Have you ever seen something posted on Facebook or Twitter and felt this strong urge to mount a vigorous response? I get that feeling a lot. When I scroll through my feeds I see an awful lot of stuff that sets off my, "Hey. That's not right" button. Whether it is a repost of information that is clearly urban myth or outright lies designed to misinform the public about a politician or issue, I often ask myself, "Can I let this go unchallenged?"
Social media has given everyone a platform. It has provided everyone a megaphone to communicate their opinions. For every decadent recipe for chocolate oreo balls that comes across my feed, there is a political or religious post that raises my blood pressure a few points.
I've been reflecting on this for a while, trying to figure out the most mindful approach to engaging in social media. Here are the questions I think about:
The struggle usually comes down to this. Do I avoid conflict and allow the person to have his/her opinion without my input or is there a responsibility on my part to fight for what I believe in?
I'm not sure what the right answer is. Perhaps it must be taken on a case by case basis. A list came across my feed today (see below), and I felt it was incredibly relevant to this discussion. It is a list that I will try to keep in mind when I am using social media.
I apologize if anyone is offended by the word "spiritual." I try hard to keep the tone of the blog as secular as possible, but these twelve symptoms were just too perfect for the topic of this post.
I paid particular attention to symptoms 8-10. I have found that when I am consistent with my mindfulness practice I have far less interest in conflict. The desire to show people I am right diminishes, and I am far more comfortable with opposing positions. The instinct to rebut others nearly vanishes. The way I approach conflict is lighter. I'm far more open to the idea that I may be the one that's wrong. It's as if my life's mantra becomes, "Let it be." I smile more and realize that everyone, including myself is evolving. That evolution may be slower than I'd like sometimes (particularly my own), but progress marches on. When I zoom out far enough, through mindfulness, I see that my judgment of others plays a huge part in thwarting my own progress and is often rooted in fear. I recognize that my ego is looking for ways to be separate and above others rather than tapping into my "spirit" which is seeks connection and peace.
I don't think that mindfulness means we have to avoid speaking out about the issues we feel are important. I think it just means that when we speak out we do so in a way that first seeks connectedness and avoids viewing others as our opponents or enemies. We do so in a way that demonstrates openness and equanimity. We do so in a way that avoids animosity and puts love first. We should seek first to understand and THEN to be understood. When we take a mindful approach, we recognize when ego/fear is inserting itself into the interaction and short-circuit it in an effort to avoid negative emotions within us and in others.
If you have not already done so, I hope you will connect with me on Facebook and/or Twitter. You can help keep me accountable for the words I have written here.
As we start a new year, many people will make a resolution to lose some weight. Being physically healthy is a fantastic goal for everyone, but I invite you to also lose another kind of weight in 2014.
Life can get chronically heavy. This weight is created by our inner thoughts about the external world. Many of us, including myself, have formed habits to think and respond negatively to our external conditions. This negative inner chatter produces negative emotions. When those emotions become chronic, they can generate anxiety, depression, and a host of physiological problems (headaches, insomnia, hypertension, etc). Left unchecked, we can also develop a miserable attitude.
So we busy ourselves with the quest to manipulate external conditions in an effort to short-circuit these negative thoughts and all of the terrible stuff that follows. This quest is never-ending. We find that once we have one external issue solved, another pops up. Our lives become a non-stop game of Whack-A-Mole. We heal a relationship and then another one begins to deteriorate. Just when we think we have external conditions settled, another stressful event rears its head. This quest often leaves us exhausted, cynical, and jaded. So we do our best to cope with this weight and simply try to hold on until our next break or vacation when we can temporarily step away from this maddening game.
As a teacher, I recall the combination of excitement and dread as I returned to work after a break. This mixture of optimism and pessimism, hope and fear, made transitioning back to work a challenge. I hoped there would be fewer moles and feared there would be more, but I knew the whacking of moles would really never stop. For me, the hardest transition of the year was returning to work after the holidays. After spending time surrounded by family and friends, celebrating and relaxing, it was hard to face down that long stretch between January and Spring Break. The days are still short. The weather is still cold. The holidays are done, and there is still a LONG way to go before summer. PLUS....college football is over. That alone is enough to make many of us pretty blue. This time of year can be very stressful and, at times, depressing for lots of us.
