Mindfulness in the Classroom

Are mindfulness activities a part of your program? 

Each day more than the last, it feels like mindfulness activities are being promoted for classroom use as part of a solution to what we are currently experiencing as humans on planet earth. 

I am not a mindfulness or meditation expert, nor am I trained in yoga instruction. 

I am however, a curious participant and reflective user of daily mindfulness opportunities in the classroom.

In a blog post for The MEHRIT Centre titled ‘The Self-Reg View of Mindfulness (Part 1)’, Dr. Stuart Shanker, an expert and leader in the field of self-regulation discusses mindfulness through the lens of self-regulation. He states the goal of mindfulness activities is not “developing techniques to suppress or flee from unpleasant thoughts and emotions” but rather to “pay close attention to them with the hope that, over time, you’ll be able to tolerate things that you have hitherto tried to repress or avoid”. 

Shanker highlights that one’s ability to engage in mindfulness and meditation experiences are not instinctive, for neither adults nor children. He acknowledges that for some people, the “act of concentrating on their breath or their emotions” while attempting to sit still or quietly can bring great amounts of stress or anxiety. 

Shanker cites the work of Dr. Ellen Langer and emphasizes the importance she places on understanding “mindlessness” in order to create an understanding of the term mindfulness. 

 

This resonated with me. 

 

If I am not achieving mindfulness am I engaging in “mindlessness”?

It had never crossed my mind how dangerous this dichotomization could be.

 

Mindfulness or mindlessness?

 

Thinking about those who do not find success or find stress in widely used mindfulness activities… are they still being viewed through a positive lens? How can I expose my students to meaningful mindfulness activities that are positive while maintaining a sensitive and trauma informed approach?

As Shanker points out, a state of mindfulness is unique to every individual person and should be achieved as such. Additionally, what calms you “may change from day to day, even moment-to-moment”. Mindfulness must be differentiated and unique: Like any new concept introduced, students need time, patience, space and practice in order to discover what helps them feel calm and under what circumstances. Contrary to this statement, students also need time, patience, space and practice while they discover what does not work for them in order to feel calm. 

Accordingly, the act of differentiating these completely personal moments of mindfulness feels to me like in order to be genuine, they need to be voluntary. To allow for students to discover their own state of calm: Mindfulness opportunities must be optional. Although necessary, offering students a choice of participation in mindfulness activities feels confusing or worrisome. What if they choose not to participate? Can they match the calm state of their classmates in different ways to avoid disrupting the calm state of others? Should mindfulness be practiced as a whole group? What are the benefits to whole group mindfulness instruction? What are the disadvantages to a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mindfulness?

Have I perfected the use of mindfulness in my classroom? No.

Does this exist? Likely not.

Nevertheless, I continue to reflect on the polarization of mindfulness and “mindlessness” and what this means to me.

What does mindfulness mean to you? How does this influence your teaching practice?

Saying you care is not enough…

This month, students in our board completed a survey where they answered 60 questions related to their feelings in school. They answered questions about many topics which I assume will give a detailed account of how students view our board. Some of the questions were:

  1. How often are you taught about women, people of colour, Indigenous People and the LGBTQ community? (Often, sometimes, not at all)
  2. How often do you see posters around your school that you feel reflects an image of someone that looks like you?
  3. Do you feel safe when you come to school?
  4. Do you feel you had at least one caring adult in the building?
  5. Do you feel people would miss you if you were not at school?
  6. Do you have a friend/friend group at school?
  7. Do you feel that you have a purpose in your school?

As a grade 7/8 teacher, I know from experience what the answer to most of the above questions would be. Intermediate students often feel that they are never represented, that they are unsafe at school, that they can’t relate to any adults, that they are not relevant and that they do not belong. That is often the case in the intermediate grades because students start to reflect on the “perceived unfairness” of the world around them. But how do we as educators address these issues and the lack of sense of belonging that these teens feel?

