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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Using Mindfulness and Empathic Imagination in Teaching Myths

photo by Sebastian Pilcher on Unsplash

The following is a guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking.

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: 

  • the Haida (Native American) “The Raven Steals The Light,” 
  • West African tales of Anansi the spider, or the epic of Sunjata, 
  • the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh
  • from Europe The Odyssey and Beowulf, and 
  • the modern Maori story Whale Rider
You can learn more about 'Teaching the Story From Day One' at ImaginEd.

Mindfulness and Visualization in Academic Content

I recommend starting 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.

In a Mindful Teacher interview earlier this year, I explained about Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning, in English, philosophy, drama, history, and psychology classes.

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? 
You could share the Inuit poem Magic Words, then ask:
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?

Alternatively, you can begin a lesson with a visualization or inquiry practice. Such practices can be used to help students:

  • Better understand language and their connections to people from the past.
  • Strengthen their ability to create and apply imagery.
  • Be more relaxed and focused in class.
  • Uncover hidden attitudes.
  • Think critically, examine evidence and find solutions to problems or questions. Being able to imagine solutions or implications of a theory is crucial for thinking critically.
  • Synthesize material.
  • Directly connect course material to student’s lives and provide intrinsic motivation for learning.

How to Use A Visualization and Inquiry Practice

The method I recommend begins with progressive relaxation and then continues on to a mental journey or inquiry. The relaxation section will last two to four minutes. Unlike mindfulness, students can sit back or rest their head on the desk in front of them. I usually play calming music in the background. You can center attention first on the feet and work your way up, or start at the forehead and work your way down.

Before you begin, tell the students what topic you will be exploring. I will illustrate a visualization on the Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, possibly the first written story. The focus will be on imagining the character of Utnapishtim, the precursor of the biblical Noah, and on inquiring into the meaning of wisdom.

Today, we will meet the character from Gilgamesh named Utnapishtim and possibly see him in a new light. First: 
Sit back and relax. Assume a position that is restful, comfortable and that you can stay in for five minutes or so. Close your eyes partly or fully now or in a few minutes. 
Calmly, breathe in, taking it nice and easy; then breathe out. Breathe in again, and put your attention on your forehead. Can you feel the subtle sensation of your forehead expanding very slightly? Just notice it as you breathe in. Then, as you exhale, notice how your body naturally relaxes, settles down.

Keep the voice calm yet natural. Relaxed. You are teaching a focus and relaxation method. Pace yourself so you introduce a new image or question just after the previous image has formed for your students.

Move you attention to the muscles around your jaw. As you breathe in, the area might expand a little; simply notice it. Then relax, settle down, let go as you breathe out.
Move your attention next to your shoulders. You might find it easier to notice the effect of breathing on your shoulders. Breathe in, feel the expansion. Then, as you breathe out, notice how your body naturally relaxes, settles down, lets go. Your shoulders might drop. You might feel warmer, or heavier. 
Now allow a flower to come to mind. Any flower will do.

If not a flower, pick something that you think will be considered safe, familiar and of interest to your students. A tree? A quilt? A butterfly? A stone? An animal? I found students surprised by this simple experience.

Remember that when students are relaxed and trusting of you, their minds will move instantaneously, at a mere hint. One point of the flower is to get the mind ready for something more complex by starting with something simpler.

In teaching about primal cultures, I had students visualize first a flower, then an animal. Our ancestors in the Paleolithic art caves extensively portrayed other animals with remarkable detail and aliveness and must have felt very connected to the animals portrayed. By doing this exercise students can feel more connected to their ancestral past.
Just notice what flower comes up for you. It might be one you know or have seen at your home. It might be one you imagined or read about.  Either way, it is fine. What shape do you see? What colors? You might simply hear or see words that describe the flower. Just notice what comes to you. 

How big is the flower? Notice how delicate it is. How does the flower attach to the stem? What is the texture of the stem?

The first time you lead a visualization, just do this much. After you’ve done this a few times, students will need to spend less time getting relaxed. You could just ask them to relax, focus on the breath, and then go to the imagery or inquiry practice that relates to course material.

Use simple questions to develop detailed, concrete images. As much as it makes sense, refer to multiple senses. Transitions are important. They require the most sensitivity to how students might take your words.

Behind the flower is a beautiful path. Utnapishtim will soon emerge in the distance, from down that path. Can you picture him? What words come to you about him?

Here are sample questions you can use to guide a visualization. Use three or four that best fit your goals.

Notice how he walks. Does he stand straight? Does he stride, slouch or look calmly around him? How tall is he? What color hair does he have? How is he dressed? 
When you see him, what is your response?  When you hear his name, do any feelings arise? Are you happy to see him or upset? Do you want to tell him something? What might he want to say to you? If Utnapishtim were a flower [or an animal] what would he be? Does he remind you of any other literary characters? Is he like you in any way?



Utnapishtim was called “the Distant One” and a wise man. What does he say or do that would make him wise? What does wisdom mean to you? What might a wise person know that you would like to know?

Return attention to the classroom gradually. Proceed in reverse order of how you left, but in less detail.

Now, say goodbye to Utnapishtim. Remember that you can return any time you want. As Utnapishtim walks away down the path, notice the flower, its shape and color.  


Return your attention to your breath. With each breath you take you will be more and more aware of the room and the people around you. Can you hear the music? Move your fingers. Your toes. As you take a deep breath, gradually sit up. Open your eyes. Stretch. Notice how you feel.

How was that? Did you feel relaxed? Did a flower come to you? Would you share with us the name and color of the flower? Can you describe how Utnapishtim looked? How do you know a person is wise?


I used this type of exercise over several years and with very diverse groups. If a student says that nothing came to them, go with it. It’s fine. If you sense something is bothering the student, talk one-on-one afterwards. Everyone is different.

Years ago, before I started using mindfulness or a writing exercise before each class, I had a class of mostly middle school, active, even hyperactive boys. I thought they would never be able to relax and do the exercise. 

I was wrong. They loved it. They relaxed and images came readily to mind. At least once a week after that, they asked to do a visualization.

This is only one method for strengthening student’s ability to use mindfulness and the imagination in thinking critically. I give several more suggestions in my book Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. And I'd be interested to hear how you use mindfulness and visualization in your classes. 

About the Author

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner.  While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching


related posts: 

Exploring Our Humanity with Mindfulness: What Our Bodies Can Teach Us

Mindful Listening: Only If You Listen Can You Hear

Mindful Listening in a Noisy World

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning

Mindful or Mindless? Analyzing Characters in Books and Movies