How meditation can support your teaching career

Lorraine E Murray is the founder of Connected Kids Ltd, a worldwide programme to empower people with the skills to teach kids/teens meditation. She has been practising meditation for over 25 years.

Lorraine E Murray, founder of Connected Kids Ltd

Meditation (often called ‘mindfulness’) is prevalent in society these days. Meditation is now seen by many as the way to help us all cope with the stress of life.

The work of Professor of Medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn has translated the meditation practices of the East to make them accessible to the West through Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programmes.

"You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." - Jon Kabat-Zinn

While conducting some research at Scottish educational institutions into becoming a teacher, what strikes me is that there appears to be no guidance in how to cope mentally, physically and emotionally with the demands of teaching professionally.

In 2012, I attended an educators retreat called ‘mindfulness for teachers’ at the American School in London. My reason for being there was to support my practice of teaching meditation and my Connected Kids programme in teaching young people how to meditate. However, what I discovered really shocked me.

There were hundreds of teachers who were mentally and emotionally bereft. They were worn out by the ‘system’. Plus the growing problem of behavioural issues in young people and mental health issues in children had left them ready to quit.

The four-day retreat empowered those teachers with various forms of meditation for teaching and self-care; the transformation in people was extraordinary. Even though I have taught and practised meditation for over 25 years, I was seriously impressed.

My apologies for painting this rather negative picture, but I wanted to start from a place of care and compassion before I offer you a suggestion on how and why you should incorporate meditation into your teaching career.

If your impression of meditation is of a lotus position (sitting cross-legged on the floor) while you close your eyes, humming, then let me enlighten you. Meditation is as normal as breathing. Self-care is one of the key elements that meditation offers to those who practise regularly.

In fact, learning meditation starts with the breath – focusing on the breath to help you to come into an aware state. If you are stressed by a situation, your nervous system is hard wired to respond through the fight/flight/freeze response. This natural, physical response keeps you alive as a human being and triggers an array of physiological changes in the body that help you to respond.

For example, if I walk across the road and I realise that a car is coming towards me I activate my stress response and my body responds by my ‘flight’ from danger. I don’t have to think about this, I simply react. When I do this, my breath may alter by quickly increasing in volume and pace; this supports my need to take in levels of oxygen to transport around my physical body and support the extra energy I will need to escape danger.

This ‘one-off’ state of stress (acute stress response) is very normal and important to my well-being. Once the threat is over, my body goes back into balance and my breath returns to normal. What is not helpful is staying in the high alert stage and the breath accommodating this in the longer term.

Why would you stay in that ‘high alert’ state?

The mind body connection can take us into a stress response state by a perceived threat created by a thought: “I don’t know how I’m going to mark all this homework in time and prepare the lesson for next week”.

Your body responds to this ‘threat’ as if it was real (like the oncoming car) and thus your breath changes to accommodate this. If you keep thinking the same thoughts, the body responds with the stress response and you move from an acute one-off state of stress to chronic stress.

To help bring things back into balance, meditation teaches you how to focus on the breath and away from the negative spiral of thoughts. Focusing on the breath gives your brain a moment of respite and helps you to come back into balance – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Research has found that by focusing and lengthening the out-breath repeatedly, we activate the parasympathetic part of the nervous system – this is the opposite to fight, flight or freeze.

“The means by which controlled breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system is linked to stimulation of the vagus nerve - a nerve running from the base of the brain to the abdomen, responsible for mediating nervous system responses and lowering heart rate, among other things. The vagus nerve releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that catalyzes increased focus and calmness. A direct benefit of more acetylcholine is a decrease in feelings of anxiety.” Forbes magazine, May 2013

As you are reading this article, just tune-in to your breath. Take your attention to the tip of your nose or your mouth and notice how it moves in and out of your body (perhaps you’ll notice a slight rise and fall of your chest).

Meditation isn’t about forcing the breath to change but just noticing it – it increases our awareness so we become aware of a choice. As we notice the breath, we become aware of the negative thinking. The choice is to return to the breath, away from those thoughts. This helps our breath to relax.

When you have a moment of stress (this could be standing in front of a room of children or attending your first day of school with the headteacher), focus on your breath as you listen and stand/sit in this space. This will help you to cope and develop more awareness of whatever situation arises.

Buddhists (who are quite the experts when it comes to meditation) monitor their breath regularly (every moment they can) to stay in the moment (not become caught up their minds).

Yes, it takes practice but I know from years of experience that it has helped me to cope with my strong emotions, self-regulate my behaviour and above all reduce my stress and levels of anxiety.

Practising can be a regular time set aside to focus on the breath (either on your own or in a meditation group). However many are deterred from trying due to the demands of life. Even though your job can be demanding, you can still practise noticing the breath getting ready in the morning, on the way to and from work, when cooking/eating dinner, when talking to friends/family or sitting on the computer checking Facebook!

My favourite words I use to mentally keep me on track with the breath is ‘breathing in, I know I’m breathing in, breathing out I know I’m breathing out’. If that doesn’t work for you, then try counting the breath. Either way, it helps you notice and stay with the breath.

Little by little, noticing the breath will help you support a practice of self-care. Before you can support others, you have to support your own wellbeing and as a teacher performing this essential role in society, you deserve this level of self-care.

Lorraine E Murray is the founder of Connected Kids Ltd, a worldwide programme to empower people with the skills to teach kids/teens meditation. She has been practising meditation for over 25 years. Her books are available on Amazon: ‘Calm Kids – help children relax with mindful activities’ and ‘Connected Kids – Help Kids With Special Needs (and Autism) Shine With Mindful, Heartfelt Activities”.

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