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.

Three Questions to Ask About Compassion

This is a follow up post to last week’s thoughts on selfishness and compassion.

Helping others makes us feel good, right? There is all sorts of research that shows that when we are compassionate and altruistic, we are happier. But can you remember a time when you reached out and helped someone else and resented it or felt worse afterward? It turns out that why we choose to be compassionate has a lot of impact on how compassion affects us.

We know that external motivation isn’t as effective at building long-term behavior patterns as internal motivation is. That is, if we help others because we think we should, we won’t feel as good as if we had done it because we truly wanted to.

Sometimes, we help others because we feel sorry for them, but it turns out that this doesn’t generally make us feel good, either. It makes us feel superior, but it doesn’t make us feel good.  Consider this quote from Pema Chodron:

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals.

It is also common for individuals to self-identify as “helpers,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can prove to be difficult over time. If we derive our self-worth from helping others, we can find it harder to accept help from others when we need it.

Engaging adolescents in conversations about compassion, rather than simply imploring them to act in ways we define as compassionate, can be an incredibly powerful tool as they begin to build habits of thought and action. The following three questions can spur some impactful discussions.

  1. Why do I choose to act compassionately? Does it depend on the circumstance and the people involved?
  2. What, if anything, do I get or hope to get out of acting compassionately? Does that depend on the situation?
  3. How do I feel when others act compassionately toward me?

The more mindful we all are about when and how and why we choose to be compassionate, the more we can begin to understand how to make our actions count in big ways. And if adolescents are taught that having personal boundaries is not incongruent with compassion, they can begin to develop a better sense of self-compassion as well.

“Why” is Your T(w)een’s Best Friend

If you’ve ever been around a toddler, you have heard the question, “why?” a lot. If you’re like most people, it drove you a little nuts.

Why is the sky blue? Why is my nose on my face? Why do I have to wash my hands?

As most of our kids go through school, they learn to whittle down their reasons for asking why, and learn that they can take some things at face value. But it is important for adolescents to turn that question around and point it at themselves. With more independence comes more responsibility, and they don’t always know how to make choices that are safe and healthy and mindful, but this one simple word can be a powerful way to focus their attention and help them make better decisions.

Asking why not only helps t(w)eens develop a sense of self-awareness, but it also reminds them that they have the power to control their actions and decisions. They have choices, and they are making them every day, all the time, whether they know it or not. They might as well understand why.

Without asking them to share their answers, I often encourage my daughters to get curious about the things they do. (Asking them to say it out loud is often a strong deterrent – they don’t want to be judged for their choices any more than anyone else does, and certainly not by their mother).

Why am I posting this picture online? What am I hoping to get out of it?

Why do I feel this powerful need to binge on sugary foods right now? What is going on in my life that is making me think this will help?

Why am I so upset at that comment Peter made? What is it about his words that affected me so strongly?

Developing a habit of inquiring about their motivations and choices can often shine a light on the inner voice that shames and blames and judges. And remembering that they have the freedom to choose how they react to any given situation can give them a sense of control over their lives that most adolescents are desperately seeking. As an added bonus, taking the split-second to ask “why” can offer enough space from an emotionally-charged incident that some of the emotion can dissipate and they can think more clearly.

After asking why, they may not make a different decision, but at least they will have gone through the motions to begin to be more self-aware. And the more we know about why we make the choices we make, the easier it gets to identify patterns of behavior.

Why Mindful Parenting is Important

Whether they would ever admit it or not, the way we relate to our children sets up patterns and expectations for their future relationships. As parents, we are our kids’ first testing ground for how they ought to be treated. Interacting with our kids in purposeful ways as much as we can (while allowing ourselves to make mistakes and acknowledge them in front of kids) is important for many different reasons.

We know that children watch us and learn. While we often wish they would do what we say, the fact is, they are more likely to weigh what we do against what we say our values are in order to see what they ought to do. The next time you are in a position to teach your child something, ask yourself what you’re modeling. What do we want for our kids, do we want them to find people in their lives who wield power over them or do we want them to be with people who respect them as equals? Would we rather they experience relationships as power struggles or as fertile ground for collaboration and an exchange of ideas? Do we want them to be with people who are always telling them how to do things or with those who encourage them to think for themselves, examine their own values and beliefs, and act on them?

