Stories from the field, Part IV: Pleasant, Unpleasant, Neutral

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness is impacting the students I am working with, in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a large high school resource room in Portland, Maine:

Today I dragged my students outside for one minute— no time to get jackets— into the frigid Maine temperatures in hopes of triggering their "unpleasant" response.  The second I told them we were heading outside, a number of them immediately started complaining,

"It's too cold!"

"Can I get my jacket?"

"You (their teacher) get to stay inside where it's warm, and we have to go out?"

Perfect. My plan was working.

What I did not anticipate was how many of them would find stepping outside the walls of the building, even for a minute, to be a pleasant experience. The birds were calling, the cars rushing by, and a slight hint of sunshine warmed our backs.  I thought my metaphor was spoiled (though it served as a great reminder of how being outside can be so refreshing, even for just a minute.)

However, I realized as we walked back in the doors that their response provided even better fodder to consider. For many of them, before we even left the building, they wrote a story in their minds about how it was going to be an unpleasant experience (as did I!). Instead of waiting to see what actually happened, they started resisting it. When we actually got out there, it was pleasant for many (though for some, especially the boy in shorts, perhaps less so). So often in our lives we create a story about an experience even before we have it, and create unpleasantness for ourselves.  The first step is just to notice we have a reaction and are actively creating a story.

After that, we have three options when we notice something is unpleasant.

1. WALLOW IN OUR MISERY: Sometimes this is a reasonable response. Maybe the unpleasant thing isn't happening to us right now, but deserves some space to be felt. Can we make space for that? 

2. CHANGE OUR CIRCUMSTANCES: Sometimes, the notion that something is unpleasant is important information. If we are continually running up against a wall that is making a situation unbearable, and we have the power to change it, then we should. We don't have to stay in unhealthy or unsafe life conditions.

3. CHANGE (DROP) THE STORY (what is really true?): But sometimes, it turns out the story is the problem, or the circumstances are outside of our control, or we need to have one experience in order to have the next one, which we really want. In that case, what can we change about our story to neutralize an experience? Can we name it as unpleasant? Can we notice that what is actually happening at any given moment may not be as bad as we make it out to be?

We spent the last 4 minutes noticing what our experience was like to sit for four minutes silently, and checked in at the end: Pleasant, Unpleasant, Neutral.  

It is in the noticing that we find our freedom to choose.