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!).

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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!

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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!

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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)!

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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?

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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.

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Cultivating Academic Humility (Part I): The Doorway to Curiosity, Innovation, & Passion

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The Jungle of Infinite Possibilities

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” –Albert Einstein.

It is no coincidence that one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century spoke these words. Hearing Einstein’s name often conjures up the image of a genius thinking and discussing his ideas with great scientists in the gorgeous landscape of Princeton. I would like to offer another image of Einstein as a dedicated student of science, acutely aware of how little he knew relative to the knowledge that exists in the world. He was immersed in imagining and dreaming of possibilities, single-mindedly persevering, and often starting from scratch and throwing away old ideas. These habits lend themselves to a curious and highly creative mind. Had Einstein assumed he knew everything, the pondering, discussing, and “efforting” would have come to an end.

So, if we consider the quote above, we come upon a simple yet profound realization. Despite earning awards, gaining fame, and winning the adulation of peers, the mind of the student (which is lifelong) remains acutely aware of the unimaginable size of all knowledge relative to his or her own. Any sense of ego or “I know” turns to “I wonder” and a string of humble questions. We realize that no matter how well we understand something, the essence of it may still be floating undiscovered. For example we may think we understand the counting numbers, “1, 2, 3,…”. But what is 1? If 1 is not tangible, where did the idea of 1 arise? If 1 is 1 more than zero, what is zero? Zero may be “nothingness” but what is the absence of everything? These questions don’t require memorization or some specific strategy. Instead this belief that “I know a mere drop of the deep wide ocean of knowledge” draws us back to childhood when we lay on our backs and pondered about the clouds, spurred to action upon the most mundane sounds, and peered at flowing water wondering what it is made of. Our minds traveled billions of stories, hopes, curiosities, plans, and dreams all in one day. Nothing was enough and there was more to do and know – ALWAYS!

Action for this post:

Notice the activity of your mind as you work on a task: Do you assume expertise in what you do? Do you assume that everything you have learned or been taught is the only framework that exists? Do you assume that there is one and only one way of approaching things, as opposed to a myriad of possibilities? These questions purposely focus on observing assumptions. This practice of self-observation forms the basis for growth as a lifelong student.

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On Struggle (Part 3): In Conversation With Struggle

In the my last article, On Struggle (Part 2): Embracing the Evolving Mind, I promised to post my meditation on understanding struggle and embracing the evolving mind. Today’s post is primarily a video containing a meditation with the background image of a tree with numerous branches, representing the activity and thoughts of the mind. Just as the tree changes over time and gives rise to new branches and roots, our minds also change in response to its environment. The environment for our mind is the set of experiences, new information, and stumulations absorbed in every moment. If we engage in productive struggle in every moment as the mind collects new information or insights, then we open the doors to growth and evolution of the mind.

The meditation I present below, In Conversation with Struggle, engages the listener in a deep conversation with Struggle in its personified form from On Struggle (Part 1): Befriending Struggle.

 

Note: Background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins.

 

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On Struggle (Part 2): Embracing the Evolving Mind

Thought Processes of the Mind and Spaces in Between

At the core of productive struggle is a practice in which the mind accommodates new experiences and ideas by first allowing room for the questioning, and if necessary, loss of pre-existing notions. This practice is simply represented in the following elementary math students experience:

Kriya learns about squares one day in math class – an intangible four-sided enclosed shape, with congruent sides that come together to form four right angles. All class, students tackle square-related problems. Then, the teacher presents a challenge problem in which there is a diamond-shaped figure. Kriya’s peers observe the drawing…they all begin to assert how it must be a “weird square” but a square nevertheless. Kriya begins to wonder, “Is a square the only four sided enclosed shape in the world?” She looks around the classroom – the ceiling didn’t have four congruent sides and the textbook on her desk was not quite like squares either. “Then, perhaps, not all four sided shapes in the world are square,” Kriya wonders.

What was it about Kriya’s mental habits that allowed her to engage and grow as a math student? Unlike her classmates, who began to classify all four-sided figures as squares, Kriya questioned the belief that “everything presented to the class will be some sort of square.” She left room in her mind for the possibility of the loss of beliefs and the arrival of new notions and learning. This space for letting go and accepting the loss of thought processes when old ideas fail to provide a clear view of reality is the cornerstone of productive struggle.

Let’s fast forward 7 years – Kriya is now in 12th grade and, with her flexible mind and habits, she has thus far experienced success in high school mathematics. She is now taking College Calculus. One day, the teacher presents a graph and asks the students to work together to find one method that accurately approximates the area under the curve between two bounds. Kriya talks to classmates – initially befuddled, they put their heads together to come up with some idea. For the first time, Kriya feels like she just can’t do math, “Perhaps, I’m actually not cut out for this? Maybe real math is too hard for me. I can’t even come up with a simple method.” Dismayed, Kriya doubts her abilities…as the teacher comes by to give hints to the group she is still lost in thought and misses the guidance.

While Kriya had practice in leaving room for new content in her mind, she now faced a very different aspect of the practice: leaving room for new insights that impact one’s psychology. Kriya had trouble fitting two ideas, failure and mathematical success, in her mind. There was no space or flexibility for the two notions to co-exist. However, to make room for the notion that failure is part of learning math, Kriya needs to modify the second belief. Instead of just believing “I am successful in mathematics”, she can more accurately accommodate the belief, “Success in mathematics entails failure, frustration, and perseverance.” This belief leaves room for failing, trying again, failing, and trying again…building immense capacity for perseverance.

What have these examples shown us? In order to learn, we must practice letting go of and accepting the loss of beliefs that no longer align with reality or lead to growth. This practice is not confined to learning content (subject-specific material). It encompasses our psychology and we must choose between being static or embracing the evolving mind. The mind evolves with loss and renewal, allowing all of us to engage in productive struggles. As I wrote in On Struggle (Part 1): Befriending Struggle, struggle is our toughest teacher – it helps us question our beliefs so we can evolve into more resilient individuals ready to absorb and assimilate knowledge about the world around us and within us. In my next post “On Struggle (Part 3),” I will post a meditation on Embracing the Evolving Mind.

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