These surveys were anonymous. So, unfortunately, I will not be able to see how my students answered the survey. Our board will share the results eventually which I am sure will create a need for new learning. However, our student success teacher created a similar survey last month and I was able to view the results to that survey. The answers shocked me. The students who I speak to the most during the day (since they often approach me for help with their relationships) shared that they felt they did not have a caring adult to speak to in the building. The students who appear to have the most friends shared that they feel that they have no friend group and that no one would miss them if they were absent from school.

I knew I had to have some private conversations to address these concerns, especially about the fact that they cannot connect with any adult in the building. The conversations that followed were very interesting. They knew that the staff would listen to what they had to say but they felt that they just pretended to care. They felt that they would only listen because it was their job, but that they didn’t actually care. It was very hard to convince my twelve and thirteen year old students that I would truly care about something that they were going through. Whatever had happened to these students in the past had led them to believe that adults would say one thing and mean another. I have a long road ahead to show these students that the teachers in their life will always be a positive support system.

I think it all comes back to instilling a positive class community. Taking time to have those conversations with your class about holidays that they celebrate, starting every Monday off with conversations about their weekend, taking time for fun activities are just a few things that can be done to show your students that you care. Also, remembering that at all times, the curriculum comes second to your students well-being and self-worth. I recognize once again the importance of creating that classroom community in September and remembering to take the time to listen to a student’s needs, even if it is when you are about to run out of the classroom at break. Actions speak louder than words and especially after that long period of online learning, students need to be reminded that we are there for them and that we care. Not because we have to but because we want to. I will continue to remind my students of that throughout the rest of this year, because saying that you care is not enough, you have to prove it.

Can the Integration of Students’ Lived Experiences in your Teaching Practices Impact Student Success?

I believe that there is a profound connection between student learning and student lived experiences and the ability of educators to embed who students are with what they are learning. I can vividly recall, as a young learner, the teachers who were most impactful in my learning. They showed genuine care for my well-being and often went above and beyond academic support,  in unconventional ways, to understand my needs, including my personal challenges based on my lived  circumstances, and to support me in all aspects of life. I can  honestly say that the relationships those teachers established with me directly helped to shape me into the person I  am today. Knowing who your students are, their identities, their barriers, their abilities and their lived experiences allow educators to create the conditions for dynamic learning opportunities that are culturally relevant and impactful to student learning.

What do experts say? 

Scholars Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay have spent decades at the forefront of researching Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogies. Their findings have been clear: “integrating a student’s  background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum and the teaching and learning experiences that take place in the classroom are paramount to meeting the needs of all  students”.

Furthermore, research shows that learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds are not being met equitably in classrooms across the system. For example, in the current age of destreaming mathematics for grade nine students across the system, it is important that teachers are well versed and equipped with the necessary tools and strategies to support all learners in an academic classroom. When we acknowledge students’ cultural experiences and prior knowledge, we are better positioned to strengthen their ability to see themselves as doers of mathematics, language, science, history, art and so on. They are further empowered to interpret the world around them with a critical social justice lens.  

Activity

The “Where I’m From” poetry activity is a great strategy you can use to have students explore their cultural identities and values, to foster collaboration with their peers, to create a positive classroom environment and to learn about students’ lived experiences. This activity should be culturally relevant to the students in the classroom and  intentionally structured to engage all learners at multiple entry points. This will help to foster a sense of community in the classroom and help the teacher understand who the students are and how to embed their real-time lived experiences into the teaching and learning process.

My 2 Cents

I think teachers should spend the first week or two of each school year engaging students in conversations about their (the students) own identity and lived experiences and the intersectionality of their identity. This would allow students to feel comfortable and confident in sharing who they are, as well as their thoughts and opinions, with others in the classroom. Try to create a brave and nurturing space where students feel comfortable talking about their racial background, their gender identity, and their preferred name. You can use culturally relevant books, videos, posters etc. that can lead to those discussions where students are invited and encouraged to talk about their own racial, gender and cultural  identities. Teachers can then incorporate students’ identities and lived experiences into the instructional planning and teaching program. 

