This week’s guest post comes from Leah Lipschitz, and she shares her mindfulness journey, from first seeking it out, to incorporating it into her self-care routine. With the social-emotional health of our students, and also of our teaching peers, very much at the forefront of our modern lives, this blog post will be of interest to those who have, or are considering harnessing the power of mindfulness practice to lead a more joyful and compassionate life.
A Deep Dive into Mindfulness
I began to feel overheated as I stepped off the plane in Beijing with my college basketball team. Since it was December I was layered up, but soon after the increasing heat came sweaty palms, arms and legs going numb and shortness of breath. By the time we got inside the airport, I was on the verge of passing out and completely convinced that there was something seriously wrong with me. I tried to stay calm, but I had never experienced anything like this in my life. Our team trainer guessed that it was low blood sugar as she fed me some candy. I truly thought that I was dying.
That day in Beijing I experienced my first panic attack. I have had generalized anxiety for most of my life, but it never impeded me in any major way. As it usually happens, after my first panic attack, I started experiencing them more regularly. I sought support and medical help; the attacks got less consistent and less severe. However, flash forward seven years, and I was two months away from starting a teaching job in Boston – my first job in a public school. Every morning, I woke up slightly out of breath, as if I was being chased by a lion and had just ducked around a secret corner in time to get away. I knew that I didn’t want to feel this way every morning so I started doing some research. When I came across a local mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) class, I signed myself up and hoped for the best.
Three years later, I have developed a daily-ish mindfulness practice, attending many trainings, workshops and week long silent retreats. Practicing mindfulness has been one of the best self-care tools that I have found for myself and has introduced a way of being that has been both beneficial and deeply profound. However, mindfulness has become quite trendy, a buzz word we see everywhere we turn. This saturation may leave many wondering what mindfulness really is, what it isn’t and how we can actually use it, both personally and in the classroom.
So….what is this whole mindfulness thing about?!?
WHAT – Mindfulness helps train our attention so we can be more aware of what is actually happening, rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen. Mindfulness is not about emptying our minds. Instead, as Jon Kabat Zinn, the creator of the MBSR program states, mindfulness is “being alive and knowing it.” By practicing mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to know what is going on in our head without getting carried away by it. In addition, the practice of mindfulness invites us to replace our judgement about what is happening with some curiosity and compassion.
WHY – There are many scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness. Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can help increase focus and memory, it can help us regulate our emotions better and can boost levels of self-compassion and compassion for others. More research has shown that the practice can help with pain management, improve immune function and can help decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, it is important to note that mindfulness is not a magic pill or a panacea.
In addition to cultivating awareness, the aspect of mindfulness that I have found often gets left out of the conversation is the practice of “intentionally nurturing positive states of mind such as kindness and compassion.” We can do this with loving-kindness practice which is different from mindful awareness practice (more about that in the next section).
Bottom line: mindfulness practice is training for our minds and emotions that can change the way our brains operate.
Personally, I have experienced many of the benefits listed above and feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity and resources to access this practice. As Canadian neurologist Donald Hebb once said, “what fires together wires together.” The more we react, think, attend, converse, etc. a certain way, the more likely we are to do it again. Like most humans, I can be so easily controlled by my conditioning, but slowing down to pay attention to my inner experience is incredibly helpful. As Victor Frankl said,
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Being mindful helps widen that gap. It helps to grow that space between what happens and how we react to what happens. As I tell my students often, mindfulness can help them “realize what they can’t control while also giving them back power over what they can control.” In other words, it is the self awareness that they can’t change the waves, but they can adjust how they surf them.
Personally, mindfulness practice has helped me hone the ability to notice my habitual patterns. It helps me spot changes in my body when I get angry or to catch the first signs of a panic attack so I can breathe and calmly implement a strategy to down-regulate my nervous system. In addition, one of the most amazing effects of the practice for me thus far has been the replacement of my judgements of myself and others with kindness and compassion. This shift, practiced over and over, many times unsuccessfully, has totally altered my relationships, including the one with myself.
HOW – My high school students learn fast that, at some point during each class, I will invite them to “notice how they are showing up”, “feel what their breathing is like” or “pay attention to their reactions when I say ‘put your phones away, do this activity, etc’”. Traditionally, formal mindfulness practice involves settling your attention on an “anchor” – one thing that helps to keep you focused on the present moment. Students might learn to anchor their attention by noticing sounds (typically the easiest), their breathing or their bodies. In addition, mindfulness can be expanded to noticing thoughts and emotions. This video of Dan Harris includes a quick breath practice.
Although formal practice has many benefits, mindfulness can be practiced informally or for just a brief moment. It can be done while eating (using all five senses), while writing or coloring, listening to music, in conversation, through movement or a game – really, anything can be turned into a mindful activity. The importance is not so much WHAT you do, but more so HOW you do it. Every moment of mindfulness, whether it formal or informal practice, is another “mental bicep curl” that trains the brain.
Lastly, the oft forgotten “loving-kindness” component of mindfulness can be really impactful. With loving-kindness, we intentionally send kind wishes to others and ourselves. Typically, we find a comfortable position (sitting, laying – whatever is EASY) and picture someone who is really easy to feel compassion for (could be a human or an animal). Then, we silently send them kind thoughts – “I wish for you to be happy, I wish for you to be healthy, I wish for you to be safe…” After a few rounds of sending them these kind thoughts, we can picture ourselves (as a child if this makes it easier) and do the same thing. It is important to note that it is not easy for many people to send kind wishes to themselves. If it is too difficult or uncomfortable, no need to force it – maybe come back and try again another time. After one’s self, we move thinking about someone who is pretty neutral and sending them kind wishes. Then, we picture someone who is “difficult” and send them kind wishes. The practice ends with picturing the entire earth and all beings and sending them kind wishes. Once complete, you can notice how you feel and if there is any difference from the beginning of the practice to the end.
Mindfulness for all – In this amazing HPE community, we are constantly asking how we can improve student well being and our students deserve this energy and emphasis. However, since we can’t pour from an empty cup, offering practices such as mindfulness for the adults in schools is equally important if we are going to create school communities that value self care, authentic wellness, presence and compassion. In addition, the best way to teach mindfulness to students is to try it out first. Although mindfulness is simple, it is definitely not easy so if it feels like a constant struggle or is extremely stressful, maybe a different approach to the practice would work.
Mindfulness is a practice. Yes, it is scientifically validated brain training. However, it is also a way of being that can help create space for more presence, joy, acceptance and compassion. Even small shifts in these qualities in a single individual can lead to big changes in our school communities and beyond.
*It is important to note that, while mindfulness has many proven benefits and is often innocuous, there is also research showing the importance of trauma sensitive mindfulness practices. There are many resources available to learn more about simple strategies for trauma sensitive mindfulness. A great place to start is Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven.
If you liked Leah’s blog, you will also like the following:
#YearofCalm which shared how I chose the word ‘calm’ as my one word of the year. This post includes a link for teachers to secure their free access to the awesome ‘Calm’ app.