Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. The techniques can be used for many things, including reducing stress and managing calorie intake. One study shows that it may also help reduce teacher stress and burnout.
Researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Waisman Center studied a small group of teachers recruited to take part in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, a well-established method of mindfulness training. The teachers receiving the training displayed reductions in psychological stress, improvements in classroom organization, and increases in self-compassion. In comparison, a control group not receiving the training showed signs of increased stress and burnout over the course of the school year.
Madison teacher Elizabeth Miller has found that mindfulness is not just “sitting still” and meditating, but it is a technique that can be practiced “anywhere, at any time.” Ms. Miller uses techniques such as focusing on the breath between subject areas or after recess and to refocus her students’ attention.
Psychology Today offers the following six steps for practicing mindfulness and living in the moment:
1: To improve your performance, stop thinking about it (unselfconsciousness)
Thinking too hard about what you’re doing actually makes you do worse. If you are in a situation that makes you anxious, focusing on anxiety tends to heighten it, so focus less about what’s going on in your mind and more on what’s going on in the room.
Focusing on the present moment also forces you to stop over-thinking. “Being present-minded takes away some of that self-evaluation and getting lost in your mind—and in the mind is where we make the evaluations that beat us up,” says Stephen Schueller, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. Instead of getting stuck in your head and worrying, you can let yourself go.
2: To avoid worrying about the future, focus on the present (savoring)
Often, we’re so trapped in thoughts of the future or the past that we forget to experience, let alone enjoy, what’s happening right now. Instead, relish or luxuriate in whatever you’re doing at the present moment—what psychologists call savoring.
3. Inhabit the present (breathe)
Mindfulness boosts your awareness of how you interpret and react to what’s happening in your mind. It increases the gap between emotional impulse and action, allowing you to do what Buddhists call recognizing the spark before the flame. Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically. Instead of lashing out in anger, backing down in fear, or mindlessly indulging a passing craving, you get the opportunity to say to yourself, “This is the emotion I’m feeling. How should I respond?”
Mindfulness increases self-control; since you’re not getting thrown by threats to your self-esteem, you’re better able to regulate your behavior. That’s the other irony: Inhabiting your own mind more fully has a powerful effect on your interactions with others.
4: To make the most of time, lose track of it (flow)
Flow occurs when you’re so engrossed in a task that you lose track of everything else around you. You focus so intensely on what you’re doing that you’re unaware of the passage of time. Hours can pass without you noticing.
The first requirement for flow is to set a goal that’s challenging but not unattainable—something you have to marshal your resources and stretch yourself to achieve. The task should be matched to your ability level—not so difficult that you’ll feel stressed, but not so easy that you’ll get bored. In flow, you’re firing on all cylinders to rise to a challenge.
You also need to set up the task in such a way that you receive direct and immediate feedback; with your successes and failures apparent, you can seamlessly adjust your behavior. A climber on the mountain knows immediately if his foothold is secure; a pianist knows instantly when she’s played the wrong note.
As your attentional focus narrows, self-consciousness evaporates. You feel as if your awareness merges with the action you’re performing. You feel a sense of personal mastery over the situation, and the activity is so intrinsically rewarding that although the task is difficult, action feels effortless.
5: If something is bothering you, move toward it rather than away from it (acceptance)
We all have pain in our lives, whether it’s a long commute or the sudden wave of anxiety when we get up to give a speech. The mind’s natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it—by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations. But in many cases, negative feelings and situations can’t be avoided—and resisting them only magnifies the pain.
The problem is we have not just primary emotions but also secondary ones—emotions about other emotions. We get stressed out and then think, “I wish I weren’t so stressed out.” The primary emotion is stress over your workload. The secondary emotion is feeling, “I hate being stressed.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. The solution is acceptance—letting the emotion be there. That is, being open to the way things are in each moment without trying to manipulate or change the experience—without judging it, clinging to it, or pushing it away. The present moment can only be as it is. Trying to change it only frustrates and exhausts you. Acceptance relieves you of this needless extra suffering.
Acceptance of an unpleasant state doesn’t mean you like it or you don’t have goals for the future. It just means you accept that certain things are beyond your control. The sadness, stress, pain, or anger is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is.
6: Know that you don’t know (engagement)
You’ve probably had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no memory or awareness of the previous 15 minutes. Maybe you even missed your exit. You just zoned out; you were somewhere else, and it’s as if you’ve suddenly woken up at the wheel. These autopilot moments are what Harvard’s Ellen Langer calls mindlessness—times when you’re so lost in your thoughts that you aren’t aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you.
The best way to avoid such blackouts, Langer says, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you’re in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits. Noticing new things puts you emphatically in the here and now.
Lisa Flook, Simon B. Goldberg, Laura Pinger, Katherine Bonus, Richard J. Davidson. Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout, and Teaching Efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education
Volume 7, Issue 3, pages 182–195, September 2013