Well, this year I challenge you, her, that other guy and myself to completely change the way we view this time. Instead of simply coping with life, hanging on until Friday afternoon or Spring Break, let's reprogram ourselves to make the most of each moment we have.
To help us accomplish this, we can make a resolution to "lose some weight" through practicing mindfulness. Just like consistently eating well and exercising can help us lose physical weight, a consistent mindfulness practice can help us lose this mental/emotional weight. We will see that so much of this weight is placed upon us by ourselves. We will learn to control our negative inner dialogue and realize that the path to inner peace is found within us rather than outside us. We will learn to accept that while we don't have much control over our external conditions, we have the ONLY control over our inner conditions. As we lose this kind of weight, our daily lives will get lighter and lighter. We will still experience painful and stressful situations, but they won't seem as overwhelming. We will be better equipped to keep life in perspective resulting in much greater levels of peace, joy, equanimity and love. I hope YOU will join us this year, and I hope all of us will be much lighter headed into 2015.
If you are new to mindfulness practice, check out this this great illustrated guide to get you started.
"We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today."
This quote came across my Facebook feed recently, and it reminded me of how strongly I feel about allowing children to be children.
When I reposted this quote, a friend commented, "Exactly!!!!!! When I taught 4K, all I heard was get them ready for 5K...start this now....they were 4 not 5. We need to let them be what they are at this moment and experience life to the fullest for that day...we are not promised a tomorrow....but today is a gift."
So many adults are in a hurry, driven to succeed. Pressure comes from so many different places to set goals and work diligently to achieve them. Whether it is athletics, academics, or even artistic pursuits, the thinking seems to be that we need to start early and strive for excellence in order to achieve at the highest levels. I have conflicting feelings about this. On one hand, I admire people who work hard, develop a passion towards their life goals, and follow through with the commitment necessary to reach those goals. On the other hand, I worry that many people are robbed of something in that process.
Where does the drive to achieve come from? Does it develop naturally or is it something we learn? Does the drive come from a genuine place or is it a manifestation of the ego's desire to build itself up? By achieving at high levels, what are we hoping to gain? Joy? Fulfillment? Is high achievement the only or BEST path to happiness?
I see so many school district mission statements that seem to focus on students becoming successful contributors to the 21st century global economy. Our schools emphasize preparation for the NEXT step, the NEXT grade, the NEXT phase of life. In this forward-focused environment, I wonder how much we steal from children. Childhood is such an amazing time in the life of a human being. I don't think it should be looked at primarily as preparation for adulthood. It should be honored and enjoyed for what it is rather than being looked at as an incubation period.
I see so many children who go to school all week and then spend evenings at practices, weekends at tournaments or competitions, and the rest of their time studying or doing homework.
I see parents who have positive intentions placing enormous pressure on their children. They do so because society tells them this is what responsible parents SHOULD do.
So we go through childhood being told that we should always be planning and preparing for our future. When we become adults, we are so conditioned to think this way, that we rarely feel as though we have arrived. We keep pressing, looking forward to the next degree, promotion, accomplishment, etc.
Our minds are so often caught up in thought about our futures that our presents pass us by and we MISS life. Jon Kabat-Zinn says we can go for days, weeks, years, or even lifetimes lost in this thought, only rarely PRESENT for our lives as it unfolds in the NOW. Why are we so eager to look forward? Why are we so heavily engaged in planning and preparing for a future that does not yet exist? What price are we paying? What price do our children pay?
When we get to the end of our lives, there will be nothing left to strive for, so we will reflect. I don't want my reflections to consist of a man who was always living in the future. I don't want that for my children either. Let's insist that our schools prepare children for their futures, but always in a way that honors who they are now and what they need in the present.
