Day 26: Be Curious, Not Critical

Photo by  Steven Wright  on  Unsplash

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I have been given came from a training for Chewonki Girls Camp canoe trip. We had set up camp one misty late afternoon, and our trainer sat us all down. She invited us, when considering camper behavior, to be curious, not critical.

Today, when I found myself getting annoyed with a student, She’s complaining she didn’t have enough time to work and yet she’s STILL not using the time she has, I reframed, I wonder why she’s not using this time even though she’s clearly stressed about it being done. While the criticism and blame was narrowing, leading me towards exasperation, the question opened my mind up to possibilities. Perhaps she was overwhelmed with frustration and gave up. Perhaps she didn’t think she could get enough done during the time left to make it worth it. Considering these different angles both gave me access to some empathy (It IS really frustrating when you can’t get your work done and want to), and helped me think about how I could most effectively prompt her to get back on track. I also was later able to ask her advisor for more context, and it helped me better understand her reaction.

The next time you find yourself getting frustrated with a student, what happens if you reframe your concern as a question? Be really curious about why they might be acting cray cray. You might even start by asking them what’s up. Their answer may surprise you.

Day 25: Dropping the Defenses

Photo by  Timothy Eberly  on  Unsplash

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

I was teaching my wellness class about infographics today, and we were talking about image searches. I was trying to explain what my graphically-inclined husband had explained to me about using pngs instead of jpegs to avoid importing the background. One student said, “You still have to search transparent with the search. pngs don’t necessarily have a transparent background.” Oh…..

It is not surprising that my STEM school students have a better grasp on how to do anything related to computers than I do, but as I thanked him, I felt the slightest hint of defensiveness. As a recovering perfectionist, it can be hard for me to hear critique of any kind.

This is one of the areas where my mindfulness has become most helpful. It doesn’t necessarily take that defensiveness away, but I notice it when it’s subtle and I am able to move on without investing anything into it. I don’t argue with it. I don’t agree with it. I don’t grow it by obsessing over it. I just notice and move on.

See if you can notice when your hackles go up over the next few days, whether it’s with students, colleagues, or parents. It may be over something as small as this instance, or something much larger. What happens if you don’t try to argue it away, but just invite it in for a moment and fully acknowledge that you feel defensive? Is there any softening? Even the slightest amount of space?

Day 24: Forest Bathing

Photo by  Adarsh Kummur  on  Unsplash

Photo by Adarsh Kummur on Unsplash

Recently, much has been written about Shinrin yoku as Westerners pick up this Japanese idea of turning to the forest for therapeutic benefits. As the temperatures climbed into the 40s today, my Wellness class and I wove our way through icy puddles to Deering Oaks Park to do our own mini bath experience.

I had the group stand facing outwards in a circle and pick a tree nearby to examine. I asked them to notice the texture of the tree, look up to the top, and observe the shapes of the branches. I had them close their eyes and listen to the sound of the wind rush around us (and the traffic… the park is right beside an interstate). I asked them to notice the sensation of the wind on their skin. For just a few minutes, you could feel the group settle into silence. The relaxation was palpable.

Even if you can’t get away to the forest, find yourself a tree. Take a few minutes to completely take it in, from top to bottom. Then, use all of your senses to take in your surroundings… the sunshine or light drizzle against your skin, the rustle of a scampering squirrel nearby. Feel your cortisol levels even out as the natural world washes over you.

Day 23: It's Like This Right Now.

Photo by  Steve Johnson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

The yoga and mindfulness elective I teach is held in a common space, so by the time I get there for third period, the floors are covered in salt that hitched a ride in from the streets, the tables are out and cluttered with food remnants, and my students are scattered across the huge open expanse. When I walked in this morning, I felt my heart quicken a little and I silently cursed this less-than-ideal situation. I was about to start the spiral of self-pity— why can’t I just teach in one space? why can’t they clean up after themselves? why…— when I remembered.

“It’s like this right now.”

I have come back to this phrase, gifted to me by Megan Cowan of Mindful Schools, so many times.

There’s nothing I can do about the circumstances that surround this class. It is what it is. The only way to free myself from feeling tortured by it is to just acknowledge it in all its full annoyingness, acknowledge my annoyance, and then move on.

My favorite part of the phrase is the , “right now.”

It serves as a reminder that it will not always be this way, it is this way for the moment, and we are free to receive the next moment anew.

“It’s like this right now.”

