Self-Regulation V: The Mandala Practice

The mandala is an ancient symbol that represents the universe. It serves as a microcosmic representation of all that exists within us and in the external world. Mandalas have an intricate circular symmetry made of geometric patterns.

Years ago, I came across a practice that hooked my mind – I couldn’t stop thinking about it because it was just so intriguing. Tibetan Buddhist monks gather to create exquisite mandalas with special colored sand during rituals (see video below). At the end of the ritual the sand is gathered, destroying the deeply significant and symbolic mandala that was created with hours of diligence. The hours of perseverance and focus on the meaning of the mandala of course brings about an attachment and connection to the work and the final piece in its last stages. In destroying what was made, the monks practice letting go of the end result marking the knowledge that all things are ephemeral.

In our everyday life, we get attached (varies by age) to grades, accolades, physical appearance, money, and social status. While students may get caught up in their grades (the end result) or the number of friends they have (again another number that is the end result of social interactions), adults also face the same experience. Adults may get obsessed with how much money they make or with climbing up a social hierarchy ladder, which are the end results of hours of work and maybe degrees.

It is no surprise humans are wired to value the end result of endeavors and hold onto them as if their worth depends on these end results. Based on evolution, we are wired to hold on to all that helps us survive – the results of tribal wars over land or the competition for a mate. The only difference is that most of us reading this article are not struggling to survive and so the intense hold on end results does not benefit us. Instead, it breeds anxiety, insecurity, mean competition, and probably a whole list of related physical ailments.

It is said that, when asked about what is most surprising about humanity, the Dalai Lama replied:

Man.
Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present;
the result being that he does not live in the present or the future;
he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.

We are literally afraid of loss as if our survival depends on one home, one job, a more than sufficient paycheck, one SAT score, one state exam score, and one performance review.  In order to practice letting go, we must immerse ourselves in the process of each moment unfolding with childlike curiosity – not like a machine that is just intent on creating an end product. 

The action of this blog post revolves around a mandala coloring practice in which we rewire the mind to engage in the process and let go of the result. Read on to practice!


Action for this post:

Print out or draw your own mandala. See this site for mandalas you can print for yourself or get inspired to draw your own: https://printmandala.com/

Every day, spend only 5 minutes coloring the mandala (preferably with colored pencils or crayons) bringing your attention to the sound of the utensil on paper and each stroke of color filling the empty space. Put your crayon or pencil down at the 5 minute mark. Do they same every day until you complete the mandala, suspending any judgement of your work.

Then, upon its completion, recycle the mandala paper in your bin. This marks the end of one exercise, a process and experience in which you let go of the end product.  

Video | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Self-Regulation IV: A Gratitude Meditation & Happy Thanksgiving!

Before I begin I would like to I dedicate this post to Swami Tadatmananda (Swami T hereafter), who taught me about meditation in addition to many other practices. I offer a meditation, below, that is a variation of what he taught me.

One of the most memorable classes with Swami T fell on Saturday mornings after Thanksgiving every year. In this special Thanksgiving class, we learned how to cultivate gratitude for the myriad of gifts in our lives. I remember Swami T always joked that many people must have come from previous days of feasting and Black Friday shopping. And now here we were – ready to delve into ourselves – or were we, I wondered?

When we are just busy eating and feeding ourselves followed by intense shopping to fulfill our wish list desires, what are we actually doing? Well… there are lots of things, but I would not say self-regulating falls high on many of our lists as we feast and run out for Black Friday shopping. We are over-stimulated by tastes of sweets, dinner, music, lots of conversations, and lots of people. Then, as if we hadn’t fed ourselves enough, we dash out as stores open, to consume (thus the word consumer) more and feed our closets and homes, which we consider extensions of ourselves, with Black Friday sale items. The mind’s attention is constantly shifting, from one flashing sale sign to the next, store to store, bumping into dozens of people, surrounded by noise. And, as the mind is stimulated by all these things, the mind is set on constantly looking for things to satisfy ourselves from the external world.

