Exam Anxiety Meditation I

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can use this by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

I had promised that I would post a series of reflective meditations for A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety, and this post introduces the first of a series of exercises. The following picture was used to describe what happens to some of us when we get nervous during exams.

Exam Anxiety Cycle

The aim of the first meditation is to address the link: “shallow breathing, tightening muscles”. If we weaken this link, then the following links grow weaker. This allows us to regain some composure. To use this exercise effectively during times of need, we must diligently practice using the meditation.

Action for this post:

Practice “Exam Anxiety Meditation I” (below) everyday for the next week or so and try using it just before or during an exam or other high-pressure situation!



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A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can read this article by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

As summer begins to point towards Fall and we catch glimpses of subsiding summer heat, it is time to prepare ourselves for the unknowns of a new school year – new teachers, new courses, new classmates, so much “new”ness! Among so many unknowns, there are some old pieces we carry with us – positive and negative memories, friendships, and knowledge from the previous school year. We also bring our old habits with us – healthy and unhealthy.

One habit that many of my students bring back to the classroom every year is anxiety around exams, tests, and quizzes. The notion of a timed test throws many students into a frenzy. As a result, the new school year sometimes loses its charm not because of tests, but because of how we handle tests at an emotional level. To some of us, exams are unforgiving monsters, ready to gobble up all of our confidence. Others view exams as unnecessary and unending suffering… only to end in June and begin again in September. Many students get to the point of saying, “I just hear the word exam or test and get very nervous – I just can’t do it – I get so overwhelmed and I feel horrible about myself.”

Well, here’s the good news: test anxiety is not an insurmountable problem. With time, patience, hard work, and practice, the unhealthy levels of nervousness felt during exam time does begin to subside. A consistently anxious reaction towards exams is an old habit. The presence of an exam followed by an immediate reaction further implies some underlying habit that has become deeply ingrained in your brain over time. An example of how the brain may travel under pressure is as follows –

see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing,tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →…

And it all starts again.  It becomes very difficult to retrieve and logically analyze information.  The old habit is also a cyclic pattern, and it grows stronger over time if not resolved at any one piece. We could more easily understand the chain of events like this:

In order to break the cycle, we could try to distract ourselves from the nervous thoughts. The problem with this is that we are already distracted from the exam by a deeply ingrained habit. The thoughts and feelings that arise as a response to an exam pop up right away because the habit has become almost automatic. The one piece we could definitely loosen is the “shallow breathing, tightening muscles.” Once we loosen that piece, all the pieces afterwards also grow weaker and weaker over time!! It could look more like this (larger letters implying greater strength):

see exam → oh no! → shallow breathing,

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try to regaining focus → see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →oh no! → shallow breathing, 
tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam…

As you can see, the magnitude of the response diminishes as soon as one of the pieces loses strength.

Action for this post:

I am down with a cold and will be recording meditation again in a few days. Instead of one meditation, I will be posting a series of short meditations to counter test anxiety over the course of the next two weeks rather than today. Stay tuned!

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Unplugging for Clarity

When we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to unplug (literally, from all the electronic devices we use), and sit down with ourselves, acknowledge our exhaustion, our joys and failures of the day, our feelings of defeat, and our feelings of triumph, we lose the opportunity to reconnect with ourselves. Our minds lose focus and, with this loss, we find it difficult to build meaning and purpose in our lives.

There’s an emptiness that sometimes fills the soul when we lie down and just watch TV or surf the web day in and day out during our free time. During that time, we pull ourselves away from what truly exists right now in our immediate environment and, instead, get pulled into a screen that makes us feel like we are traveling, meeting people, and learning about the world. Now, there’s nothing that says there is anything wrong with occasional leisurely indulgences and escapes from reality. However, almost anyone who has experienced some sort of live retreat – a temporary shift of focus away from everyday activity – will say that turning off all digital devices left them with a feeling of deep relaxation, as if having let go of some of life’s burdens. The tweets, Instagram pictures, and facebook newsfeed posts that make people feel incomplete at times are turned off. And now, with this new space created inside, we can engage in the present moment. This helps reset our focus and refresh our minds.

The action for this article comes in the form of a retreat of your choice:

With the next school year just around the corner (and for those of us out of school, with the next season just around the corner), perhaps it is time to take a mini-retreat of our choice. For a series of 3 consecutive days, do not use your phone, laptop, iPad, TV (etc..) during IMG_0129 (2)your free time. This means that, once you are finished with work that requires the internet, you do not take even a few more minutes to browse the web or check your phone for text messages.

What happens when you leave your devices behind?  Listen to what your body and mind say and do in the moment! Maybe you can write a letter to a good friend or bake in the kitchen without the luxury of looking up recipes on the internet. You could take a quiet walk or lay down in your bed to re-reading a childhood book. You might feel like checking your phone or turning on the news, but you can also let these feelings pass like waves of the mind. If a 3-day retreat is challenging, try one day at a time!

