Unsung Meanings

unsung meanings

I have written previously about the importance of identifying our personal values and setting some goals around these so as to make them a central focus for living. See my posts:

Living and Teaching from your Values – Sept 2014

Bringing your Values to Life – Oct 2014

It’s timely to identify what we value in our own teaching and in our classrooms to bring more meaning to our professional lives (NB: If you are not a teacher apply this to any occupation you have). This might look like:

  • What we value about ourselves and our unique talents and gifts that we bring to the role. It’s important to look closely at whether we are bringing these to the fore on a daily basis or whether these have faded into the background under the pressure, paperwork, expectations or school / system priorities.
  • What we value as education itself. This might be a specific subject area, a concept, a skill or practice, knowledge or issue that we want all the kids in our class to understand or develop in themselves.

For example I have identified the following:

  • I value the environment and want the children in my class to develop a sense of personal responsibility towards caring for nature.
  • I value stillness and a spiritual practice so will allow time each day for such practices to be cultivated.
  • I value reading for pleasure so will search for books that will resonate with particular students to foster a love of books.
  • I value self-belief and taking personal responsibility for learning and try to nurture this quality in all my students on a daily basis.


It’s so easy to be swamped with externally imposed priorities which may not always complement our personal ones. This can knock us off centre. They might be directed by the government, the media, by the system in which you work or by the parents of your students. This can be overwhelming as so many things are important. But to truly feel a sense of passion, fulfilment,  meaning and engagement in what you do, you need to bring forward and make real on a daily basis the qualities, skills, knowledge or ideals that YOU truly value as a teacher and as a human being and that in some sense will leave a legacy in your wake.

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Being with Upsets

upsetsWhen we are trying to live in the present moment we perhaps become more sensitive to what is happening to us and around us and as we try to remain deeply grounded in our body there will be sensations that will signal an upset or issue that needs to be dealt with. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls these “somatic markers”. If you have been taking time each day to focus on your breath then that too is a good indicator of your internal state.

At times when I’ve been upset, angry or blaming others for my current state I have generally been able to trace it back to an unexpressed feeling on my part, which my body had been signalling to me all along. In effect I was allowing the actions and words of others to take my power away – as the rumination that follows an upsetting event drains our energy significantly. I was ignoring my body’s wisdom.

When something upsets you – be it in the classroom, with colleagues, parents of your students or  with your own family – Rick Hanson suggests you Be with the Issue / Let it Go / Let in (the good stuff).

I would like to look at “Being with the issue” here. For me “being” with something includes expression otherwise it’s just evasion.

Try this:

  • Sit with the sensations in your body. For me this is things like heat, increased heart rate, perspiring / clamminess, a feeling of being winded, butterflies.
  • Try to identify what you are feeling and name it e.g. sadness, hurt, irritation, feeling of being controlled by another.
  • If this feeling can be linked to something someone has said or done in the moment you can then express your feelings respectfully to the person at hand rather than holding onto the feelings and going over and over the incident in your head.

Some of us have a fear around expressing ourselves honestly in the moment – it can be confronting and we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings but if we don’t express ourselves we are hurting our own feelings. It is definitely outside my comfort zone but you have to be your own advocate. If this is hard for you, you might find the following saying helpful, as I have:

“Real but not true.”

This is also a concept from Tara Brach. So for example someone is upset by what I have expressed. It’s real that that person is upset or hurt, they are going to feel what they do, but it’s not true that I am a bad person for expressing it (especially when my intentions are authentic) even if they think I am a bad person.

Some questions to consider are:

  • Are you listening to your body’s “somatic markers”?
  • Is there an issue upsetting you that could be alleviated by authentic, heart-felt expression?
  • Can you identify instances where “Real but not true” could be helpful for you?

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Sanctuary for the Soul

soul sanctuary

As we become more mindful we are more aware of all experiences in general – the pleasurable and the challenging. Our present moment may be filled with negative emotions, aggression or terrible sadness. As we become more “tuned in” our negative experiences don’t necessarily become less but there are techniques we can use to minimise the impact of these, get back on track quicker and not be at the mercy of our thought patterns and emotions from moment to moment.

One such technique is that described by Rick Hanson as “Refuge” or as I have termed it:

Soul Sanctuary

I have always needed time alone and this is definitely where I find sanctuary, recalibrate and fill the tank back up but the concept of Soul Sanctuary is much broader and does not necessitate a change in location or companionship or a large amount of time as we can find it inside… immediately. It is beneficial to centre in your sanctuary as a daily practice.