There is also another side to Thanksgiving or any other holiday. The holiday could trigger emotions – good or bad – for many people as they may not be around family (or being around families could also trigger emotions). Perhaps food or streaming of movies or games to fill time  is just an attempt to fill emotionally empty parts of our innerselves. Regardless of how the holiday is processed, we are just trying to fill ourselves in one way or another. We feel more satisfied just for a day or so… until we feel empty and in need of more.

Swami T’s main point as he introduces the gratitude exercise for the class (and the discussions of course change from year to year) is that in the midst of looking for more and more so that we fill in missing pieces to ourselves with the outside world, why not take a few moments to also turn inwards and see that all the contentment we are constantly running after lies right within ourselves? Our happiness and contentment does not lie in external items, circumstances, and the mere number of people around us (you may have heard the idea that it’s better to have one true friend than be friendly with a hundred people).

We may run after the newest toys (if we are kids), newer cars (as adults), the latest cell phones (all ages!), and the coolest shoes because we feel as though we are more complete having them when, in fact, bigger and better possessions don’t equate to a sense of fullness inside. If we have a bike, we want a car; if we have a car, then we desire an SUV; if we have an SUV, perhaps we want a truck; if we have a truck, then the next piece is a boat… You get the point! (Some of you may have heard this example from one of Georg Feuerstein’s interviews.)

But if we just stopped for 5 minutes to practice being grateful for what we already have, perhaps we may be quick to experience greater contentment in this very moment. All of a sudden, we may not feel such an urgent need to run around to each and every sale during Black Friday and we may not continue to eat more sweets when our stomach is telling us it’s time to stop!

What is gratitude? Gratitude is a character trait (or a quality) that helps the mind to acknowledge and be thankful for what we have. Gratitude exists in the mind, not in the new cellphone in our hands or the new shoes we bought. Therefore, the way to cultivate gratitude is to turn inwards and reflect.

When Swami T held gratitude meditations, he guided the class through their entire lives, stopping at each junction noting the important people and experiences in our lives that we are grateful for. It brought tears to the eyes of many students as we walked through every segment of our life thus far – we recalled that a grandmother or guardian figure held our hand so we could learn to walk and remembered faces of those who truly cared for us and stepped in during times of crisis. We recalled people that protect and help nourish our society (i.e., a nation’s military, firefighters, social workers, lawyers, teachers, nurses, doctors, custodial staff, and EVERY SINGLE job that contributes to order and safety and progress).

In my variant of this meditation, below, I focus on only one day – today – from morning to the present moment. It is important to find a quiet place and a comfortable position so that you can focus with minimal disruption. Join me below :)!

Video | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Self Regulation III – Morning Mindfulness: The Mind & The Inextinguishable Flame

Candlelight 2The candlelight flame is an ancient Indian symbol of undivided attention. It is said that if we leave the mind to its own devices (to entropy!), the flame of attention will scatter into thousands of tiny lights pointing in thousands of different directions, leaving us directionless.

I like to think of the tiny yet strong brilliant light as the Focused Light Aiming the Mind’s Energy in one direction. And it is this brilliance that we return to and experience every morning.

Just before waking, as we discussed in the last post, the mind is processing a complex array of emotions, experiences, and ideas through movements and metaphors. The fire (or flame) of life that lives on in us, even as we are unconscious of our external world during sleep and transported to another world, rekindles its brightness and we awaken to the reality around us. Once again, we enter the world that existed just before we slipped into the mysterious world of sleep. For most of us, hopefully, it is morning – a time when the sun is rising or already shining bright – a symbol of the brilliance that illuminates our mind.

It is in this transition between sleep and awakening that we have our next chance to gather ourselves for a new day. However, if are unable to let go of the stream of thoughts from the past or overwhelming excitement or worry about the future, we float in a sea that is forever pulling us away from NOW. Most of us spend much of our time and energy dwelling in the past or on the future. And, in doing so, especially first thing in the morning, we lose our chance to recalibrate to the present, where learning takes center stage. If we pay closer attention to ourselves in the present moment, we open up to and acknowledge our feelings, thoughts, opinions, intuitions, ideas, insights, and figments of our imagination. We are left less jumbled and have greater clarity of what lies within us in this moment. And here we are…at the doorstep of an opportunity to engage with the present, as if it were our moment-to-moment companion, and all it has to offer – the discomforts, wandering thoughts, insights, exciting experiences, creativity, and gratitude among many other experiences.

