Archives for category: Mindfulness

The house we used to live in had a skylight in the living room, and outside that room there grew a number of mature trees.  One day, my grandson, who was then about 3 years old, said to me, “Mimi, circles are here.”  I had never noticed that the sun, when filtered through leaves (as if they were a pinhole camera), projects itself in circles of light.  Here is the best photo I can find to show you what I mean if you haven’t noticed this before:

Related image

That dappling, if you could see it without the texture of the ground, is made up of circles.  I had lived in that house for years and never noticed it.  It took the fresh attention of a little child to see it.

We used to lie on our backs and watch them shift around when the breeze stirred the leaves.  It was Zen T.V.  Very beautiful.  One day a cloud came and covered the sun and the circles vanished, and then, as the cloud blew across the sky, they came back.  My grandson said to me, “Do it again!”  As if I had the power to move the clouds.

It was very strange to me that I had never seen them, that I needed his help to see what was happening in my own house so frequently– and I have never stopped loving those circles, whenever they appear.

Yet another miracle of the eclipse is this:

Circles are cescents

The circles became crescents.

I couldn’t tell you why this is so lovely to me.  Partly it has to do with having been taught to see them by my beloved little boy, partly it has to do with beauty and mystery hiding right before our eyes, as much as to suggest that the world is far more exquisite than we have power to imagine or perceive.

But one thing is for sure: teaching involves making these overlooked marvels visible to our kids whose lives, we hope, will forever contain a little more of the numinous than they did when they arrived.

It’s all about the noticing.  Thank you, A., for teaching me to notice the circles.

As I mentioned, I went to see the eclipse.  My brother had said months ago that this was an experience we would never forget, a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and worth all the driving it would entail.  So we drove.  It was my sister and brother-in-law and me.  We broke the trip in Roanoke, VA with a memorable dinner at the Three Little Pigs Barbecue, a restaurant in a strip mall that managed to nail it on food, service, ambiance, location, and regionality.

The next day we drove along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville, NC.  Beckham, the scruffy little rescue dog, found that the bbq had not entirely agreed with him.  We gave thanks for the beautiful cool mountain weather and rolled down the windows.

Arrival in Asheville and off to Biltmore, a Vanderbilt mansion on an unimaginable scale.  Go there and see Frederick Law Olmstead’s work as he could only imagine it– the trees are now what he planned they would be.  I wish I could bring him to life for one day to show him in its mature form what he dreamed and created.

Then a dilemma– do we chance traffic and congestion to go to the glider port in Benton TN to see our brother and meet up with old friends who were already there?  Or should we heed the warnings of quadrillions of cars on the road and just hop south a few miles?  We went for it, along the Nantahala river and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen, to arrive at the Chilhowee Gliderport.  This was what it looked like:

Glider port

(That’s my sister in white, walking Beckham.  He feels a lot better now).

People were parked all along those trees there– maybe 300 or so?  And here was some pre-game celebration:

Corona tailgate

Coronas, to honor what we hoped to see, from a dear old friend (none for Beckham).

Then we waited.  We told stories and jokes and passed the time with friendship.

Telling stories

 

Then a bite out of the sun, then a bigger bite. We kept on looking!

Look up

K looks up

Then a lot of it was covered and the world looked odd– not quite twilight, but not normal either, as if it were blowing up a storm but the leaves were the right side up and no cool wind.  Then most of the sun covered.  Nearing totality, it looked like a movie that was meant to look like nighttime but it was really filmed in the day and put through some kind of filter that was fooling nobody.  Then, Then.  .  . Then!  The glasses on, the glasses off, and “Oh my God” on a loop– ohmigodohmigodohmigod.  The “diamond ring”, the darkness, the corona like an image of the Star of Bethlehem, a sense of cool, or was it chills?  I wanted to be alone so I could just cry and everyone around experiencing the same.  “Bailey”s Beads”– a pink jewel at 5:00 on the rim, pulsing.  .  .  Then the whole thing repeated on the other side.

daytime darkness

There’s no point in trying to sum it up.  It’s unsummable, numinous, ennobling.

Nature is the first and best teacher.  She knows that if you inspire awe, the rest will follow, as the night the day.

And when you’ve learned it, there you are with one another, closer than you were before.

all of us

Closer with family, when your brother was the one who told you to go and your sister who traveled all the miles with you.

3 siblings

Closer with the sweet family who took the photos and made it better by being there.

sweet fam

Closer with the world and all that’s in it and around it, including the sun, which I’ll never look at quite the same way again.

