Tag Archives: mindfulness

learning vs. knowing

As parents and educators (or mentors or coaches), it’s imperative that we get in the habit of taking a step back from our habits and normal practices to ask whether they’re serving the kids we work and live with.

Unfortunately, I think that, too often, we forget that learning is a process and not like flipping a switch. In order for learning to take place, a lot of different things need to be happening – attention, emotional readiness, context, and previous understanding, among other things. And the question we need to ask ourselves about the way we teach kids and what we expect of them is this:

Do we want them to LEARN or do we want them to KNOW?

Often, I think we end up shaming or punishing kids for not KNOWING something we think is obvious, rather than taking the time and effort to teach them about it, what it is, why it’s important, how it can look and feel.

I once heard someone give an example that struck me as the perfect illustration of this*. She said she asks a class full of students to raise their hands if they’ve ever been told to “pay attention.” Predictably, nearly every single hand goes up (if not all of them). Then she asks them to keep their hands raised if anyone has ever taught them to pay attention. Most of the hands go down.

Think about the kinds of things we get annoyed with kids about, roll our eyes about, expect them to KNOW how to do. Now think about whether we’ve ever had foundational conversations with them about what we mean by that, what we think it looks like, how they could learn to do it. Even if we think we’re leading by example, how do we know that kids are watching us with the same thoughts and intentions we want them to have?

I might get frustrated with my kids for not loading the dishwasher the way I want them to, but if I haven’t spent time teaching them why and how I like it that way, is it fair to expect them to know all of that? The fact is, if we aren’t taking the time and care to TEACH, we have no business expecting kids to know how to do things. And if we set out to teach them something because they don’t already know how to do it, mocking them for not knowing won’t engender trust and facilitate the learning process.

As educators, we can’t know what a kid’s previous experiences were like, so while it may be time and labor-intensive, it’s important to check in with them and make sure that they’re comfortable with the procedures and expectations we have. If we want papers to be turned in electronically, we have to ensure that they’ve been taught to do that. If we want them to speak up in class or work with their peers in a productive way, we need to ask whether they’ve been asked to do that before and if they understand what it means to be on a team. Some of our classroom norms might be completely new and it’s our job to spend a little time laying the groundwork for every student in the class. If you’ve got a student who has been home-schooled, make sure they know how to work with others, get their needs met in a full classroom, find their rhythm and pace in this setting.

Helping kids feel successful means being on the lookout for times when we are expecting things of them that they may not know how to deliver, and supporting their learning process. If we truly want kids to LEARN, then we have to not make assumptions about what they KNOW.

*I’d totally cite the source here if I could. I’m pretty sure it was a mindfulness teacher talking to Oren Jay Sofer for a Mindful Schools webinar, but I have lost the link. It was definitely a woman and she’s written books on the subject, so if anyone knows, please let me know and I’ll give her the credit she deserves.

Can We Stop Telling Kids We Want to Teach Them to “Manage” Their Emotions?

Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”

Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’ 

Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.

To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.

It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us. 

Tips for Parents: Conflict Resolution

I’m part of a task force that includes a number of different stakeholders with diverse backgrounds and opinions and desires and fears. We are doing important work and sometimes, it is amazing to me that we are able to move forward at all, given the complexity of the issue we’re trying to untangle and the range of ideas we bring to the table. And frankly, it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have some amazing facilitators keeping us on track, pushing us out of our comfort zones, and sometimes using some pretty cool tools to help us get clarity.

One such tool that I loved seemed to me to be immediately applicable to the parent/teen relationship, if only because it helps get us to the places where we really need to talk.

We were divided in to small groups of four to do this exercise, but I think it’s doable with one parent and one child, or as an entire family unit.

The first step is to identify what the issue is: for example, curfew or social media activity.

Next, talk about where your ideas Align and where they Diverge. Make a column for each and lists underneath. No explanation is necessary at this point, it’s just a way to identify where you all agree and where the ideas are different. It may seem simple, but it can be eye-opening to truly understand where everyone’s head is, and it might be surprising to realize that you align in quite a few areas (ie. kids’ safety, kids’ social connections, etc.)

It may be that the only thing anyone agrees on is that the current status is not workable for anyone, and that’s ok. It’s a starting point, and by defining what it is that everyone thinks is going awry with this current situation, you may discover some additional insights.

When you’ve made your lists, start exploring the divergence. Look for barriers and opportunities – is there a way to honor the alignment and build a solution? Even if you can’t come to consensus about the solution, this is a great way to learn something about each other and more fully flesh out where each individual’s values and priorities lie.

Mindfulness in Real Life

When I took the pups for a walk this morning before most of the rest of the neighborhood woke up, I set out with the intention of simply paying attention to my surroundings, appreciating the flowers in my neighbors’ yards, the smell of the air after a hard rain last night, the sound of the birds talking to each other and their babies. It wasn’t long before I was distracted, however, which is akin to what happens sometimes when I sit down to meditate. Some people call it ‘monkey mind,’ but in this case, it was puppy mind. The dogs were pulling me in two different directions, each of them intent on tasting whatever they could – small sticks, bits of gravel, discarded wrappers and chewing gum they discovered on the ground. Over and over again, I tugged one back toward me with a harsh Leave It! I nearly laughed out loud when I realized that this is what I do to myself when my thoughts stray during meditation and I resolved to be more gentle. These puppies are doing what comes naturally to them – exploring their world with their mouths. Anger won’t change that. I can be more gentle in redirecting them (and simultaneously look forward to the day when I can take them for a walk and they will lift their heads up and look forward and walk smoothly instead of letting their noses lead the way in some winding treat scavenger hunt).

(The actual events of the walk did not change with this realization, but my response did.)

THIS IS MINDFULNESS. The recognition that there is a stimulus-response occurring and that I have the power to stretch out that hyphen between them, reflect on it a bit, and change the response to one that is more purposeful, more gentle, more positive without ever trying to change the stimulus.

As we rounded the next corner, I saw a neighbor up ahead walking to work. I didn’t want to shatter the quiet, so I just observed him as he walked into and then out of my field of vision. Once he had passed out of my sight, a small sedan came zipping down the street – going well over the speed limit – a young woman behind the wheel bopping her head to her music and peering in the mirror of her visor. I felt my blood pressure rise and lamented the fact that I was too far away from her to catch her eye and send her some kind of signal that she needed to Slow Down, for God’s sake!! My jaw clenched and my hands tightened around the leashes despite the fact that we were fully half a block from the street she had just raced down. I was furious.

Oh. Yeah. I was furious. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

Noticing the word furious bouncing around in my brain, coupled with my physiological responses and the urge to dispel the tension in my hands and face and chest by yelling or flipping her off was enough to stretch out that hyphen space.

 

Stimulus                                       –                                        Response

 

Was I really angry? Yes.

Why? Fear.

The sudden appearance of this fast moving car on the heels of seeing my neighbor walk along that road sent my mind racing. As soon as I saw her driving quickly down the street, seemingly not paying close attention to her surroundings, I conjured up images of a horrible accident. My mind spun off into horrible scenarios: her not being able to stop in time for the crosswalk right in front of her; not even seeing a small child or pet racing across the street to catch a ball or chase a squirrel; crashing sounds, twisted metal, glass shattering on the roadway.

Even though none of that happened, even though two blocks ahead of her was a stoplight that would surely be red this time of the morning, my conditioned response to fear of potential disaster was anger.

Well, what about next time? She clearly didn’t learn anything this time. She’ll most certainly drive that quickly down this road again and maybe next time it won’t be fine. I wish I could catch up with her and tell her to pay more attention. 

I watched as my mind created stories about her – she was out after a long night of partying and had to race home before her parents noticed she was gone. She was an entitled rich kid (she was driving a fairly new Audi sedan) who only thought about herself. She was looking in her visor to put on her makeup instead of watching the road.

I nearly laughed out loud at the elaborate tales my mind created in order to sustain my anger response. THIS IS MINDFULNESS

All of this happened in the space of about 30 seconds but by remaining curious and separate from my thoughts and physiological responses, I was able to move through the fear and anger and gently redirect my mind back to the walk, the flowers and the quiet and the dogs who were now wrestling with each other on the wet grass at my feet. Instead of holding on to that tightness, elaborating on that story, striding home to tell my kids about the crazy person who sped down the street and nearly killed the neighbor this morning, I took a deep breath and let my shoulders drop.

THIS IS MINDFULNESS.

I may still sit today with my eyes closed and clear my mind for a while in formal meditation. But even if I don’t, I am reaping the benefits of mindfulness practice by doing my best to extend it to the other parts of my life where my stimulus-response mechanism can have enormous effects on my mood and the way I interact with others.

