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Sunday, February 3, 2019

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

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

guest post by Ira Rabois, author of Compassionate Critical Thinking

How can we use mindfulness, visualization and inquiry practices to teach history and what it means to be human? One avenue is to look clearly at our own body and the way our mind works.

We often overlook the obvious. We are our own most direct example of what it means to be human. And what could be more important in this time of high anxiety and threat than a better understanding of our shared humanity and ourselves? 
Ask students: Did you ever consider that inside yourself might lie answers to some of the deepest questions about human history and what it means to be a human being? 

Standing Practice:
Ask students to stand up from their chairs and stretch. Raise their hands over their heads, rise up on their toes and reach up to the sky. Then drop their heels and stretch to one side and the other without getting too close to their neighbor.  
Say: Now stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, hands resting comfortably at your sides, eyes partly or fully closed. Put your focus on your breath. Feel how your body breathes in, and then out. 
Put your attention on the area around your eyes and feel what happens there as you breathe in. Do you feel a slight expansion in the area as you breathe in? Then breathe out, and feel how that area breathes out. You might feel a release of tension, a settling down. You can feel the same in your jaw as you inhale, and exhale.  
Then put your attention on your shoulders as you breathe in. Do you feel your shoulders expand as you breathe in? And as you exhale, feel how they contract, pushing air up and out. 
Then put your attention on your hands. As you breathe in, feel your hands expand with the in breath—and let go, settle down with the out breath. 
As you breathe in, feel the air with your whole body. Feel the space around you, in front, behind, at your sides. And as you breathe out, just allow your attention to take in how it feels to stand there, strong, relaxed, and attentive. 
What does standing upright like this enable you to do? Dogs or cats are amazing beings. They can leap, twist, and run for a short distance faster that you. They can smell and hear better than you. But when in the outdoors they can’t walk as far as you or see long distances like you do.  
A dog or cat uses their paws to run. But by standing upright, you can walk for long distances and free your hands for other activities. What else does standing enable you to do? What are the limitations of standing? 
Now slowly breathe in. And as you exhale, open your eyes and come back to the room, noticing how you feel.
Seated Mindfulness, Visualization and Other Inquiry Practices 
Choose and combine practices from those that follow, which fit your course material, as well as the age and interests of your students. Have students sit up comfortably, breathe calmly, and close their eyes partly or fully. Then choose one or more of the following to use in a class:
*Rest your hands comfortably on your lap or desk in front of you. Feel how your hands feel resting where they are. Move your fingers and feel their dexterity and strength. How many species are there that can do that? How are your hands different than a paw, your fingers different from a claw? 
*Is there something you’d like to build or create—a better phone, a new piece of furniture, a song or story? Or maybe you’d like to paint your room. Your hands enable you to do such activities. What other species has these abilities? How do these abilities influence how you live and feel about yourself? What else in you enables you to imagine and create?
*Imagine a friend who is going through something painful, and you’d like to help him or her. Why might your concern for another person be helpful to you or be helpful to your family or community? 
*How often today did you depend on or cooperate with another person? If you drove yourself or rode in a car, how often did your life depend on another person noticing you and obeying the rules of driving? When you entered the school building, did you say hello or try to be noticed by anyone? Or if you bought food, who prepared it? And who brought the raw ingredients of your meal to the cook? Who grew the food? How many people thus cooperated to produce your meal?
*How often during the day have you thought about other people? Neuroscientists estimate that we spend about 50% of our thoughts on ourselves in relationship with others. What does this tell you about how important other people are in your life?