Would it be possible to imagine bringing awe into the classroom?  To re-envision our work as teachers as inspiring awe and fostering connection among seekers?

Who knows?  All I know is that I saw the moon pass across the sun and darkness fall in the afternoon.  And it made life better.

 

overcoat

Do you know this sweet old song?

Button up your overcoat. . .

“Button up your overcoat when the wind blows free. Take good care of yourself: you belong to me.” I would like to sing that song and do my best Betty Boop impersonation for all new teachers. You should be taking extra good care of yourself: go to bed early, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, get some exercise every day, eat a good breakfast, and all the rest of the homey ways you can think to boost your health and spirits.

But there is a fly in the ointment. Now that you are so busy and stressed to do what can’t actually be done, you may find you can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t move.

Let’s look at sleep first. I have a relative who is a sleep tech. He’s the guy who hooks insomniacs up to the monitors and tucks them in to bed, watches over them during the night, and unhooks them in the morning. He told me that it’s not rare that when he goes in in the morning, a patient will say, “Well, that was a waste.” They perceived the number of hours they slept as zero. He replies, “You were asleep 90% of the time.” I’ve experienced this myself. I’ll be lying there, waiting patiently for sleep to come, thinking about my crazy 4th period class, and my husband will give me a nudge and ask me to please stop snoring. How can you be snoring when you’re wide awake?! You can’t. But you can be asleep when you don’t know you are. (so in my opinion, you should ignore the advice that says if you can’t sleep, get up and do something else until you can)

My relative also tells me that it’s normal for humans to experience diphasic sleep. They go to sleep, get about 4 hours, then wake up and ponder for an hour or so, then back to sleep for 4 more. That’s normal. Not weird. It doesn’t mean you’re coming apart at the seams.

Honestly, the worst thing about not sleeping isn’t even being tired, it’s the fear of being tired. You lie there, wishing you were asleep, pining for sleep, yearning for sleep, telling yourself that if you don’t go to sleep all is lost and you’ll be useless in the morning. Yeah, way to de-escalate the consequences. Much better just to take what comes.

Try this article about the second dart.

Sometimes the universe likes to play tricks on us. It’s like a game. “You think you’re stressed out now? I’m going to show you that you’re actually just fine by stressing you out more and you’ll survive that, too. You’re better than you think you are, kiddo!” We meet a whole new normal.

It’s like being a new parent. You’re overjoyed, panicked, anxious, desperate to do a good job if only you knew how, overwhelmed, confused, gob-smacked by love, deeply suspicious that you should have been given this responsibility, and sleep-deprived. Now, go! Do a great job!

Or maybe your issue is that you sleep all the time and you can’t get any exercise and you’re just a giant slug on the couch. Or maybe you can’t eat and food disgusts you and you’re hungrier and hungrier but you and food are not getting along. It’s all okay. Not pleasant, but okay. Most young teachers are far stronger than they can know. Just try to stay calm and accept what comes with good grace and, if possible, humor. Do the best you can. As Thurgood Marshall’s mother used to say to him, “Do the best you can and then be satisfied with that.”

thurgood

He got good advice from his mom.  He went far with it.

Button up your overcoat when you can. Have faith in your own survival when you can’t.

button-up

Baby, it’s cold outside.

 

 

 

Some time ago, but well after age 50, I determined to learn to play the guitar. I can’t say why I did, but all of a sudden it mattered to me. Since I last learned anything really hard, I’ve developed quite a lot of discipline and stamina—surprise!—and I worked hard at it. Then I lost my teacher and found a new teacher and to my sorrow, discovered that I’d learned some bad habits that were going to hold me back if I didn’t reform my ways. This felt like going back to the beginning. Discouraging. Very.

Yesterday at my lesson, my new teacher, Dan C., cautioned me against overthinking and trying to get too far too fast. He said if he were going to try to learn gymnastics, he wouldn’t start on the parallel bars. First he’d have to lose some weight and get stronger—before he even approached any of the equipment. He said just as you don’t start teaching babies the Latin name for fruit trees before they’ve learnt “apple,” so you can’t get ahead of yourself in any other enterprise.

But I don’t want to be where I am! I want to be farther ahead. Now.

And that driving, striving attitude will defeat the most disciplined learner. You can’t be where you aren’t. You have to be where you are, fully, deeply, without judgment. You have to live rich and open in the place you are. Only in that way can you move forward.

It’s a little like walking along with a stack of books piled high on your arms.

 

guy-with-books

This guy is content to be where he is.