As someone who teaches mindfulness to parents and teens, more important than sitting in formal meditation is this ability to unpack our immediate reactions and really pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves nearly every minute of every day. That kind of mindfulness has such an enormous impact on our relationships with others, and when you’re a teenager, relationships are the most important thing in your world. With any luck, teaching teens to examine the stories they tell about their world can lead to looking at the stories they tell themselves about who they are, and it can have an effect on their self-worth. Challenging those stories that are often untrue (but convenient) is the first step to really opening up and recognizing that so much of what we think is true is simply fabricated. And it gives us the space to relax, to be, and to create what we want in that place the old story left behind.

 

Charged Conversations: How to Keep it from Getting Personal

Most of us don’t like conflict, so when we go in to a meeting or gathering where we know there will be disparate ideas and positions, we worry that things might get ugly. Maybe it’s the annual budget allocation summit, or a discussion about social justice or even a conversation with your teen about driving rules or curfew – any of those scenarios can go sideways pretty quickly if two people have different viewpoints or values. But if we want to have a constructive dialogue and actually make some progress toward a shared goal, we need to keep things on track. Here’s one way to approach it that keeps things from getting personal:

Disagree with the idea, not the person.

It is sometimes hard to separate the two, because of the way we’re conditioned, but it’s really important if you want to keep the conversation going. Challenge yourself to change the way you talk about something you disagree with and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Instead of saying something like, “How could you say that?” or “You’re wrong,” or “You’re a horrible person. Don’t you know _________________?”  try to disentangle the idea from the person who suggested it.

This might look like, “Hmm, that idea doesn’t really jive with my personal experience because __________,” or “Here’s a different idea that I think is valid and deserves some attention.”

Yes, the person who suggested X did so for a reason (maybe their values or their life experience led them to it), but if what you’re after is a solution that works for everyone, it’s important to remember that we all have slightly different values and life experiences, and if we can extract the ideas and vet them on their own merits without attacking the idea generators personally, the conversation stays more focused.

This is especially hard when we come in with preconceived notions about who might pose which solution and why, but if we can set those things aside with an eye toward moving the conversation forward, we can be more efficient. In most cases, whether or not you personally like the people you’re working with on challenging issues doesn’t really matter unless you make it personal by too closely associating them with their thoughts. Helping others see things from a different perspective is easier if we are simply trying to get them to look at new ideas, instead of trying to change who they are as a person.

I used this tactic the other day on a local social media forum where folks were talking about the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. I was tempted at one point to lash out at someone who was characterizing all of the homeless folks as “junkies” and “losers who choose homelessness,” but I resisted. We obviously didn’t end up solving the issue, but we were able to have a productive dialogue without alienating each other or leaving with hard feelings and since I have to live here, I’m pretty  happy about that.

When Mindfulness is Better Taken Out of the Mind

Sometimes, it seems ironic to me that my mindfulness practice is so much about not getting caught up in my thoughts and stories. Especially when I am feeling intense emotions, I know that the best thing I can do is NOT engage with my rational mind.

From the time we can form words, we use them to make sense of our world by creating stories about what we see and hear and feel. We make assumptions and connect dots and come to conclusions that may or may not be accurate but as long as they fit our view of the world, we rarely challenge them. And over time, those stories become habitual and we launch in to them without even taking a moment to realize that’s what we’re doing.

Mindfulness is about taking a moment. It’s about recognizing that the stories are just that. And it’s hard to do, which is why I use my body to interrupt my mind when I’m feeling scared or sad or angry or frustrated. I like to imagine that these intense emotions trigger a severing of my body from my brain so that I can really direct my attention to my physical being and ignore what my mind is telling me is happening.

When I am “in my body,” I use this opportunity to ask questions:

Where am I feeling this emotion? Is there a burning in my gut? A tightness in my face or jaw? What are my hands doing? How am I breathing? How am I moving?

What happens if I breathe in to the place where I’m feeling the most intensity? Can I close my eyes and imagine the intake of breath sending warmth to a specific area? Can I relax it or slow it down? What does that feel like?

Once I’ve really tuned in to my body and maybe calmed down the physical reaction, then I can turn my attention to my thoughts. Because I’m not in the throes of the emotional reaction anymore, I can be more objective about what’s happening in my head. I can stand aside a bit and witness the story without being caught up in it, and at this point, I can assess whether it’s real or if I’m filling in blanks without having all the information.