To End the Seated Practice:
Return your focus to your breath. Breathe in and feel the power and the strength in your ability to imagine and direct your attention, in your hands and body, and in your mind. And breathe out, letting yourself just be here. Remember the exercise you just completed and then open your eyes.
Processing the Experience
To process the exercise, start by asking how relaxed students felt in the beginning and the end. Go through, in order, whichever questions you asked them in the guided practice. Discuss their answers as a whole class, or have students write in a journal what they remember. This could lead, in the following days, to studying each question in detail. 
Many students will have already read about how their ability to stand upright and use their hands distinguishes them from other species. But why stand upright? This is a debated question in evolution theory. It might have something to do with climate and our hominid ancestors coming down from the trees to live in the plains. 
Hands are central to our humanness. They shape us in many ways. A good portion of our brain is devoted to our hands. Students can research opposable thumbs and a precision grip. They can try to answer questions, such as: Did hunting drive human evolution? Or was it love, or a host of interdependent factors? 
Consider how we think with our hands when we hold a pen, text, play a musical instrument, swing a bat, or touch a friend. When we touch, we are touched. When we hold someone’s hand, our own hand is held. When we touch a keyboard, the keyboard touches us. What does this tell us about what it means to be human?
What else makes us human? Students might know how some species see many colors and are best equipped to see in full light, while others (such as cats) specialize for dimmer light. They might not, however, realize how central sight is to humans and how tied to words and language it can be. Or how sight is a sense centered on what’s in front of us, whereas sound can reach all around us. Does our focus on the sense of sight over other senses distort how we understand the world?

Photo by Pixel-mixer for Pixabay

How different is a human jaw from that of an ape, Neanderthal, or cat? We are not limited to grunts, growls or whistles but can speak thousands of words. How does speech and language shape us?
Students might realize the role our brain plays in all our abilities. There is no understanding of our humanness without some understanding of the brain and how it has evolved. They can research how a human brain is different from that of a dog or cat—or ape.

Mindfulness of Emotion Can Help Answer Our Questions About Being Human
The last set of questions has to do with empathy and cooperation. Could humans have survived as long as we have without cooperation? In today’s world it might be hard to determine if empathy is part of who we are.

Many of us think we exist separate from and in competition with others. But think about how differently we act with our parents than with friends, with teachers we like versus those we don’t. Even when we imagine ourselves as isolated, those we are isolated from enter the picture. We know ourselves only in context.
Think about how vulnerable a baby is and how much it needs others. To grow up we need others to feed, protect and teach us. How does this experience influence how we treat others? Is it our nature to be able to learn by nurture? 
Close your eyes partly or fully and feel your belly breathe i, and out. Just breathe and notice how you do it. If your attention drifts from the breath, simply notice it. If you notice you have drifted, it simply means you have found your attention once again.  If any thoughts arise, notice them as you breathe in, and let them go, as you breathe out, and return your attention to the breath.

Attention naturally comes and goes. If you allow yourself to notice whatever arises as simply a passing phenomenon, your ability to focus and concentrate will increase, and you will feel more at ease and even joyful.
If a feeling or emotion arises, notice where it is located, and the nature of the sensation. Can you remember what triggered it? Can you notice any thoughts or memories that go with it? Do you feel any inclinations or notice in your mind any images of yourself acting in a certain way?

Focus once again on simply breathing. Feel your belly expand as you breathe in— let go, settle down as you breathe out. 
And open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Notice how you can calm yourself. 
Emotion is not just one united force sweeping us along its path. It is constructed of feelings and sensations, thoughts, judgments, memories, and inclinations to act. Whether you respond with hate, anger, or compassion is dependent on several factors, including how aware you are of your breath, sensations and thoughts, and how you are used to acting or think you should act.
Use this experience of mindfulness of emotion to answer the question of what causes violence, hate and anger. Are we humans violent by nature? Or are we taught to hate by experience, example or education? 

List all the characteristics you just learned of being human. What did we leave out? Of which of these characteristics were you most aware before today? 

Teachers —before you teach any of this, test it and make it your own. If you don’t practice mindfulness, don’t expect your students to do so. 

Hold the image of a student or group of students in your mind and imagine how they might respond to the questions, about standing up, using their hands, being vulnerable.

Hold the students in your heart and mind with care and they will return the consideration. They will perceive their humanity more clearly and be more open to learning.

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


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