Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Back to school?

It’s hard to believe that on March 13th I was thinking the “temporary” shutdown of my children’s schools for two weeks was somewhat inconvenient. Oh the naivety! Here we are now, over 6 months later, and just thinking of “opening” up schools.

I’ve been fortunate during this pandemic to be able to find some silver linings and space from the race pace of life; although, I am aware that this may not be true for many people. Mindfulness practice has never been so needed in my life, as it has over these past 6 months.

Mindfulness back to school
“Back to school” may be looking very different for our kids and teachers this year.

One of the vital components of mindful awareness, has been reverberating everywhere I turn- and that is the idea of perspective.

Taking sides seems to be part of our daily decision making lately. If I think X, that means I’m with this group, and if I think Y, than I’m with the other group. Even with a variety of scientific perspectives in front of us, we find ourselves “believing in” and aligning to our side of the table, whatever that may be. How much is fear a factor in this decision-making? Fear is a powerful source of unrest and creates a heightened need to feel in control. When the fear-center of our brain is activated, a cascade of hormones and neurological chemicals are stimulated to keep us out of danger. For many people, this current situation of uncertainty has gotten hold of this fear-center and not let it go.

Through mindfulness we can practice becoming aware of this activation and learn to make a response, instead of a reaction. This area of the brain can also be activated when we see what “the other side” is doing that we may not agree with. Perspective-taking is a practice and now, perhaps more than ever, needed to help bring our fear-center down a few notches.

I am consciously working on perspective-taking as I see news about school learning plans, cancelled sports, and travel restrictions. As we all try to make the best decisions for our families about the return to school, I see people on all sides of the issue struggling to find common ground with friends in the community. If I decide to send my kids to school, some may think I’m being selfish and negligent as a parent. If I decide to keep my kids home, others may think I’m living in fear or giving up my liberty. School officials are working diligently to figure out numerous plans to fit in state and federal guidelines, union contracts and the needs of every student. This is certainly not an enviable position, and quite impossible to be seen as the “hero” by all sides.

By consciously choosing to engage in perspective taking- especially when we don’t agree- we can help that fear-center de-escalate substantially. By making a choice to not engage in the “othering” tendency we can support our own well-being by increasing our capacity for compassion and empathy for others. Being aware that our minds naturally have a negativity bias, that is programmed into our brains for safety, may be all it takes to start making a shift.

“Back to school” may be looking very different for our kids and teachers this year. I’m guessing most of us would choose for things to go “back to normal” if we could, but realize more time is needed. I’m hoping the teachers conducting in person learning were given a choice and are not managing a classroom full of mask-wearing kids in a constant state of fear- because that fear will be noted in some way by the students in their care.

I invite anyone reading this who is interested in a little relief from the side-taking, to start noticing when that fear-center is activated. It might start with physical sensations, like tension in the neck or stomach, heat in the face, perhaps even elevated heart rate. In these moments there is a space to be able to notice what’s happening. If you are able to catch these early cues, next try to label the emotion connected to the experience. Frustration, anger, fear, exasperation, anxiety. Whatever is present is what is happening in the moment- no need to change it- AND it also doesn’t need to take over. Perhaps say, “Oh, this is what frustration feels like.” Then, can you become curious? I wonder why they might think that way? I’m interested in knowing how they came to that decision. I am curious what I might not know about the situation that helped them make this choice.

This practice isn’t meant to diminish the need for people to take a stand for what they believe in; it’s meant to be a bridge between ourselves and others in the recognition of our common humanity. In the words of former President Jimmy Carter, “The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices.”

This makes sense to me, AND I know that it takes work to see the common humanity through my fears and prejudices. By choosing to work on perspective taking I can come a bit closer to this reality, and so can others who choose to make it part of their work.