It seems a little odd to call this “mindfulness” when I start out by completely divorcing myself from my mind’s reaction, but this is the best way I’ve found to make sure I can keep from getting immersed in the story when I’m in the midst of a fiery emotion.

Possibly the Most Challenging Mindfulness Exercise You’ll Ever Do

Ready for it?

Don’t disagree with anyone for an entire day. (pick a day when you don’t have to be at school or work because many of these interactions rely on you speaking up and offering new perspectives)

You might ask why this is considered a mindfulness exercise and here’s what I would say: anything that causes us to stop and really question our habitual reactions to things we encounter a lot is mindfulness in my estimation.

So can you do it? Can you spend an entire day noticing when your instinct is to rebut someone’s statement or explain why your idea/belief is better and tamp that down? Can you hear the voice in your head saying “that’s not true” and keep it from coming out of your mouth? Can you pay attention to how often it happens in any given day and dig a little deeper to discern what your body’s response is? Does your jaw tighten or your belly clench?

As the day wears on, does it get easier or harder? Are you storing up arguments to use tomorrow or are you learning something. Notice what happens to the quality of your interactions with people around you when you don’t automatically respond with a clarification or a rebuttal.

I’m not saying that you should never disagree with anyone. In fact, I think that the hallmark of good relationships is the ability to hold different viewpoints and still maintain connection, but many of our interactions with other people are more like competitions or power plays than they are about learning and exploring new ideas. Maybe at the end of a day spent agreeing with everyone around you, it will be easier to discern when it is important to speak up and disagree. Many of us have become conditioned to try and prove our point whether it really matters or not, and it is my hope that this exercise will give you some insight in to whether that is true of you.

I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments.

When “Why?” is Not Important

In general, I think that “why” is the most important question. I think that, if we are hoping to become more mindful, staying curious is one of the first things we do after taking a breath and giving ourselves space. If we can begin to understand why we react with anger or fear or defensiveness to particular situations, we can start to break those old patterns that keep us from living our values.

But sometimes, that space requires more than a breath or two. Sometimes, when our emotions are either incredibly intense or seem to come out of nowhere – like deep sadness and grief or body-shaking anger – the most important thing we can do is just stop. If we jump right in to asking why, we can create a situation where we feel the need to justify or deny our own emotions.

Why am I so sad?  can lead to I shouldn’t be so sad. Nothing happened/it’s not that big a deal/my life is so great.

Why does this  make me so angry? can lead to I’m over-reacting.

If we don’t take the time to let those very strong emotions wash over us, and we immediately begin spinning stories in our heads, we risk giving the emotion more time to do damage and creating a narrative that plays on a loop in our heads. We can think we’re being mindful, but what we are really doing is perpetuating the pain we feel.

So what do we do during that extra-long pause?

Short, concrete observations are incredibly helpful at disarming the intensity of emotions.

I am feeling really sad/angry right now. This seems overwhelming. I don’t want to be feeling this feeling. My chest is really tight and I feel like I might cry/scream. 

Staying in the present and resisting the urge to explain or defend these emotions, while it seems silly, is a powerful tool. And recognizing that we feel like screaming or crying and letting ourselves do that is also a way to release some of the energy (although if you are around other people, I’d recommend screaming into a pillow or something else that muffles the sound – the last thing you want is for someone to come running to ask you what’s wrong because you end up going into explanation/defense mode).

If it feels like not all of the pressure or intensity is released by simply repeating descriptions of what you’re feeling, another helpful thing to add is this:

I won’t always feel like this. I feel like this now, but it won’t last.

If the feeling of sadness or anger persists or comes back over and over again for a period of hours or days, it is important to resist the urge to begin asking why. Instead, please seek help from a professional who can guide you slowly through what you’re feeling as you unravel the emotions. The more you try to dissect it yourself, the more likely you are to engage in self-talk that is harmful or negative.  And, if you are considering self-harm or harming another person, please find help immediately.

Got Well-Being?

We all want to be happy. But we can’t be happy all the time – no matter how much we wish we could. So what is the next best thing? Well-being. A state where, even if things are going wrong, we feel safe and secure and optimistic that life will improve and we’ll return to a better place.

Well-being means that we can accept our current circumstances with calm and grace, that we don’t freak out and convince ourselves that this will end in the worst possible way, that life will never be good again, that we are doomed.

