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Gift of Presence

March 10, 2020 - 7 minute read

Student listening to teacher

I remember when I used to teach, I would come home and collapse on the sofa, emotionally drained and physically exhausted. Back then, it was before I had children, and I had the luxury of being able to vegetate on the sofa to unwind from a long day at work. To this day, I still believe teachers have THE hardest jobs. You really don’t REALLY know how hard it actually is until you’ve been a classroom teacher. Now, after being a clinical psychologist for a decade, I look back and wonder what advice I would have given myself as a young teacher. Below, I highlight some strategies I would have given my younger self.

Difference Between Resolutions vs. Intentions

Chances are you might be one of the millions of people who, at the start of the year made a New Year’s resolution that is stagnating right about now. That’s why as a clinical psychologist, I encourage my clients to focus on intentions versus resolutions. Resolutions focus more on highly specific goals and the eventual outcome, not the process it takes to get there. Often within a couple of months, we stop following through with our resolutions, leading us to feel like failures and give up entirely. Intentions, however, guide us through the year, even if things fall short. It demands less perfection and permits us to refocus ourselves at any time, allowing for self-compassion along the journey of self-growth and improvement.

Be Mindful of Mindfulness

If there’s one intention I believe everyone can benefit from, it’s the intention of being mindful and present. Mindfulness is part of my theoretical orientation in my private practice as it is applicable in so many methodologies demonstrating its influence in promoting mental health and well-being, physical health, self-regulation and interpersonal behavior.

Mindfulness is particularly timely now. The recent tragedy of Kobe and his daughter’s untimely death point to the importance of presence. None of us are promised tomorrow, nor are we able to go back in time. Yet we spend much of our days worried about what is to come or focusing on past events that we are unable to change. Being truly present with our loved ones in the moment is a skill to practice and build.

While mindfulness is a hot term in Western popular culture these days, mindfulness has been practiced in the East for thousands of years. And although there are many different definitions, I see it as non-judgmental awareness of what you are experiencing in the present moment. There is a plethora of scientific research and evidence that indicates mindfulness improves both mental and physical health, as well as reduces depression and anxiety symptoms, lowers blood pressure, and alleviates pain and gastrointestinal issues.

Simply put, mindfulness is living and being in the present moment, not fretting about what you can’t control. Do you ever feel like you move on autopilot and that time flies from day to day? If you can’t remember the last time you paused to enjoy an ocean sunset, to smell an aromatic hyacinth, or to taste the food you eat, mindfulness can help you experience and savor life differently. Although there are many different methods, such as a multitude of meditations, breathing exercises, body scans, and guided imagery, keep reading for a few quick strategies to start practicing mindfulness.

Exercise Mindful Breathing

As a teacher, your thoughts may often drift to a student you are concerned about, a demanding parent who you need to respond to, or the endless classroom tasks to catch up on. It’s quite hard to stop the mind from racing when the to do list is never-ending. Try and spend a minute or two a day simply being aware and completely focused on the quality of your breath. Imagine thoughts are like balloons flying into the sky or leaves you place on a running stream floating away.

Take a moment to notice if you are breathing solely from your chest (anxiety-inducing) or from your diaphragm (body-calming). Stop and breathe in through your nose for a count of five, hold at the top of your breath for a count of five, and exhale very slowly through your mouth for a count of five. Repeat. It is important to make sure you are breathing from your belly and not your chest. This is especially helpful first thing in the morning before the rush, before walking in the classroom, or before bedtime. Before you leave your car and enter school, try taking a minute or two to just breathe deeply, or take a minute during recess inside the classroom. See if it makes a difference. The more you are able to take deep, conscious breaths, the calmer your mind and body will feel throughout the day. Deep breathing helps to engage the relaxation response in your nervous system-the calmer your body, the calmer your mind.

Connect to Your Senses

As previously noted, our mind wanders all day long. Our thoughts jump from our to-do lists to text messages and emails we need to return to a comment someone made the other day. We might go through the day overly focused on the past we cannot change (perhaps conflict between students or a parent who is complaining about your teaching) or overly focused on the future we can’t control (test scores, standards to meet) instead of focusing on the current moment.

When I am alone and have a moment of quiet time after work, one of my favorite tips is really tuning into my senses. For example, focusing on how the hot water feels when you first enter the shower, while acknowledging how blessed we are to be able to simply turn a knob and have hot water. The next time you eat a meal, try closing your eyes and seeing if you are able to actually taste all the ingredients instead. See how your experiences change when you turn auto-pilot off and connect within.

Focus Your Attention Deeply in Conversations

Have you ever been out with friends or family and realize how much of the time people are checking their phones? Or you’re in deep conversation only to notice a friend or partner is gazing in another direction, half-listening? We feel most connected to friends and family when they’re truly focused. Practice having conversations being fully present and actively listening. This means having the phone away from the dinner table and bed at night. Your mind will wander and entertain other thoughts or even think of questions to ask next when people speak; however, try to refocus on what your partner or friend is saying and listen more deeply and intently. Can you feel what they are trying to convey? And if you did, would it be an accurate reflection? Can you restate or reflect back what they are saying? See if the personal connections feel different afterward when you’re able to reiterate what has been shared and expressed. I think this would be especially effective strategy when interacting with peers who understand each other intuitively as they deal with similar issues day in and day out.

Practice Gratitude

Tragedy jolts us into being grateful for what we have today. Yet we sometimes too quickly forget to practice gratitude once the initial shock of the tragedy lessens. A daily gratitude practice has been found to have significant, lasting effects on well-being. If you are present, it’s easier to feel gratitude for time spent with loved ones. The next time you are with a loved one, stop and take a picture of that moment. Not an actual photo, but a mental snapshot with your mind. It may surprise you that time might seem to stand still for a moment when you do that. And in that moment, can you feel and remember gratitude for what you already have? To me, mindfulness is the ability to be in the moment and feel satisfied with what you already have—without a need for more or less of something or someone.

Take a moment to pull out that touching card your student gave you, that email a grateful parent wrote to thank you. Think of that time when a colleague praised you or gave you kudos, or the time your class conquered something challenging. To remember that student who told you thank you, told you you’re the best and their favorite. Reminding yourself of why you entered this profession and why you feel blessed to be part of your students’ lives day to day. No, it doesn’t make the hard stuff disappear, but it does help to zoom out and see a wider perspective.

Download an App

There are so many useful apps available now that can help to create a daily mindfulness practice. Some of my favorites include Calm (especially their breathing exercise tool), Headspace, Gratitude (which helps you keep a daily log of gratitudes and sends reminders), and Insight Timer (thousands of free meditations!). (Please note I am not sponsored or affiliated with any of these apps.)

Teachers give their heart and souls to their students, and “self-care” is an oft mentioned word. Consider HOW you are practicing self-care on a daily basis. Teachers also aren’t able to “pour from an empty cup”, and perhaps utilizing some of these quick strategies might increase the gift of presence not only for others, but internally as well.

Caroline C. Lee, PhD is a former public-school elementary teacher. For the past decade, she has been a licensed clinical psychologist. She is currently in private practice in Newport Beach, California where she sees children, teens, parents, and families. She received her Masters Degree in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and a PhD in Educational Psychology from Stanford University. Caroline is passionate about the intersection between education, psychology, and the well-being of our young people. She is currently working on creating a happiness and well-being curriculum she hopes to implement in elementary, middle, and high schools.

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