Whether it’s a math activity, collaborative inquiry in history or a STEM project, it is important that teachers provide opportunities for students to reflect on their interests, their passions and how they see themselves within the development of the task. Use culturally relevant and responsive resources that reflect student identities, interests and lived experiences. Providing opportunities for small group discussions and descriptive feedback will help students make meaningful connections to that task and to their real-time lived experiences. Educator’s willingness to share their own identity with students, their own experiences in school as a young learner and  how their experiences inform and influence their decision-making process are effective strategies in building strong relationships with students that engage them in embedding their own lived experiences into their learning. If we truly believe in developing young minds, creating strong leaders and critical thinkers then we must create the space for that to happen within the classroom. When we let go of the notion that we are the holder of knowledge in the classroom, we create opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate leadership, to become critical thinkers and to advocate for justice and social change.

First Days of School Through a Wellness Lens

The long awaited return to the classroom has finally come! After being outside of the classroom since March 2020, I was able to go back to the physical classroom this September 8th. I was so happy to be able to set up my room and await the arrival of students. Teaching online was challenging and did not allow me to have the face-to-face connections that are much needed in a classroom. I am so happy that schools are open and that my position is no longer online. This year, I am teaching grades 7 & 8. I hope to still be teaching the same class come October, but with re-organization, things could change. 

Preparing for the first day was challenging as it had been 14 months since I had taught in person. Luckily, our school board prepared activities for us entitled “Reimagining Wellness”, where teachers are asked to teach 90 minutes a day from the wellness activity choice boards. The choice boards have a variety of activities within one of these three categories: Community and Team Building, Physical Activation and Social Emotional Skill Development. Teachers select one activity from each of these categories to introduce each day (thirty minutes per activity). My students seem to enjoy the activities and have enjoyed getting to know each other without feeling pressured to jump into all the curriculum activities. I am thankful for these resources as it has always been important to start a class off with these types of activities, especially after many students have been away for 14 months as well.

Additionally, it has been great to get to know students such as finding out their preferred pronouns and to try to get back into the swing of things. Our school board is looking to start voluntary extracurriculars soon and my class has already begun planning for the Terry Fox Assembly. Myself and my students are looking forward to these leadership opportunities as we have been without them for much longer than the COVID shutdown. As long as we can stay safe and get back to doing the things at school that we love, the extra things make the day that much better. 

As October draws closer, teachers in our board find out if any students are leaving to go online/returning from online. Our school could undergo a massive re-organization and we are all hoping things will stay the same as many students have now had the chance to bond due to these wellness activities. However, after teaching online last year, I have gotten better at dealing with change and learning how to overcome challenges. So if my assignment changes, I will be able to accept that with a positive attitude. 

I hope all teachers and students had a great first two weeks and that everyone is happy to be back. I know that all students are definitely glad to be back in the physical classroom where they can continue to make connections and learn in the way we were always meant to learn. 

Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.

 

The Importance of Trust

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to uncertainty and change in education.  Just when I think I have a handle on the way things are going to go for the week there is a Government announcement that changes the plan.  I am “pivoting” so much I have motion sickness. When decisions that affect a work environment seem to be constantly changing, trust becomes more important than ever.  In a recent video “How Leaders Build Trust,” author and leadership thought leader Simon Sinek, describes trust:  “Trust is a feeling. It is earned and evolves based on a series of actions that prove that you are worthy of trust.  It creates a sense of belonging.  When you don’t feel trust or without a circle of safety, we inherently concern ourselves with our own survival and become cynical, selfish and paranoid.  You become convinced that everything is trying to hurt you.  We do things to protect ourselves.”  In her book “Braving the Wilderness”, author Berne Brown says that “in the absence of communication we make up stories and the majority of what we tell ourselves isn’t true.  In fact, our brain goes into self-protection mode and those stories that we make up are often exaggerate our worst fears and insecurities.” It is hard to learn or work when you are in self protection mode.

