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."

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?




Behavior is a symptom, not the problem.

Image credit:  Greater Good Berkeley

Image credit: Greater Good Berkeley

I recently visited with a middle school leader who talked about the school's new plan for discipline. It was a loving and supportive environment from staff to student, but students frequently responded inappropriately and unkindly to one another and staff. She said the issue was highlighted by a statement from one student, "I know they [teachers] love me even when I'm rude to them." It seemed students were getting the message that they were cared for but did not feel compelled to demonstrate that care back.

She told me they were moving towards zero-tolerance around teasing and back-talk to behavior redirection. That is, teasing would lead to an automatic detention and back-talk to an automatic out-of-class referral for the remainder of the period. In setting a tough line, the school hoped to reign in this behavior.

Thinking back to my days in the classroom, especially the early years, this didn't seem crazy. I remember how many punches I took from kids misdirecting their anger over what seemed to be simple and reasonable behavior redirections. Their reactivity seemed so extreme that it needed to stop, and I didn't always feel that I had the tools to make that happen. Zero-tolerance seemed like a straight-forward way of curtailing these behaviors that caused so much disruption.

The issue with zero-tolerance, however, is that it addresses the behavior as the problem rather than the symptom. It suggests aggressive reactivity is a choice. However, for the students of this school, and those I formerly taught, many were raised with insecure attachments in households that were traumatic. In such cases, students are not choosing their responses. They react protectively to what they see as a threat. That the "threat" might be a simple request to hold a conversation until after directions are given does not change the fact that the child perceived it as dangerous.

In The Invisible Classroom, Kirke Olson does an incredible job of using neuroscience to explain student reactivity, and he provides best practices to work with students who exhibit antisocial behavior. He explains that all nervous systems are continuously — once every quarter of a second — scanning for threats in the environment. When students aren't safe in childhood, they have weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex, or rational brain, and limbic system, or threat-detection center. Furthermore, when students perceive an environment as threatening, their brains are trained to look for confirming experiences, and sometimes find them in innocuous exchanges. As such, they respond to nonthreatening stimuli as if it they are literally life-threatening. Their bodies go into a state of sympathetic arousal much quicker than those with stable systems. A high state of sympathetic activation takes their prefrontal cortex off-line. In this "fight or flight" mode, they are incapable of making rational decisions and unavailable for learning. 

In this context, stricter discipline means creating a more threatening environment for those who struggle with emotional regulation. Punishing reactions to redirection only serves to confirm that school is, indeed, an unsafe place for that student. The root of the problem is still unaddressed — students do not trust their environment, and this lack of trust exacerbates defensiveness.

An alternative approach, according to Olson, is a trifecta of preventative measures that will build culture by creating positive behaviors for students. Creating an environment where students' nervous systems are mostly in the ventral vegal parasympathetic, or resting state, is the only way to ensure learning will occur. Olson suggests teachers must nurture strong, genuine relationships with their students.  As relational beings, we are hardwired to seek and depend on relationships to learn about the world. Additionally, taking a strength-based approach to students allows them to feel comfortable in a school environment. Finally, students should be trained in mindfulness so that they can learn how to create space to respond rather than react. 

In reflecting on the comment, "I know they [teachers] love me even when I'm rude to them," the love at this school appears to be transmitted to students. However, this student didn't always have the tools to respond appropriately to staff. Consistently working with mindfulness can help that student find space when she is feeling reactive and provide tools to use in those moments. She needs time the school day to practice using them in a safe space. Cultivating heartfulness, a practice of mindfulness that creates feelings of compassion, may help that student feel empathy for and connection to others. Building and sustaining such states will help her remain connected to her prefrontal cortex and less likely to react with volatility. 

It is not unreasonable to set high expectations around the way our students treat others; however, we must cultivate a culture of compassion amongst them. We cannot simply tell them to change their behavior; we must teach them how to change their behavior. 

For another in-depth look into this issue, check out Katherine Lewis' "What if Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong."






Aliza and the Mind Jar

For a tiny window into what mindfulness looks like in a school that has incorporated mindfulness as a regular practice for students, watch this video Aliza and the Mind Jar from Girls Prep Bronx Elementary, featuring my Mindful Schools cohort member, Kelli Love. 

"It's like having a safe haven in your pocket...the techniques help the girls concentrate on their work...[and relax] before bedtime."  — Girls Prep Bronx Parent