mindfulness education

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 so...you 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.

Newburyport Wellness Day: Stage Fright Revisted

2001 Graduation from Newburyport High School- I'm the front left.

2001 Graduation from Newburyport High School- I'm the front left.

As a young student in grade school, I could not get up and speak in front of people without incapacitating fear. I wrote an entire speech in high school on, "How to look ridiculously nervous while public speaking," and illustrated it perfectly with my strained shaky voice and nervous laughter. I avoided the stage as much as possible, and performed only in large musical groups where I could hide behind others. But today I stood twice in front of over 150 adults and shared what I had learned about mindfulness.

Today I went down to Newburyport, Massachusetts to deliver two keynote addresses and lead four breakout workshops in the very school district from which I graduated fifteen years ago. It was a surreal experience to stand in front of a stage where I sang a Pocahontas medley and played orchestral pieces with my middle school classmates. Even more, to have an auditorium filled with past classmates and teachers of mine. My favorite math teacher, Mark Littlefield, was there, and we commiserated on students' addiction to cell phones. My favorite English teacher, Debbie Szabo, introduced me and delighted in learning something from one of her former students. My middle school math teacher in one of my breakout sessions said she remembered my face from 21 years ago. It was an honor to be able to offer something back to these educators who helped shape me. And still...

I will not deny that for the first 10 minutes of my first keynote address, I was shaking in my boots. Literally, my legs were vibrating as I had everyone arrive in their bodies. But I used that nervousness to share more about the nuances of mindfulness. I explained that we could notice internal cues in our bodies, like my shaky voice and fluttering heart, which was a result of my nerves. I shared that mindfulness does not necessarily rid us of uncomfortable emotions, but does help us be more comfortable in the discomfort. We don't necessarily get rid of our foibles with mindfulness, but we can be with them more gently. 

And so, by not denying or fighting my anxious energy, but acknowledging and embracing it, I found it dissipated on its own accord. And for the rest of the day, through four break out sessions and a second keynote, I felt a greater sense of ease and lightness. This is what the practice offered me today: alleviation from the added suffering I heap on to challenging experiences, space to honor what was, rather than needing it to be different, and trust that the emotion would subside when it was ready. 

So I hope the teachers of Newburyport gained a deeper understanding mindfulness today. I hope they understand that it does not eliminate thoughts and emotions, but brings us more clarity around them. It is a tool that takes a long time to develop, but ultimately bears fruit that is worthwhile. It allows a woman who was terrified of presenting anything in front of any size audience to return to her old school and speak openly about her passion. 

For more information on the wellness day, please see the article in the Current, "Newburyport Teachers to Host Professional Development Day."



The importance of personal retreat

Pain, right shoulder blade, excruciating. 

The pain in my right shoulder blade was almost immediate when I sat down. As I sat in stillness, I wondered about where it arose from. Did I hurt myself?  Was it from the two and half hour drive getting to the retreat center? Was it ever going to go away?

This was the beginning of a five day silent meditation retreat I attended over school vacation. I didn't have any particular goals for the time beyond strengthening my own personal practice. I was unprepared for the intensity of the experience from the first moments of beginning.

After the second day of sitting with this pain, I began to get angry at it. What the hell?  I'm healthy. I take good care of you. What's wrong with you? Can't you give me one moment of relief? As the anger built, I found myself grow more rigid in my seat. More upright. Taller. Holding on against the pain. Gritting my teeth in frustration as it intensified. 

By the third day, I was so frustrated I was nearly in tears. I dreaded coming to sit for the forty-five minute periods the community came together. When the pain came up, I started panicking. I fantasized again and again about getting up and leaving. I stretched aggressively to the left and right in desperation to escape it. And still, it persisted. 

On this day, we were allowed one group Q & A with a particular teacher. Oren Sofer, who teaches with Mindful Schools, was one of the teachers of this retreat. I came to him with a question about the panic, which was arising alongside the pain. He told me I could consider skipping some of the shorter sits and use that time for walking meditation, which I preferred (and didn't find painful). And he said this: Be gentle. Be gentle with it.

As I went on my first walk-instead of-sit, I cried tears of relief. I didn't have to force it. I was given permission to back off.  

From that moment on, I felt something shift inside. Not the pain. The pain was still there. But how I approached the pain. I began to really notice the pain. Notice that when I breathed in it lessened slightly. Notice that there was an occasional breath when it was completely gone. I noticed that if a subtly shifted my weight to the left hip, sometimes it would ease the intensity. I began to imagine it being hugged from all sides. I let go of my judgments about the cheesiness of this and said to it: It's okay. I hear you. I know you're uncomfortable. I'm here. 

And I felt different. I felt like I could come to sit without the fear. I could be comfortable with the discomfort. And it translated into other parts of my being. My yoga practice shifted. Whereas I was in the habit of ignoring minor aches that arose in a typical practice, I began responding to them and backing off. I slowed my movements and really took note of how it felt in different parts of my body. I looked at how I was trying to force myself to be okay with recent events in my life and my responses to those events. Could I be okay with the being upset? Or could I at least be okay with the disappointment of being upset? Was there some level at which I could let go of the judgement and be okay with whatever was?

Translation to the classroom: We are capable of being uncomfortable.

The Thursday before I left for my retreat, three boys walked out of the classroom at the alternative high school where I was working in week 6 of curriculum. When questioned by a teacher, they cited that they thought it was "hippie b******" and didn't want to go anymore. I asked to speak with them after they returned to the class, but they refused.

Before I came to the classroom today, I asked the teachers to ask everyone to stay for just two minutes of time. When I got there, I wasn't sure what would happen. I thanked them for being there, and told them the story of the silent retreat. "Sounds sh*tty" one student responded. "Yes," I replied, "It was." 

I told them I was sharing that story because I saw how I was asking some of them to do something that was uncomfortable. That they thought was dumb, maybe. And that I didn't need them to like me, or like mindfulness, but I hoped that they would try and be uncomfortable for that time. I told them that I asked this of them because I could sit for five days in pain, and the only difference between me and them was more practice, so I thought they could handle the twenty minutes, no matter how rotten. I told them they could choose to stay or leave, it was up to them, but I hoped they would choose to stay and try it. Because sitting with it has power by showing us how we can stay with those crappier moments in life.

Then I paused...

And no one moved.

So I began the lesson.

The power of personal retreat

In the end, this retreat was even more powerful than I imagined. It didn't just give me access to a deeper insight or knowing through the experience of being with my own discomfort. No, it also translated to the classroom, and allowed me to connect my students to this crucial insight. I sat those five days for myself, yes, but I also sat them for those boys, who maybe needed that reminder that they could do it, even if it was hard.

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.