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Waves of the Mind

IMG_0437Growing up, my parents told me a lot of stories from ancient Indian epics. There was one piece that always stuck in my mind. It was a repeated phrase which roughly  translates, “In a moment of fury (or any other emotion), he/she lost all knowledge.” As a child I always wondered what this meant – I don’t know why I never asked! As I began exploring the mind-body connection, observed myself, and my students, I realized that the phrase captured a brilliant idea. Fury is an intense emotion. And when the character was full of this intense emotion, he or she was unable to access rational thought. Everything he or she knew was true seemed to disappear into thin air. In the midst of fury or any other emotion the strong and highly intelligent character would act in regrettable or inexplicable ways.

Have you ever experienced this loss of of balance in moments of nervousness, anger, or excitement?  In my classrooms and in classrooms and schools around the world, students (and  educators) experience the consequences of intense emotions. Consider the following:

  1. A student is so nervous during a test that she blanks out and forgets everything. The well-learned material only comes back to her later. But it was always there. There was just a temporary block of access.
  2. A student is trying to follow a math problem at the board and begins to think, “everyone around understands a problem except for me.” Feeling embarrassed and frustrated, he is no longer able to focus and follow the teacher.
  3. Under time pressure (see Harnessing the Breath), a student feels overwhelmed and  all the material the student studied leading up to an exam seems to mysteriously disappear.
  4. During a speech, which ad been practiced many many times, the speaker looks at the big crowd and gets so anxious that she forgets the next line.

This list could go on…

To prevent ourselves from being pulled into the waves of emotions when we need to retrieve information, focus on a task, or control our reactions, we must also practice watching our emotions and thoughts as if we are outside of our body and mind. In Indian philosophy, this is called sakshi-bhava and, in Buddhist philosophy, it is called vipassana (mindfulness meditation). We are impartial observers of our minds – we watch our own thoughts, emotions, and sensations. In practicing how to be a witness of our own internal world, we begin to also learn how to handle emotions that throw us off in times of need. Join me in watching the rising and falling “Waves of the Mind” in the video below (background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins). Find a comfortable seated position – it is important to be comfortable and sitting upright during this exercise, as it allows for greater focus.

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Harnessing the Breath

As you turn to the next page of your exam, your teacher announces, “Ten minutes left!” You flip through the remaining problems and freeze, “I don’t think I’ll finish!” For a moment, you hold your breath and your hand tightens its grip on the pencil that moves as fast as it can, writing down your racing thoughts. Then, a very familiar problem shows up and you blank out! You’re panicking and your breath grows quick and shallow… Oh no! Feeling exasperated, pursing the lips together, focusing the eyes, wrinkling the forehead as if to squeeze out your thoughts…all of a sudden everything you learned becomes inaccessible.

This experience is so familiar to all of us, children and adults alike. There is no doubt that it is challenging to remain poised when the timer is ticking and the hours of studying seem to be of no avail as the mind blanks. But what if we had a key to unlock the composure and clarity that lies within us? What if there is a key that can prevent our hands and face from tightening, and in effect, prevent our minds from drawing a blank?

In our story above, we notice there is a key – the breath! The breath is a two-way messenger. It informs the body and the mind. When it is deep and steady, it tells the body everything is okay. The muscles relax and all the vessels in our body remain open, allowing nourishing blood to flow into every corner of ourselves. Slow, deep breaths also calm the mind asking thoughts to flow in and out of the mind with ease. But- in  the story above – the body had tightened and the mind felt frozen – everything you knew seemed to vanish when you needed it the most. You held your breath, and your body and mind lost composure. IMG_0424

If we knew how to harness our breath, perhaps, we could mitigate the consequences of high-pressure situations. So how do we harness the power of our breath? We do this by exploring the pathway of our breath into, inside, and out of our bodies. We observe the breath flowing up our nose and down our throat, and we then imagine its journey deep into the belly and abdomen. We retrace the breath in its way back out. While the air we breathe physically ends in the cavities of our lungs, our bodies feel the effects of each inhalation and exhalation in the rise and fall of the belly and chest. Inhalations and exhalations have other more subtle tangible effects on our bodies that we can sense if we slow down and sit quietly. Our entire being feels nourished and nurtured by the ever-present breath on each inhalation and exhalation. So, let’s practice becoming still and observe the breath with all of our senses in this very moment.

The action for this article comes in the form of an exercise:

After finishing one task, and just before beginning the next task, bring your attention to your breath. For example, if you just put your laundry in the machine and are getting ready to go out for a run, the time in between is the gap between the two “tasks”.