So how do we achieve that? It varies from person to person, but there is some evidence that well-being is a neurological state, and since our brains are continually growing and changing, that means that we can influence our own well-being. So even if you haven’t been a particularly optimistic person in the past, you can affect your future ability to be well. The four neural circuits that have been shown to promote well-being are:

  1. Attention – People who have honed their skills at being present and paying attention to what they are doing in any given moment are primed for well-being. The skill associated with focus and intent (as opposed to multitasking or mindless, habit-driven acts) is key to developing a sense of contentment. [basic mindfulness meditation strengthens this neural circuit, as does simply paying close attention when you are doing every day things like eating or driving or walking]
  2. Outlook – Do you have the ability to see the things in your life that are positive right now? Do you spend time savoring the things that put a smile on your face or the times when things went right? [a gratitude practice can really build this ‘muscle’ in the brain because it helps you focus on the things we often take for granted]
  3. Generosity – Individuals who routinely think of and help others have a strong sense of well-being. Not only because doing good makes us feel good, but because it strengthens our sense of connection and community which is vitally important for a sense of happiness and contentment. [lovingkindness and compassion meditation have a significant impact on the brain centers associated with well-being]
  4. Resilience – There’s a real chicken-and-egg feel to this last one because the faster we recover from adversity, the more calm and relaxed we are, and the more content we are with our lives, the faster we recover from unexpected events. But we can only really develop resilience if we are truly paying attention to how we feel and we work through (as opposed to denying) our struggles. [mindfulness meditation can teach us how to handle challenging times by allowing us to sit with unpleasantness and discomfort without trying to change it or fight it]

If you need help with any of these areas, check out the links to specific meditations on our website.

Why Mindfulness is Good For Every Classroom

 

By Bing – Flickr: Austrian Bakery, CC BY 2.0

“Mindfulness” is a word that may inspire eye-rolls, thanks to its near-constant use in many different aspects of pop culture. But, regardless of its “buzzword” status, it can have far-reaching effects for adolescents who are encouraged to use it throughout the day.

Mindfulness is simply the ability to interrupt the cycle of reflexive thought responses that we all have in order to focus our attention. In my ten or so years of practicing mindfulness, one of the most impactful effects it has had on me is that it leads me to curiosity – it literally forces me to open my mind to possibilities I wouldn’t otherwise consider. And that is one reason why it can be incredibly useful as a skill to cultivate for committed, focused students.

When the tasks in a classroom are prescriptive and it is accepted that the purpose of a lecture or activity is to get from Point A to Point B, a student’s ability to get curious is limited. Think about it like this: if you are baking a cake and you have the recipe in front of you, and you only have a certain period of time to get the cake done, you will follow the recipe step by step. While this will probably get you to the end point you desired, chances are, because of the way the human brain works, you will have let your mind wander off task as you measured the ingredients and mixed them together and followed the rules. There are only certain portions of your brain that become active when you are following a set of instructions to get to a known outcome, and that allows you to not completely focus on what you’re doing, which means that the next time you bake this cake, you will likely have to consult that recipe again because you didn’t really learn much from the process.

If students are encouraged, however, to play with the order of things or design their own ‘recipes,’ or told that the outcome is not predestined, they are more likely to get curious about the process. This is a much more expansive opportunity that engages them and, perhaps counterintuitively, sharpens their focus. Think about it – if you are walking through a room in a building you are in frequently and there is plenty of ambient light, you won’t pay much attention to the details because you believe that you already “know” what’s there. But if you are blindfolded and sent in to a room you’ve never been in and asked to find your way out the other end, your attention becomes sharp. You listen for clues, use your hands and feet to feel your way, and begin to create a mental picture of where you are. Chances are, by the time you find your way out, you will feel like you know that room very well. This is mindfulness. This is paying attention. This kind of activity lights up the portions of the brain that are involved in memory encoding and learning.

Mindfulness leads to curiosity. Once students learn to find that pause in their regular mind-chatter, they can begin to question their own assumptions and motivations. The more they practice mindfulness, the more likely they are to lead with curiosity in situations where there seems to be little room for it. There are so many time and content constraints placed on educators that it can seem impossible to create a lesson plan that encourages flexibility instead of recipe-style activity or lectures, and this is why students need mindfulness skills. Because when they find themselves in those kinds of classes, they can still create room for curiosity on their own and impact their own ability to learn and find meaning, as well as enabling themselves to focus on the task or subject at hand.