Stories from the Field, Part X: But what is it? Defining Emotion.

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from  Inside out

Anger, fear, joy, disgust, and sadness from Inside out

I like Pixar's Inside Out as much as the next person.  If I'm being honest, I probably like it way more than the next person. I use these characters to think about my emotions as harmless little muppets who I can comfort and soothe. I think the whole film gives us great insight into our mind. However, watching the movie just offers us a way of symbolizing, and even working with, them. It does not really give us a clear picture of what emotions actually are. 

The challenge of defining "emotion" 

So take a minute to grab a pencil and paper. Write down the word "emotion."  Then, write the definition.

How'd it go?  We might we know emotions so well, but when it comes to defining them, things get muddy quickly. 

Here's how the conversation with my high schoolers went on the first day we tackled this topic. 

Me: Okay, so tell me what you wrote down as the definition of emotion.

Student: A feeling.

Me: Can you explain what you mean by feeling?

Student: Um...emotion?

Defining an "emotion" is incredibly challenging. It is not just hard for us laypeople, but even scientists are still hotly debating the issue. At article in The Atlantic titled, "Hard Feelings: Science's Struggle to Define Emotions" explores this difficulty. Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU, stated, "'It's been said that there are as many theories of emotions are there are emotion theorists.'" The field is still evolving, and what we believed to be true in the 1950s when scientists first turned their attention to emotions has been challenged repeatedly. 

Carroll Izard compiled surveys from 34 emotional researchers and created this description: 

Emotion consists of neural circuits (that are at least partially dedicated), response systems, and a feeling state/process that motivates and organizes cognition and action. Emotion also provides information to the person experiencing it, and may include antecedent cognitive appraisals and ongoing cognition including an interpretation of its feeling state, expressions or social-communicative signals, and may motivate approach or avoidant behavior, exercise control/regulation of responses, and be social or relational in nature.

Our response as a class: Huh?

Emotions....Physical sensations

Image from  PNAS study

Image from PNAS study

I asked the class to come up with our own personal, intelligible definition. We started by trying to understand the physiological component through a Mindful Schools exercise I have dubbed the "emotional vaccine." I spoke an emotion at a time and asked them to notice what sensations arose in their bodies. After three emotions, we would open our eyes and share out. While there was some consistency for what students reported out about their experiences— a swelling of the chest for "pride" or sinking in for "sadness"— there was also some diversity. For example, some students reported feeling anxiety in their heads and others in their bellies. We followed this by reading a study published in PNAS called "Bodily maps of emotions" that showed cross-cultural consistencies in body sensations in response to specific emotions. Then, we read the afore mentioned Atlantic article, which began with Paul Ekman's study demonstrating the universal correspondence of facial expressions to particular emotions.

Whether or not body sensations were universal still seemed up for debate from our experience, but we decided there is definitely a physiological component. 


Emotions....caused by chemical release in the brain

So it has something to do with physical sensations, but what else? This short video helped us understand where they might originate in the body:  

From it, we learned, "emotions are the effect of...chemical messages traveling from our brain to our body." By adding the two together, and doing a little word smithing, my students came to consensus on this definition:

Emotion: (n) An instinctual reaction to a circumstance that is caused by chemicals released in the brain creating bodily sensations.

"It's so sterile to describe something know?" one student remarked. 

"I do know," I replied like the English teacher I once was, "that's what poetry is for."

Poetry and Pixar.

Stories from the Field: Part IX, The Rumi Trigger

Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:

Yesterday, I handed out Rumi's poem The Guest House to the small portion of my class that made it back the first day after break. This poem, written by the 13th century Persian poet, is a classic that has been passed around in meditation and yoga circles for centuries. It has been one of my personal favorites since I encountered it during my yoga teacher training. I think of it in my darker moments. It reminds me of the possibility of embracing all the intensity, of sitting down with it and listening carefully, so that I may glean wisdom from the pain. 

