Using Imagination and Mindfulness to Inquire into Big Questions

**This article was written and scheduled to be published by the Education that Inspires online magazine 6 – 8 weeks ago, before we knew the devastation the coronavirus could have on our world. The post now seems to me an artifact of a lost time. But one thing I hope we learn from the response to this pandemic is how important it is to constantly improve our critical thinking capacity and enhance it with emotional awareness and compassion. And our whole culture needs to put education, public education, in the prominent position it and our children deserve. Our public schools need to be set free from Betsy DeVos and those like her, set free from the 30+ years of corporate attacks on public education masquerading as “reform,” and allowed to teach critical thinking enhanced by imagination, social-emotional awareness and compassion. If we learn how to think more critically and compassionately, and we study our world and examine what our political representatives say, and do, more clearly, maybe there will be less of a chance anything like this situation will happen again. For now, maybe this post can inspire online educational discussions.**

 

Teenagers are natural philosophers, when the educational environment is open to them asking sincere questions. They are constantly asking themselves, their friends, and, hopefully, their teachers questions like: “Is love real? What does friendship mean? Who or what am I?” So, one of the first things to do is discover what questions the students have related to the course ⎼ or life⎼ and what questions they think must be answered to better understand the course material.

 

One of the big questions often raised, although sometimes students can’t verbalize it, is “Do we have free will or is that just a comforting illusion?” It is related to the question of “Who am I?” And: “How much freedom do I have to shape who I am and what I feel?” Such questions provide educators opportunities to develop their students’ critical and creative thinking and engage with the Philosophic Imagination.

 

I remember students gleefully proclaiming in a class discussion that we have no free will. I don’t know if they did this after studying in a science class how every event has a cause, and they were saying to me or to the rest of the class: “I know something you don’t.” Or if saying “there is no free will” was an assertion of it, like saying “I am not bound by old ways of thinking.” It didn’t matter that by saying there was no free will they were denying what their emotions were proclaiming. Or maybe they were just daring me to prove otherwise.

 

Once in a psychology class, we were discussing compassion and one student asked: “Are we really free to be kind when we want? Maybe some people are just born nice. With all that we learned in science about how chemical and electrical messages and genetics control us, how can we be free to decide anything?”

 

I asked: “What does it mean to be free? Does it mean we act without any reason or that there are no restraints on what we do? Or that every time we have a thought or desire, we act it out? Would we feel free then?”

 

“I would feel a slave if I had to express every thought I heard in my mind,” responded one student.

 

“But would I lose my spontaneity if I didn’t act on my thoughts?” asked a third student.

 

Then I asked: “Does what we know or believe influence how we act? If we learned about experiments that show people can learn to act with more kindness and compassion, would we be more kind? Or if we studied experimental evidence that mindfulness training strengthens the parts of the brain that prepare us to act to help others⎼ would knowing that change your mind, or not, about being free to be kind even if you weren’t born kind?”

 

How do you start the discussion? Decide on a question for imaginative mindful inquiry.

 

After students have settled down and we have greeted them, tell them the question for the day. “Our question for today is What does it mean to be free?” Ask them to raise their hands if the question has come up for them in discussions with friends or family.

 

In engaging in this discussion, we need to keep in mind religious beliefs about the question. We might also have to re-shape the questions we ask to meet the age and personal history of our students.

 

One way to start is with an exercise in imagination and mindful inquiry. This can not only introduce the question but develop the skill of self-awareness that is crucial in actually acting freely. And being able to imagine a situation, the implications of one’s words or the consequences of one’s actions, is central to critical thinking and making decisions….

 

To read the whole post, go to the EducationThatInspires magazine.

 

 

Mindful Practices to Use Throughout the Day, To Help Us Face the Coronavirus Crisis

We are, all of us, in a situation few of us, maybe none of us, have ever faced before. It is frightening, because of that newness and because it poses a threat to our health, the health of people we know and care about, and the schools and society that we know and care about.

But how we respond to it is extremely important. We can’t control the situation. But we can control how we respond.

If we take control, plan our days and our time and our actions, then we can feel more powerful. We can do something. We grow stronger.

And as teachers, we have a unique opportunity and responsibility not only to stay healthy, develop our own practice and maintain as clear a mind as we can, but help our students and their families do the same.

Due to the school closings throughout our nation and world, we may have more time on our hands and have to decide how we’ll use that time. Or we may be expected to continue ‘business as usual’ by suddenly coming up with ways to teach online.

When we wake up every morning, although we aren’t usually aware of it, we have a choice. Every morning we can choose how to greet the day.

We can decide what we must do or could do and the best time to do it. We can tie activities that are more unusual or difficult with things we already do, like waking up, going to sleep, and hopefully, eating meals. We can use the activities we do daily already as the basic structure to add the new to the old.

[Teachers, please note: As with any guided meditation or visualization, please try these practices yourself before sharing them with your students. Imagine how your students might respond and make adjustments to fit their needs and history.]

If You Want to Practice in the Morning

When you wake up, you might feel fresh and ready to go, or feel tired, lethargic, or stiff. In any case, your mind is probably clearer in the morning than later in the day. Your body also needs gentle stimulation and stretching. So, it’s one of the best times to do a little exercise and then a mindfulness practice.

 

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

How Wide Can We Open the Door to the Mystery of Ourselves?

The More Troubling the Social-Political Environment, the More Important It Is to Understand Ourselves (and Get a Good Sleep).

 

Last night, I woke up in the middle of a dream. And almost immediately, the world of conscious reality reappeared with only a hint of the dream remaining. Only a hint that I had dreamed at all and that there were worlds aside from this conscious one. This fascinates me.

 

When I was teaching secondary school, discussing dreams, as well as learning more about their own psychology, fascinated most students. They wanted to understand from where or why these crazy images or stories showed up in their lives. Many people, as they age, lose this drive for self-understanding or it is socialized out of them.

 

But regarding sleep ⎼ teens get too little of it and tend to push the limits or even rebel against it. Each night we go to sleep ⎼ or should go to sleep. This is the rhythm of life. We sleep and wake. We forget our dreams in the daytime and lose or reshape the daytime world in our dreams. We might have no awareness that we dream at all or resist the very idea. Yet, we do dream. It is a necessity. Exactly what dreams do is not known. But when we don’t dream or don’t get enough sleep, we pay an enormous price.

 

Scientists say when we dream, we show rapid eye movements (REM) under our closed eyelids, as if we were watching a scene played out before us. But the rest of our body remains mostly immobile. Our brains are active; the large muscles of our bodies inactive (REM atonia). This is called paradoxical sleep.

 

According to Mathew Walker, in his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Dreams and Sleep, during dream sleep our brain is free from noradrenaline, which produces anxiety. At the same time, emotional and memory-related areas of the brain are activated. This means that, in dreams other than nightmares, we can experience emotional content without all the stress. We can process emotional experiences more openly and heal.

 

Walker discusses the negative health consequences of the consistent loss of even one or two hours of sleep including accelerated heart rate and blood pressure, an overstimulation of the threat response system, weight gain, and an increased risk of dementia…

 

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

Befriending Yourself And Creating A Mindful Learning Community

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

 

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

 

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

 

A Classroom Practice of Mindful Questioning and Inquiry

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Write down what you heard or saw in your mind.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

How Can We Determine What to do with Our Lives?

We just don’t know. We live surrounded by so many unknowns that if we think about it, we might never do anything. When we’re in high school or college, for example, we might not know what we’ll do after we graduate, or if we’ll get a good job. We might not even know what we want to happen. But in reality, that is the lesson. We don’t know. Yet we have to act nevertheless.

 

Some deal with this by selecting a theory, belief or desire for what will happen and treat it as a fact. We tell ourselves and anyone who will listen how we will do on the next exam or who will win the next election or baseball game. Facing something or someone you know is usually easier to do than facing the unknown, (think about driving your car in some place you don’t know without GPS or google maps) especially if the known is shaped in our favor. Thinking positively is helpful. It makes us feel stronger. If we are taking a test or going on a job interview, we are more likely to succeed if we feel we can succeed.

 

Some of us perpetually do the reverse. We fear failure so much we don’t even try to succeed. Or we try to win by labeling ourselves as losers before anyone else can do so.

 

But if we delude ourselves into thinking we know what we don’t, we close our mind. This might serve as a temporary comfort or rest from something that frightens or stresses us, which can be helpful. But if we pretend we are finished learning when we’re just beginning, then we stop learning.

 

After I graduated from college, I went into the Peace Corps. When I returned, I was a bit lost. I tried traveling, writing, acting, psychology, teaching and decided to get a MAT in teaching English. After graduate school and a few years in education, I got lost once again, and tried out a few more areas of interest, like the martial arts and meditation.

 

At that time in my life, it was difficult to separate fantasy and desire from legitimate paths to a career. It was difficult to face a fear of failure and fully commit to any possible job. For example, I made a far-out proposal to a university that they introduce a new class in their education program.  The class would teach theatre improvisation techniques to teachers, both to improve their skills and to use with students to teach course material. However, I never expected a reply to my proposal. But I got one. A Professor wrote to me. There was no job opening at the moment, but he would like to talk with me about my idea. Because he said there was no job opening, I never went to speak with him. Later, I realized that was a legitimate opportunity lost.

 

But emerging from each moment of being lost was a clarity about one thing: I wanted to do something meaningful, steady, and creative….

 

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

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.

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning (An Interview)

Mindfulteachers.org published an interview of me written by Catharine Hannay. Here is the beginning. Please go to their website for the entire interview.