What does this present-minded focus look like? I would suggest it is like the flame of a candle (see the image for this post). Its relation to single-minded attention is exemplified by the gentle flame: if you have ever lit a candle and turned it sideways, moved it side to side, or even upside down, you can clearly observe the resilience of the flame. It always moves back to center and points upward. The flame neither breaks apart, dividing itself into scattered mini-flames, nor does it point towards a new direction. It embodies everything we would like our mind to be – focused, resilient, and gritty.  It’s brilliance can light up dark pathways such as confusion that hampers learning.

And there is not better time to set our mind on the path towards embodying the flame than the morning. So, here we go…bright and early :)!


Action for this post: A Two Part Candlelight Meditation

1. The first part entails spending time observing a lit up candle for about a 1-2 minutes. If you have access to a burning candle (and you are in the presence of an adult!) go ahead and light the candle and observe it.

If you don’t have access to a candle in the presence of an adult, you may also observe my picture for this post and imagine what it may do if you were watching it in person. It is very important that you take time to do this step.

2. The second part is the YouTube video below with the meditation audio. You can choose from two options: with music or without music – your choice! Take some time to adjust yourself so you are in a comfortable position, click play, and close your eyes!

With Music:

 

Without Music

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Regulation II: Begins Before Bedtime

The world of sleep is mysterious and vast. We are conscious of ourselves just before we drift off to sleep. However, in between falling asleep and waking, we intentionally or unintentionally place full trust in the world around us – that we will be safe with our eyes closed, traveling into another realm of our daily experience. We experience dreams and movements that we may never recall upon waking. We trust that we will awaken, having allowed our bodies to rest. However, it is not just about our bodies – sleep has profound and powerful effects on the mind. It is no wonder that a vast section of medicine and scientific research is dedicated solely to the study of sleep.

This brings us to our next question… What does sleep have to do with self-regulation?

Common sense and experience tell us that sleep helps our mind and body’s ability to heal, process new information, and grow in creativity – dreams are proofs of our creative selves at play (next time someone tells you or you think you’re not creative, remind yourself that you dream!). Good sleep leads to a larger reserve of energy, more positive moods, and greater control over our motor functions and reaction times (if you’ve ever seen  a video in a driving course demonstrating the connections between sleep and driving, this point should be no surprise!).

img_0123-2.jpg

A glimpse of the setting sun.

At a deeper level, according to psychologists and many of the world’s traditions, sleep is the place where we meet metaphors and grow – a place where dreams that connect seemingly unrelated phenomena and phases of sleep rewire our minds towards (hopefully!) greater maturity and clarity. We process an old day’s or a past year’s worth of experiences to prepare for a new day. And so, if we don’t create a foundation for healthy healing sleep we wake up jumbled, chaotic, and confused. We are also much more emotional, more reactive, and with long term sleep deprivation more prone to being anxious and depressed – a perfect recipe for allowing the mind’s irrational processes to go for a run, leaving the more logical self-trusting skills behind. A jumbled and unresolved mind and body is not going to be ready to self-regulate or implement a series of checks and balances to keep our reactions to a new day’s experiences in check.

So, this leads us to the final and most important question: If sleep is so important in self-regulating, how do we prepare for it?

Huh?! Preparing for sleep?