When I have the opportunity to speak about mindfulness there are typically a few people who come up to me afterwards and have some great questions about the practice. I thought I'd share a few with you on my blog.
Q: Do you have to practice for long periods of time....like 30-40 minutes per day?
My response: I look at mindfulness training kind of like I look at exercise. A thirty minute walk is great, but if you cannot sustain daily walks of thirty minutes, ten or twenty is better than none. The key is to establish a habit and commit to doing it daily. As you see the benefits of ten minutes, you will likely be motivated to practice for longer periods of time. Sometimes 3-4 mindful breaths is enough to bring you back to the present, but training the mind and understanding the mind takes time and commitment. Ultimately, we would like there to be less of a distinction between our practice and our "regular life." The formal mindfulness practice is where we learn the skills needed to live mindfully. If we view the practice as the only time to be mindful, we are missing the point.
Q: I like to play music or exercise as my form of stress reduction. Can't that replace mindfulness practice?
My response: I encourage everyone to find their own paths and do what works for them. If music, art or exercise help you unwind and reset, then go for it. I would, however, recommend at least giving mindfulness practice a try for an extended period of time to see how it can complement what you are currently doing. For me, there is a deep sense of stillness and calm I experience with mindfulness that I have never felt when playing music or exercising. Mindfulness of the breath exercises force me to confront my mind and provide effective training in coming back to the present. It is a greater challenge to do this when sitting on a cushion versus playing an instrument or a sport.
Q: My life is already busy enough. How do I find time to fit something ELSE in?
My response: The busier I get, the more I need to practice. It is challenging to carve out enough time in each day to devote to my mindfulness practice, but I consider it essential maintenance. When your car is due for an oil change, you get it changed because you know that if you fail to do so your car will not run optimally. It will ultimately break down. So even though it can be tough, I always find time to keep my car maintained. Why would I not have the same attitude towards myself and my mind? If I expect my mind to work optimally (creative, productive, calm, focused), I have to keep it maintained. Regular mindfulness practice is my mind's oil change.
Q: I am a Christian and don't know how I feel about these techniques. Do you feel they are appropriate for a Christian?
My response: I would never make a judgment like that for anyone. The mindfulness practice that I speak about is secular. It has roots in a variety of religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, but it has been stripped of its religious "accessories." I can see how a Christian could incorporate mindfulness practice into a Christian prayer of meditation, but I would neither promote or discourage that. I am merely trying to help people access an effective tool to reduce stress. So, yes, I think it is appropriate for a person with any set of religious/spiritual beliefs.
Over the summer I had the opportunity to watch Ram Dass: Fierce Grace on Netflix. If you have not had the pleasure of viewing this film, I highly recommend it.
Dass, formerly known as Dr. Richard Alpert, is a fascinating figure who was once a Harvard Professor, an "experimenter" in "mind expansion," and a spiritual seeker who traveled to many places searching for enlightenment.
I was so fascinated by his story that I began listening to a series of podcasts that feature talks he has given. I also read his most famous book, Be Here Now. Both are incredibly interesting and made me reflect deeply upon my own journey.
Dass is certainly not going to be appreciated by everyone, but he has made a huge impact on me. Below are some quotes from Dass to reflect upon. If they ring true to you, I encourage you to check out the links above.
A page from Be Here Now
So you want to start practicing mindfulness, but don't know where to start, don't think you have the time, and need some direction. Headspace might be your solution. This free app, available for iPhones and Android devices, will help you develop a daily mindfulness practice. With a user-friendly interface and easy-to-follow directions, Headspace provides us with a simple, scientifically grounded tool that can be used on the go. Can you find ten minutes each day to decrease your stress levels and improve your mood? Give this app a shot.
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I have never met a teacher who enjoyed duty. Whether it is monitoring kids getting off the bus on a cold morning, ensuring nobody cuts in line in a loud cafeteria, or maintaining some sense of order during recess, teachers more often than not perform these duties unenthusiastically.
I remember literally counting the seconds until duty was over. I recall being bored, frustrated, and trying every mental trick I could think of to take my mind off of the crushing monotony of this involuntary task.
I won't pretend I ever learned to LOVE duty, but I did finally have a breakthrough that made it much more pleasant. It went like this:
One semester I was assigned duty outside during lunch. I was tasked with preventing students from entering our main building without a pass. This duty was pretty easy, but I had to regularly confront students who did not have passes. By the third or fourth student, it was easy to lose my patience. "No, you CANNOT go in the building unless you have a pass!"
Around that time I began reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It dawned on me that I was never accepting the present moment while I was on duty. I was constantly wishing I were somewhere else. I was always internally stuggling against the moment. My mind was almost always in the past or future because it HATED the present. When a student forced me into the present moment, I became irritated because it took me out of the comfort of my inner world of thought, my "internal escape from the now mechanism."
So I decided to shift my approach to duty. I attempted to be present for the whole thing. I started by just noticing the sky, the interesting weeds growing in the grass, the bugs, birds and planes that flew around, the feeling of a cool breeze or the warmth of the sun, etc. I decided to stop fighting the present moment and realized the folly of my internal struggle. I was a TEACHER. I wanted to continue being a teacher. Part of being a teacher is performing duty. So duty was not an option, and there was simply no point in wishing things were different. I was causing my own suffering by the way I THOUGHT about duty. That awareness alone was the most important initial step. It took lots of effort, but over time I was able to spend more and more of my time on duty in the present. This made my interactions with students much easier. The frustration melted, and I was able to address almost every situation calmly.
The next semester I had duty outside where kids were eating. I had to monitor them and make sure they took their trays back to the cafeteria. Fortunately, I had a lunch break right before this duty. I began regularly practicing short meditations during my break so I could go into duty with my mind settled. I'm not sure I can honestly say I ENJOYED that duty, but I was in complete acceptance of it. There was very little inner struggle, unless it was a REALLY cold day. I enjoyed conversations with students and often felt a deep sense of tranquility as I sat outside and watched young people laugh, play ball, and enjoy their lunch.
Now that I work for CERRA, I no longer have to perform duty. I can't tell you that I miss it, but I have tried to apply the lessons I learned about duty to the other mundane situations in which I constantly find myself. Whether it is waiting in line at Walmart or getting caught in a traffic jam on Highway 501, I know the trick to remaining present. I know it, but often forget it. When I forget, I get agitated. When I remember, I am able to keep things in perspective and the irritation either subsides or is prevented altogether.
So here are some tips for learning to accept duty and make it a much more pleasant experience.
We give away far too many minutes, hours and days of our lives living in conflict with the present moment. If we are constantly wishing time would just hurry by, so we can get to a place where we can be happy, we will sacrifice a HUGE portion of our lives. The goal is to embrace every second we have on this planet. It's time to bring the battle with now to an end because now is all we will ever have.
Update on Jan. 20th, 2014 - The Seahawks are headed to the Superbowl for the second time in franchise history.
Update on Jan. 3rd, 2014 - The Seattle Seahawks wound up 13-3. Seattle and Denver ended the regular season with the nest record in the NFL. Seattle is the number one seed in the playoffs and are considered favorites to advance to this year's Superbowl.
Update on November 22nd- The Seattle Seahawks are currently 10-1, the best record in the NFC.
ESPN posted an article in August that has the potential to accelerate the spread of mindfulness. In the article, ESPN describes how Head Coach Pete Carroll and his staff have taken a completely new approach to coaching and managing players. A key component of their new system is to integrate meditation and yoga to prepare players for the chaos that inevitably comes on the field and in their lives. This approach contrasts greatly from traditional approaches that emphasize yelling, cussing, stern attitudes, and draconian training practices. Those traditional practices remain the standard for leading an NFL team.
The article gives a great example of how this traditional approach is utilized from the beginning of a player's career. To prepare NFL rookies, the league hosts the NFL Rookie Symposium. One of the most powerful parts of the article describes a speech made at this year's symposium .
