What mindfulness is (and is not)
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming increasingly familiar to many people, but it is still not that clear to many, I think, what exactly it means. Mindfulness isn’t about drifting off into your inner world; it’s more about being fully conscious, really aware of what we’re doing and feeling, right now.
Most of us spend most of our time only dimly aware of what’s happening for us right now. We are usually too busy making future plans, worrying about stuff, remembering things and reacting to situations based on what we think we’ve learnt in the past. Our mind is crowded out with all sorts of stuff.
However, mindfulness isn’t about having an empty mind; it’s about being focused.
Why mindfulness for teachers?
For many people, myself included, one of the great attractions of teaching is that it can be so absorbing that I often find myself in a state of what Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’. When we are totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning. This is a very enjoyable form of mindfulness, and it can be encouraged by developing our own mindfulness practice outside the classroom.
Mindfulness , flow, feeling connected is not so much something that we have to acquire, as something which is always there, but that we tend to be very good at blocking out through anxiety, fear, anger, mind-chatter, judgements and so on.
The more we practice mindfulness, the easier it is to connect to that peaceful place when we’re under pressure, students are playing up, the lesson plan isn’t working and so on.
Mindfulness helps us to be able to respond to a difficult situation calmly, rather than a knee-jerk reaction of feeling angry with ourselves or the students, or feeling that we’re not good enough or whatever our particular ‘favourite’ reaction might be.
Rather than feeling exhausted and drained at the end of a class, we’ll feel energised and alive (and so will the students).
Techniques to develop mindfulness
A key personal discovery is how important it is to start the day right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get things back on track, but it seems to really help to start by getting into the right frame of mind. How you do this is a matter of individual choice, of course: meditation, a brisk walk taking full notice of nature around you or simply setting your intention for the day- reminding yourself to stay in touch with what’s actually happening, take proper breaks, eat well, or to be kinder to yourself etc.
Whenever you remember (and don’t beat yourself up for forgetting, because you will most of the time), check in with what’s actually happening, and how you are feeling. When those feelings are negative, don’t deny or suppress them- just notice them and accept them (rather than telling yourself you shouldn’t feel that way), and most of the time they’ll just fade away. When they don’t, you can put them to one side until later and then try a bit of pillow bashing, talking stuff through, writing it all down and so on. But remember that your thoughts aren’t necessarily true- they’re just thoughts. This may help you not to get too caught up in the drama of it all.
Every so often (decide when in advance), take a few minutes to just breathe and become aware. I like to go for a short walk outside.
There are several excellent books on developing mindfulness which I would recommend for developing your own practice:
Mindful teaching and teaching mindfulness – Deborah R. Schoeberlein
Mindfulness: a practical guide -Mark Williams and Danny Penman
Mindfulness for beginners: Jon Kabat-Zinn
Any of these books will guide you through exercises designed to help build your inner resilience, dissipate stress, help you to be in the ‘flow’, help you deal with difficult situations and students and generally greatly improve your quality of life.
In my next post, I’d like to look at how you can encourage mindfulness from your students- in ways that won’t feel too different from what you already do, but that may make a difference to the quality of learning.
Other blog posts on mindfulness related topics: