bestowed upon us by others, but as a mutual creation that arises when we love others, when our life has depth and meaning. And when we do that we are likely to live our moments fully. Only by improving our ability to focus and pay attention, to quiet the constant chatter, and trust our inherent abilities and feelings, can we do this. Mindfulness, taking time in nature, allowing ourselves to truly savor and care for each moment we live, is so important. When the mind quiets, we hear the world more clearly. To re-phrase the English poet, William Blake, we hear and feel eternity in a moment.

 

*Photo: Temple, Delphi, Greece.

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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?

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