What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

First, what does mindfulness mean? Mindfulness is a study of mind and heart from “the inside.” It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations illuminating how interdependent you are with other people and your world.

 

Without being judgmental, it notices whatever arises as a potential learning event. It is both a practice, as in meditation, and is also a quality of awareness or of being in the world.

 

When I first started teaching, like most educators, I made a number of mistakes. When you make a mistake, it is easy to get down on yourself, and then you don’t learn all that you could.

 

The more mindful I became, the more I could take in, the less judgmental I was, and the more I thought of my students as my teachers.

Mindfulness can be practiced either at a set time every day, or whenever you can do it. You might practice mindfulness because it reduces stress and strengthens your ability to focus and learn.

 

But if you practice mindfulness just for what you can get from it, you concentrate on your idea of who you will become in some future time and miss the whole moment you are doing it.

Trouble Sleeping?

Did you ever have trouble falling asleep at night? Who doesn’t, at some time or other. It’s awful. And there can be so many causes, from physical or emotional pain, to having to pee, to disruption of life or sleep patterns, overindulging in technology, to having too many thoughts racing through your mind. Sometimes, you just can’t let yourself sleep.

 

Falling asleep is like a trust exercise. You let yourself go, relax, and let down your conscious guard. And if you feel anxious, for example, you are reluctant to do that. You fear what might occur. When you’re afraid, your body is gearing up for fight-flight-freeze. Your thinking is pushed to consider all the different ways an attack might happen, and your mind races. So preparing for a good night’s sleep happens also during the day, way before your head nudges the pillow.

 

When you respond to your own emotions with “I don’t want to feel this,” or “only weak people would feel this way,” you fight yourself. These thoughts are the way fight-flight appears in your body and mind. So whether it’s at night or during the day, when your thoughts race with negative self-judgments or fearful images of the future, treat the situation as an opportunity to learn what your mind is telling you and how your mind works. Study yourself and take note of your feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Treat your mind as if you were a loving parent to your mental state.

 

When you are aware of thoughts and feelings it gives you the power to change. Try different strategies, experiment. A fearful image might be telling you that a dangerous moment awaits you. Or it can be telling you that you are carrying unreasonable fear and it’s time to let it go.

 

By studying yourself, you shift your mind from fight-flight to neutral analysis or open welcoming. During the day, you could respond to a racing mind with mindfulness meditation, a walk in the woods, a massage, political action, or exercise in the gym. You can notice your own breath, how rapid, shallow, or deep it is. As the mind goes, so goes the breath. Even when you think you have no time, or maybe especially then, remember to take a moment now and then to close your eyes and calmly focus on one breath, then another.

 

At night, once in bed, focus on breathing calmly to provide a transition to sleep and letting go of images from your day. Close your eyes and picture yourself calmly asleep. You could also try one of a number of practices, like progressive relaxation, or taking a mental journey. In progressive relaxation, you could start at your feet and work your way gradually up to your face, or vice versa. If you start with your face, imagine breathing into your cheeks or the area around your eyes. Feel the area expand as you breathe in, and let go, relax, settle down as you breathe out. Then move to the area around your mouth. Then the jaw, shoulders, etc.

 

To take an imaginative walk or visualized journey, after you close your eyes, take three calm, slow breaths. Then allow an image of a path in the woods to come to mind, a tree, a beach, or a waterfall. The important consideration is that it’s a place you love, or welcome, and find relaxing or uplifting. As you walk in your mind, study the details, the flowers, the stones, shells on the beach or the bark of a tree. End by allowing yourself to sit and relax and just take it all in.

 

You could combine the two. If you like beaches, after closing your eyes and focusing on the breath, imagine yourself on the beach, lying down on your back. The temperature is warm but not too hot. As you breathe into your shoulders, feel your body expand as you inhale, and settle down, relax and feel warm as you exhale. You feel the sand mold to your body, accept, protect, and cuddle you.

 

Remember to commit to your own comfort and sleep. When you get in bed, turn off your phone or other device. When thoughts come to you, instead of recording them on your phone or indulging them in your mind, imagine they are like drops of water falling in a waterfall, and notice them as they disappear.

 

Your body and mind operates rhythmically, in different cycles, just like the natural environment around you. There is the circadian (around the day) rhythm, the 24 hour sleep-awake cycle. And there is the ultradian (within or beyond the day) rhythm, a 90-120 minute cycle controlling things like dreams and which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. If you go to sleep at a relatively set time, it is easier to stay in tune with your cycles and fall asleep. If you wake up during the night, try to return to sleep as soon as comfortable to do so. If you have difficulty, use the above practices.

 

Progressive relaxation and taking a mental journey allows your mind to get close to dreaming and relax. It helps you notice that you can trust at least some aspects of the world. It is especially important, when the headlines are filled with threat and danger, that you find the ability to love and trust elements of your life and world.