This is the seventh post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again. See the end of this post for previous entries.
I have a confession to make. I’m a bad meditator.
Meditation is incredibly boring. Everything in me resists doing it, and I can avoid it for months. If I don’t meditate first thing in the morning, I won’t do it at all. When I wake up, however, meditation is at the absolute bottom of the list of things I want to do. (Second from the bottom is going for a run; if I have to choose, the run wins.)
Nevertheless, if I hadn’t started practicing meditation, I doubt I’d still be a teacher.
I’m probably not the only person in the world who spends a lot of time in mental conversation with people who aren’t there. (I might be unusual in that I also have these conversations out loud, with nobody, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.) When, for example, a student is driving me crazy, I spend a lot of time talking to him even though he’s not around. I lie awake at night having furious arguments with him. I practice, over and over, how I’m going to react the next time he does whatever he did this morning.
This can have positive results; I sometimes come to solutions by wrestling with problems this way. My methods, however, usually outweigh their usefulness.
My anxiety about things that aren’t happening right now used to be even more intense than it is now. I often found myself knotted up about something a student had done three years before, a student whose whereabouts were unknown to me now. I projected all sorts of catastrophes onto the coming semester, and the projection could be self-fulfilling: I walked into the classroom tense and defensive, and this caused problems.
Then I began to meditate.
The central principle in Buddhist meditation is “dwelling in the present moment.” The practice goes like this: you sit in a (relatively) comfortable, erect position on a cushion or chair. You half-close your eyes, drawing your gaze close to you. You place your attention on your breath: you breathe in with the awareness that you are breathing in, and breathe out knowing you are breathing out. You do this for ten minutes, forty minutes, an hour, or as many hours as you are told to.
Inevitably, your mind wanders. You start making a grocery list, arguing with someone who irritated you earlier that day, or fantasizing about the good-looking person sitting on the cushion in front of you. When you notice that your mind has wandered off this way, you gently label your mental activity by saying “thinking” to yourself (silently), and then you draw your attention back to your breath. Until it wanders off again.
There are many other, more advanced, meditation practices, but this is the basic one. It’s incredibly simple, and yet incredibly difficult.
I read a few books on meditation, and took some courses at my local Shambhala centre. At first, I had trouble fitting my sitting practice into my daily routine. Then, during one of my meditation courses, a teacher said that meditating for ten minutes every day is better that not meditating at all.
When I heard that, I committed to sitting for ten minutes every morning before I left the house. For ten minutes, I practiced paying close attention to the only thing that was happening: my breath going in, and my breath going out.
And then, something remarkable happened. Just as I focused attention on my breath when I was sitting, I found myself focusing attention on the actions of students and my emotional responses when they were happening. Instead of brooding and scheming, I cultivated my curiosity. “Look what just happened! I wonder what will happen next?”
If a student was making me crazy by talking in class, my natural tendency was to freeze, to second-guess myself, to hesitate. What if I told her to stop, and she got angry? What if she still talked and I had to do something further, and then she hated me, and said something rude in response? Would it prove once and for all that I was a bad teacher?
As I practiced meditating, though, I found myself able to say, “Jennie, your continual talking is making me furious. If you can’t stop talking, you’ll need to leave the class.” I simply responded in the moment, and waited to see what the consequences were, and responded to them when they arrived. “Look at that!” I would think. “Farid just said something rude. What does one do when a student says something rude? Let’s try saying, ‘Farid, that was a rude thing to say. Did you intend to be rude, or were you just not thinking?’ And then let’s see what happens.”
Through practicing meditation, I’m learning to experience the world and my students much more directly, with a fresh, inquisitive perspective. A lot of exciting stuff has started to happen as a result, including a lot of learning. Mine and theirs.
In the past couple of years, my meditation practice has become spotty: I tend to turn to it when my anxiety is spinning out of control, instead of maintaining a steady practice. I’d like to ease myself back into it. Meditating makes me a better teacher, and a better person. And the world and the classroom are very interesting places when you experience them moment by moment, exactly as they are.
Leave a comment! In what ways have your spiritual/contemplative/religious practices helped you in your job? I’d love to hear from you.
Previous posts in this series:
The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009. Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.
Image by Penny Matthews