When You’re Feeling Stressed and Out of Time

Almost every school year as a teacher, usually in the beginning of May, I would begin to realize the year was almost over. What once seemed like a tremendous length of time was now almost gone. Earlier in the year, I had to think carefully about what to do for each class. Now, there was too much to do and not enough time to do it all. The once lengthy year was over too quickly.

 

If you feel the same, about school, job or whatever, this is a wonderful time to practice mindfulness, with yourself and your students. In fact, any time is a wonderful time, but especially if you feel stressed or out of time. The calmer you are and the clearer your thinking, the more you can do. Students are feeling every bit as strapped for time, stressed, maybe anxious, as you. It is so easy to get lost in worries. Worry, stress, anxiety are forms of feeling threatened. The end of the year can give all the thoughts and concerns that you didn’t deal with over the year the stimulus they need to burst into the open and be revived.

 

What can you do to reduce the stressful feeling? Besides being very clear with students about what is due when, and helping them figure out how long different assignments might take to complete, talk about stress levels and anxiety. Talk about planning and how taking action is one way to lessen anxiety. Talk about being aware of the story you tell yourself about yourself and your capabilities, as well as of how you think about and plan for the future.

 

Start by hearing and questioning the stories you tell yourself. It is not just the deadlines that cause the stress but how you think about them. You knew for months about most of the work you now face. The end of the year brings up the end of anything, or everything. You feel judgment day is almost upon you and the power of judgment is in someone else’s hands, not your own. You feel threatened or you feel the image you have of yourself is threatened.

 

The feeling of being judged is increased when you feel so stressed that you don’t even want to think about it. The awareness of feeling threatened can be uncomfortable, can itself seem like a threat, and so your response might be to want to turn it off and hide behind drugs or speeding thoughts or social media. But to turn off awareness you reinforce the stress. Or you might feel if you let go of the thoughts about the future, let go of the anxiety, you would crumble and nothing would get done. If you can’t handle your own sensations of stress, you might feel you can’t handle your schoolwork.

 

You feel not only less capable but more constricted and so no longer do the things that normally allow you to let go of tension. You feel anxious because you have lost touch with your own depth and want it back. You have narrowed your sense of who you are to who you fear you are, or to how you fear others might see you.

 

But take a moment to breathe in and think about this. You can only feel bad about an image of yourself because you know there is something more. To know an image is not right you must have a notion of what is right. Without a deep sense that there is so much more to you, you couldn’t recognize how this feared image is a diminished one.  

 

So instead of believing judgmental thoughts, question them. Teachers, remind students, and students, remind yourselves, of your own depths. To counter feeling time poor, slow down. Give yourself a few moments each day to close your eyes and breathe calmly, or look at something beautiful, or exercise with intensity. By giving yourself time, you feel time rich, that you have time to give, and you feel more in control.

 

In September, the year feels so long it might seem too difficult to commit yourself to meditate each morning and appreciate each moment. But for only a few weeks or a few days or a few moments, certainly you can handle it. One moment at a time. The nearness of the end can make each moment feel more precious.

 

Fear is the emotion that tells you to turn away. Instead, try curiosity. Try openness. Ask yourself: Is it easier to do intellectual work when you fear it —or when you are intrigued, open, or engaged? How can you assess your own work if you aren’t aware of your own feelings? So, instead of turning away in fear, embrace your work as much as possible with curiosity. Take your own stress as something to learn from and study. Studying your own mind and body can be difficult and complex, but it is the most rewarding course you will ever take. It is a course that lasts your whole life. When you take time to notice what is going on and be present, the world feels more open to you, spacious, limitless, and you feel limitless.

 

Practice noticing stressful sensations as soon as they arise. Where do you feel stress? Anxiety? What does it feel like? Close your eyes partly or fully and take a breath in; then let the breath out. When you inhale, notice if you feel tension in your body and breathe into the tense area. Then breathe out and feel your body relaxing, letting go of the breath, letting go of tension. Noticing the stressful sensations as soon as they arise and switching your attention from the story you tell yourself about stress to your physical act of breathing, can interrupt the stress response and interrupt fear. You feel your life is more your own. You feel more capable and alive.

Feeling At Home In The World

Earlier this month, I was walking down my road acutely aware of blooming apple trees (two weeks early), late blossoming cherry trees, greening grasses and bushes, birds calling, and the scent of lilac—all my senses were alive. Yet, in some way, I couldn’t believe I was here. That this was my home. I loved the view but it was just a beautiful view. It wasn’t quite me, or I couldn’t feel that it was.

 

I was born in Manhattan, New York City, and grew up in Queens. The streets were in my veins. But I’ve spent twice as many years here, on the hillside, living with apple trees, and still often feel like a visitor, that it’s temporary—a grateful visitor but a visitor nevertheless.

 

I was thinking about this again when I returned to my house, took off my shoes, and went upstairs to the bedroom. Did I feel this separation from the land I lived on because I grew up elsewhere? Or because I had worked, intensely, in town, for approximately 30 years and so the land had become more of a retreat than a home?

