Practicing Mindfulness and Awareness, Kindness, and Letting Go
How do you start a class with mindfulness? Once you have all entered and greeted each other, tell your students:
Let’s begin a short mindfulness practice. Push away from your desk. Sit up straight but not rigid, near the front end of your seat, so you don’t get tempted to slump. Then turn your attention inwards. Exhale through your nose, and then notice how you inhale. You do it naturally, spontaneously, don’t you? Just notice the sensations of breathing.
When leading a practice of mindfulness use a calm tone of voice. An important element of mindfulness is moment to moment awareness. Speak clearly, while monitoring your own feelings and thoughts as they arise so you can be in tune with the students. When possible, give two or three choices. Some students are too nervous to close their eyes, so give them a few different ways to practice. Never force anything.
Close your eyes partly or fully. If you want to leave them open, pick a spot on the floor about three feet in front of you, and let your eyes rest on that spot. Notice what it feels like to take in a breath. You might notice your body expanding slightly with the breath. You don’t have to do anything except be aware of the sensations as you inhale. As you exhale, notice the sense of exhaling. Notice how your body lets go, settles down, relaxes a bit. It’s like a momentary holiday.
Never lead something that you haven’t practiced many times. Start with just this much, just two minutes. You, and the students, will soon want more. Do the rest of this practice when you’re ready.
Once you become quiet, you might notice awareness of what is going on inside yourself on a new level. You become aware of awareness itself. You begin to hear thoughts and beliefs and feel sensations that were automatic before and almost unconscious. You might feel pressure to immediately react to these thoughts and feelings and to take them as important. Instead, let whatever arises be the object of awareness. Even the sensation of pressure. It is all there for your education.
Notice how long or short, deep or shallow your breaths are. (Pause.) Notice if any place in your body is tense. Go to that area with your awareness and just notice it. Notice how the area expands as you breathe in. Then relaxes, settles down as you breathe out. There is a natural rhythm here. Then go to another part of your body. Notice how you breathe in from that area. Notice your body expand with the inbreath; and let go as you breathe out.
When we feel certain sensations, like those that arise with fear or anxiety, we might immediately react with an impulse to run away from the feelings. Or if we feel pleasant sensations, we might feel an impulse to grasp onto them and not let go. We don’t want these unpleasant feelings, sensations and thoughts to be there; we don’t want the pleasant ones to end. Or sometimes we get confused and want to do nothing. Our awareness switches from the initial feeling to our response. The two are different. Our reaction of running away is a fear of fear, or a fear of anxiety. The grasping is resistance to pleasant feelings ending. We generally like liking. By grasping onto a feeling and resisting change, we turn something pleasant unpleasant.
If you find yourself drifting away, just notice it and gently return your awareness to the breath.
Another element of mindfulness is what we do when we realize we lost our focus. Maybe we spent a few breaths engaged in a memory or following the sound of someone laughing in the hall. We all lose focus at times. If at the moment of realization we get down on ourselves, we lose focus again. If we get angry at the people disturbing our practice with laughter, we lose focus. If we are kind, gentle, and committed to returning attention to awareness, we regain focus.
The initial sensations of emotion have a message for us. But we lose the message contained in the initial sensation when we switch attention from it to our emotional response. We take a small sensation, fill it up with thoughts, images, anticipations and make it something big. So return to the small sensations. When we lead the exercise in the classroom, we are helping students learn how to gently return to awareness of the individual sensations.
If any thoughts or images arise, just notice them with your inbreath, and then let go of them with the outbreath.
Part of why we react to sensations as we do is because of conditioning. We are not taught how to be so aware. We might be unsure of our ability to handle a situation. We might have beliefs or theories about reality that have not been carefully questioned. For example, if we feel a pain in our chest and imagine it is a heart attack, the level of pain goes up. If we realize it is acid reflux, our fear decreases considerably. Mindfulness is not psychological analysis. We are just breaking down automatic responses by becoming aware of the simplest elements of our experience. What is the feeling of our feet on the floor? Taking a breath? Keep it simple. Yet, nothing could be more profound.
Just sit for a minute with the calm and quiet of having nothing to do but breathe in and breathe out.
And once we develop the ability to just sit with whatever arises for us, we have patience with ourselves and with others. We allow ourselves to perceive and think more deeply. We persist in completing even what feels difficult. When we have a test, and we feel a tightness in the belly or a shaking in the knees, we just feel it. We feel the message that we need to wake up and concentrate. Then once the message is delivered, we let the sensation go.