A mindfulness teacher’s response to the “credible threat” that shut down schools across Colorado today, paralyzing parents and students with fear and anxiety.
Schools across the state of Colorado were closed Wednesday due to a “credible threat” of gun violence. Teachers, parents, and students at home dealt with high levels of fear, stress, and anxiety.
The threat in Denver is one that affects us all. It touches into a very real and present danger — the fear itself.
Today, as worried parents across the state scramble to make plans for their kids and to explain the situation in a way that could make any sense, their hearts are pounding and their minds are racing. What am I going to do? Is my kid safe? How can this be happening again?
As human beings, our nervous systems are designed to attune to each other. Our mirror neurons give us a sense in our own bodies of what others around us are feeling. This means that when people around us are stressed, anxious, and afraid, we will pick up on those emotions and also experience them in our systems. The traffic and the roads this morning (if you were unfortunate enough to be on them) were a clear example of this in action.
To me, the blaring horns and fierce gestures make sense. Parents are buried in a flurry of texts and arrangements and cancelled appointments, and the whole system is stirred up. The ripple effect of this fear is dramatic. And it’s time to wake up.
So how can mindfulness help?
If we define mindfulness as non-reactive, present moment awareness, and acceptance of what is, how can we bring this practice to a situation of terror such as this? How can we “accept“ and “let be” when the price is so high? It’s so much easier to pretend nothing is happening, or to numb with work or drugs or sleep.
But really, what do we do? Do we throw our hands up in despair? Just say this world is troubled and shake our heads? Do we walk away? Maybe we leap to action and become advocates and revolutionaries? Should we take to the streets? Is it even safe to be in a crowd anymore? What if there is a sniper? What if…
The worried mind is very good at this kind of catastrophic thinking. It has been well-trained.
Pause. Observe what is present without trying to change it.
The fear is real, and it sucks.
And when we are in a fear response, our nervous systems light up. The amygdala dumps cortisol into the system, the body prepares for fight or flight, and the prefrontal cortex goes off-line, taking with it our decision-making and executive-functioning capabilities. When we are in this mode, we are prone to reactivity and poor decision-making. We may be irritable or clumsy, or off-balance and injury-prone. Our relationships suffer and we can do and say things we later regret.
So, take a minute. Feel what this feels like. Notice the sensations in your body and really experience what it is like to be scared. From this perspective of the witness, check out what fear really does in your mind and body. Get to know it. Acknowledge it. Let it be there. It’s already there after all.
Now breathe. Take a full breath, all the way in and all the way out.
By bringing attention to the present moment, either with the breath, or by activating the five senses, your amygdala is down-regulated. The pre-frontal cortex comes back on-line and you have the increased ability now to choose a response. With this ability to take action from a place of calm, focused awareness, more possibilities become available.
Expand your awareness to include the breath, body, and the space and people or situation around you.
Mindfulness gives us the opportunity to turn towards difficulty and to embrace challenges. It invites us to hold difficult emotions and experiences with kindness and compassion.
So, can we hold the threat of our children being unsafe at school with kindness? Yes. Can we turn towards this extreme difficulty and bring awareness and choose a response instead of an automatic reaction. Yes.
We must accept the fact that we are living in times of extreme fear and reactivity, hopelessness, coping, addiction, depression, suicide, and the loss of the value of human connection and of the planet itself.
The increase of isolation, the lack of coping skills and connection, and the resulting skyrocketing rates of mental illness, have created an environment in which we are at war with each other and within ourselves. The threat of someone coming into your child’s school with a gun, and deliberately hurting your precious little ones, is about as large a terror as it could ever be possible to experience. The fear is real. You’re not alone. We have to do something. Our child’s lives and their well-being are in danger every day.
Mindfulness doesn’t ask us not to act. It gives us an invitation to pause, to breathe, to notice what is present, then to skillfully choose a response. You get to choose how to be today.
My suggestion is to do what moves you. Let it out. Follow your heart. Express your frustration in ways that matter. Paint, create, dance, move, write, love, feel, explore, spend time with your kids. Live.
All we have is this moment.
This about today. Fear is in the air, and our nervous systems are designed to pick up on the nervous systems of those around us. This is not something to be taken lightly. If you become reactive today in the face of a threat, no matter how big or small it may seem, see if you can check yourself. Know that this reactivity is normal, and you deserve to feel angry right now.
I challenge you to seek the way of the peaceful warrior and to remain calm in the face of distress. We are on the battlefield of hearts and minds, and lives are at stake. You will be calm, cool, and collected, and able to think clearly when you are needed. The best thing you can do for yourself in the face of this threat, is to tend to yourself and to care for those around you and to radiate peace, love, kindness, and compassion in all directions, as best you can.
Take the time to breathe the air. Feel your skin, and your feet on the ground. Taste your food. Really let yourself experience it. Slow down. Spend time in nature. Run. Laugh. Play. Keep going. Come back to the present moment again and again. It is all we really have.
We are the warriors of compassionate presence and we bring our whole selves to the table. We breathe and wake up and practice focused attention so that when the time comes we can hear the call to action and be the change we wish to see in the world.
The moment is now. How will you be in these troubled times?
Rather than being "one more thing you have to DO" meditation offers us a way to BE in relationship with ourselves.
"I don't have time"
"I can't do one more thing."
"I'm too busy to reduce my stress."
"The thought of doing nothing gives me anxiety."
As a mindfulness teacher, I hear these things all the time. And it is totally understandable! We live in a society that encourages multi-tasking, sends us constant messages that we need to do more, be better, improve ourselves, and live up to high expectations, all in the midst of ever-increasing stress, pressure, anxiety, depression, suicidality, and the growing political and environmental crises that dominate the media.
But remember this: the heart pumps blood to itself first. You cannot show up in life ready to pour out energy to others and to all that should be done if you yourself are empty, exhausted, emotionally fried. You can't pour from an empty cup.
Again and again the research show us that teachers who have the calmest classrooms are those who care for themselves first. Those who are able to manage heavy workloads and high levels of acute stress are able to do so because they have developed strong coping skills and the ability to regulate their nervous systems. The best teachers are the ones who are grounded in the ability to remain non-reactive in the face of extreme stress and can honor each of their students as unique and human beings. Having a calm and regulated classroom has less to do with teaching mindfulness to kids, and more to do with practicing attunement and modeling moment-to-moment non-reactive awareness.
So teachers, I know you are busy, but practicing mindfulness or meditation are not one more thing you have to do. It is a way you get to be. This little bit of time that you spend tending to the inner life, can have the effect of allowing you to show up in a more conscious way throughout the day. It is how you show up in your classroom that determines so much of how your class will respond to you.
Whoever we are, whatever our story, mindfulness invites us into acceptance of what is, allows us to honor our past and our suffering by acknowledging what is already present. If we can hold our experience with compassion, and let go of the notion that any of us needs to change ourselves to become a "better person", we can meet ourselves where we already are. Despite the chaos and upheaval in the modern world, mindfulness gives us a way to always come home.
-Cindy Garner, Executive Director
Collaborative Partner Spotlight:
The Rocky Mountain Mindfulness Center is so thrilled to welcome The Holistic Life Foundation to our collaborative partner network, and to include Andres Gonzalez in our Advisory Council. Please check out the incredible work happening within this organization, and consider making a gift to HLF to support the mindfulness in education movement.
Heartfulness Practice: Compassion in action
Find a comfortable seated position, and make sure you won't be disturbed for the next 20 minutes. This practice is a great way to tend to yourself in moments of relationship or social distress, or when the troubles of the world around you become overwhelming.