Setting aside the normal stressors of being an educator, we are now experiencing life and teaching in unprecedented ways while managing the mental and emotional effects of quarantine.
Today marks the first day of the fourth week since my District’s closure due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I have only had in-person interactions with six people within that time. Normally, I have interacted with 20-30 people before 8:00 AM on a workday. I have spent more time by myself than I ever have before. Even as an introvert, I need human connection to feel vital. I feel bereft.
Part of my job includes coaching and supporting mentors and first-year teachers. I find myself at a loss of what to say as they look back at me through virtual eyes, unsure of the future and stressed out by the demands of our New Educational Order.
Truancy means our students didn’t, or couldn’t show up for our virtual lessons. We are getting dressed up for faculty meetings that we attend in our living rooms. Many of us are juggling job requirements and educating our own children. While we are still getting paychecks…pause for a moment of gratitude…an alarming number of our spouses are unemployed or risking exposure by showing up to work. The list goes on and on. You know; you’re in it.
Amid all this, two things I am most grateful for are my therapist and the gift he gave almost five years ago when he suggested I explore Mindfulness. I was in the middle of a crisis. My anxiety and racing thoughts were out of control. Before that day, I had given up on meditation, and Mindfulness sounded like a trendy buzzword. I don’t do trends; I want sustainable solutions, but I had nothing to lose.
He suggested some books and an app called Headspace. I set aside my many attempts at meditating in the past and began with just five minutes a day. Within four months I was sitting for twenty minutes twice a day. I was running through books, videos and classes like my life depended on it…because it did.
Mindfulness saved me from psychological self-annihilation.
Before it could do that, I had to make some extreme mental shifts. I implore you now to stay with me on this one because what educators need now more than ever is Mindfulness.
Brace for Change…the Good Kind
Thomas Kuhn, an American physicist, and philosopher defined a paradigm shift as a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. In time, this concept broadened into the science of human psychology. Within this context, a paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions. Mindfulness requires some serious paradigm shifts.
Before I dive into some of the more profound shifts, let’s get some foundational understandings established.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the basic practice of being fully aware of what is going on in your mind and the present moment without being overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around you.
When practicing mindfulness, we do so in a manner that acknowledges our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations calmly and without judgment.
Over time, this practice allows the Mindful individual to put space between themselves and their experiences so they don’t get carried away when undesirable thoughts and events occur. Instead of just reacting, Mindfulness helps us put space between the stimulus and the response, which in turn allows us to conscientiously decide how to proceed with intention and full awareness. It is within that space that we are also able to look for patterns of thought that do not serve us so we can intentionally release them.
Does this sound too good to be true? I thought so until I had more to lose by not committing to it than I did by ignoring its call. It is called a “practice” for a reason. Much like yoga, playing the guitar, or flying a plane, you must commit to it over time. This requires some pretty significant changes in our approach and underlying assumptions. There are several paradigm shifts that occur within a Mindfulness practice.
The Oxygen Mask Principle
Educators are often highly empathic. The field tends to attract servant leaders. We give of ourselves and are quick to put the needs of our students and staff before our own. This is an admirable quality, but over time it can be detrimental to our own well-being if not balanced in healthy ways.
Most of us have been on a plane in our lifetime and can recall the flight attendant’s presentation before take off. Thankfully, I have yet to need any of the advisements given me during preflight announcements, but I encourage you to pay attention to one of the most important things they advise:
Secure your own oxygen mask before you attempt to help others.
Education is a social service that may require some sacrifice, but there are three essential factors that I ask you to consider with this metaphor:
- Self-care ensures we are able to assist others more effectively over time.
- Healthy boundaries are important in developing sustainable relationships and effective teaching and administrative practices.
- Without self-care and healthy boundaries, you may be depriving yourself of something as essential as oxygen: maintaining positive mental health.
The Beginner’s Mind
When you enter into a Mindfulness Practice, you must do so with a beginner’s mindset.
In education, we often refer to developing a growth mindset. Many of us consider it a non-negotiable for effective learning to take place. For me, the beginner’s mind falls into the category of having a growth mindset.
When we adopt a beginner’s mind, we must release our expectations and preconceived ideas about what we are doing, learning and experiencing. It requires an open mind and fresh eyes.
Please note that it is not only when we are beginning a new Mindfulness practice that we must assume this mindset. Rather, the beginner’s mind should be maintained throughout the practice.
Educators are typically expected to behave as ‘experts’ most of the professional day, but this can lead to a fixed mindset if we are not careful.
So, how do we adopt a Beginner’s Mind?
- Avoid taking a single perspective on anything.
- Treat every experience like it is a special occasion. You know that feeling when you travel to a distant place? Everything looks new. Sensations are heightened. The senses are more aware. Colors, flavors, and experiences are more vivid.
- Attend to your expectations, and release them.
- Become at peace with the state of not knowing. Invite childlike curiosity.
- Stay grounded as your mind explores with the wonder of a child.
- Beware of the stories your mind tells you, and see things as they actually are.
Biases based on past experiences and assumptions are helpful when we use them as tools to consider options, but they can cause unnecessary suffering if we allow them to create psychological stories and illusions. In other words, avoid forming judgments. This leads us to the next shift.
Let me start by saying that you cannot stop the mind from forming judgments. It is impossible to avoid the natural tendency to categorize things as good, bad or neutral. It is human nature to seek more good, avoid the bad and pretty much ignore the neutral. The importance is in how we respond to our mind’s judgments.
The practice of non-judgment involves letting go of automatic judgments as they arise. Release the urge to grasp for more good, resist what you feel is bad and pay attention to the full experience, even if your mind tries to convince you it is unimportant.
Akin to non-judgment, this shift requires acceptance of ourselves and our experiences as they are. When you assume a stance of non-striving, you refuse to be in conflict with yourself and the events of your life. By working with what is there, you intentionally avoid adversarial relationships with what is happening.
For me, this is where I struggle the most in my Mindfulness practice. Yes, I see the irony in that statement, and this is where I must be most conscientious about acceptance and release. I am not asking you to stop growing and learning; I am suggesting that you do so with full acceptance of what might feel like a struggle. Release yourself from the judgments that come with it.
Am I asking too much?
If you are just considering Mindfulness, or if you are actually beginning the practice, these shifts can seem unattainable as a whole. They do not happen overnight. It takes dedication and perseverance. I am not telling you it is easy; I am telling you it is worth it.
Take baby steps if you need to, but start now. In fact, you already have by finishing this article.
Stay strong. Stay positive. Stay mindful.