I speed walked across trolley tracks as I traveled between the two small campuses of King Chavez High School. I had suddenly been hired as a vice principal, knowing little of what that really meant. My thoughts danced awkwardly with several new partners: a daunting “to do” list of mentoring new teachers, creating curriculum for an advisory, and a bigger ambition, figuring the best way to introduce AVID to this ripe family of children perfectly suited for AVID magic.
My mind buzzed, really. As I raced to the “A” street site, homeless people lining my path, my ears began ringing, slowly increasing in volume. A rather standard sign of stress – not negative stress, actually, for me at that time, but stress all the same.
I purposely began to focus on my breathing: in through the nose, out through the mouth, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Within about 20 breaths, the ringing had subsided. This exercise took a little over a minute. What happened to the excited state of stress? In terms of neuroscience and psycho-biology, my brain had a new focus, which decreased my heart rate, reduced the adrenaline released into my blood, and lowered the stress hormone from hell: cortisol. Blood pressure dropped and a deep-brain loop of calm replaced a loop of anxiety.
This is called mindfulness. Mindfulness is the intentional grounding and focusing of our attention on the current moment. This can be done in the manner I described, the traditional breathing way, or in other ways like closely observing an object: your hands, a piece of food, or a visual focus point, among others. We have all heard the command “take a deep breath” especially in education or to “count to 10.”
Years ago, I had an emotionally disturbed young man in an at-risk program who would occasionally start to scream, “The walls is breathin; the walls is breathin!” He would do this in the middle of class. I found through trial and error that the best remedy was to ask him to take my big broom and sweep the hall all the way around my building. This would take him three or four minutes. Like a miracle, he would come back a different brain. He had a simple mundane task to re-focus his attention.
Dr. Richard Davidson out of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is a, if not the, father of research into mindfulness. He is the neuroscientist who traveled to India to study meditation and its effects on the brain. Dr. Davidson has also directed the focus in neuroscience away from purely cognitive processes to look at emotions and their role in health, memory, attention, and motivation. When I first attended his “Symposium on Emotion” five years ago, there were roughly 10 to 20 studies per month focused on meditation. Now there are several hundred a month.
The findings are universal: continued mindful practice has several effects on brain function and health. Many studies have also avoided the use of the loaded terminology like “meditation” or “mindfulness,” or “TM” (transcendental meditation), preferring to call the practice “directed focus exercises.” Their results are the same.
Drum roll! The top effects of mindfulness are:
The reductions of blood pressure, cortisol in our blood, among many other hormonal effects, have obvious positive consequences for our health. There are also positive findings for anger and even pain management in the raft of literature.
Yet, the ability to “focus on one thing” stands out to me as a holy grail in learning. Secondly, the ability to reduce stress before high stakes tests also sounds like an AVID “go-to” practice. And since AVID anchors learning in teams, families and groups of learners, improving relational capacity sounds darn good, too.
Dr. Steven Hickman, director of the UCSD Center for Mindfulness told me he thought the greatest positive result of mindfulness practice is increased compassion and desire for connection. He said that, “When we clear the decks, what bubbles up are the deepest natural urges of our beings: compassion and connection.” When we stop fighting, judging or controlling in our environment and relations, we actually have a natural, more effortless capacity for kindness and creativity. When the primitive brain, especially the amygdala, is on high alert, our most creative and most advanced brain is nearly shut off: “I was so upset I just . . .” You fill in the blank. We act most primitively when we are most threatened. No compassion bubbles up. The neural pathways are chemically shut off. We just react. Mindfulness reduces the feeling of threat, reduces the fear of losing control, and over time gives us the space to be creative, compassionate and connected.
I just can’t forget the immediate relief of that high stress ringing in my ears as I traveled from one part of my new exciting life to another.
Take a deep breath: In through the nose, out through the mouth.