Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
By Ira Rabois
We are, all of us, in a situation few of us, maybe none of us, have ever faced before. It is frightening, because of that newness and because it poses a threat to our health, the health of people we know and care about, and the schools and society that we know and care about.
But how we respond to it is extremely important. We can’t control the situation. But we can control how we respond.
If we take control, plan our days and our time and our actions, then we can feel more powerful. We can do something. We grow stronger.
And as teachers, we have a unique opportunity and responsibility not only to stay healthy, develop our own practice and maintain as clear a mind as we can, but help our students and their families do the same.
Due to the school closings throughout our nation and world, we may have more time on our hands and have to decide how we’ll use that time. Or we may be expected to continue 'business as usual' by suddenly coming up with ways to teach online.
When we wake up every morning, although we aren’t usually aware of it, we have a choice. Every morning we can choose how to greet the day.
We can decide what we must do or could do and the best time to do it. We can tie activities that are more unusual or difficult with things we already do, like waking up, going to sleep, and hopefully, eating meals. We can use the activities we do daily already as the basic structure to add the new to the old.
[Teachers, please note: As with any guided meditation or visualization, please try these practices yourself before sharing them with your students. Imagine how your students might respond and make adjustments to fit their needs and history.]
If You Want to Practice in the Morning
When you wake up, you might feel fresh and ready to go, or feel tired, lethargic, or stiff. In any case, your mind is probably clearer in the morning than later in the day. Your body also needs gentle stimulation and stretching. So, it’s one of the best times to do a little exercise and then a mindfulness practice.
- You can do side stretches (move your body to the right, right ear towards the outside of right knee, right hand behind the back, left overhead; then do the same to the left). Reach and look up to the sky, then drop down.
- Do floor stretches, legs stretched out to the sides and, leading with your belly, stretch forward. This is for your thighs and hamstrings.
- And then turn over on your belly, put your palms down outside your shoulders, and press down with your hands so your upper body stretches upwards. Let your eyes lead you in this exercise, so when you are in a full stretch your eyes are looking up at the ceiling.
- Then slowly lower back to the floor.
- Stand and do a few jumping jacks or knee kicks.
Then take 2 or 3 minutes to quiet and focus the mind. If you start with something relatively short in length, your body will soon ask for more. After a couple of weeks, you can add time. You can even set an alarm. Sit in a chair, feet about shoulder length apart, back straight but comfortable, eyes closed, partly closed, or gently focused in front of you. Or you can sit on the floor, on your heels, or in a lotus, or cross-legged position.
- Turn your attention inwards. Notice how you’re breathing, in-- then out.
- Then notice that you are aware, aware of your own awareness. What are you aware of? A breath? A thought? A feeling or sensation? Maybe you feel relaxed and comfortable. Maybe your butt hurts. Simply be curious, calm, and notice. No need to do anything else.
- After each thing you notice, go back to the general awareness of awareness.
Or maybe you sit by a window. If you have trees outside and you like to see them, sit and gently let your eyes relax on the sight of the tree. Or maybe it’s a bush, or a mountain, or the sky, or a bird. Let yourself breathe easily, gently, just take in the sight and enjoy it.
Then take a deep breath in, hold it a second. Then breathe out. Notice how that feels. Then go eat breakfast or do whatever you normally do to get ready for the day.
If You Practice in the Afternoon
Some people feel clearer in the early afternoon. You can do the practices described for the morning before eating lunch. Or before dinner. (It’s easier to do mindfulness and exercise before a meal than right afterwards. Digestion takes up a good deal of energy.)
Or you might do exercise and mindfulness to let go of your day or something stressful or anxiety-producing. You can do breath-counting. Every time you breathe in, count. Count “one” and as you breathe out count “two” to yourself. When you get to ten, with the next breath go back to one.
Or to get free from an obsessive, painful or distracting thought. If you center your mind on feeling a sensation, you break the apparent chain of thought.
Every time you stop reinforcing an old and hurtful habit and calm your mind, even for a second, you set your mind free and show yourself you can do it. Your mind stops rushing. You give yourself a moment’s respite and allow a new pattern to be created. Find a place safe and quiet enough so you can stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. You can be sitting or standing.
Or: focus your attention on the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe out. Simply feel the air going out. The mind has only one object at a time. If you focus on feeling, you let go of thinking.
- You can feel the temperature of the air as it passes over the upper lip, or whether the exhalation is smooth and deep, or choppy and shallow.
- Notice where you first feel the impulse to inhale and whether the impulse comes quickly or slowly. Then feel the air passing over your upper lip as you breathe in. Feel your whole body expanding, your belly, shoulders, and face as you return attention to the air entering through the nose.
- And then you let go as you push the air out. If a thought does arise, congratulate yourself on being able to notice it. And then let it go by shifting your focus to the air passing out, over the upper lip as you exhale.
Usually, what is most important is not what arises but how you respond. Maybe you drift away and spend a few breaths engaged in a memory or following the sound of someone laughing in another room. We all lose focus at times. This is the cycle of a breath. When you become aware of the thought or the loss of focus it is precisely in order to learn from it and let it go. When you are aware of it, you appreciate the simple, basic aspects of living. You are kinder to yourself.
If at the moment of realizing the lost focus, you get down on yourself, or others, you lose focus again. If you are kind, gentle, and committed to returning attention to awareness, you regain focus. And in a difficult time, it is crucially important to be as kind to yourself as possible and then extend that kindness to others.
- If you find yourself drifting away, just notice it and gently return your awareness to the breath.
You could also do free writes about how you feel each day, who you’d like to talk to or visit, who you’d like to send healing wishes, and have imaginative conversations. Besides doing journals, schoolwork, exercising and practicing mindfulness, you can take political action, call Congresspeople about improving health care, or volunteer in some situation that helps others.
Practices for Nighttime and Sleep
At night, you could do a short practice to calm yourself before eating dinner. About an hour before going to bed, instead of a longer mindfulness practice, try gentle stretching to let go of tension.
At night, once in bed, close your eyes and focus on breathing calmly to provide a transition to sleep and letting go of images from your day. You could also try progressive relaxation.
In progressive relaxation, you could start at your feet and work your way gradually up to your face, or vice versa. If you start with your face, once your eyes are closed and rested within ⎼ imagine breathing into your cheeks or the area around your eyes. Feel the area expand as you breathe in, and let go, relax, settle down as you breathe out. Then move to the area around your mouth. Then the jaw, shoulders, etc.
If you still are not ready to sleep, take an imaginative walk or journey. Close your eyes and take three calm, slow breaths. Allow an image of a place you love, or welcome, and find relaxing or uplifting come to mind-- a path in the woods, a tree, a beach, a waterfall. As you walk towards the place in your mind, study the details, the flowers, the stones, the shells on the beach or the bark of a tree.
End by allowing yourself to sit and relax and just take it all in. Feel your body expand as you inhale, and settle down, relax and feel warm as you exhale.
Remember to commit to your own comfort and sleep. When you get in bed, turn off your phone or other device. When thoughts come to you, instead of recording them on your phone or indulging them in your mind, imagine they are like drops of water falling in a waterfall, and notice them as they disappear.
Each time of day has its own unique advantages, if you allow yourself to be aware in that moment of what you feel and think, and you utilize appropriate practices. In each moment, you can remember to be aware, to be curious.
By being mindful in this way, you turn what could be a stressful time into one that teaches you something important and increases your awareness and personal strength. You didn’t choose to be in this awful situation. But how you respond to it and whether you can use it to help yourself and others, is largely up to you.
About the Author
Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner. While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching.
Breath-Based Practices for Mindfulness or Stress Reduction
Emotions, Thoughts, Self-Compassion, and Self-Awareness