Tyler Hall, Student Success Advisor, Dalhousie University
Throughout our day, a myriad of students come through our offices and share with us their stories. Sometimes they are stories of triumph, but others feel defeated and need support. Our schedules keep up busy and very rarely do we have time to collect our thoughts before the next student. It is vital as an advisor that we take a peaceful pause and stay grounded, even if only for a few minutes. Chaos can be tempting. It threatens to pull at us and rush us along on its path of uncertainty, but there are ways to resist the pull. It can be challenging at times, but I know I can always come back to one thing. Mindfulness.
The term Mindfulness is thrown around a lot as a magic cure-all band-aid for anxiety and stress. “Do some mindfulness and you will be fine.” Mindfulness takes practice. Mindfulness takes work. It takes commitment to notice when your mind wanders away from what is important and begins to drift to less productive thoughts. You begin to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness and many definitions but for me, the first definition I heard stuck. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. In that sentence, they summarize the 5 things one needs to do to stay mindful.
This is often the hardest part, but the most important. To stay mindful, you need to notice when you are not being mindful. We all have had those interactions with students that leave us with our heads on our desks. Sometimes it is from feeling lost as to what advice to give, or sometimes a student has shared a particularly emotional story. Sometimes those feelings can stay with us all day. It is important to pay attention to our thoughts and notice when this happens. Without that attention, this feeling can continue to weigh on us and take us down even further.
In a Particular Way
Once you are able to notice these moments, it is adding intention that begins to create a mindful state. What you do once you notice these moments is the next step. How can you move through the experience in a useful way? How can you sit with these feelings and be comfortable with them? This is where the mindfulness techniques come into play.
Similar to the above statement, intention is so important. Mindfulness must be done on purpose, not by accident. If thoughts are noticed by accident and you deal with them and move on without a purposeful mindset, that is not mindfulness. Before I begin any mindfulness session, whether it is 3 minutes before my next student or 20 minutes at the end of my day. I say out loud, I am going to begin a mindfulness practice. Saying it out loud and defining it helps shift your thinking to the task at hand.
In the Present Moment
Sometimes you will hear mindfulness described as being present. The present is the only thing we have control over. The past has happened, and the future has yet to happen. How we deal with what is happening now can help us steer where we want to go. This can be one of the hardest things to do. Our minds like to wander away from the present. It could be thinking of past appointments with students or what you are going to make for dinner.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom” – Viktor Frankl
That space is the present moment and we need to embrace it. By slowing down and becoming aware of that space, we gain control of that power to choose our response. Sometimes autopilot takes over and doesn’t make the best choice.
Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of mindfulness is treating thoughts without judgement. Even when you have set an intention and are being mindful in the present moment, thoughts will cross your mind. It is important to give them no emotional weight whether positive or negative. Every thought is neutral as it floats through. The trick is to notice them and let them go and focus back on the present.
So what now?
Hopefully, you can begin to understand what mindfulness is and what it isn’t. There are many ways to practice it be it meditation, mindful eating, mindful driving, body scans, etc; but the heart of it lies in the five tenants that Jon Kabat Zinn sets out. Mindfulness is and will always be a practice. There is nothing to overcome, no blackbelt or Michelin star proclaiming you are the best. It is just about paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
As advisors, we are constantly exposed to struggles and hardships faced by students. It is vital that we stay present not only to serve the students better, but so we can serve ourselves. For me, mindfulness is a way of life and a great comfort when things get challenging. I encourage you all to think about mindfulness and how the tenants above sit with your understanding.
Techniques to Stay Mindful
3 minute mindfulness
This was one of the first techniques that I was introduced to when starting my mindfulness journey. The best part is, you just listen to the video and follow the directions. I encourage you to carve 3 minutes out, find a comfortable position, sit intentionally ready to engage in mindfulness, and listen. The video below is just one of many on Youtube. Explore different ones and find which ones work for you.
Once you feel comfortable with guided mindfulness like above, you may want to branch out and create your own way of being mindful. One way to do that is to sit intentionally and focus on the present. Easier said then done. I often pick an anchor, something to focus on that is happening right now to keep me focused.
While seated, close your eyes if comfortable and set a timer. Start with 3 minutes if you can and work your way up once you feel more comfortable. Start by setting your intention and acknowledge that this is a mindful practice.
Sound – This is the first anchor that you can try. While being mindful, focus your thoughts on the sounds around you. What can you hear? What sounds are new now that you are being mindful? The challenging thing is to not judge these sounds. You may notice the tick of a clock come into your focus. This might be annoying. This is a judgement. Try to let that judgement go and focus only on the sound.
Breath – Another way to focus your thoughts on the present is to focus on breathing. Notice as it fills your chest and then leaves your body. Judgement can come in to play if you begin to worry about the rate at which you are breathing or the sound it makes. Let the judgements go and focus only on the breath.
Body – A third way to focus is on the body. One of the easiest ways is to do a body scan. Starting at the top or bottom, mentally scan your body and notice each part individually. Sometimes you will become mindful of pain or irritation. Try to notice these neutrally and then move on. An example of a guided body scan can be found here:
Inevitably your mind will wander, thinking about other things. When this happens, notice it and refocus on your anchor. That notice and refocus is what being mindful is all about. You may need to pull yourself back every few seconds when you begin but as you practice, you will be able to stay mindful with fewer distractions. You will never be perfect so treat each session as a practice without comparing to other times. Only the present matters.
These are only a few methods that can be incorporated right at your desk between students. There are a myriad of techniques to practice mindfulness, so I encourage you to try out ones that work for you. Some resources I have found helpful are below. Just remember, the act of practising is doing. There is no right or wrong, only practice.
Hanh, T. N. (1999). The miracle of mindfulness: An introduction to the practice of meditation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Harris, D. (2014). 10% happier: How I tamed the voice in my head, reduced stress without losing my edge, and found self-help that actually works–A true story. New York: Harper Collins .
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hatchette Book Group.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness.New York: Bantam Books.