Mindful parenting asks questions, teaches introspection, helps our kids figure out why they do what they do and how to do better without us prescribing it for them. It lets our kids know that we value them for who they are, not for how well they follow someone else’s rules. It encourages creativity, independent thinking, and sets healthy boundaries for relationships.

For more information on mindful parenting techniques, check out or information here or email kari@theselfproject.com to ask about forming a group in your area. Stay tuned for The SELF Project for Parents coming out in book format soon.

Mindful Parenting Tip: Strip the Labels

By the time our kids become adolescents, we as parents have often formed some pretty rigid ideas about who they are. Even if we think we are letting them explore some of the different ways to interact with the world, we often don’t give them as much freedom to interact with us at home. We make assumptions based on who we “know” they are (the oldest is the ‘clever, crafty’ one and the youngest kid is the ‘kamikaze who doesn’t look before he leaps’) and often react without thinking from that place.

But what if we take a step back and challenge those ideas a little bit? We might be  sending a message of tolerance and curiosity about our children instead of boxing them in to a place where they might not be happy existing. Here are four questions to ask yourself the next time you jump to conclusions about your tween’s motives:

  1. What assumption am I making right now about my child and is it true? At this point, it’s easy for our brains to start listing off all of the supporting evidence for our assumptions. “Of course he’s the kamikaze! Look how many broken bones he’s had. Remember the time he moved all his furniture around and broke the bookcase?”
  2. Are there other instances I can think of that counteract or mitigate this label I’ve given my kid? Could it be that he is really athletic and determined to give 110% in sports and that accounts for the broken bones? Are there times when he has done things that seem risky and pulled them off brilliantly? Can I think of times when he has been appropriately cautious? 
  3. What is my gut reaction to the assumption I make about this child? Am I disgusted because he is nothing like me? Am I frightened because that’s exactly how I was as a kid and it eventually got me into trouble? What is my emotional response down deep and could it have something to do with how I treat this child when he makes a mistake?
  4. What would happen if I let go of that label and tried to see my kid as a person with many different attributes and abilities? How would he respond if I let go of this particular label and didn’t see him only through that lens? How might my reaction to him be different the next time he comes to me with a problem? Would our interaction be more satisfying if I simply remained curious about why he makes the choices he makes instead of condemning him for things I don’t really know? 

Helping Kids Combat Their Inner Critic

We all have an inner monologue, and sometimes it can be quite nasty – especially if we have just said or done something we wish we could take back. Teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to this kind of self-talk, especially since they are also hearing criticism (both constructive and harsh) from many different corners of their lives. When the adults around you are concerned with helping you grow up safe and strong and smart, they can feel as though it’s their job to point out how you can improve yourself. Often, this translates into self-criticism when they’re alone and it can be destructive if they don’t know how to handle it.

Here are three ways adolescents can learn to mitigate some of the constant chatter going on in their heads.

1. Practice radical acts of self-kindness – Ask your child/student how they would talk to a trusted friend who makes a mistake. Often, we are much more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves, but it is important to extend ourselves the same kindnesses we offer to others. Would you berate or belittle a friend who messed up or would you remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes and that things will be okay? Sometimes it feels strange to talk to ourselves in a comforting way, but I am a strong believer in the “fake it ’til you feel it” school of habit-forming.

2. Remember, you’re only human – Avril Lavigne sings a song called “Everybody Hurts,” and while it is about a sad breakup, there are a few lines that resonate with me every time I hear them.

Everybody hurts somedays
It’s okay to be afraid
Everybody hurts, everybody screams
Everybody feels this way, it’s ok

Even if you feel like the only person who has ever screwed up like this, you’re not. And it pays to remind ourselves that we will never be perfect and that we aren’t alone. Your child is special and unique, but not inhuman. Nobody’s perfect.

3. Call that inner voice out when it’s bullying you – It may seem trivial, but when you notice that your inner critic is shaming and blaming you, it’s important to notice. Stop for a beat and say to yourself, Dang! I’m really beating myself up right now! Often, that is enough to interrupt the lecture you’re giving yourself and pull you out of that place where you’re cowering in your own mind so that you can begin to stand up for yourself.

Self-kindness is important to learn at any age, but especially during the adolescent years when the brain is incredibly receptive to emotional onslaughts and when it can build resilient neural pathways. The earlier we can all recognize our tendency to be hard on ourselves and shift those thinking patterns, the better.