As you learn, the books go inside you and your arms are freed up for more. This takes time. The only way is bit by bit. You can’t just pile more books on top and run ahead, grabbing more books. It just won’t work.

guy-with-books-2

This guy is trying to get where he isn’t.

 

guy-with-books-3

This guy is going to have to put some of those books down.

To learn stuff best, whether it’s guitar or how to teach or what were the causes of the Civil War, you have to be where you are with it, possessed of curiosity, tolerance, patience, courage, and faith. Trying to motivate yourself (or others) with chiding and yelling merely communicates that where you are is no good. How can it be no good? It’s where you are! You have to start there.

guitar-lesson-capestang

It helps a lot if love and respect flow freely between teacher and student.

It turns out that the fastest way to go anywhere is to be fully where you are. You have to pay attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

So mindfulness and learning, it turns out, go hand in hand.

 

 

 

Okay, so you’ve got yourself all set up to start a mindfulness mediation practice. You have your bench or cushion in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, you’ve got a time of day where you’ve built it in, and you’ve got a timer so you don’t have to watch a clock.

So exactly what is mindfulness? Paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening now.

 There is an awful lot in that sentence and it will become richer and richer the more you experience it, but you can start by committing that to memory.

Okay, so, let’s get started. Take your place in your spot, set your timer, and then breathe. Watching the breath as it enters the body, watching the breath as it leaves the body. You need not try to control your thoughts and feelings. They will arise on their own. You’re just allowing them to arise and float on past, like clouds in a blue sky. Relaxing, not tensing, and resting attention on the breath. Over and over and over. Before too long you’ll notice that you aren’t seeing the breath anymore: you’re thinking, planning, ruminating, going to the past or the future. Not to worry. Just gently and without judging, escort the attention back to the breath. Think of your attention like a curious puppy. It keeps wandering, but you are teaching it to stay. “Puppy, stay,” you say gently, every time it scoots off. You don’t keep score, you don’t get angry, and you don’t give up. Coming back to the breath.

 

clouds

Just let them come and blow on through.  Don’t try to get on them and ride them around.

That’s it. When the timer dings and you’re done, you can say a little prayer, if that’s your thing, or you can do a little metta—metta is a practice of wishing well to ourselves and others. It goes like this:

May I be safe and protected.

May I be healthy and strong.

May I be peaceful and happy.

May I know ease of well-being and accept all the conditions of this world.

You say it first about yourself. Then you say it about your loved ones. Then you say it about people you feel neutral about. Then you say it about your enemies and those who make you crazy or fearful. Then you say it about all sentient beings.

Those are the basics and there is an awful lot more to say. My favorite book on this subject is:

 

mindfulness-plain-english

Brilliant.  Invaluable.

I found several PDF’s of it online!  Here is the table of contents:

Contents
1 Meditation: Why Bother?
2 What Meditation Isn’t
3 What Meditation Is
4 Attitude
5 The Practice
6 What to Do with Your Body
7 What to Do with Your Mind
8 Structuring Your Meditation
9 Set-up Exercises
10 Dealing with Problems
11 Dealing with Distractions I
12 Dealing with Distractions II
13 Mindfulness (Sati)
14 Mindfulness versus Concentration
15 Meditation in Everyday Life
16 What’s in It for You
Afterword: The Power of Loving Friendliness
Appendix: The Context of the Tradition
I love this book and go back to it over and over again.
bhante-g

Super advice for teachers.

Life is a little like floating on the face of the ocean. There can be beautiful, peaceful swells and you can keep your face out of the water and enjoy the sun and stars, or the storms can toss you around and try to drown you. At all times, the breakers or swells play only on the surface. Most of it is down underneath you, and it’s all connected anyway. It’s not as if you could go to the part of the ocean where the water is always calm. No, you’re always going to be treading water and sometimes that’s going to challenge you.

oceanfloat.jpeg

It’s so great when the conditions are right.

 

The first year(s) of teaching feel(s) a lot like trying to tread water in a tempest. You want so much to be out there splashing around with abandon and freedom, but instead you’re swallowing a lot of salt water and it’s making you sad, mad, and rarely ever glad.

 

oceanstorm

Challenges.

Meditation can help. With meditation, we watch the waves instead of being out there struggling with them. We allow ourselves a little rest from the treading and swimming and striving to get somewhere and just observe the waves and get in touch with the reality of all the water underneath us, all the creatures living in that water, all the connectedness of all the everything, including us. We’re just part of a whole big connected thing.