I have shared this with hundreds of adults in my life through yoga classes, mindfulness classes, and personal exchanges. Usually adults admire its profundity and wisdom.

My students, never ones to passively internalize what I offer, had a different response.  We started by reading the poem aloud. I asked the students to write down what they thought the author meant, and if they agreed or disagreed with the message at the bottom. After a few minutes of writing, I asked them to share out loud.

"Clearly this author is romanticizing negative emotions, or has never felt them himself," one student began.

"Yeah, I mean, maybe this is a good poem for people who are generally happy, but you can't just invite it all in."

"Has this person even ever been depressed?"

So...not moved to a higher plane of understanding through this great 13th century Persian's words then?

What I was so struck by, what made my heartache for them, was not their words, but the known pain that was welling up just behind those words. My students were not speaking abstractly. They were speaking from their own personal experiences. They were terrified of their own pain and darker emotions. They weren't just in disagreement, they were mad at him for even suggesting they should sit with them, welcome them, entertain them. 

"We shouldn't be pandering to these emotions," one girl asserted.

The words of Rumi have always spoken so clearly to me that I wasn't sure what to do when they were shot from the sky and sent to a fiery death. I know I myself struggle to be with the full spectrum of emotions, but I have also always thought that I am working towards a place where I can more fully be with them. I wanted to know more.

So I left them with two questions:

1. Why might someone believe that we should be with our emotions and see them as "guides from beyond"? What benefit could there be to sitting with emotions?

2. If not this, if not, "welcoming and entertaining them all," then what? 

We came back together the next day with a full class and these reflection questions clearing the way. I wasn't sure where we were going to land, but I knew we had to dig back in because I wanted students to have more time to explore that idea and to deepen my understanding of their perspective.

 After rereading the poem, I had students reflect in their journals, discuss in groups of three, then rejoin the whole class for a complete discussion. This time, greater nuance came through. One student discussed how pushing emotions away isn't going to help, but sometimes when you have an "inappropriate" emotional response to an event, you should try getting into the other person's shoes instead of entertaining that emotion. Another talked about how emotions are an essential part of processing, and she can't actually choose whether or not they occur, so the poem didn't seem to make sense. A few thought you should accept whatever comes, because you can't actually fight it, like it or not. 

I still find the initial response of those few students, from the first reading, so telling. We are incredibly resistant to our negative emotions, and even the idea that we should have to be with them can be triggering. It is counterintuitive to imagine that actually sinking in and being with an emotion can be the way to make it dissipate. But the monster in the closet grows larger and uglier until we finally work up the nerve to crack open the door and peer inside. Only then can we see reality. 

Stories from the Field, Part VIII, Beware the Pseudoscience

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

Image credit: The Daily Beast

Image credit: The Daily Beast

My work with Baxter Academy students has been exhilarating. I am teaching an elective mindfulness class there I call Wise Minds in which I have twelve students for an hour a day, four days a week. This allows for some serious in-depth exploration of the topic. Furthermore, they have chosen to be with me, which creates a different vibe than those who were forced to endure me in the classroom per their teacher's orders. That said, I don't get off the hook easily.

I made the mistake of offering data that seemed like a fun way to start a discussion about the impact of technology on our attention:

 "According to the New York Times, humans in 2015 are said to have the attention span of 8.25 seconds, which is less than 12 seconds in 2000, and the 9 second attention span of a gold fish."

That's interesting, I thought.

They immediately tore it apart: 

"I want to know how they are measuring that data. How do you even measure the attention span of a goldfish?"

"Perhaps comparing our attention to a goldfish doesn't mean anything because we, as humans, had a lot of predators, so of course we are easily distracted. Goldfish are human bred, I think, and so they don't have any natural predators to look out for. It is just trying to make us think our attention spans are too short, but really it's not a useful comparison."

And my favorite:

"I'm sorry to say this, but that's click bait. It sounds like pseudo-science made to support some pop psychology silliness."