Take slow deep breaths by imagining the breath traveling all the way into your belly and abdomen, and slowly back out through your nose. It is in the stillness between two activities that our mind has the opportunity to “reset”. Stay engaged with your breath  in the midpoint between actions. Notice what happens and, perhaps, how you feel. If you have the liberty to do so, you may even choose to lay down or sit to take your deep breaths. It is perfectly fine to take the deep breaths while moving around as well.

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Embracing Your Pace

Imagine this scenario — You are silently reading a book and every few minutes, you hear sounds of turning pages. You look up – your friend is on page 16. You look down at your book – I am only on page 14! You try to read faster. Now, you are on page 15. But there is an issue – you read so quickly that you missed the meaning of the entire 14th page. Frustrated, you wonder whether you should re-read page 14. Just then, you hear another page turn. You look up, and you see another friend on page 17…

I often observe my math students in a similar situation. A student who is diligently and eagerly working to gather his observations (see previous post Art of Observation) looks around and sees another student who has already begun tackling the problem. Right away, I sense some anxiety and slight embarrassment in the student’s face. This is when I step in and remind my class: First, observe what is in front of you. Work at your own pace. It’s okay if you do not reach an answer! Engage in the process.

But – it’s not as easy as it sounds. Some people are able to redirect their focus to their own work and feel comfortable working at a slower or faster pace than others. For most of us, however, being “behind” is anxiety-provoking and being “ahead” excites us.To counteract this tendency, we need to practice trusting and embracing our own pace. If you are a young student reading this, I assure you – you are not alone! Most of us (yes! that includes adults) lose composure and focus when we feel slower or faster than our colleagues, friends, classmates, and peers. In moments of frustration, embarrassment, and anxiety almost everyone loses focus. Let’s embrace our pace so that we can keep composure, focus, and continue to learn when we feel like we are not keeping up with others! Click on the link below for a reflective meditation on Embracing Your Pace  (background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins).

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The Art of Observation

IMG_0123 (2)If we travel back to our birth, we realize that learning did not take place through formal instruction – nor was there a handbook available to us on how to recognize qualities that made up our new environment: new parents, new siblings, new tastes, and new feelings of touch. So how did we learn about the world around us?  We were astute observers, natural students. No one gave us a set of directions on how to notice temperature, touch, taste, or sound. We somehow did it – almost like a miracle. Deep within us lay a knack for observation. Every experience was new and we curiously observed every new sight and sound. Overtime, we began to find patterns among the sounds of voices in our environment. One voice indicated the presence of a caretaker, and yet, another may hint at a nearby playmate.

Because we were beginners in the world, we were able to experience everything as if we were experiencing it for the first time. This quality of our mind is called beginner’s mind in mindfulness meditation. It is a quality that can be harnessed, practice, and strengthened. Seeing things for the first time allows us to suspend fear and judgment for a few moments so we can take in and process the present moment without analysis. Imagine seeing a math problem, which naturally asks us to turn on our pattern-finding, analytical minds. Now, instead of approaching the written problem with anxiety and presupposed judgment, imagine you could just first absorb the numbers, terms, and information from the writing in front of you. You peer with child-like curiosity at the numbers and terms. You wonder what these symbols are and what they may possibly mean. Now, you are truly learning…

Join me in strengthening the childlike quality of our mind called beginner’s mind in “The Art of Observation” meditation below (background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins).

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img_0295.jpgStillness helps create space in our minds to think, and time in our day-to-day lives to regain our clarity, patience, and knack for insight. When we become very still, we are able to listen to each sound, experience each breath, and open up to every moment. Our awareness of ourselves in the scheme of the universe expands. Mingled feelings, swarming thoughts, and remnants of experiences re-surface.

All of this may sound familiar to some of us. For most of us, however, stillness is not familiar and the idea of being still sounds exotic. Our minds are used to fears, excitements, frustrations, among many other emotions and feelings. Our hands are almost wired to check our phones or email accounts every fifteen minutes. Our eyes are used to viewing ever-changing images on the screen. There is so much simulation that, when we try to become still, our mind and body refuse to do so. We sit down to read, but the mind is glued to the latest stream of texts from friends, worries about exams, in curiosities about gossip, or virtually any kind of feeling or thought. In the face of all this, it is impressive we are even able to process and grow and learn.

However, if we want to truly learn from each moment and we want to commit to learning, growing, and thriving in every moment, we must first commit to practicing stillness. Yes! You can actually practice this. Let’s begin our first meditation together. In fact, you can lie down for this one. Play the video below to begin the “Stillness Meditation” (background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins).

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Welcome to Learning In Stillness!

Welcome Learning In Stillness Readers!

Peace and Love,

Payal Patel

Posted in Anxiety, Anxiety & Struggle, Beginner's Mind, Curiosity, Focus & Clarity, Grit, Math Anxiety, Metacognition, Non-Judgement, Observation, Preparing the Mind, Self-Regulation, Test Anxiety | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment