What Mindfulness Does — An excerpt from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness

From Deborah Schoeberlein, we learn what mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and how the benefits of its practice might show themselves.

Lion’s Roar
27 October 2009

Mindfulness isn’t a panacea for the world’s problems, but it does provide a practical strategy for working directly with reality. You might not be able to change certain things in your life, at work, or at home, but you can change how you experience those immutable aspects of life, work, and home. And the more present you are to your own life, the more choices you have that influence its unfolding.

With mindfulness, you’re more likely to view a really challenging class as just that, “a really challenging class,” instead of feeling that the experience has somehow ruined your entire day. Purposefully taking a mental step back, in order to notice what happened without immediately engaging with intense emotions and reactions, provides a kind of protection against unconstructive responses and the self-criticism that can slip out and make a hard thing even harder. Even just pausing to take a breath can help you slow down, see a broader perspective and redirect the energy of the situation.

I’ve had moments (as I’m sure have you) when a cascade of little annoyances gathered momentum and I lost it—only to regret my outburst later. Developing mindfulness promotes awareness of the cascade, but from a distance. This way, I have a better chance of working with my assumptions without losing my perspective. Annoyances can be events that don’t have to gain momentum, rather than triggers for more and more difficulty. Mindfully noticing the discrepancy between what I wanted to accomplish and what I actually achieved provides useful information without the distraction of unproductive anger, frustration, or disappointment.

I’ve also known days when one challenging class rattled me to my core and poisoned whatever came next. Even after school, such experiences often lingered—as if the actual class weren’t bad enough, the ongoing mental repercussions were worse. If this has happened to you, then you’ll know exactly how painful and frustrating this feels. It’s easy to torment yourself by questioning your competence as a teacher when a forty-five minute class can cause you to take students’ poor behavior personally and lose your center. Even reflecting, “I should have handled that differently since I’m a professional after all—and I’m the adult in a room full of kids!” doesn’t really provide any practical guidance for the future.

So what’s the answer? Put simply, part of it is all about mindfulness: practice and application, and more practice and yet more application. Practice begins with developing mindfulness in a calm, quiet place, a place where the practice is comparatively easy. Application is about walking into a more challenging situation in real life, like your most difficult class, with increased skills and the confidence to help you stay focused, present, flexible, and available. Should you lose the quality of mindfulness you’ll eventually notice what’s happened. And when you do, you can practice returning your attention to paying attention, and redirect your awareness onto the experience of awareness. As you practice and apply mindfulness, you’ll gain skills that will help you accurately assess challenges and handle them with greater ease.

Having techniques that help you manage your own experiences and emotions is more comfortable than feeling powerless as a result of your emotions and habits or, worse, buffeted about by the changing winds of other people’s behaviors and the environment. It’s a simple fact of life that we cannot change other people to suit our will. Yet you can change your own habits and your relationship to your reactions—but reaching that goal requires effective strategies.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.