We can do almost any daily ritual with a meditative spirit: eating, washing up, walking, making the bed. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Washing dishes, I know that I am washing dishes.” He washes the dishes to wash them, not to get them done so he can get on to the cup of tea he’s promised himself when they are finished.

tnh

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Happy teachers will change the world.”

But in order to bring this level of presence to our daily activities, including teaching, it helps a lot to do some formal practice. I’ll talk more about what that looks like in another post, but first, there is the building it in, not fitting it in. Fitting it in won’t work. You’re already too busy with all the other things you have to do. Meditation is deliberately not doing anything so you can experience and practice being with each moment, not squeezing it for what you can get out of it. It’s a rest from striving. As long as your day is full of striving, meditation won’t look to you like something to do.

So. Find a place in the day. I do mine as a walking meditation on my way to school, where there is a labyrinth. When the cold weather comes and the snow covers the labyrinth, I’ll switch to eating meditation over breakfast or sitting meditation firs thing. I recommend early in the day, before the duties ramp up. Once the day gets going, I never do find a quiet moment.   Fifteen or twenty minutes is a good amount of time to start. Don’t try to do more than a half hour.

Find a place in your house. For sitting meditation, you need a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably and at restful attention. The side of the bathtub works pretty well, or on the stairs, or you can buy a meditation bench or cushion. Where you meditate is important. You have to know you won’t be disturbed and interrupted. You won’t answer the phone or hear it. You don’t want to have to hear music or talking, which will suck your brain off the object of attention. Don’t try to meditate with a pet. They don’t get it.

med-bench

Your meditation set-up can be flexible and movable.

Most people find that a dedicated meditation spot helps them. It shows respect for your practice and you will start to associate meditation with being in that spot.  But if you don’t have a dedicated spot, that can work, too.

You need a timer. That’s so you won’t be checking the clock all the time and interrupting yourself. There are lots of apps you can download if you would like to hear someone narrate and guide your meditation, or if you would like bells at regular or random intervals to remind you to go back to the breath. Or you can just set a timer and watch the breath in silence.

And that’s all you need: a place in the day, a place in your house, a supported sitting spot, and a timer. When you have all those, you’re ready to start experiencing the ocean of life in all its imponderability.

A colleague sent me a link to this fascinating article by Brian Gallagher:

Brain Damage Saved His Music

Guitarist Pat Martino lost a huge chunk of his brain, excised by surgeons to remedy debilitating seizures and other symptoms, and suffered massive memory loss, including everything he had known about playing guitar.  In time, with help and encouragement, his skill slowly returned, bringing with it many memories and associations that had been lost– as if the music itself was interwoven with the essence of the man.

Pat Martino then and now.

Pat Martino then and now.

This is the part that most intrigued me:

In a scene in Martino Unstrung, Martino looked at his MRI brain images. As he stared into a black void of his brain, where his left temporal lobe used to be, he commented, “I would say that what is missing is disappointment, criticism, judgment of others—what is missing are all of the dilemmas that made life so difficult,” he said. “That’s what’s missing. And to be honest with you, it’s beneficial.”

Asked to expand, to reflect on the difference between his guitar playing before and after his surgery, Martino said, “My original intentions prior to neurosurgery had a great deal to do with craft and climbing the ladder of recognition by others. It had to do with the desire to achieve five stars as opposed to two stars for the judgment of an album. And then after the neurosurgery, that no longer had any meaning to me. I am more concerned with the reality of the moment, the enjoyment of that moment. I’m more concerned about the players that are with me, about their feelings, about the emanation of compassion and other virtues that we share together in the process. These are the things that I find much more rewarding than my achievement as a famous musician. Now it’s just enjoyment and friendship and compassion and concern. It’s an enjoyment of all things as opposed to the enjoyment of specific things.”

Martino may always have holes in his memory. In fact, said memory expert Nadel, Martino’s testaments to living in the moment are echoed by other patients who have suffered amnesia due to brain damage, and have lost the ability to recall the past or envision the future. But clinical diagnoses mean little to the guitarist these days.

“The greatest, truest essence of creative productivity is joy,” Martino said. “It’s a joy witnessed by those who surround it. They are no longer witnessing a craftsman, they’re witnessing a human being who’s happy about living, who projects that aura.” When he performed now, Martino said, he barely felt the guitar in his hands. Improvising a passage in a song was a spiritual journey. “The brain is a funny thing,” he said. “It’s part of the vehicle, but it’s not part of where the vehicle is going. The vehicle will take you there, but it isn’t you.”

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about process vs. product.  It seems that product is like coral– what’s left after the living organism dies.  It may be very beautiful and useful, but it isn’t the living creature.  The joy and love, the engagement with work, the being of music or art or literature or science or math, are what matter.