In learning more about culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, I have noticed that a common keystone element in what I’ve been reading is that trust is crucial to creating a truly inclusive classroom.  In the famous YouTube video “Every Kid Needs a Champion” educator and speaker Rita Pierson stated, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  I would go one step further to say that even more so, kids aren’t likely to learn from people they don’t trust.

So how do we create an environment of trust in which students can be their absolute best? More specifically how do we do this at a time when we are teaching students over Google Meet, through a PPE shield and mask or even through video that students watch asynchronously? I think that we do it the same way we would in a pre-COVID classroom.  One small interaction at a time.  I recently experienced an a-ha moment while engaging in a webinar called “The Neuroscience of Trust” presented by Dr. Rumeet Billan.  According to Dr. Billan; “Trust is something that has to be given to you and needs to be earned.”  Trust is something that comes from repeated behaviours that demonstrate that we are worthy of trust.  When we repeatedly demonstrate that we listen actively, show authentic care and empathy, we generate trust.  When we provide opportunities that deliberately and intentionally extend trust, such as giving students voice and choice in their learning, we generate trust.  When we provide actionable and meaningful feedback to students and celebrate their learning goals with them, we generate trust.  When we provide learning opportunities for students to make mistakes, when we celebrate the learning from mistakes and provide an opportunity to try again, we generate trust.  When we genuinely demonstrate transparency with students such as admitting to not knowing all of the answers about a concept or sharing times where we have failed and persevered, we generate trust.

Creating an environment of trust with our students and with our colleagues is something that we have to work on daily. It is currency that we build up with one another to draw on in a time of need.  I think of creating an environment of trust like learning how to play a musical instrument.  You cannot learn to play an instrument by practicing for seven hours straight.  You need to practice daily in order to become truly proficient.  When you don’t practice, you get rusty.  When things in my classroom feel as if they are particularly stressful or students are exhibiting behaviours that are uncharacteristic, I usually come to the realization that it is because  trust has eroded between us.  It might be that I haven’t been recognizing their accomplishments as readily.  It might be that I haven’t been giving them challenging opportunities to learn that extends trust to them to persevere and practice resilience. It may be that I haven’t followed through on something that I said was going to happen.  When I come to those realizations I have to go back to the student and repair that trust. Ignoring the event will only widen the gap. If we want kids to be innovative, creative and take risks a psychologically safe space with mutual trust is essential.  It doesn’t happen overnight but by making it a priority, amazing learning will happen.

I am happy you are here

As I was supply teaching one day in a full remote learning classroom, my wifi decided to take a short vacation. Now if you’re anything like me, technical difficulties feel like they come up at the worst possible times. Now that is a dramatic statement of course, but it really does feel like a “WHY NOW” situation. It can’t just be me?! 

Anyways, in the middle of our math lesson I was logged out of the google meet, leaving the students and their questions behind. I think my immediate reaction was “AHHH”. 

Upon taking a big breath, I was able to log myself back in after about 3 whole minutes. 3 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but in this short time frame I had convinced myself the students would have left the meet, had become overwhelmed with the math questions or upset with me for leaving mid conversation. I was cautious upon logging in again and unsure the atmosphere to which I was returning. 

 

I could hear one student say “she’s back”, as I started turning on my camera and microphone. I then started rambling on and began to apologize and explain why I had left mid conversation.

 

“We are just happy you’re here, Miss”, one student replied. 

 

We are happy you are here. 

 

What a simple, yet powerful way to welcome someone into a room or conversation. 

 

To this day, I am still applauding whoever taught this child to say that, whoever fostered empathy within that child, and ultimately applauding the child themself for being so brave and confident to voice such powerful words. 

 

I have adopted this saying and now use it daily in my practice. 

“I am happy you are here”.

This statement shows compassion, empathy, understanding and is welcoming, inviting and warm. 

 

It would never be my reaction to ridicule students for showing up late. As I really believe there is always a reason for this. Especially with my job as an occasional teacher, I typically do not know much about students’ lives outside of school other than what they have chosen to share. Prior to this profound moment for me, if a student had shown up late or at the wrong time I likely would have said “that’s okay!” or “no problem!”. Presently, those statements seem much less inviting and warm and lack appreciation for the presence of another person.

Now, when students arrive late to class I smile and tell them I am happy they have made it. Happy to see they are here. 

To all who read this post…

I am happy you are here.

 

 

 

“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Attitude of Gratitude

Many years ago I remember watching a gratitude themed Oprah episode.  There was a gratitude journal that the guest had developed and was relaying all of the benefits of writing down things that you were grateful for each day.  The power of suggestion (I’m a sucker for an impulse buy for self-improvement) lead me to the nearest Chapters to purchase one of those journals that weekend.  I certainly didn’t fill that journal. I think I lost interest in a couple of months because it felt as though I was writing the same thing over and over again.  I realize now that gratitude, like mindfulness and meditation, is a “practice.”

Gratitude practice is most effective when life is rough.  It sounds counterintuitive.  It is much easier to be grateful when things are going well right?  Easy to “count your blessings” when you are sitting on a beach in a resort in the Dominican Republic.  I personally feel the power of the gratitude practice when life isn’t going according to plan.  Though, I want to be clear here, there is a fine line between true gratitude practice and “looking on the bright side” or “finding the silver lining.”  That bright-side-silver-lining thinking can border on toxic positivity which isn’t helpful.

Gratitude practice means different things to different people.  For me, it is connected to daily journaling.  Each night since the fall I have been writing about my day in terms of gratitude before going to bed. Some nights I might write for 5 minutes.  Some nights I write for a half hour.  It might read something like, “I’m grateful that we got outside for a walk, that my son felt good about his essay after all of the struggles and tears, that we were able to eat a healthy meal, for Hello Fresh being delivered to my door and for the opportunity to reach out and connect to some new teachers through professional learning today.”  I try to reflect on the events of my day in terms of gratitude.  I could write in my journal that the technology in my professional learning session that day was glitchy, we got off to a rocky start trying to get everyone into the WebEx room, and there were links that didn’t work even though I had tested them twice. Instead, I choose to be grateful for the connection and discussion that I had with the teachers that day.  It isn’t that I ignore that bad things happen or think about how things can be improved, but ruminating on the bad things that happened during the day right before going to bed isn’t going to ensure much of a restful sleep.

In some of the professional learning opportunities that I have recently hosted with new teachers we have discussed the struggles of the current climate in the classroom.  It is important to have a safe place for teachers to voice those concerns and have someone listen with compassion and empathy and ask curious questions.  I will often say that there are many things that I can’t help them with, but that I am there to “embrace the suck” with them.   At the conclusion of those discussions my final question is always, “What is a recent personal or professional success that you’ve experienced that you would like to share with the group?”  This ends the discussion on a note of gratitude. It is SO easy to get caught up in venting and complaining about the situation in education right now. Teaching it is NOT an easy job on any given day but the difficulties have grown exponentially with the pressures that COVID has added.  So when we can take a moment to remember why we continue to go to work each day, why we got into the job in the first place and what our recent wins have been, I think it brings a feeling of hope.

Sometimes I practice gratitude in a less formal way that is more like mindfulness.  Recently while walking on a treed trail on a bright, sunny, winter day with my best friend, I stopped mid sentence and just looked around at the beauty.  I said to my friend, “I just had to take a minute to take this in.  We are so fortunate to be able to walk here.”  It only took a moment.  I don’t do that all of the time, we’d never get anywhere on our walks! However, remembering to do it every so often helps me to deal with stress and the bad things when they do happen.  If in the moment of a stressful situation I can take a moment to breathe and practice gratitude it sometimes keeps the emotions from escalating.  When conversing with someone who is frustrated and perhaps complaining or lashing out I try to remember that this person is doing the best they can at that moment and that each opportunity to interact with someone who is suffering is a chance to learn and I try to be grateful for that.  Author Andrea Owen in her book, “How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t” would call it an AFOG-another flipping opportunity for growth.  When I remember to think about gratitude in a not so great moment, I might do it raised shoulders and through gritted teeth, but I keep trying.  It is, after all a practice.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.” -Brene Brown

Rejuvenation Through Creation

For me as a kid, there was no better feeling than opening up a new box of 64 Crayola crayons.  The big box with the flip top lid and the sharpener on the side.  I can remember agonizing over which colour to pick first and being so thrilled by the perfection of the colour palette in neat rows in that box.  I loved to draw and colour. I could do it for hours never lifting my attention from the page.  In adulthood, I abandoned doing art for pleasure.  It seemed silly for me to sit around and draw or paint for no real reason.  I felt I should be doing something productive.  A few years ago I began to create art again and realized how much I had missed it and how much joy it brought to my life. I create digital art now, which isn’t quite the same rush as opening a box of crayons but it is easier to share with others-like the picture above.  I have recently learned about the health and wellness benefits of creating. Creating is rejuvenating, it is rest and it is soul food.

Dan Tricarico, in his book “Sanctuaries: Self-Care Secrets for Stressed-Out Teachers”, he talks about how people get lost in an activity that you love so much that the rest of the world seems to fade away.  He calls it a state of “flow”.  I find myself getting into that state of flow when I draw, create music, write, cook or do jigsaw puzzles.  It isn’t that passive state of binge watching something on Netflix.  However, sometimes life’s answer is just that.  The state of flow is active and when I emerge from that state of flow, I feel rested and invigorated.  In Jessie Scholl’s article, “Go With the Flow: How States of Blissful Concentration Can Boost Your Overall Health and Well-Being” she states that, “Flow triggers the opposite of a fight-or-flight response.  Breathing becomes more relaxed, muscles loosen, and heart rate slows.  The specific biochemistry associated with flow varies depending on the activity, but the overall benefits to health and well-being are the same. ”  In fact, a 2018 Forbes article, “Here’s How Creativity Actually Improves Your Health” written by Ashley Stahl, claims that creativity increases happiness, reduces dementia, improves mental health, boosts your immune system and makes you smarter. Well, who doesn’t want all of those things?

You don’t have to be a professional musician, writer, artist or athlete to practice flow.  You can do it with any activity with some level of skill that requires you to pay attention.  It is really a type of active meditation.  Flow can be found with exercise, writing, dancing, baking, gardening, robotics or whatever activity brings you joy.

Don’t have the “time” for a creative pursuit?  It definitely requires some intentional effort to ensure that you take some time each day to pursue what you enjoy doing. It doesn’t have to be for hours but make it a specific small goal. In building anything into a routine or ritual, micro habits are key.  These are tiny steps towards implementation that grow into longer lasting habits. When I started creating art again, I just started with doing 5 minutes a day.  I just drew something.  I wasn’t worried about perfection or even completion.  I started getting lost in the flow and those minutes eventually became hours over time.  I continued to build my time until I created the habit to attempt to do something creative at least twice a week.  Beware of your inner perfectionism critic if you have one, like I do.  Give yourself some self compassion if you get out of the habit.  No one is keeping score and it is meant to be for you and your health and wellness.  When I get lost in stress and the life’s duties I often think, I should probably create something and get into that flow state-it has been a while.  Ultimately, I never regret taking that time away from the rush and hustle.

If your activity is just one more thing on your to-do list, it isn’t going to bring you joy and happiness.  In order for something to really feed your soul, it has to be something you value, something authentically you and something that you want to do because it brings you a sense of flow, peace, focus and energy.  Hopefully you will find something that gives you that “new box of crayons feeling,” whatever that means for you.