Day 22: Work with Asana

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

In my yoga teacher training, I was taught that the physical asana practice was designed to prepare the body to settle for long periods of stillness. If we have too much agitation in the body, or misalignment, it can be hard to relax down and let go. Though I have gravitated more towards a still practice in recent years, this past month I came back to asana as part of my regular routine.

Just twenty minutes every evening for the last month has made a huge difference, both in alleviating back pain from carrying around my ever-growing toddler, and helping me find stillness. It is not the athletic yoga of my youth, but a slow, easeful practice, responsive to the needs of my body.

Give it a try. Maybe replace a Netflix show with a practice in the evening, and see if there’s a shift. If you are looking for guidance, Yoga with Adriene has multiple 30 day challenges filled with short practices. All you have to do is press play to enjoy finding space and strength in your own body.

Day 21: Taking a Breath v. Observing a Breath

Photo by  Valeriia Bugaiova  on  Unsplash

I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on my learning from my training in mindfulness and my training in yoga. Though there is certainly overlap and application of each in the other, they are not one in the same. Mindfulness teachers, myself included, often conflate strategies to soothe the nervous system with methods of self observation and learning. Specifically, observing a breath and taking a breath are both useful tools, but they are not one in the same. We may use them intentionally, sometimes within the same practice, but former asks us simply to step back and notice the breath doing its thing, while the latter is an active and dynamic practice, often with an intention to calm and relax.

Here are a few observation v. active practices that you can choose to engage, depending on your intention:

Watching/noting the breath: without trying to control it

  • build concentration, stamina, stability of mind, hone sensitivity, observe quality of breath/observe state of mind

Diamond Breath: notice the complete inhale, the pause at the top, complete exhale, and the pause at the bottom

Count breaths: count up to 8 breaths; each breath is a complete inhale and exhale. if you get lost in thought before 8, simply start again

Note in the mind: “breathing in” as you breathe in, “breathing out” as you breathe out

Using the breath: to shift state of mind/being

Belly/Diaphragmatic breathing: place your hands on your belly and inflate it with an inhale, then slowly release all the air from the belly on the exhale. Inhale a complete breath in and exhale a complete breath out.

4-7-8 breathing: inhale for 4, hold for 7, exhale for 8

Vacuum breath: As you inhale, image all the stress and tension in your body concentrating in your belly. Hold the breath, then exhale out the mouth and imagine it leaving.

Day 20: Look Up!

In my days of full time teaching, especially this time of year in the dead of winter, I would get to school before the sunrise and not leave the building until after sunset. Monday-Friday I existed in a world of literal darkness. I sometimes wouldn’t even know what the weather had been that day, if the temperature had warmed or a breeze had picked up or clouds had formed and passed.

I had a room with windows, but I would simply forget to look out of them. I was so engrossed in my classroom that I lost that grand perspective.

Two nights ago, as I was hustling out to my car in brutal temperatures, for a moment I gazed upward and noticed the stars brilliant against the blackness of the sky, and I felt myself open.

Shifting our gaze up and taking in the expansiveness of the sky can provide an instant perspective shift, where the minutia of our daily worries shrink for that moment. There is an invitation to feel our smallness and allow our concerns to fade in the face of such enormity.

I invite you to lift your gaze and open to that grand perspective. Let your world feel a little less heavy, if only for that moment.

Day 19: Technology Black Out

Photo by  OOI JIET  on  Unsplash

Photo by OOI JIET on Unsplash

I am always trying to find ways to outsmart myself with my technology use, since it has such a strong hold on me. Last Thursday, I took Instagram, Facebook, gmail, and google search off my phone. I let myself access them on my computer, but not my phone. Just for the week, I wanted to see what kind of hold those apps had on me, and what it would be like to go without.

Right away, evidence of my impulsiveness began to show itself. Even though I had previously limited my time on Instagram, I had gotten into a weird habits, like watching Instagram stories while brushing my teeth. Thursday night, I really felt its absence as I scrubbed away. When I let that go, I was able to really enjoy the sensation of cleaning my teeth. Then, I was away at a presentation on Friday, and I really wanted to just check my email on my phone. But why? I knew I wouldn’t want to write back right then and there, because I wouldn’t be able to give it my full attention. It was just a habit. I wanted something to do. it has really taken me until today, 5 days later, to stop feeling that pull. And in its absence? Freedom. I haven’t crammed stimulation into every spare minute of my day. I have more time to just be.

My challenge to you is to choose an app to blackout for a week. Preferably one you know you are more compulsive in your use of. Really clue into what it is like to not have it, when you reach for it, and what it feels like to not be able to. Do this all with a sense of humor and curiosity, nonjudgmentally exploring your own habits of mind. In this void, may you also find freedom.

Day 18: End of Day Pause

Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

If I am not careful, when I get home from school, I will jump right back on my computer and pick up where I left off. I have done this while trying to snack or check in with my husband. I have even convinced myself that it is relaxing to scroll through facebook while eating my peanut butter and apple.

No, Erica, it is not.

Today, I came home, reheated some pizza my husband made last night, and sat down at the table. Without my phone. Without my computer. He and I then went for a brisk walk around the block. One literal block that took not more than 10 minutes. When it came time to sit back down in front of my computer, I was ready. My brain had been given a break. A moment to discharge.

The strangest phenomenon has occurred as I have slowed down and made space for more pauses. My day feels longer. I am getting the same amount of work done in less time. It is incredibly hard to trust that might be the case if you are someone who is time-strapped. Easing up on the multitasking and creating more pauses may actually result in more time rather than less. I’m a believer.

Try it for yourself. Come home from school and pause. Don’t jump right back into work. Take a full break, in this world, with no technology. Have a cup of tea, a snuggle with your dog, or even a moment to just shut your eyes and rest.

Day 17: Using Your Authentic Voice

On Friday, I got to spend the day witnessing mindfulness hip-hop artist JusTme perform to a crowd of preK-8 kids in midcoast Maine. To watch preK-ers rapt with attention for 45 minutes, then turn around and see 7th graders willing to get up and dance in front of one another in the middle of a school day, was quite a sight to behold. JusTme was engaging, charismatic, and attentive, using his skills and beliefs about the world to share mindfulness with these students. I was inspired.

I will never be able to teach mindfulness through hip-hop. That’s not the point. To watch someone so authentically share what I feel passionate about, and do so in a way that is completely different than I might, inspired me to stay connected with the way mindfulness lights me up.

Parker Palmer talks about how teaching should not be prescriptive… that we will all teach best differently, and unless we are free to do so, we will feel stymied and impotent. He says, “In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.”

May we all continue to explore our “selfhood” in service of our teaching.

Day 16: Give Opportunities to Share the Love

Photo by  Zhen Hu  on  Unsplash

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

Many of my students have a negative narrator in their head dictating who they think they are and how others perceive them. As a recovering perfectionist and people pleaser, I can relate strongly to this afore mentioned affliction. My mind is so quick to tell a story about why this student or that colleague doesn’t like me, how that one thinks I’m incompetent, how I, myself, don’t think I can do it.

One way we can manage these difficult thoughts is just to know them as thoughts and let them go. Each time the narration arises, we can witness it as the grumpy judgmental old fart within us that can be acknowledged without being believed.

Another way is to strengthen another narrator, one that can also see our strengths and value in this world.

Today was the last day of the semester for my students, so as a final wrap up activity, I asked my classes to share the love. In my yoga and mindfulness class, we each wrote our names on a card and passed it around, recording a short thought about why we appreciate having that person in the class. In my Couch to 5K, students reflected on one moment they were proud of themselves.

By intentionally bringing in moments to feel and share the love, students have the opportunity to challenge their inner critique. To hear genuine appreciation and experience self love. And so do I.

Day 15: Reflective Listening

Photo by  Harli Marten  on  Unsplash

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

Last night I got a frustrated email from a student in my class who, because of a miscommunication with her partner, had turned in an incomplete assignment. She said she absolutely did not want to be graded with that student, just on her independent work. Both she and her partner are diligent students who have a really hard time working with their peers.

To get them each to a place where they could have a conversation with one another, I pulled them separately to talk alone. I then asked them to explain what had happened, what they could own, and what they would ask of their partner. After we dug into the problem from their perspective, I summarized back to them what they heard and checked to make sure I understood correctly, giving them the opportunity to add more or affirm that I had understood.

One of the most helpful mindfulness courses I have taken is Mindful School’s Mindful Communication course with Oren Jay Sofer. Through this class, I really was able to witness how incredibly difficult it is to stay present in conversation with others without trying to make them feel a particular way (even if that way is good) or do a specific thing. One of the tools I have found incredibly useful is to check for understanding with a reflective statement. This both allows the other person to feel heard and to make sure you really understand what they are trying to communicate.

At the risk of getting rigid, here are a few frames I use around reflective listening, which can be easily modified once there’s some comfort.

“Let me just see if I understand correctly…”

“…Is that right?”

“…Did I get it all?”

“…Is there anything that I missed?”

Having these tools handy frees me to fully listen to the person in front of me, without needing to formulate a response beyond just hearing from them.