I loved it!  They were right! I went home and immediately tried to figure out where those numbers came from. Numbers the New York Times, The Telegraph, Time Magazine, and countless other news sources and blogs quoted. They cited a Microsoft study, which I then read. Lo and behold, this statistic did not even come from their work, as they cited a website called Statistic Brain for these particular numbers. When I went to that website, there was no evidence of where they got the data. I wrote them an email. I am still waiting to hear back.

To these students, I say, bravo. When I taught English in DC, this was exactly the kind of work I was trying to get my students to do. I wanted them to be critical thinkers and media consumers. I like using research and science as a way of talking to students about human phenomena, but I need to be careful about mindlessly feeding them "facts" without investigating their validity. Science is still important to me, and I like that it helps us universalize our experience and understand ourselves in a larger context of humanity. But it's not everything.

In the end, we found a rich discussion by observing and reporting on the experiences from our own lives. We talked about our own tendency towards patience and impatience, and how technology may or may not contribute to that. We thought about the impact our phones and computers has on our well-being.

And the next day, I had this exchange:

"Your classes are like horoscopes," one tenth grade student declared as she came in the door.

"Oh?" I responded, "How's that?"

"It just seems like each day applies to my life! Take yesterday. We were talking about patience in class, and how impatience can hurt us. Then, the next class I had writing, which I am usually impatient with because I find it very tedious. But this time I just realized it and was able to go in really calm."

I grinned, "Yes, the hope is that you can apply this stuff to your life. Believed me, I use it every day."

Heronfield Academy, Meet Mindfulness!

The Heronfield campus is an old converted horse farm that has rustic charm.

The Heronfield campus is an old converted horse farm that has rustic charm.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, I had the opportunity to meet with the welcoming students and staff of Heronfield Academy, a small middle school nestled away in Hampton Falls, NH. I joined the staff on Monday afternoon for an hour introduction to the practice and scientific basis for mindfulness. Through a study in Buddhism, many students had already been introduced to meditation. Flanking a round table, the staff talked about how it felt to sit with an attention anchor, like sound or our breath, for short periods of time. We also explored the usefulness of offering these practices to the students. As a former middle school teacher, I have witnessed the importance of giving this age group tools to stay present for their lives.


On Tuesday morning, I led a twenty minute community meeting in which the 83 students, staff, and I explored the experience of sitting with an anchor. A couple of brave students admitted they felt weird, and many noted they felt calm. One teacher how she noticed she was congratulating herself on doing a "good job" when she was able to follow her breath. 

I am always awed by a room full of people sitting in silence. Even in one minute you can feel the energy of the room shift. It was a beautiful quiet that morning on the farm. I am so grateful to have shared the space with these young people and the staff that nurture them.

Stories from the Field, Part VII, New Kid on the Block

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 an alternative learning program just outside of Portland, Maine:

After leading a "Smartifier" for the REAL School in December, I came back this month to start working with the students. There is always an adjustment period when you walk into a new room, and I was definitely feeling some new kid feelings. The first day I was in recruitment mode and tried to convince the crowds in 10 minutes or less that it's worth trying this weird thing (the teachers for one of the classrooms ended up volunteering the whole class, so I sold it well enough to hook the staff, anyway). The other group of four or five students literally ran away from me as I approached (the gym is a challenging space to recruit). One refused because I disrespected him when I asked them to sit by not saying please.  I only got to speak to one or two students who stuck around.  

On Day 2, I offended one of the more vocal students by calling him by the wrong name, and the name of his apparent nemesis (big oops). Even though he was disruptive, when I pulled him afterwards to check in, I made sure to make it about my error and asking him for his participation. Downstairs students were in and out of the room as allied staff members coaxed them into trying it out. 