Yes! With the modern pace of life, which continues to grow faster with time, we have forgotten the rituals that used to exist in the absence of cell phones and pressures to keep working. Our grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors effortlessly engaged in these rituals before bed. Before delving into how to prepare for one of our day’s most essential functions, SLEEP, let’s take a look at what does NOT prepare us for sleep:

  1. Peering into screens at least 60 minutes before bedtime. This includes television, cell phones, iPads, and laptops.
  2. Listening to news about negative events and the endless stream of “breaking news”
  3. Arguing with friends or family.
  4. Working – your work day should be over way before sleep – it sounds unreal to many of us today (I personally know my teacher colleagues will say we’re planning, thinking of new creative ways to teach material, and grading!) In each profession, and in each stage of life, including student life there is always more work that can be done, especially with the free flowing stream of electricity that lights up our homes at any time of day!
  5. Solving problems – unresolved questions will always consume us but we must press the brakes.
  6. Studying – it’s time to allow the mine to assimilate what you have learned.
  7. Loud or very stimulating activities (i.e., listening to very loud music or intense movies).
  8. Gossiping – creating unnecessary stories and throwing up emotions is the last thing we want to do!

So how do we prepare?

Whatever we do, it should be soothing to the mind and body – bringing ourselves closer to the pace of sleep – which is a “non-doing” state, a state of letting go of all control of any unfinished tasks and worries. Here are some rituals you may choose to take up or follow if you don’t already do so:

  1. Read a nourishing book.
  2. Sit with family (only if that is a relaxing activity).
  3. Pick out your clothes for the following day, prepare your backpack or work bag, and take out anything related to your morning routine. Keep it ready so you don’t need to run around in the morning!
  4. Keep a notepad where you can write any reminders that pop up as you unwind – the last thing you want to do is get up as soon as your mind reminds you of a task.
  5. Journal – write down any positive things that happened during the day.
  6. Sit by a candle and just do nothing, enjoy the presence of the candle and soft relaxing music in the background.
  7. Try Yoga Nidra!
  8. Cut out something that stands between you and preparing for sleep. This is the hardest one of all! But if we want to attend to ourselves, we must learn to let go!

*Start preparing so you can be in bed by latest 11 p.m. This time will gradually and hopefully move to an earlier spot in the day, and you may end up going to bed everyday by 10 p.m. if you don’t already do so.

These are just some ideas. I’m sure our ancestors star-gazed in groups, sat around a fire and told stories, prepared the home for the next day, ensured safety of the kids before falling asleep, or read by candlelight. Whatever they did, the mind was geared to a slowing down process – as opposed to following Tweets, Instagram, Snapchat, the news, or problem-solving unresolved work issues. Our ancestors most likely did not even have the option of being pulled into a space where they could be bombarded with stimulation.

The more you prepare for bed, like our ancestors unknowingly did, the better your quality of sleep will be. What you do before sleeping has a huge impact on the state of your mind during sleep and upon waking. And this is why it is linked to self regulation! The more we prepare and allow a sense of calmness and stillness to begin to permeate into our bedtime-selves, the more rested, resilient, and focused we will feel the next morning. The swirls of emotions that arise within us in response to daily triggers will not quite hit the threshold to burst into a reaction but rather lay low and you will be able to move on without outbursts more easily.


Action for this post:

Create your own bedtime ritual. One hour before it’s time to sleep, try to move towards stillness. Do what helps you feel calmer and what helps slow down the activity of the mind and body.

It is helpful if you write down concrete ritual(s) that you will follow so that there is a plan ready to go as soon as 9 or 10 p.m. hits the clock! The last thing you want to do is start thinking about what to do when it is time to prepare, so do the thinking beforehand and follow the flow of your plan!

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Self-Regulation I: Getting To Know Your Breath

One of the first steps to developing the fertile soil in which we can plant seeds (in the form of tools) that help us self-regulate is getting to know one of the most mysterious and ever-present aspects of our beings: THE BREATH. Getting in touch with and exploring our breath begins to build an awareness of our internal worlds. The breath, as I have written in previous posts, is the connection between the mind and body and anchors us in time and space. As humans, we all experience the array of emotions from elation and cool to extreme sadness and anger. However, to begin to recognize these emotions before they explode into regrettable reactions, we must build a connection with our breath – we can then begin to cultivate metacognition. Metacognition is an awareness of the state of our mind, which encompasses our thoughts and our feelings among many other aspects of our minds that are in constant flux – it is an awareness of our internal world and its moment-to-moment fluctuations.

