Mindfulness During This Unprecedented Time

April 7, 2020

Your mind matters.....

Megan Cowan, co-founder of Mindful Schools, explains that each educator has “a room full of students coming in with their life stories and emotional rollercoasters, many of whom are going to be overstimulated, dysregulated, unable to settle, and something has to meet that collective nervous system, so the teacher wants to have the capacity to be grounding and stabilizing.When we are unaware of our internal state, then we are going to say and do things from that place. [Yet] when we’re aware of our thoughts and emotions, they are not the driver. Our awareness is the driver.” She identifies the most important question that we can ask ourselves as educators: “Whose nervous system is in charge?"

During this unexpected, significant transition to virtual learning, this question is just as important, if not more so. As we juggle myriad personal and professional responsibilities from home, attempt to care for our students’ needs from afar, and ride the waves of ever-evolving news headlines and accompanying emotions, how do we tend to our nervous systems to ensure that we continue to engage with those in our care, including and especially our students, in ways that align with our values? Mindfulness, or embodied mindful awareness, can be a particularly helpful tool during this unprecedented time.

What exactly is mindfulness?  The Mindful Nation UK report defines it as “paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body, and external environment with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.”  For example, let’s say that you’re teaching an online lesson, the tech is not working, and your four year-old is crying because her big brother was “being mean” to her. “Ahhhh!” the mind screams.  If we’re operating from our conditioned habits, we might snap at our children, feed the frustration with thoughts of how horrible remote learning is, or go into overwhelm mode. But, if mindfulness kicks in, we are able to notice frustration arising in awareness, care for our needs, and access the inner space necessary to clearly identify a helpful response.  In short, mindfulness allows us to tap into our natural capacity to discern what’s happening in the present moment and respond in a way that best meets the needs of that moment.

There are different ways to practice mindfulness.  One common way is to practice mindfulness meditation, meaning carving out time to train our attention to observe what’s happening in the present moment, from a place of interest and care.  But we can also practice mindfulness by doing any activity with presence. While walking, cooking, doing laundry, or taking a shower we can simply be awake to what’s happening in the body, mind, and heart without getting caught up in what’s happening but instead allowing the flow of sensations, emotions, and thoughts to come and to go. 

Both formal meditation and informal daily mindfulness practice are important and mutually support each other. Just like going to the gym can help you walk up stairs without getting short of breath or carry your groceries without throwing out your back, so too can formal meditation help us be more present and balanced in daily life.  Just as leading an active lifestyle can lead to feeling more agile in the gym, being mindful in daily life can and will deepen meditation practice. 

How might you incorporate an informal mindfulness practice into your virtual teaching day? Throughout the day and especially during transitions, such as between online meetings with students or as you return to your computer after lunch, try “two feet one breath,” an evidence-based mindfulness and burnout prevention exercise. For five seconds, feel your feet on the ground and take one conscious breath, feeling the sensations of breathing. To stay focused on the exercise, you might even say to yourself, “two feet one breath” followed by the words “here, now.” Perhaps stop reading this for a moment and try it right now.

You might do it a few times to let the truth sink in: oh right, I am here now, in this moment. And from this place of grounded presence, your awareness becomes the driver of your decision-making and interactions. 

Teaching Matters believes wholeheartedly in the value of mindfulness training for educators. Several of our consultants are longtime mindfulness practitioners and certified mindfulness instructors who are available to facilitate mindfulness training for your school community. Interested in learning more? Please get in touch: Dan Vazquez (dvazquez@teachingmatters.org) and Alison Cohen (acohen@teachingmatters.org). In the meantime, two feet one breath. 

Written by: Alison Cohen & Dan Vazquez

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