Now I just become more skillful at using this with my family….

Day 14: Relaxed Body, Relaxed Mind

Today, we had professional development at my school and engaged in restorative justice work as faculty. The tension in the room was palpable as my colleagues shared some truly heartfelt accounts of their obstacles with our learning community. As I listened, I noticed my shoulders slowly creeping up towards my ears, my jaw slightly clench, and my heart start pick up speed.

Our bodies react, often without us realizing it, to environments that they perceive as threatening. Because our nervous system is tasked with keeping us safe, it is often scanning one’s surroundings, triggering a sympathetic “fight, flight, or freeze” response when it believes we are in danger. This can happen even when there is no physical threat, but an emotional one. Combine that with the presence of mirror neurons in our brain, that allow us to actually experience the emotions of others, and we can see how difficult meetings or classrooms can create ripples of anxiety throughout a group of people.

While sitting in this meeting, whenever I noticed my body start to tense, I consciously relaxed the areas that were straining. I gently lowered my shoulders, relaxed my jaw, and took a few deep breaths to signal to my body that I was okay. There was nothing to be afraid of. I could relax.

I invite you to notice when you have physiological reactions your colleagues or students and consciously scan through the body, inviting each part that is holding to release. Especially focus on the areas where you know you hold tension, whether it be the belly, fists, or forehead, and relax them down. Perhaps deepen the breath cue a parasympathetic response. Use the body to assure the mind.

Day 13: Mindfulness is More Than Stress Reduction

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One critique of mindfulness is that it asks us to be complacent in the face of suffering. By accepting everything just as it is, the thinking goes, one is passive. This is a misrepresentation.

I believe in a socially-engaged mindfulness. One that asks us to look clearly at any problem in front of us, unflinchingly accept that it is the way it is right now, and then, as skillfully as we can, make decisions that move us closer towards equity, justice, and compassionate resolution.

This is not the mindfulness of pure stress reduction. Looking at suffering can evoke all sorts of difficult emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness asks us to develop a level of comfort with those feelings by practicing being with them.

Mindfulness asks us to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Teachers are at no loss for discomfort. We are consistently asked to witness and support students with intensely difficult home lives. We are challenged by parents, colleagues, and administrators with radically different ideas than us about how things should be. We are meant to meet an impossibly high bar as someone inspiring and engaging to every student who walks through our doors, no matter what. Plenty of practice material.

When we can see those truths, without defense or minimizing or turning away (or even just seeing those reactions), then we have more freedom to act less reactively and more skillfully. Then we are deeply practicing mindfulness.

To read a more in-depth reflection on this topic, see The Art of Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

Day 12: Ode to Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver passed away today. My husband proposed to me citing one of her poems. I give “Wild Geese” out to any friend who is struggling. I incorporate her into as many mindfulness programs as I possibly can. She so gracefully translates her mindful experience of the world into language. Her words remind me of what I already know, if I get quiet enough to remember.

Today, as you read her words, notice how they sink into your soul. Feel the permission to just be as you are. The world will lead the way:

youdonothavetobegood.jpg

Thank you, Mary Oliver. Thank you.

Day 11: Love the sh** out of yourself

Photo by  Steve Halama  on  Unsplash

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

The oft forgotten and neglected partner of mindfulness meditation is compassion practice. Mindfulness and compassion, by those in the know, are described as two wings of the same bird. But for whatever reason, it isn’t as sexy as mindfulness. It hasn’t enjoyed the same riptide out into popular culture. And so, compassion practice has been left humbly on the shore.

During professional development today for a group of local teachers, I retold the story about how my meditation teacher prescribed that I, “get on the cushion and love the sh** out of yourself," in response to my report that I was finding fellow silent retreat participants annoying. What we can find inside of ourselves can be hard to see, and if we haven’t spent the time cultivating love, we may not be able to handle it. I really have had to jack up my loving awareness to look clearly at my critical mind without turning away in shame.

Today, practice some self compassion. One way we can do this is by intentionally thinking of what we would like to offer ourselves. For me, May I be at ease. May I be open to wisdom. May I love. For you, May I be….(fill in the blank with your own personal wishes).

If you find it difficult to offer that self love, it can be helpful to start by thinking about someone who is easy for you to generate that for, like a child, partner, or even pet. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you be peaceful. Then, once you’ve generated that feeling of love, redirect it inwards.

Day 10: Don't Go it Alone

Photo by  Helena Lopes  on  Unsplash

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I met with two women over tea today, where we discussed our hopes and dreams for sharing mindfulness. I left renewed, excited to continue on this journey of self exploration, as well as introducing this practice to others.

I need to explore alongside others to continue onward. I frequently participate in online discussions about practice. I attend a weekly sit, where we practice together and reflect on life. I do this because I want to keep my practice alive, fresh, and invigorated. I need accountability, support, and love.

This inner exploration stuff can be tricky business. It is hard to commit to a daily practice. It is hard to remember to come back to the present. Sometimes what we notice can be uncomfortable, or confusing, or difficult. We need support to explore what can come up. Mindfulness was meant to be practiced in community.

So don’t go it alone. Find people with whom you can practice, explore the trappings of the mind, and celebrate the good.

Day 9: Walking the Mindful Walk

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

As a wellness educator, today my job involved a brisk walk in the 17 degree weather to keep an eye on my students (this was the activity they picked, for the record, not one I required.) I found myself naturally turning my attention to my footfall as my boots struck the brick, especially through the areas that were iced over. I was struck by how good it felt for each sole to make contact with the ground beneath me as I breathed in the sharp air and snuggled into my puffy coat.

When I learned mindful walking, it was done very slowly, back and forth for 10-15 paces, with full presence brought to each step. As a result of repeated practice and intention, many of my walks have transformed into mindful walking, just in shifting my attention from my thoughts to the feeling of my body in motion and sensations of my feet on the ground.

Today, see if you can bring awareness to your feet as you move throughout your day. It can be when out on a walk, but also just as you go from your car into work or pass between classes. Sink into the soles of the feet and notice as one foot presses against the ground and lifts again, and then the other. Allow the mind to stay present with the motion of the body.

Day 8: The Stormcloud

This weekend, a storm cloud started building in the periphery of my mood, so that when I wasn’t actively engaged with my day, I slipped into a sense heavy sense of foreboding about the week ahead. I had some work to do that I was anticipating would be overwhelming and difficult, and the closer I got to having the chance to do that work as the weekend came to a close, the more anxious I became.

When I first started practicing mindfulness, I thought I could get to the point where I wouldn’t feel anxious anymore. Alas, while it would be so nice for it to be a magic fix, that’s just not how it works. The tightening of the throat and general sense of unease throughout my body are still very much a part of my experience. The only thing that has shifted, which is subtle, yet profound, is how I (sometimes) am able to meet that experience.

Instead of escalating into a full blown panic attack, or pushing it away only to find it explode up at another point in the day, each time it arises, I note: Ah, anxiety. Something is wrong, my friend? What is it? Sometimes, there is a clear answer, and sometimes not. In either case, I invite in a deeper breath to wash over my nervous system, especially in those areas of the body where the tension is high, inviting some of the clenching to ease. In that way, I am meeting it as it arises, and allowing it to dissipate as it is ready, without whipping it up or struggling against.

There are lots of variation on breath work that I find helpful, but two that I currently use are as follows:

1) Stress Ball: Take in a deep inhale to the belly, imagine all of the stress of the body being pulled deep into the belly. Hold the breath for a beat or two, allowing the tension to compact. Then, exhale strongly, and imagine the ball of tension leaving the body.

2) Ocean breath: Take a deep inhale into the belly, imagining water rushing over your system, then as you exhale, imagine the tide turning and taking with it the tension from your body.

Even after a minute of theses breaths, I find more space and relaxation in my body so that I can more clearly see what my next steps may be.

Today, I invite you to notice when the storm clouds are pushing into your consciousness, acknowledge they are there, and invite in some deep breaths to help sooth the system. May you find some ease and space.

Day 7: Today was a Very Good Day

Photo by  Taylor Ann Wright  on  Unsplash

Today was a very good day. My students weren’t particularly different than they usually are, mostly sweet, though sometimes goofy and in need of redirection. I was just ready for it. It is not always clear to me what conditions allow me to effortlessly show up, but I suspect it is some combination of getting enough sleep, exercise, companionship, meditation/relaxation, and good planning. Whatever it was, I didn’t have to work to find the joy today. It was just there.

In order to fully experience that joy, I had to protect it. My mind tends to be eager to look ahead for the next problem to tackle, the next potential issue to solve. Yes, things are good at the moment, but, what about next week when….[insert crisis here]? I had colleagues who were having different kinds of days, and it could be easy to descend with them into their struggles.

But no, dang it. Not today. Today I will be happy.

The next day, or hour, or perhaps even just a moment, when things are just feeling good, flowing easily, get in it. Splash around in it. Enjoy knowing that this moment, too, shall pass, so we might as well soak it in while it’s here.