Our first exercise is called “What is the breath?”. Because it is developed for all ages, you may find it helpful to personalize the exercise to one that matches you (based on age, music, etc) and create one for yourself! Becuase of the tone I use (on purpose), this exercise is great for young students! Adults will benefit from it as well!

Video | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fall 2018 Self-Regulation Series: For All Ages!

Staying true to my last post on eliminating excess, I took time to cut out extraneous work, unnecessary internet time, and moved as slowly as possible as I transitioned back into the school year (which, as any teacher knows, is not very slow at all!). I hope that, you too, found time to focus on that which is most important in your last few weeks through the transition period whether it was from summer vacation to school or summer to fall. Now that the transition phase is over, I have decided to initiate a self-regulation series on my blog.


Often, in tough storms, we see the after effects that Mother Nature wrecks on Herself. For me, the aftermath of a hurricane brings to mind the image of an uprooted tree. The roots of the tree may run deep, but if the wind power is too strong, the roots fail to keep the tree standing. It is seized as if it had no anchor and thrown to the ground.

However, trees with thick, well-developed, broad, and very deep roots relative to their size often survive storms (now I don’t want to get involved in the physics behind the phenomenon here…:D). Our minds are just like these trees – if grounded with daily practice, healthy beliefs, and filled with resilience, then trying circumstances, criticism, and frustrations while learning in the sea of life will not get the better of us. Nevertheless, even the most flexible minds often end up in verbal outbursts, untethered behaviors, and give in to pressures that build up within.

What is it that keeps us stable in the face of difficult emotions (which, by the way, we cannot move through with grace while blaming the external world)?

Think of a room’s heating system set at 70 F. When the temperature falls below 70, the heating system begins its work until the room reaches 70 degrees. If the temperature rises above 70, the system shuts off. The key is regulation.

But, as human beings, we are not interested in some external regulation as a permanent fix to dealing with our emotions. We want to grow deep, broad, and strong roots that can bring us back to balance and remain resilient so that we don’t wreck havoc on ourselves (much like the Mother Nature example). We are rather intrigued by self-regulation – the process through which we notice our emotions running off track and immediately exercise to bring ourselves back to a more calm state that is filled with clarity. This is by no means easy. But if we want to grow into more content and successful individuals, we must begin to learn how to self-regulate.

Over the last few years, I have received a number of invitations to speak on the use of exercises relating learning, self-regulation, character traits, and mindfulness at schools (elementary through college-level) and math education conferences. I’ll be sharing bits and pieces of the experiential aspects of my presentations one post at a time over the course of the next few months. This time, I’m going to focus on exercises that can be used by ALL AGES – young children through adults. Make each post’s exercise your own by modifying it to match yourself and use it when you find yourself moving away from balance. Here’s a little video intro and hello from me (below)!

Posted in Self-Regulation | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A New School Year & Taking Care of Ourselves: Eliminating Excess

A new school year is approaching and we are often swamped by a mix of emotions –

  1. Overwhelming feelings
  2. Nervousness
  3. Excitement
  4. Feeling upset

We feel overwhelmed by a huge list of courses and teachers we know almost nothing about – not to mention new syllabi, textbooks, classroom structures, teaching styles, passwords/usernames and rules for new school technology, and many other materials.

We feel excitement – each new beginning is like a blank slate and there’s nothing more freedom-inducing than a new adventure. We also feel excited to see old friends, maybe a newly assigned iPad, new notebooks, a fresh set of pens/pencils, colorful erasers, and possibly our own set of folders.

We feel nervous – the meeting of two phases, summer vacation and school, is a transition. Transitions bring up memories and ingrained patterns of reacting to impending change. We may also feel nervous by this new adventure – it is filled with unknowns – who knows what the year holds in store for!

We feel upset – there’s a sadness of a summer bygone and perhaps painful memories from the previous school years resurface.

All these emotions at the transition between summer vacation and the new school year can be exhausting, draining, and tiring. This probably means we should seek the solace of long restful sleep, “doing-nothing” time, and just simply self care in one major form:

ELIMINATING EXCESS

According to the philosophy of an ancient tradition called Ayurveda, originating in the foothills of the Himalayas, the root of much of our modern dis-ease (lack of ease that builds up and overflows into actual disease) is the problem of excess in our culture – excess processed foods, excess stimulation of our senses through sound and sight, and excess mental and physical activity. For us, this time of year is already filled with excess stimulation causing nervousness, overwhelming feelings, excitement, and upset feelings, among many others. The stimulation produced by the transition to the new school year is sufficient to be called by its name (without icing the cake): excess

Placeholder Image

Never-ending stimuli tire the mind and body.

The reality is that this excess stimulation of the mind and nervous system – by an influx of new demands and emotions – is an inevitable part of the transition. However, we can eliminate excesses that drain us more by stimulating our mind and brain. Off the top of my head, I can think of a running list of stimuli that we could do without for the next few weeks until we complete the transition from summer to school:

  1. Twitter
  2. Instagram
  3. Snapchat
  4. Facebook
  5. Ever-flowing “Breaking News” on news channels
  6. Gossiping
  7. Frantic traveling
  8. Shopping for things that we do not need
  9. People around us that “push our buttons” (while you can’t completely avoid these people, you could definitely begin to create a mental separation)
  10. Clutter in your closets, drawers, and rooms
  11. Not getting fresh air
  12. Too many movies (especially scary or violent) and TV shows

Action for this post:

  1. Reflect on one stimulus that engages your mind in activity – some things we do make our minds think and compare and think and analyze and think and regret and not rest at all. This is the activity I am talking about.
  2. For the next few weeks, remove or minimize – to the best of your ability – the stimulus. It could be excessive texting, shopping, snap-chatting, gossiping, etc.

Note: For many students, school also feels like a safe haven – a way to escape hardships. This does not negate the presence of excess stimulation. So, perhaps, if you find yourself in this situation, you can find something in your summer as it ends that “sets you off” and see if you can minimize your interaction with that stimulus. It will prepare you for the year to come.


All of this is hard work – you will feel the impulse to return to the stimulus you choose because you are so used to its presence. But letting go and eliminating excess is meant to be an uncomfortable process. We may dream of letting go as a feeling of flying like birds with full freedom – the reality is that it takes perseverance and we must sit with discomfort. You can always refer to the meditations on my site if they help in reducing the discomfort of letting go… or simply turn on some relaxing music, meet with a friend with whom you have a nourishing connection, lay down and close your eyes, or go for a walk in the sun!

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Practicing Distraction & Practicing Focus Part II: An Ancient Tradition in a Modern Era

IMG_0173In the previous post, we deciphered the mind’s tendency to wander through and be pulled into an uninhibited stream of distractions. This was most evident as we watched ourselves, as outsiders, click around in a monkey-like fashion around Facebook (or the internet), forgetting our pressing goals of the moment. While the rise and acceleration of progress in technology and the internet are uncovering and emphasizing our mind’s tendency to get distracted, this central tendency of the mind – to wander –  is not just a modern discovery.

“The central tendency of the mind is to wander.”  Prevalent concept in many ancient Indian texts.

This simple yet profound concept is found in ancient oral traditions and writings on the study of the mind – we can trace this area of study back thousands of years to the flourishing ancient Indian civilization, long before calculators, computers, and the internet. Even in the absence of modern devices, the wise folk of this ancient civilization were able to sense the wavering, wandering, monkey-like tendency of the mind. So what was done in response?

To counteract the impressed habit of wandering (of the mind), these wise folk practiced becoming very verry veeerrry still. In the stillness, they realized that profound insights and observations could be recorded and remembered. For centuries (and millennia!) onward, people gathered in the still surroundings of mountains, rivers, and forests to practice and discover techniques in harnessing the mind. With diligence and consistent practice, they began to learn deeply about the vast world that lies within each and every one of us. 