“Desirable Difficulty”

A_rocky_pathThat sounds like an oxymoron, to be sure, but it turns out that things that count as obstacles in our way are those things which are directly responsible for our learning and growth. Any sort of stone or roadblock that causes us to flex, to snap out of a reverie, to think creatively to overcome something is offering us the chance to pay attention.

Our human brains are designed to find the path of least resistance, and often, when they do, we go into a sort-of autopilot mode. This is adaptive, because it allows us to conserve energy and multitask, but it also means that we stop being fully aware of what we’re doing. Think about how many times during the day your mind wanders off while your body is still performing – driving to and from familiar places, washing the dishes, taking notes in a lecture. Sometimes, this is useful. I know that I often do my best ‘writing’ when I am walking the dog and my mind strays to explore other ideas or work out some thorny issue I can’t seem to solve when I’m sitting at my laptop.

Sometimes, though, it is important for us to really pay attention, and that is where “desirable difficulty” comes in. If you find yourself in a class where it is important for you to really assimilate and understand the information, do yourself a favor and introduce some level of difficulty – take notes by hand instead of typing them or force yourself to add drawings to your notes. There is increasing evidence that these kinds of tricks are incredibly valuable when it comes to retention and comprehension of difficult material, and often, when you take notes by hand with lots of space for doodling in the margins, you find yourself drawing conclusions about what you’re learning and expanding your interest in the subject.

Because of our tendency to find the ruts and settle in to the simplest way of doing things, we often miss opportunities to deepen our knowledge. But sometimes, tripping over a rock in the path can cause us to look up and notice something we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Curriculum Snapshot:Mindfulness and Body Image for T(w)eens

Many adolescents struggle with body image issues, and while there is a spectrum that has eating disorders and self-loathing at one end and mild frustration at the other, this is a great opportunity to introduce some self-awareness.

I encourage students to engage in three things that can help them come to terms with how they feel about their own changing bodies and take back control. While these steps are by no means a substitute for counseling, if an individual is struggling with eating disorders or other self-harm behaviors, they can help students understand the foundations of the complicated emotions they have with regard to their own self-image in tandem with professional help.

The first step is to ask “why.” Anytime we hear the voice in our own head that says, “I’m too fat/short/hippy/undeveloped,” it’s important to ask where that idea comes from. Many kids can stand in front of a mirror and point out specific areas they don’t like – hips, boobs, underdeveloped muscles, big feet, ears that protrude a little more than someone else’s, hair color, etc. But going one step beyond that to inquire as to why these bits of ourselves are considered undesirable is important. Do any of these things prevent us from doing the things we truly want to do? Are they keeping us from accomplishing our most important goals? Are any of these things truly a problem for us?

If the answer is no (and I ask the kids to answer only to themselves; there is no need to utter a word out loud during any of these exercises), then it will take practice to remind ourselves that we can spend less time and energy worrying about them. Often, at this point, it becomes clear that media and social messages are giving them the impression that they are not good enough and it is important for them to decide how much they want to be beholden to these external ideals.

If the answer is yes, the next step is to gather information.  In this case, I find it helpful to put something to paper. If a student has self-identified that they are overweight and it is keeping them from doing the things that they really want to do, I encourage them to keep a food diary. Again, this is something they need not share with anyone else. This is about information-gathering. Often, when they monitor what they are eating for a few days, patterns begin to show up. It is incredibly important during this stage to reinforce self-compassion and lack of judgment. If they descend into beating themselves up for noting that they have eaten a cupcake every day for the last three days, shame creeps in and can derail any forward progress. That is one reason it is important for them to know that they don’t have to show their food diary to anyone else. This is a scientific endeavor that requires that they be honest with themselves and not harsh judges. This is incredibly difficult for many kids, and often, it takes several stops and starts before they will do it. The voices in our heads are so strong and so often present that most of us don’t stop to recognize them for what they are.

The third step is to ask, “what am I willing to do with this information?” If the student is clear on what they want to change and why, they now have a choice to make about their behavior. If they need help, they can seek out a trusted adult who can support them with resources and encouragement. Utilizing their connections to people who care about them is an important part of this step, and it is incredibly empowering. This step, too, often involves many stops and starts and can take years to develop. It is important to note, though, that the ultimate goal of this exercise is to improve self-awareness, not to improve one’s body. Once we can teach kids to recognize their own biases against themselves and understand why they have these particular negative views, they can begin to decide whether or not they want to hold those views any more.