After another week of small blunders, I found myself also making some headway. I started to notice barely perceptible signs of acceptance. Today, when I asked Sam to help me set up the projector screen, though the first request was met with denial, the second was with acquiescence. When we went through the body scan, every student but one had technology away, and not a single student spoke during that time. They even voluntarily read parts of the Portia Nelson poem we use called "Autobiography in Five Short Chapters." The downstairs group, which comes on a voluntary basis, has started to solidify with some regulars who are genuinely interested and curious about the practice. They readily offer their discomforts and comfort as we have gone through sound and breath as anchor. In both groups, the mood of the room perceptibly shifted after sitting together. In that way, we build trust.

Stories from the Field, Part V: When student first becomes teacher.

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:

Passing the vibratone

Passing the vibratone

On Tuesday, we came back from break, and I immediately hit the students with script writing.  The capstone project for our 8 weeks together was going to be delivering mindfulness curriculum to students in nearby elementary and middle schools.  After reviewing all the lessons and content we covered, I gave them highly structured script templates to fill in introductions, the definition of mindfulness, an interesting hook, a practice section, debrief questions, and a conclusion. I thought they were ready to go.

The response?  Stonewalling. Students looked straight ahead, looked down at their desks, looked out the window. My questions about their response were met with resounding silence.  I went and sat with one group, as the classroom teacher sat with the other, and we both pushed desperately for what they knew and wanted to add. By the end of an 80 minute period, we had some half written notes to show.  

The classroom teacher and I were, at first, panicked. Why don't they want to do this? Do they really dislike it so much? Should we just roll it back to being voluntary and send only students who step forward to do it?  But we knew there were some students who would opt out who would be successful, if they just carried it through, so we didn't want to deter them.

Throughout the time working with students that day, I also had gathered some insight. When speaking with an eleventh grader, Cassie, about how I was surprised it was so hard to do, she shared: it was one thing to learn, but another to teach. She said she didn't really feel like she fully understood it yet, and that's why it was so hard for them to come up with ideas. 

They weren't being defiant or sullen, they just really didn't feel ready. And that's fair. I went through hundreds of hours of training in order to feel confident generating and delivering this material, and here I was asking them to come up with something on the spot.  I realized the whole point was that we wanted them to share the experience, not necessarily create it, so I ended up taking what they had come up with and putting in the strong curriculum I have access to (and draw upon regularly, I must add). 

When I went in today with scripts in hand, the students were happy to read through them with me and practice. A few even got excited about putting what was there into their own words, and we worked to make them true to their voices. It wasn't that they didn't want to do it, it's just that they needed support to make it happen. 

My students are always my teachers, and as I formally pass the reigns on to them, I want them to be successful in that endeavor. This time, it meant listening to them to hear the root cause of their behavior and responding to that. It meant being mindful of where they were in their learning, and meeting them there, to help them step into their new roles as teachers of mindfulness.

Stories from the Field, Part V: But is it working?

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:

I met with a teacher after school today to talk about scheduling and how we will transition our high school students from learning about mindfulness to teaching it to others. When I walked in she said to me, "I just can't tell how much buy in we have. I think some of them like it but are pretending not to." 

This is always a thought that always arises when I am teaching. "Is it working?"  When I was teaching middle school English, I was obsessed with this question. I worked overtime on lesson plans, collected meticulous data in the form of exit tickets, quizzes, and verbal responses, and created new lesson plans based on that information. In that role, I needed to know if my students were learning exactly what I needed them to learn. I believed it was my failure when they didn't understand the material. 

Through my own personal work with mindfulness, I came to see this belief as self-defeating and erroneous. Even more, it took the agency away from my students to suggest that I was solely responsible for making sure they learned.  Tracking student mastery of standards was right on, but to maintain my sanity, I needed to be able to do that without attaching my emotional wellbeing to their achievement. 

I cannot force students to value or appreciate anything; no matter how much I believe in the power of mindfulness, I cannot make students to see it.  I can offer metaphors, personal anecdotes, research, neuroscience, and above all else, experiences, to demonstrate what it can mean to pay attention to our lives.  To give them experiences that perhaps will show them the value. To need them to take something in particular away is to create my own suffering.