Tradition evolved to placing immense importance on mental hygiene. Without preparing the mind to open up to the world at sunrise, they felt they were not ready to learn and be. And so, thousands of techniques on training, focusing, supporting, and nurturing the mind were developed and passed down from teacher to student and from the student to his or her students and so on and so forth.

While this art mingled with the mainstream culture in ancient India to some extent, it is now for the first time flowing into modern and mainstream cultures across the world. The most well-known techniques present themselves as mindfulness, guided imagery, and breathwork – and we are just touching the tip of a massive iceberg. Modern medicine has found many benefits and psychology has been intrigued over the last few centuries by the depths of these techniques and their associated philosophies. Finally, in a few places (and its scope is growing), we are supporting the mind’s ability to learn and thrive as students and learners in the field of education! In the midst of the emotion-filled, dynamic, ever-changing experiences and years of adolescence (and later on in life), I believe we have come across a field of invaluable gems – and I am personally so excited to present one very basic technique below.

Join me in learning a very basic technique in clarifying and strengthening the mind so that the mind is ready to learn. If you are interested in addition exercises from other posts – follow my link to Meditations.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practicing Distraction & Practicing Focus: Part I

Distract your mind and it will frantically wander. Focus the mind and it will become still.

Imagine yourself using Facebook. (If you don’t use Facebook, imagine yourself using another social media platform; if you don’t use social media, imagine yourself browsing the internet.) You sign into your account and click on your profile to post a message to help gather signatures for an important petition. Just as you are doing that, you see the picture of a friend from last week’s gathering on your Newsfeed and click on her picture instead. Then, you see that someone you don’t know well but see sometimes has commented on your friend’s picture. Ooh! You are curious, “Who is she?” When you get to her page, you see an event posted about her new band’s music show. You click on the event. Wow! A friend of a cousin’s friend is attending! You click on his profile now… This is unending! Before you know it, it’s it’s time to jump into bed go to sleep.

Let’s look at the bare skeleton of what just happened-

  1. Sign in to Facebook with the goal of posting a message.
  2. (Body of the skeleton) Click around on different profiles and events all by whim
  3. Time is up – need to run! You didn’t even get to post your message!

So, out of all the time you spent online, at least 95% of it was spent doing something actually quite harmful: training the mind to jump from one topic to another by whim.

(You won’t believe how much time people spend on the internet jumping around from one whim to the next whim without any purpose. A person can easily spend 30 minutes or an hour just jumping from page to page until, looking at the clock, he or she realizes that’s time to rush to the next scheduled activity for the day. If we get 8 hours of sleep per night, an hour of internet use per day amounts to about 6% of our waking hours. Note: One hour is probably on the lower end of the spectrum of time spent online!!)

In activities like the story above, we are training the mind to set aside our important goals in the midst of distractions. We are unfortunately helping our mental focus scatter in all directions instead of directing the mind with single-minded attention and purpose to one activity at a time. Now, imagine this monkey-like mind in the classroom, at work, or under time-pressure (time-sensitive deadlines, exams, etc). Rather than bringing a practiced focus to the situation, we bring a practice of distraction.

When noise arises in our classroom, we get more curious about the how, when, and why of the noise and that curiosity sweeps us off of our feet. It leads to curiosity about all sorts of other random things related to the noise and completely unrelated to the goal of learning, working, and efforting in the present moment. In the midst of this type of cycle of the mind where distraction feeds distraction, I have observed students miss chunks of notes, zone out during group work time (losing time in crucial collaborative work), and fall behind in intense problem-solving activities (missing out on the critical thinking practice). Even as adults, we seem to struggle – instead of listening intently to a friend or colleague we live in the world of our minds, distracted by a long running mental to-do list, imagining the worst and best case scenarios of a presentation due Friday, or merely the text messages streaming across the screens of our phones. Under time pressure, emotions such as frustration and anxiety distract ALL of us from the intention of successfully completing an exam.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Action: So what can we do? 

