I find it interesting to observe the reactions of others as I address them. Be it in a large group, small group or even individually, it is easy to see who is present and attentive and who is just present physically. Being present, being in the here and now, is becoming more of a challenge than ever before.
While we try to savour those positive moments and meet them with anticipation and delight, we become anxious, defensive and ready to attack when faced with unpleasant, stressful situations. Arriving at your holiday destination or receiving good news are both ‘feel-good’ experiences we try and hold on to. Making a mistake, doing something awkward in front of friends or being excluded from a peer group can, for our children, be a great source of discomfort and an experience they would rather erase if possible.
Every moment comes with its own feeling quality – positive, negative or neutral, even if we are not even aware of it. It is natural and normal to want more of the pleasant variety and less (or none) of the unpleasant type. Experts say that seeking out, appreciating and being present during pleasant experiences is healthy and promotes resilience. When the inevitable difficulties arise for us and our students and we struggle to cope, balance needs to be restored in order to create some form of equilibrium.
We teach and encourage our students to plan, reason and problem solve and for the most part, such approaches rely on logical thinking and are successfully applied to well-defined problems with well-defined solutions such as how to prepare for examinations or solving complex mathematical equations. Many challenges both in and out of the classroom have significant emotional underpinnings with no clear-cut answers. How do our students maintain their sense of balance when constantly being asked to do more? And how do we as adults sustain our empathy for our children who are dealing with a myriad of issues? Being present offers an approach for each of us to address these challenges. It begins by recognising that uncomfortable feelings may be a signal that we need to act in some way, but that the feelings are not, in themselves, the problem.
Many of the risky and potentially dangerous behaviours by adolescents, including the latest technological addiction, have a common denominator. They involve avoiding unpleasant emotional experiences. We all have our limits, but individuals who are highly intolerant of distress are more likely to suffer from a range of psychological and behavioural problems. Our students’ reaction to unpleasant situations can be manifested in common behaviours such as the avoidance of homework and general misbehaviour. We often try to reinforce the notion that unpleasant things should go away. When we can’t make the unpleasant parts of life go away, we become critical of ourselves, making us feel even worse.
Imagine this scenario (which I have experienced personally): a student is walking up the stairs in between classes with the staircase full of other students ascending and descending. He trips, falls to his knees and his books, pencil case and folders end up all over the stairs. Some students ask if he is OK, others giggle and a few poke fun at him. His face feels flushed, his heart is racing, and his knees hurt. He recovers and moves off as quickly as possible. From the outside, it looks as if he has recovered but, on the inside, all he can think of is how clumsy he is and tries to justify that someone must have tripped him. This mental chatter fuels his internal distress as he continually plays back the incident over and over again causing him to feel shame and embarrassment.
What might be the alternative, given that this type of response is an ingrained human habit? While it may seem intelligent to avoid thinking about these negative scenarios, it is not healthy to use this approach as a permanent method of coping, especially for adolescents who are sensitive to emotional experiences. The student who keeps checking his/her phone throughout the day despite the teacher’s (and school’s) disapproval can’t resist seeing any new messages and the student who fell on the stairs may not easily let go of his angry thoughts. Adolescents may resort to behaving in an unproductive manner on an effort to feel more of the pleasant emotions and fewer of the unpleasant emotions.
By encouraging our students to be present and to be mindful not just about their pleasant experiences but about all their experiences, we hope to encourage them to explore and accept their emotions without judgement. Being mindful is not about being made to feel a certain way, it is about feeling whatever is present at any given time in order to reflect and respond in an appropriate manner. This involves adapting our relationship to the way we feel, especially if the experience is not positive. Rather than trying to escape as soon as we notice them, we acknowledge our emotions and perhaps make some peace with them.
We need to be more conscious of our own thoughts, feelings and emotions in order to teach our children and students how to do this. This process offers us a glimpse into how our minds work. We can begin to work out why we demonstrate specific behaviours and what triggers these behaviours – both positive and negative. This is a process and it requires plenty of practice each and every day.
What better way to remind us of this practice than the sound of the shofar which we blow throughout the month of Elul. We have just entered the month of Elul, the month prior to Rosh Hashanah (Yes, it is only four weeks away and I am convinced I have instilled fear and angst in many as you realise how quickly this time will pass). Each morning (except Shabbat), we blow the shofar and listen to its evocative tones. The shofar forces us to be present. It serves to remind us to be mindful not just of our actions and behaviours throughout the year but also of our emotions and feelings. Like an alarm clock waking us up each morning (we can sleep in on Shabbat), we have the opportunity to tune in to our inner self and reflect not just on how we feel but why we feel as well. The shofar reminds us of the need to maintain behavioural control and emotional control each morning, allowing us to make the most of every minute, every hour and every day.
About the author
Ronnen Grauman is the Acting Head of Jewish Life and Learning at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.