We also can never be certain how work that is so internal truly lands. I have heard countless anecdotes, from my peers teaching mindfulness, about the most disengaged-looking student making insightful comments about mindfulness only at the very end of the course. For my own middle schoolers last year, I wouldn't have known it was "working" until the end of the year when they reported using it during times of stress with family, on sleepless nights, to help focus in class, and to help calm themselves down. This was despite some of them occasionally dropping fart noises into our formal practice. 

Finally, perhaps "working" takes many different forms, some visible, and some less visible. Perhaps "working" takes a longer term than we have the opportunity to see. If we expect all kids to immediately take to mindfulness, to be calm and quiet during practice, to engage without question, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. Even more, we are misunderstanding what it means to be mindful. We need to be open to the possibility that "working" may take many different forms, and may take longer than the time we have to see it grow to fruition. 

As luck would have it, one of our students stopped by as we were wrapping up our meeting. "Brandon,*" I asked, "Be honest. Are you doing any mindfulness outside of the classroom?"  Brandon was a quiet gentle kid who often sat in the corner and needed reminders about removing his headphones. "Yeah, I do." he replied, and told us about how he had insomnia, and he focused on his breathing or sound when he couldn't sleep. He talked about how he had been a "bad kid" in middle school with anger issues, and he thought this stuff could have helped to him. He was interested in our project to bring it to younger kids.  

My job is to offer the tools, and then trust that students will take what they need. It is to know that it may not look like it's working, but sometimes we plant a seed that grows differently for each student. My job is to give them the space to explore their own lives, in all its variations and permutations.

*The student's name has been changed for privacy.


Stories from the Field, Part III: Heartfulness? The Cheesiest.


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 was our first heartfulness activity. After a quick check in and settling with the bell, we talked about how happiness research suggests (a) happiness is contagious and (b) there are things we can do to make ourselves happier. Before we began our practice, I front loaded  that it might feel awkward or cheesy, but to just try it out and see how it felt. I invited them to imagine one person they cared about to send kind wishes:

I wish for you to be happy...I wish for you to be healthy...I wish for you to be peaceful...

I then invited them to personalize and wish any thoughts they had that might be specific to that person. Finally, they let go of the image and opened their eyes with the bell. Students shared their experiences:

 "I thought of my grandma..."

 "It made me smile..."      

"It made my heart ache..."    

"I thought of my niece..."     

"It made me feel relaxed..."

"To be honest, the phrases were too cheesy and I couldn't really get into it..."

"Yeah, it felt hard to think about imagining myself saying those things to someone..."

I thanked the students for sharing and admitted that the cheese factor is particularly high with the heartfulness activities. We can modify the language if it feels more true to us, but it's interesting that we are so uncomfortable sharing kind wishes. It is interesting that it is so unnatural. 

Part of my job as a Mindfulness Educator is to norm all possible responses students might have to a given activity. I cannot tell them how it will impact them or even how it should. I can speak from my own experience, from the research, and then create a space for them to have whatever experience they are going to have. It is truly all welcome. 

But really, who doesn't love a little extra cheese?




Stories from the Field, Part I: Trying it out in real life

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 in Portland, Maine:


We started last class by discussing the above quote, and how when we continue to be angry, it actually punishes ourselves rather than the person towards whom we hold anger. We then explored the physical sensations associated with different emotions. Students noticed things like anger in their fists and jaw, gratitude in their stomach, and worry in their chest. These physical sensations are indicators for us about what's going on, and often go unnoticed. We closed by practicing mindful breathing as a way to anchor ourselves when we feel strong emotions arising.

Two days later, a beautiful thing happened:

One of the big boys (when did high schoolers get so big?) came in and told us he used mindfulness just that morning when he was furious. He said he was the kind of person who would usually go off, but he thought about what we talked about last class and went and found a counselor instead of what he would normally do. There was a round of applause from his classmates. 

My lesson: I don't always know who mindfulness is going to stick with nor how they are going to use it. I was was most excited that he seemed proud of himself taking a different course of action that may actually help him in the long run.