Soul Sanctuary helps us to stay present with whatever comes our way be it positive or negative and as our profession is largely made up of interacting with others moment to moment lots of things “come up”. This technique keeps us grounded and centred in order to respond calmly and authentically.

A good place to start might be to make a list of people (groups or individuals), places, activities, practices or routines, experiences, memories or ideas that support you, inspire you or which you feel protected by. As Nischala Joy Devi says:

‘A positive image can elevate us and support us to heal…it is in your power to formulate pleasant and unpleasant experiences’ and it is in this practice that this plays out – as it can be done through visualisation without having to go anywhere.

It is then really as simple as taking a moment each day to consciously find sanctuary in those things by doing the following (as described by Rick Hanson PhD):

  • Saying the words “I take sanctuary in….”
  • Going to your sanctuary  (literally or in your mind) e.g. the beach, a forest, a hammock, for a run
  • Coming from your sanctuary – i.e. using it as a baseline from which to enter your day. So for me this would be rising early to meditate, pray, do some yoga or breath awareness practices. This fills me with a sense of calm protection from which I enter my day centred. This concept is illustrated in a prayer I use most days:

 When I step out, the world assembles itself around me

Like my awareness of being who I am,

Like my belief in the Divine.                                    (Modern Prayer from Stockholm Sweden)

When we come from a place of sanctuary the world might just ‘assemble itself’ more gently around us.

or finally…

  • Abiding as your sanctuary – this is really where you sense a refuge at work in your life and you live from that. So for me this would be abiding as self-compassion, love, peace, connected to spirit.

These practices are particularly beneficial when I am starting to feel anxious, over-tired or worried about something. You might start with the first two methods as they are perhaps more tangible and as these become comfortable, look towards ‘coming from’ and ‘abiding as’ refuge each day – they bring you to a place where you are living from this sense of comfort. Choose whatever practice resonates with you and which you feel you can actually do.

It’s important as you feel what it’s like to be in this space of safety and serenity that you let those positive feelings sink in because what your brain focuses on changes its makeup.

Who / What / Where are your Soul Sanctuaries?

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mindfulness Mindfulness is a popular concept these days and as a practice has been utilised across the spectrum of occupations from executives and athletes to parents. It is just as relevant and beneficial for teachers. Mindfulness is simply described as sustained, present moment awareness. The “sustained” part is the challenge – particularly when you have up to 30 kids diverting your attention in innumerable directions.

As a generalisation our minds are largely undisciplined and disorderly – our attention distracted by a myriad of beguilements. We are at the mercy of every thought that enters our consciousness and can spend a lifetime moving unconsciously from one diversion to the next (and this includes within our classroom) without ever truly being present.

At a goal setting meeting with my principal last year, upon being asked to identify my goals around professional development and practice I replied “I just want to be present…..truly present.” My boss was wonderfully responsive and loved it. I had reached a point where I was sick of living in the regrets of the past and the uncertainties of the future. I had to put some mindfulness techniques into practice to try and tame my unruly thinking and bring myself back to the present – the only moment we are actually alive in.

The practices I’ve adopted have been simple but very effective with amazing benefits. I encourage you to try one/some and gauge the effects on yourself (and your students and family).

You could try:

Slowing Down – begin to notice times when you are rushing or when you are rushing your students or your own kids. Breathe deeply. Slow down.

Give your attention to one task at a time at least once a day and be fully present for it e.g. having a shower (experience it with all your senses), making dinner, making your bed. This can then be extended to other activities.

Set aside time to focus on your breath for a minute each day (start with 1 minute and gradually increase). I started with 5 minutes in the morning and evening and am up to about 20 minutes each session. Instead of thinking ‘I don’t have time to meditate’ think ‘I have 1 minute to meditate’. I would recommend choosing the same time each day – once you start a habit, it’s easy to extend the time.

Nominate check-ins throughout the day to consciously relax your body and tune into / deepen your breath – a vital link to your internal world. My check-ins are: in the car; at the computer; in the bathroom and at the whiteboard in my classroom.

For me mindfulness has lead to the following benefits:

  • An increased sense of wellbeing and a feeling that everything is ok despite what might be going on around me.
  • The space to listen to my inner voice.
  • Feelings of gratitude as I began to notice the small pleasures of daily life that I had previously missed and the beauty around me that I was taking for granted.
  • The ability to listen better (or be more aware of when I’m not listening properly).
  • A sense of stability / evenness – being centred.
  • A deeper connection with my body during daily activities and a greater recognition of my feelings during interactions.
  • Less reactive responses to challenging behaviour.

In short, mindfulness practices help you to be present and alive for your life – I recommend them wholeheartedly.

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