 

One of my cats, Milo, came to sit next to me on the bed. We turned to look out the big picture window into the orchard. I looked at an apple tree covered with white and pink blossoms surrounded by forget-me-nots. It was beautiful. I realized I always found this view out my window beautiful, even in the winter when it was covered in snow. My mind slowed down. I relaxed and truly felt this was where I belonged. Maybe it was my cat influencing me—it was amazing that this semi-wild creature would sit next to me like this and enjoy the view with me—and the whole situation changed. I realized I loved this place. This companionship, this moment was me, was home.

 

A home is created not only through a relationship with a place but through an opening in time. As 13th Century Zen teacher Dogen said, “The time we call spring blossoms directly as an existence called flowers.” There is no separation between things and time, people and what they experience. The flowering apple tree is spring; this calm, loving mind is home.

 

 

*This blog is inspired not only by the beauty of spring but by Gillian Judson’s book, Engaging Imagination in Ecological Education: Practical Strategies for Teaching.

**For an imaginative, insightful essay on Dogen and time, that is also accessible to high school students, read The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, by David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew.

Sitting In Silence

Can you sit still for 15 minutes and just think, without getting up or turning to a distraction, a phone, a book, a pen, music—or something shocking? A study recently reported by NPR says that most of us can’t. Besides asking people to just sit, alone, the study included a little twist. It allowed people who felt bored or incapable of just sitting to deliver a physical shock to themselves. The result: 70% of men and 20% of women could not sit for 15 minutes without shocking themselves, some repeatedly, despite the pain of the shocks. With the women subjects who didn’t shock themselves, researchers were not clear if the women were better at sitting still or better at not shocking themselves (or both? something else?).

 

Why is this? The study could only make conjectures about that. How do we want to understand this information? Does it mean that we are so dependent on media or on distractions that when we try to be without them, we can’t take it? Are we habituated to our media? Or is this evidence that most of us are not comfortable with ourselves? Maybe there are too many shadows lying in wait in the mind that people feel they can’t or don’t want to face? Or are we just uneducated about how to live in our own heads, or of the role of the mind in creating our sense of the world?

 

In our world today, not only are we bombarded with messages and pressures to keep up with the latest technology, we feel that doing so makes us appear more important. The busier we look, the more important we feel. Being constantly connected means people value you. The ping of the cell phone is an affirmation. So, especially for young people who grow up with digital media, being disconnected can mean being less valuable.

 

I think this experiment, as the authors themselves indicate, invites us to study our own thinking and experiencing. Other people’s answers won’t really help us. And we don’t need only ideas of why this might be true but a truth tested in our lives and feelings. If we can’t be with ourselves, who can we be with? Schools need to join in this self-study. Do we want to raise a generation of people who need an Ap or GPS to find themselves? With increased awareness, we feel less driven. Media becomes the car, not the driver.

 

Think of a time that you could do nothing but wait. Waiting is not the same as just sitting by yourself for 15 minutes, but in both you might start counting moments. When you wait in line to buy something, for example, you have this idea: “I have to buy this new ipod. When I get it, I will be thrilled, happy.“ Or: “I just want the movie tickets already. I just want to get her in the theatre, so we can sit and…” Or you’re waiting for news or for the next text. In any of these situations, you feel suspended in time. You have an image or idea of a future you, when you have whatever it is you are waiting for. And there is this other you, defined by what you’re not, by what you don’t have or what you lack. In fact, you are suspended not in time but between two ideas. You are taken out of time into a mere idea of time. Or maybe not suspended but enclosed in a box constructed of ideas taped shut with emotion. This is suffering.

 

So study or deconstruct what you think and feel when your cell phone pings or calls to you. You might think that these feelings come with the phone, but they come with you. You are the being who feels and thinks. And notice how your culture speaks of the value of media. Notice each ad on television, each time a phone appears in a movie. Notice if there are messages about being alone. And then notice the indifference of a tree or the breeze. Does the tree need to send a text to be noticed? When you focus on the feel of a gentle breeze on your face, do you still think about your phone? What is deepest about your phone is your collection of ideas and feelings about it.

 

Or you might think, ah, a 15 minute respite. I have nothing I have to do. Great. And if you interpret the situation as a moment of freedom from work or whatever, a moment to just relax, then yes, that’s wonderful. But is that what actually occurs when you put away your phone?

 

So, just sit. Pick someplace where it is easy to sit without slouching and you can be mentally awake. Maybe close your eyes so you can better notice your thoughts, emotions, sensations, and images. What comes up for you as you just sit? All you have to do is notice. You don’t need to add anything to the noticing. There’s no need to judge the quality or value of any of the thoughts or feelings, or judge yourself for letting them pass through your mind. Just witness what’s there for you and be open to yourself, kind. If you are open, the thoughts and feelings will arise and pass more clearly. Witness even the judgments as you watch clouds passing by. And notice, also, the sun when the clouds are gone, when there are no thoughts. By notice, I don’t mean note, like write a note with your mind, or bother to remember. Just be aware. Notice the stillness when the sky is vast, blue and cloudless. Patiently, calmly, notice whatever arises, as if your mind was that vast blue space. What is important is your patient interest, your awareness of your life unfolding. Now, just sit with that calm, still awareness

 

When you sit alone, just notice the thoughts or sensations. Let them be just the clouds in the vast sky, or the universe noticing what is arising in itself. The thoughts will then wink out, and what will be left is a universe of awareness silently enjoying itself.