"Chris Ballard, the director of player personnel for the Chiefs, has a harsh message for the recent draft picks. 'Most of you will not be in this league three years from now,' he begins. Later, he adds, 'Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don't care. The media doesn't care. And ownership doesn't care. They care about results.' These words are spoken seven months after a Kansas City player, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times, then drove to the team facility and killed himself in the parking lot. But in what remains a suck-it-up NFL culture, that speech could have been delivered by almost anybody in the league."
It then dawned on me that this speech, or at least its intent, is probably duplicated numerous times in school districts across our country. I will reword it to illustrate my point.
John Smith, the principal of John Doe Elementary School, has a harsh message for new teachers. "Half of you will not be in this profession five years from now." he begins. Later, he adds, "Nobody cares about your problems. The students don't care. The parents don't care. And the administration doesn't care. They care about results." But in what remains a suck-it-up education culture, that speech could have been delivered by almost anybody in the country."
While there are many caring and compassionate administrators in our country, the message that MANY teachers receive is essentially the same. RESULTS! We don't really care about you. Results are king. Don't like it? Can't hack it? Stressed out? Leave the profession! And so....they do.
Coach Carroll's new approach was born from his observations over years of coaching. He notes, "It hit me that in our days at USC, many of our players were drafted high, but a lot of them didn't do very well in the league. They would come back to visit campus and say: 'It's hard-core. You don't know anybody. You go home and you're by yourself. You don't feel connected at all.' We had reached guys at a different level that allowed them to perform at a high level. And when they left us, they didn't have the support to carry them through."
Does something similar happen to the young people who leave our colleges of education and enter the teaching profession?
Substitute teachers for players and school for league and you have a perfect description of why so many teachers are leaving the profession within their first five years.
So what does Carroll's new approach look like?
But aren't results important?
Last year, with a rookie quarterback, the Seahawks went 11-5 in the regular season, won a playoff game, and missed the NFC Championship game by 2 points.
Success on the field, or in the classroom, depends on a large number of factors. Even if Carroll's philosophy has a neutral impact on wins and losses, isn't it worth implementing a system that makes players/teachers happier? My guess, however, is that we will see the Seahawks experience high levels of success. What would happen if a superintendent of principal gave Carroll's ideas a shot?
This week a young man with a gun entered a school near Atlanta, Georgia. Unfortunately, we are seeing incidents like this all too often. Thankfully, nobody was killed, and that is largely due to a woman named Antionette Tuff. Tuff works in the front office of the school and was on the front lines during the incident. As she calmly spoke to the gunman, she told him she loved him. Her mindful approach to what could have been a tragic situation made the difference. After he decided to give himself up she told him, "It's going to be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know I love you, though, OK? And I'm proud of you. That's a good thing that you're just giving up and don't worry about it. We all go through something in life." Tuff's heroism and incredible display of calm under crisis illustrates the value of a mindful approach to resolving conflicts.
There are many things to be learned from this. Every day educators face stressful situations. Those everyday situations may not be as intense as the one Huff faced, but I believe they also require a calm, mindful response rather than an angry, mindless reaction.
Mindfulness training equips us with the ability to control the mind and therefore control our responses to misbehavior and other classroom management issues. When we can apply present-moment awareness to the problems that arise in our classrooms, we are able to maintain calm and model effective and ethical techniques for managing stressful situations.
If you notice yourself or a colleague caught in a pattern of overreacting, consider starting a daily mindfulness practice. It may produce peace within you and your classroom. It may also equip you with "Tuffness" to prevent a tragedy.
I was honored to be asked by Newberry's RETAIN Center of Excellence to write a piece about mindfulness for educators. The paper can be found on RETAIN's website. I would like to thank Dr. Lisa Waller, Dr. Cindy VanBuren and Angie Floyd for assisting me with this project. I am hoping the paper will be the beginning of a conversation about utilizing mindfulness as a tool to alleviate educator stress in South Carolina.