When I was a Director of Innovation and Technology, I was speaking to one of our teachers about mental health when she said, “I want to try mindfulness with my kids. I really do. It really does interest me. The problem is that I feel like I keep being told to try it but nobody has really discussed what it is or what activities I could do with my kids in order to practice it correctly. I literally have no idea what to do.” As I work with different districts around the country, I hear similar complaints when it comes to just about anything mental health or mindfulness related…we want to, we just don’t know how. And part of the issue is that many times people don’t even really understand what mindfulness is.
What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is more than quieting your mind. It’s more than meditating. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as, “an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” He goes on to say, “And then I sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (as cited in Defining Mindfulness, 2017). Perhaps my favorite part of that definition is the use of the term “non-judgmentally” as it’s not often that we allow ourselves to think or feel without judging if it’s right or wrong, painful or not. It is an exercise in acceptance of ourselves and who we are in that moment.
There are two major elements of mindfulness: awareness and attention. Awareness is a broader sense of what’s occurring in your inner and outer experiences. In other words, what is going on in your environment and what is going on inside your body including your thoughts and emotions. Being aware of emotions and thoughts can have a dramatic impact on shifting them towards being more positive. Attention is channeling your focus onto a particular object or idea and then holding your attention in place for a specific period of time. Meditations are made to do this.
Practicing mindfulness calms down your sympathetic nervous system, so you are less likely to be thrown into a survival strategy (flight/flee, freeze/collapse, or fight). It has been shown to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Studies have also found that it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation and can lead to changes in body awareness and fear, making it less likely to react to triggers (Van Der Kolk, 2015). Also, because mindfulness keeps us in the moment, we are less likely to ruminate about failures, obsess about mistakes, fear the future, and become overwhelmed emotionally, therefore increasing our resilience and ability to cope with adversity.
Three Potential Ways to Practice Mindfulness:
Setting an intention activates your internal guidance system. Setting an intention involves knowing who you want to be and then setting a goal to get there. An intention can be chosen depending on a situation or goal. For example, if communication with a partner is an issue, an intention might be, “I will communicate and listen to my partner without judgment.” Then, throughout the day running any communication through that lens based on the intention and asking, “Am I showing up in this way right now?” If the answer is no, then you know there needs to be a change. Many times we have goals that we are working towards. Setting an intention is like setting micro-goals to help you get there. It is action-orientated. Instead of wishing and hoping that things change or the future gets better, you’re making it happen. In the absence of setting intentions, people will continue to operate in the same way.
Gratitude stones are simply a trigger, used in a positive way, to remind us to show gratitude. Gratitude stones are literally stones that you put into your pocket. Every time you reach into your pocket you will feel the stone, and the idea is to think of something you’re grateful for during that time. It’s even better if you have the opportunity to write it down.
While I think that the use of an actual stone is intriguing (I imagine a super shiny and smooth one like I used to make in my rock tumbler as a kid), I rarely reach into my pockets. For me, putting a reminder on my lock screen so I see it whenever I pick up my phone is more effective.
Coloring has its place in the practice of mindfulness. Find a picture that has an intricate pattern. A Mandala has a spiritual meaning, but it’s the intricacy that is useful for this technique. Any image similar to that will do. The process should take about 10-20 minutes and should be meditative; your focus should be drawn to what you are doing. I have personally seen this practice work with students nearly immediately. Many times I get asked about the instructional time lost to coloring…but they would lose more instructional time being removed for negative behaviors from the classroom, so it still seems like a solid strategy to me.
One of the reasons I love mindfulness so much is because of the focus on the present and withholding judgements. For myself, I have seen a noticeable difference in some of my anxiety and any lingering negativity when I spent more time in the moment and less time trying to anticipate what was going to happen next. Mindfulness doesn’t need to be difficult, but many times it does need to be defined for people if we expect them to utilize it for their own mental health and for that of their students.
This blog post is one of a series on Mental Health Awareness for May. Follow my blog to get the special updates, or you can find the rest of the posts here. You can also read more about educator mental health and engagement in my upcoming book Reignite the Flames.