But mindfulness is about more than calming down.
Many people think that practicing mindfulness means clearing your mind. But it’s actually the opposite — it’s more about metacognition or “thinking about thinking,” as my elementary school students have been learning lately.
This is a concept that kids love and is useful, especially in stressful times. We talk about how our minds are always flitting around finding new things to think about. It’s as if there’s a remote-control device in our brain that changes the channels randomly. We choose a channel, but our minds might change the channel to something else and we might not even notice it. We might have planned to watch the “Math Homework Channel,” then realize a few minutes later that we’ve spent the last five minutes on the “Are Narwhals Real? Channel.” This happens to everyone.
To get better at noticing what is happening in our minds, and get more intentional about what we want to be thinking about, we practice something called Remote Control Breathing. We sit with our eyes closed or looking down. We take three deep breaths. We let our breath settle into our normal rhythm and try to count our breaths.
Counting your breaths sounds easy, but it’s quite tricky. It can be a real challenge to keep your mind focused on the “Breathing Channel,” which can be a bit boring.
But here’s the magic: Each time we notice that our mind has changed the channel, we are having a moment of metacognition. We notice what our mind is doing and then we can make a choice. Do we want to keep watching the “What’s for Lunch Channel” or do we want to go back to the “Breathing Channel?” Having that ability to notice what your mind is doing and make a choice about what you want is very liberating and powerful.
If I wrote down everything I ever worried about on a piece of paper, it would probably stretch from here to the moon. If I ever wrote down everything that I worried about that actually happened, it would probably fit on an index card. That’s a lot of time spent imagining bad things happening to me or people whom I love. That is not how I would have chosen to spend that time if I had known that I had a choice. Now that I practice mindfulness, I have that choice.
So how does this help us now? The more we practice that simple act of trying to pay attention to our breath, noticing when our mind has wandered, and choosing to bring our attention back to our breath, we are building up the “metacognition muscles” in our brain. We get better and better at noticing what is happening in our minds so that we don’t go around in a fog of mindless worry. Once we get better at doing that in our mindfulness practice, it starts to change the way we think in the real world.
So if you notice that you are worried, you can stop and ask yourself, “Is this helpful?” If the answer is no, you can change the channel.
My suggestion for my students is that they replace worry with love. Love is always helpful. Love is what we need the most right now. And love is something else that we talk a lot about in Peace Class.
Here are five simple ways you can practice mindfulness with your children now:
1. Take five breathing: Sit down, close your eyes or look down and trace your hand with the index finger of your other hand. When you trace up, take a deep breath in; when you trace down, breathe out. Keep breathing and tracing until you have traced your whole hand. (Try this while you are washing your hands!) This practice is a great way to lower cortisol levels, which can spike when you are anxious or worried.
2. See, hear, feel: Sit down, close your eyes or look down. Start to notice your surroundings. What do you see, hear and feel in your body? Each time you notice something, you can silently label it “See,” “Hear” or “Feel.” Try that for a few minutes. This practice can help you come back to the present moment when you feel anxious.
3. Mindful eating: Try to eat something and really pay attention to it with all of your senses. What does it look like, sound like, smell like, feel like, taste like? Try to eat it really slowly and notice everything about it. This practice can help you to slow down, stay in the present moment and feel gratitude for food.
4. Heartfulness: Sit quietly, close your eyes or look down. Give yourself a little hug and think “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful.” Then think about somebody you care about and then about everyone in the world. (This is another great thing to do while you are washing your hands.) This practice can make us feel kinder and gentler toward ourselves and others. It can remind us that we are connected to everyone in the world and that we all want the same basic things — health, happiness and peace. I encourage my students to take that feeling of compassion and do something to help. Helping others is a surefire way to get us out of our own heads and out of the prison of worry. Finding ways to show people that we love them is a way that we can all feel more connected in these scary times.
5. Remote-control breathing: Sit quietly, close your eyes or look down. Take three deep breaths. Try to count 10 normal breaths. If you notice that your mind wandered, just note that and start counting your breaths again. You might have to keep bringing your attention back to your breath, and that’s fine.
I miss my students, but I’m sure they are at home, teaching their parents their mindful practices as we navigate this difficult time. And I’m sure they are sending this message out to everyone now, as am I: May we be happy. May we be healthy. May we be peaceful.