When you genuinely practice mindfulness, your experience of life changes. For many, it feels as if life becomes more intentional as your center of power shifts. When you are consistent with applying the skills, you can truly come to understand how important it is to be present in your life in an effective way. Prepare for feelings of powerlessness and anxiety to diminish.
First, you begin to experience more “space” around your thoughts. There is less mental clutter, and your baseline for negative emotions seems much higher. In time, you become less reactionary to unpleasant thoughts and experiences. For those of us who experience anxiety and/or ADHD, this can be a life-changing experience. It certainly was for me.
As you more intentionally connect with your thoughts, you start to realize how much time you spend struggling with the past and the future. Ironically, all of this struggling serves little purpose. Can you take action in the past? What about in the future? Think about that for a moment. Now consider the toll that stress takes on your body. Most of your stress comes from thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Worrying robs you of your experience of the here and now.
Then, it dawns on you that the only moment in time you have any power to choose and act is the very moment you exist within. Outside of the current moment, your past and future actions are simply memories and projected thoughts. As I discuss later, this is why habits and routines are so important. All of your manifest power exists in the current moment. Mindfulness practices cause us to consciously bring all of our senses and knowledge into the present moment, along with our reasoning skills and metacognition. This can be very impactful when you are a teacher dealing with a classroom management situation or if you are an administrator who gets some stressful news that affects your staff in a big way.
This presence with our thoughts, in turn, evolves into the powerful and liberating realization that you play more of a role in the outcomes of your life if you mindfully experience what is going on around you while harnessing the immense power of choice and action within the current moment you exist within.
Over time, you will train yourself to use your mind as a tool rather than your mind using you to run its negative and harmful narratives. When you do not allow your mind to live in the past or future unchecked, your worrying should begin to diminish. Another positive side effect of a quieter, more controlled mind is that you may start to recall essential lessons and advice you have received in the past right when you can apply them. Best of all, it changes your relationship with anxiety and frustration.
The Resistance Within
I found that setting the goal to practice mindfulness only frustrated me as other priorities pushed it to the side. I had to decide that meditation and mindful moments were a priority and that I was going to make them a habit. After researching how to establish habits, I made a plan, built-in some peer accountability, and made mindfulness a habit.
Establishing a new, healthier habit that provided me with positive replacement behaviors was FAR more natural than working to eliminate or change my old, less beneficial behaviors through sheer will and external motivators.
After practicing mindfulness daily for three months (the minimum time I set for myself), the positive impact was so profound that the benefits became rewarding enough to break through my resistance ceiling. After almost two years of dedicated practice, I now crave to do a variety of mindfulness practices on the regular. I do them so often that I can even do them in the presence of others at work, with or without them knowing.
It takes differing amounts of time for repeated action to become a habit for each of us. You will have to find ways to motivate yourself to begin and sustain a mindfulness practice before the self-perpetuating motivation loop begins. Even after you successfully establish your practice, you might lapse, and you may find yourself looking for the motivation to start again. No matter what, start again.
Here are some tips for breaking through resistance.
Keep your practice simple. If setting up an elaborate area or wearing specific clothes comes before merely doing the exercise, you are simply adding layers that make procrastination more likely. All I need for my meditations is somewhere to sit and the guided meditation I plan to use.
Use your tech to access free and low-cost guided meditations. I have used the Headspace app on my phone for going on two years. It has been more effective than anything else I have tried. I also scour YouTube for guided meditations with specific focuses, such as Loving-Kindness and Breath Awareness meditations.
Do it every day, even if it is only for five minutes. I had to do it at the same time every day for months to establish the habit. I later began scheduling it at different times of the day to generalize the skills and benefits involved.
Embed your meditation in an established routine. I first chose to do mine during my morning routine: after my coffee, but before I visually map my day. You might do it right after lunch or during your evening routine.
Stop waiting for motivation to do it, and just do it. The motivation will come later for some of you.
Tame Your Monkey Mind
The number one excuse that people use to explain why they don’t meditate is that they cannot quieten their minds enough to meditate. The tendency for your mind to swing wildly from one thought to another is referred to by some as the “monkey mind.”
The misunderstanding that you need a quiet and controlled mind to begin meditating is detrimental to your success. Accept your monkey mind. Don’t judge it; start training it. That is one of the primary purposes of meditation. The images of the serene meditating masters who sit for extended periods speak to the outcome of an avid and long-term dedication to the practice, not to the starting point. You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and rip out a classic hit or compose your opus in one sitting. You must adopt a beginner’s mindset, learn the theory and necessary skills, and then consistently practice with a growth mindset. Meditation and other mindfulness practices are the same way.
