By Barbara Gruener
As I set my goals for this year, increasing the use of mindfulness professionally and personally was at the top of the list. I attended a learning session about it at the character conference in Wisconsin this summer, and I left fired up about the possibility of being more mindful when my mind gets full. Mindfulness is not only a calm way to stay in the moment, but it has been shown to reduce the amygdala’s fight, flight, or freeze activity while increasing prefrontal cortex activity.
Then Hurricane Harvey happened here in Houston, bringing us eye-to-eye with a bigger and fiercer need than ever before to practice mindfulness in our school. Just this week, a post on Edutopia explains how trauma in children affects teachers, too. And you don’t have to be in an area that is recovering, restoring, and rebuilding after a terrifying natural disaster to consider these strategies for infusing mindfulness into your daily rituals and routines.
A body scan can be done sitting up or lying down and doesn’t have to take much time. Basically, a body scan is an audit to see how you’re feeling physically. Try it with your eyes closed while you’re breathing deeply. Start with your toes. Wiggle them around. Take inventory of each and every one. How are they feeling? Then move to your feet and assess them one at a time. Are they tight or relaxed? Warm or cold? Then move to your calves, your knees, your thighs, all the way up your body. Where are you holding stress? And what might you need right now to let that go? Squeezing and releasing each muscle might help. Or try imagining that your toes have a pressure-release valve that you can open to flush those uncomfortable pains out as you bring in warm, soothing, calming thoughts and feelings. If you’d like to be guided through a body scan meditation, check out Yoga by Candace. For yoga relief after your body scan, try Yoga with Adriene. And just for fun, check out Goat Yoga.
Shortly after Harvey blew through, and once we were able to get away, I found myself drawn to a button jar at an antique store in our son’s college town. As I ran my fingers through the assorted shapes, sizes, textures, and temperatures of the different buttons, I sensed an odd, soothing calm overtaking me, something I’d not felt since before the storm. Enter the idea for a mindfulness Button Bowl. Start by collecting all of the buttons you can find; I purchased 200 that day, then came home and found 100 more in drawers around the house. Scent them with lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, or tea tree oil if you’d like to engage your sense of smell. Let your fingers touch each button for a tactile sensation as your hands pick them up and drop them down. Listen to the clank; let the sound take you to the rain forest. Be in the moment with the buttons while your eyes feast on the colors, the shapes, the sheen. Spend a few minutes each morning allowing yourself to mindfully unwind to the sights and sounds of the buttons in your bowl.
Since reading The Handbook to Higher Consciousness back in 1984, I’ve been a fan of a strong, meaningful mantra. In that book, author Ken Keyes suggests this mantra: Always us living love. When my mind tends to wander and/or start stressing, I come back to these words, putting the stress on a different word each time I repeat the phrase. First, I stress the word always. Then us. Followed by living. Then love. It helps me focus my energy on something positive, thereby letting go of whatever negative thoughts have imprisoned my mind.
When my sister starts to stress, she employs this mantra: Bless them; change me. The assistant principal at my school likes this one: Work hard; be kind. And a popular one that I’m using with students in conflict is Peace begins with me. You might also try Judge less; love more. To focus on your breathing with intention, try Inhale calm; exhale chaos. How might repeating a mantra help keep your mind in the moment?
Educators are notorious for eating quickly, especially since many of us only get 20 to 30 minutes a day for lunch. I learned from Wisconsin counselors Mauria Turkowski and Amber Hill that the art of mindful eating can change those fast food habits. Try this mindful eating activity with a small piece of chocolate, and see how eating that chocolate treat mindfully transforms your experience: Get a wrapped piece of chocolate and look at it with curiosity. What do you notice? Weight? Color? Texture? Temperature? Peel one side of the wrapper away slowly and focus on the sound. Listen. Really carefully. Then smell what’s inside. Move it closer and breathe in deeply. Inhale through your nose. Hold it for four counts. Exhale through your mouth. Hold it for four counts. Now open up the other side. Place the chocolate on your tongue without biting it. Hold it on your tongue. Move it around. Resist the urge to bite it just yet. Pay attention to those urges. Travel with the flavor down as far as you can. Can you feel the texture of the warm, melting chocolate? Savor. Just savor. Then go ahead and eat it. Slowly. Open your mouth slightly and breathe in. Pay attention to the flavor. Close your eyes. Does it taste better?
Try this next with a mint candy. These two counselors said that once they started mindfully eating well, they vowed never to eat another meal in their cars.
As we walked through the forests of Vermont on a nature hike earlier this season, my friend Rebecca mentioned forest bathing, a term I’d never heard before. With its roots dating back just short of two decades ago to Japan, this practice involves not a hike through the woods, but just a stop at a spot there so your mind can bathe in the sounds, scents, sights, and feels of the forest in all of its splendor, regardless of the season. Going outside has many medicinal benefits, too, as you listen to the crunch of the leaves beneath your feet or their blowing in the wind on the branches high above. Smell the vegetation, the pine sap, the wet bark, the flowering bushes. Look at the kaleidoscope of color as you drink in every hue. Feel the sun’s warmth or the briskness of the winter wind, depending on when you take your bath, as you allow nature to de-stress and refresh you.
An Attitude of Gratitude
Feeling and expressing gratitude is another way to stay in the moment, mindfully aware, without judgment. Whom could you write a thank-you note to for a kindness shown? Better yet, whom might you thank in person? Try keeping a gratitude journal to help you focus on what’s going right instead of getting stuck in what’s going wrong. Author Ann Voskamp in her best seller One Thousand Gifts suggests making a list of one thousand things we are grateful for so that we can count our blessings, even as we are going through our burdens. According to this article from Greater Good, gratitude positively changes our brains. Add some meditative coloring to your gratitude journal and experience the added benefits of quietness, wellness, and stress reduction.
How will you show thankfulness today?
Currently in her 34th year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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