 

I came across this passage in Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat Zinn:

 

Attention and Awareness Are Trainable Skills

Probably what teachers want most is to have their students’ sustained attention.

But this itself is hard to get unless the teacher is able to make the subject matter of the moment, whatever it is, come alive, to make it compelling and relevant within a classroom atmosphere of safety, inclusion, and belonging, along with a sense of learning as an adventure. It doesn’t help to yell at a class to pay attention when the children are being unruly. But it can help a lot—in fact, it can be a precious gift—to teach students the how of paying attention themselves and turning the process itself into something of an adventure.

Paying attention is a trainable skill, capable of ongoing refinement. As no less a luminary than William James, the father of American psychology, well knew, attention and the awareness that arises from it are the doorway to true education and learning—life-long gifts that keep deepening with use. It may very well be that the capacity to rest in awareness without distraction, in addition to simply balancing the power of thought and bringing a wiser perspective to it, may give rise to an entirely different kind of thinking.

It may be that future research will show that mindfulness training actually enhances creativity, freeing the mind to produce less routinized kinds of thoughts and freer and more imaginative associations.

 

This is an interesting passage on several levels. First, check out that description of what teachers must do to win their students’ attention. Safety, inclusion, belonging, spirit of adventure—just what I’ve been saying. And completely contrary to the “no excuses” testy culture.

But also the bit about teaching the skills of attention. I wonder if there is a place for that in schools. If mindfulness went by a different name and if it were aimed at students’ attentional skills, would that help parents and administrators see it as relevant and useful?

Perhaps the emotional benefits of mindfulness are more threatening and less apparently relevant to schools than its academic and intellectual benefits—as counterintuitive as that feels.

Just as medicine has come to acknowledge and embrace the mind/body connection, I believe that education is going to have to acknowledge and embrace the brain/heart connection. When we do, I predict we’ll see a big improvement in what kids can learn and do.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

Jon Kabat Zinn has an awful lot of good ideas.

 

 

 

Okay, so I was posting pretty regularly in the summer, but then all sorts of things happened (including the start of school), which kind of got in the way. Funny to think that actually teaching gets in the way of talking about teaching, but there it is.

But among all the distractions and needful tasks, I’ve been writing a mindfulness blog for my mindfulness students, who are also teachers. If you are interested in getting a sense of what’s been going on over there, here is the link:

Breathing Across the Curriculum

The good thing is that I’m getting a handle on it all: what I have to say about schools and teaching, plus how to find the time to say it. So for those of you who have been supportive and subscribed and let me know you are thinking about teaching and schools along with me (I’m looking at you, dear Katherine B.!), I’m gearing back up.

In the meantime, I hope you’re all reading Diane Ravitch– all the time.

Love and will be back soon,
K

There are a number of splendid blogs committed to battling the rubbish that goes by the name of school “reform”, Diane Ravitch’s being perhaps the best.  If you don’t already know her work, her blog is an excellent place to start.

I would like to do something a little different.  Instead of concentrating largely on the fight for public education, I would like to focus on what teachers, parents, administrators, and communities can do to strengthen their neighborhood schools.  This includes sometimes condensing talking points about contentious issues, such as unions and tenure, so that when we are called upon to explain their merits at dinner parties or family gatherings we have something to say (other than, “Why are you directing all this anger at me in what was otherwise a nice evening?”).

When I was a young mother, it seemed there was a rash of articles about how rotten mothering would ruin kids’ lives.  All the focus seemed to be on how horrid most mothers were, how messed up most adults were because of mothers, how if mothers would just get their crap together the whole world would thrive, and how mothers were to blame for every ill.  It was a drag, but I managed to ignore it and just hang out with my kids.  Now it’s deja vu all over again, when teachers are the scourge of society.  Once again, I’m in the demonized group.

So fine.  As they say on the internet, haters gonna hate.  But we don’t have to become haters, not even to debunk them.

Teachers do challenging work.  Not only need we deflect attacks, we also need to continue to sharpen our skills, to create a larger and more supportive community around our work.  This is necessary not only for us, but for our students.

This blog is for collaboration, mindfulness, inspiration, whole teacher/whole child, sustainable, vibrant education in its largest sense.  I would like to do what I can to speak to those who, like me, want to move from this:

The testy vision of education.

The testy vision of education.

To this:

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Fragile, yet filled with potential.

Each person, highest potential.  That’s the ticket.

100 Day Journey

In which we explore and discover.

Katherine Good

Free teacher ramblings.

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