Two of the best tools for taming the monkey mind, from my experience and knowledge of talking with others, are Breath Awareness meditations and the labeling technique. I will discuss both below.
Before you get into the necessary details of mindfulness practices, you may want to read about several of the fundamental paradigm shifts that you must make for your mindfulness practice to be most effective. I have summarized them in my article, “Something Educators Need Now More Than Ever.”
Conduct Body Scans at the Beginning of Meditations
At the beginning of my mindfulness practice, I struggled with the body scan. It didn’t make sense to me, and it wasn’t until about a year after I began my practice that somebody explained it to me. I will save you some time and explain the purpose.
The purpose of the body scan is to reconnect with your physical self and to become in touch with the physical sensations you are experiencing in the current moment without judgment. In the process, you also release tension in all parts of your body as you focus on each one successively. You can do a brief scan within five minutes, or use a 15-60 minute meditation to scan more thoroughly. There are many guided meditations out there that walk you through a body scan.
If I am waking up or trying to keep my energy up, I begin my body scan at my feet and move up my body. If I am trying to relax or self-calm, I prefer to start at the top of my head and scan down. Whether to start at your feet or the top of your head is a personal choice. With practice, you will find which one you prefer. Some guided body scan meditations take 15 minutes or more like several of these.
Be With Your Breath
It took me two weeks of sitting through guided meditation before I had my first experience with truly being with my breath. Breath awareness meditations are among my favorite interventions when I need to quieten my mind. Coupled with the labeling technique below, this is where you will begin your journey to the seat of your real power.
Of all the things I have learned about meditation, the strategy of labeling has been the most impactful on both my anxiety and my ability to manage uncomfortable thoughts and experiences. Here is a brief lesson on the basic labeling technique. Note that the only two labels I use are “thinking” and “feeling.” This choice is a personal preference, so you should explore your options and use the label(s) that are best for you. Don’t slap the label on and admire it. Simply note the label as gently as touching the edge of a feather to glass and return to your meditation or mindfulness focus. Sometimes, you will feel like you are constantly labeling (hello, monkey mind), but in time this will diminish in frequency.
What Does This Have to Do With the Anxiety Paradox?
One of the key ingredients for perpetuating anxiety disorders is resistance. The more we stand in resistance to anxiety, the more of an impact it has upon our lives. A notable paradox of anxiety is that it often gets worse when we resist it. Through mindfulness, particularly meditation, you will slowly change the ways you respond to thoughts and experiences. Ultimately, this includes many of the behaviors that trigger and perpetuate the anxiety response. Mindfulness is about letting go of resistance and judgment, which both lead to self-perpetuating anxiety.
Fascinating Science You Can Research Further
Research suggests that when we train the brain to be more mindful, we can actually change the brain’s physical structure.
Consistent mindfulness practices, including meditation, can lead to a shrinking of grey matter in the amygdala (this is a good thing), which plays a huge role in anxiety disorders when overactive. It can lead to an increase of grey matter in the creativity and thought centers of the pre-frontal cortex, where reason and decision-making occur. There can be an increase in the production of positive brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can be reduced in the body’s systems. This fact is also a good thing, as long-term exposure to heightened cortisol levels has many adverse effects on the body.
Simple Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness has become so second nature to me that my thoughts naturally gravitate to the question, “Do I want to do this activity mindfully?” Here are several resources for starting or adding to your mindfulness practice.
A classroom full of students working on what looks like math problems. One student in the middle of the room begins to get restless. He starts making sounds of frustration. He snaps his pencil in half. The teacher recognizes the signs and becomes very authoritative and calm as she moves in to stave off the next stage. However, something sets him off before she gets there. He clears his desk with one sweep of his arm. She arrives at his desk, and he yells, “I can’t do this shit!” directly at her. Then, he quickly leaves the room. He walks into the main office and sits down. The woman at the front desk asks, “What do you need?” “Man, my teacher made me mad,” the student replies.
Now, switch gears and picture this:
You are an instructional coach observing a first-year teacher who has been complaining about a student losing his temper and “trashing the room.” The teacher is moving from student to student, giving very shallow feedback to each on how they are doing. She uses phrases like “good job” and “I’m so proud of you. Keep working!” Every once in awhile, she says, “That one’s not right, and you didn’t finish this one. I will come back in a few minutes, and I would love to see both of them done correctly.” She looks over as a young man snaps his pencil in half. She takes a deep breath. You’ve noticed the young man escalating some time ago. She starts to move toward him and is loudly trying to calm him down as she approaches. He clears his desk and yells at her that he can’t do the work, along with some profanity. He leaves the room, and the teacher goes about quietening down the remaining students. She then calls the front office to let them know that Dave has left class again. After the students have left and you are alone, the teacher bursts into tears and starts going on about how angry she is that nothing ever seems to happen to the student when he acts out like that. She says she tries to be helpful, but that he always blows up at her. She ends her rant with how teaching isn’t what she thought it would be.
I have seen scenes like this play out in countless classrooms at both the elementary and secondary levels, including my own. After years of experience, I often can sense another person’s frustration before they even sense it within themselves. For sixteen years, I taught students with emotional/behavioral disabilities, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorders. There’s no way even to count how many teachers I have had to coach through their own frustration or guide them in how to address the feeling in their students.
Mindfulness and metacognition are handy tools to use, whether you are a teacher who wants to learn how to coach students through frustration or you are an instructional coach who needs to train a teacher to reduce acting out behaviors caused by frustration.
The Secret Jobs of Frustration and Anger
Frustration is an emotion I deal with every day, both within myself and with the teachers and students that I coach. I could easily choose to see frustration as a “bad” thing to push away, but then I would completely deny myself or the individual the opportunity to grow in really positive ways.
When I was going through a particularly challenging time wherein my anxiety was out of control, I found myself getting frustrated and angry often. My therapist explained that I must identify the emotion(s) behind the frustration and anger.
Over the next nine months, through books and mindfulness practices, I would learn how to lean into the frustration, become completely mindful of what was happening around each occurrence, and apply metacognitive strategies to identify the roots and move through the frustration.
Frustration is no longer an emotion I dread. For you see, it is a signal emotion that alerts you to pay attention to something that is going on. Frustration is the feeling of struggling to hold back another negative feeling.
Individuals often hold back on expressing anger. Frustration then grows and can suddenly erupt into an outburst when something triggers the disruption of emotional self-regulation.
Something fundamental to note: Anger is a secondary emotion. It plays an active role in protecting the angry individual from another feeling that makes them feel more vulnerable, such as:
Hurt (feeling betrayed falls in this category)
In the student scenario above, it stands to reason that the frustrated student was angry because he was either fearful or ashamed of his seeming inability to do math well. Additionally, he could have been embarrassed by the teacher calling him attention when he was in this state.
In the teacher scenario, her frustration and anger possibly hid that she was afraid of failing as a teacher or that she was ashamed of the anxiety she had been experiencing about coming back to work each morning for fear of how this student would behave each day.
Frustration signals that there are other negative emotions beneath it that need to be addressed to improve the situation.
Where Mindfulness and Metacognition Come In
Mindfulness practices will help you tune into the frustration at its early stages so you can identify and address the issues causing the negative feelings underneath. It will also help emotional self-regulation and other executive functions develop with practice.
Metacognition will help you to identify the path to take to address the frustration and its underlying causes. Metacognition is thinking about thinking.
For Hennessey (1999), metacognition is the
“awareness of one’s own thinking,
awareness of the content of one’s conception,
as active monitoring of one’s cognitive processes,
an attempt to regulate one’s cognitive processes in [relation] to further learning, and
an application of a set of heuristics as an effective device for helping people organize their methods of attacks in general.”
To coach any individual through frustration to decisive action, is a simple process in theory. Remember, however, that the frustration you are seeing could either be from or cause a series of patterned behaviors that may be difficult and time-consuming to change. For example, procrastination, work avoidance, and lashing out can all develop because of poorly addressed frustration.
One Process That Has Been Successful for Me
After an episode of frustration, guide the individual (or yourself) to process through the emotions of frustration and anger using metacognitive strategies to identify the negative feeling(s) driving them. This phase will take a lot of active listening or deep introspection (listening to your thoughts as you ask yourself questions).
Support the further development of mindfulness practices so the individual can become more aware of when frustration is rising. Once they establish this awareness, they can begin to apply de-escalation strategies and the ideas that came out of their problem-solving stage.
With this approach, the coached individual regains, retains, and develops their emotional self-regulation skills. It is a cyclical process: each time they experience frustration, they practice their mindfulness. Each time they practice mindfulness, they are able to better regulate their emotions and use metacognitive strategies to make a plan.
Their plan should begin with an analysis of what they can and cannot control. Then, they can make decisions or take advice on changes they could make and strategies they can use in those areas they can control. Continued support will likely be necessary as they change established behavior patterns and establish new, more productive ones.
Stay Tuned for Next Week…
I will cover accessible mindfulness practices for beginners and intermediate practitioners in my article next week. Please subscribe at the bottom of this page to receive future articles directly in your email in-box.
Stay mindful. Be intentional. You are not alone.
Hennessey, M. G. (1999). Probing the Dimensions of Metacognition Implications for Conceptual Change Teaching-Learning. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.
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.