For the next few weeks, watch our activities online. Before starting any sort of phone, iPad, or laptop use, ask yourself your goals in using these tools. Is your goal to listen to a series of songs? Is your goal to read about the news for the day? Is your goal to check and respond to emails? Whatever it is, be very clear and specific! Once you are clearly aware of your goal(s), embark on your goal and notice the distractions that are present on the internet. Practice  a single-minded attention to fulfilling your goals rather than jumping to click on and engage with the distractions that arise.

Note: In the next post (Part II), I will be sharing techniques that bring focus and stillness to the mind to unwind the distracted mind.

 

Quote | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cultivating Academic Humility (Part II): Allaying Anxiety

Have you ever had the experience where you are so sure of an erroneous understanding that you practically persist and argue to hold on to it in light of counterarguments?

IMG_0279

Diversity of Expression

Often, in the classroom, I observe students that are so fixed in one way of thinking or doing things that they push away and stayed close-minded to well-intentioned activities and exercises that challenge their current way of doing things. Let’s take the following example from my own classroom:

I asked a group of students to determine the exponential pattern behind earning 2% annual interest rate on an investment of $13,000. We created a chart that mapped the money accrued to date for Year 0, Year 1, Year 2, etc. We discovered that we could just multiply $13,000 by 1.02 as many times as need (ie, number of years). Students began to protest that this was not a good way of solving the problem. They argues, why not do the following –

Year 0: 13,000

Year 1: 13,000 + .02 x 13,000

Year 2: Year 1 amount + .02* Year 1 amount = (13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)

Year 3: Year 2 amount + .02* Year 2 amount = [(13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)]+.02[(13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)]

And so on and so forth…

I asked students to practice our newly discovered approach y = 13,000(1.02)^x (^ represents the raising of a base to an exponent). At the same time, I respected their arguments and gave space for them to make a decision on which method was more efficient and captured the pattern in a simple way. So, I allowed my students to work on the material during class on their own. Some students still persisted – the more tedious previously learned method (which is very important to understand in earlier math so it definitely should not be skipped) was “THE right way” and they were fixed on using it. However, something interesting happened…

The next day, I put together an activity to show the significance of exponential functions in solving similar problems – perhaps they would buy into using y = 13,000(1.02)^x over the longer method they supported. So I began modeling the longer method, and students started protesting again! No! Why can’t we just use the new way – it’s so much easier!! We like it!

This is not the first time I have seen this sort of hesitant behavior among students. Of course, there are many reasons for it. I am choosing to elaborate on one aspect: academic humility. Students (and all of us) so often think of MY or OUR method of doing things as “THE way”. Flavors of this feelings show up in subtle ways and sometimes bar our ability to open up to others and their ideas – because perhaps, they could be better and we could embrace them.

So, I stopped to talk to the students about why there was such a sudden change of opinion since the previous day. We spent time reflecting on the initial hesitation. And then, in this honest conversation, I dropped my message:

Learning well is not just sticking to what I (me only) feel is the best way in the moment…learning well is practicing the understanding that I may not know what is the most conceptual, practical, or effective way of thinking or doing things. And I am going to open up to new possibilities from my classmates and teachers.

This was, perhaps, a lesson that was more important than the lesson on exponents I had set up. Developing the idea that “I do not always know and there is much more to try and be curious about” (of course in limits) would change the way students approached material in class. It allows students to take a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief. There are a number of reasons why a humble attitude would leave us less anxious:

  1. We no longer feel that we (as individuals) are the sole resource for ourselves.
  2. We reach out to one another and develop a sense of community.
  3. We are not so worried about being wrong.
  4. We accept the possibility of others’ ideas being better than our own.
  5. We begin to open up to others’ ideas and any sense of hierarchy in the group diminishes.

Thus humility allows us to be less anxious, uptight, and closed-minded. It is academic humility and humbleness regardless of grades, accomplishments, or accolades that keep us grounded – free from fearing failure and linked to true learning and growth.

Action for this post:

When you are in class or with a group of people next time and there is an argument or debate, stop to listen to others and, when necessary, question your own stance. Weigh the evidence against your feelings of what is right or wrong.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment