Being mindful about how to practice mindfulness!
This blog was originally published by Learners Edge on December 29th, 2016, but it was so well received we wanted to share it again! We hope you enjoy!
If you’d asked me a few years ago what I thought of Mindfulness, I may have laughed or shown you an exaggerated form of my best yoga Warrior pose. I couldn’t have told you how life changing it could be, and I certainly would not have been able to share with you any meaningful reflections.
The truth is, I have always believed in the power of Mindfulness, yoga, and other awareness practices to improve balance and well-being, but I just didn’t feel I had the time to actually do them. I was busy all day—busy teaching, busy grading, busy meeting with parents and colleagues and students—and when I got home, I was busy being a mom, a wife, and an amateur superhero. The art of slowing down seemed a luxury I couldn’t afford. Fast-forward to the present. I’ve finally realized that I can’t afford NOT to slow down. My well-being is essential to everything else in life, and Mindfulness is a surprisingly easy way to care for myself and a surprisingly easy concept to incorporate into the classroom and school.
The practice of Mindfulness is, at a very basic level, the act of paying attention to the moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Mindfulness for Beginners, Reclaiming the Present Moment—and Your Life, describes it as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” These brief respites throughout our day help us manage stress and refocus our energy.
So here are the easiest ways I’ve learned to be more mindful in my daily life. These are also great tips you can use in your classroom to help teach Mindfulness to your students and colleagues. I’m sharing them with you now, my busy fellow teachers, because I believe that you will also benefit from the opportunity to stop, observe, breathe, and then continue on with the very important work you do each and every day.
We go to sleep each night and wake up in the morning to new opportunities. Generally, the way we start our day influences how we feel for the rest of the day. This is why it is important to feed our minds with something positive within the first few minutes of waking up. Take the time to say good morning to yourself and greet the day ahead.
For me, starting positive means leaving my phone on my nightstand while I sit up, take a few deep breaths, and think of something I am looking forward to or something positive I want to accomplish. When I can’t think of anything specific, I just say, “today I will do my best to live joyfully.” That’s it. It takes two minutes at the most, but it makes a difference. I carry this thought and this positivity with me as I prepare for my day, and I walk into work with a more optimistic outlook.
Breathing is something we all do, all of the time, yet we are often not aware of how it feels in any given moment. Mindful breathing is the act of focusing on our breath to calm ourselves. Our breath connects our body to our mind, so when our minds are scattered, concentrating on our breathing grounds our thoughts and re-centers our energy. The act of mindful breathing can take less than one minute or can be practiced for longer periods.
Of all the Mindfulness techniques, the simple act of mindful breathing has been the biggest revelation for me. Now, when I sit down at my desk to work, prepare to hit send on an important e-mail, or end a difficult meeting, I take a few deep breaths to calm my mind. Honestly, I still find myself amazed at how quickly this little act helps me refocus and recharge. I’m also amazed at how often, after I take my first few breaths, I think: Have I been holding my breath? When is the last time I actually filled my lungs fully with air today?! I think we all need to breathe more!
Try this exercise anytime you feel stressed. Even if you only have a minute or two between classes, a few deeps breaths and a positive thought can boost your energy level!
This exercise was adapted from the practice found at the Greater Good in Action website: http://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/mindful_breathing.
People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they're thankful for experience more positive emotions, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems. Expressing thanks for the small things that bring joy is another way to re-energize ourselves throughout the day.
When I stop to think about it, I always find things to be thankful for in life. The difficult part is, of course, actually taking the time to stop and think about it! Here are a few ways to practice gratitude each day:
Keep a gratitude journal. A few times a week, take note of the things you are grateful for and be specific. If I just write down, “I am grateful for a wonderful husband” each week, that isn’t particularly meaningful over time. But if I am thankful for the fact he sings our daughter to sleep each night or brings me a hot cup of coffee each morning—these are the thoughts that sustain me, especially during a difficult week.
Start a gratitude jar. Break free from the journal with a gratitude jar. Whenever the feeling strikes you, simply write down what you are thankful for on colorful slips of paper and collect them in a jar. This jar becomes a visual reminder of the good things in life. Once or twice a year, take out your notes and reflect on them. The gratitude jar is also a wonderful family or classroom activity to share with others.
Document with pictures. If you are too busy to jot down notes or keep a journal, consider snapping a picture of the moment when you feel a sense of thankfulness or joy--a tree in full fall color, your child playing in the yard, your new favorite scarf. Commit to one image a day. Later, if you have time, drop these pictures into an online blog site (I use Blogger) and “tada!”—instant memory keeper! My oldest daughter is in middle school, and we now share a gratitude photo blog. I love to see the images she selects and it strengthens our connection during the busy school year.
You know the saying, “save the best for last”? Well, I’ve done it—at least in my mind.
As teachers, we know the importance of treating others with respect, kindness, and forgiveness. Self-compassion is treating ourselves with the same care we give our students, friends, and loved ones. It requires us to quiet our inner critic and replace it with the voice of understanding. This can be a surprisingly difficult act.
If breath awareness was the easiest element of Mindfulness for me to incorporate into my life, self-compassion was, and still is, the most difficult. It is also the most important. At the end of a bad day, I would often find myself saying things I would never say to a friend: What is wrong with you today? I’ll never get this right. Why can’t I be stronger? Now, when I come home from a difficult day, instead of berating myself for every mistake I made, I try to spend a few minutes focusing on the things I am grateful for in my life and the things I do well. I’m not perfect, but I am practicing.
The next time you hear your own inner critic, try telling yourself something like this (or whatever might feel natural): Head up, heart open. Every day I am learning, too. While it may sound a little silly, consider giving yourself a hug, too. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, suggests crossing your hands across your chest and gently pushing on your heart. “When you put your hands on your heart in a soothing gesture, your physiology is triggered. You release oxytocin and parts of the brain are activated,” Neff says. Pretty cool, huh?
Know that self-compassion takes time and practice, but learning to be gentle with ourselves is one of the most important lessons we can take with us.
Incorporating and teaching mindfulness in the classroom and making that transition to mindful schools takes dedication and a commitment to slow down and take a minute when life gets too hectic. Mindfulness practices have helped me be a better educator, parent, and friend. When the day feels too big, too chaotic, too out of control, or just a little too much, I encourage you lean into your source for joy, peace, hope, and courage. Take a breath, take a pause, and tackle your challenges!
Looking for additional ways to incorporate mindfulness into your school or classroom?
Enroll in Learners Edge Course 898: Mindful Leadership in Schools OR Course 5018: Incorporating Mindfulness: Strategies to Encourage Student Focus and Awareness and discover how mindfulness can help manage the demands of work, improve communication, support a healthy lifestyle and help turn your school into a mindful environment. This course is for teachers, administrators, school staff--anyone that could benefit from mindfulness! There's no time like the present to start living more mindfully!
- Neff, Kristin. (2015). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow Paperbacks.
- Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (2016). Mindfulness for beginners, reclaiming the present moment—and your life. Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing.