My pledge to notice
Almost a year ago now I was at a conference in London. Well, they called it a “forum” and it was about improving student well-being in terms of physical and mental health. (What can I say? This is the kind of thing I’m interested in!) Anyway, over the course of the day there were many interesting speakers saying many interesting things about university students’ health and well-being. I came away from this day with a single, powerful take home message that I was determined to remember every day in the course of my work: Students want to be noticed. If things are not going well for a student, one of the presenters said, generally speaking s/he will not seek help. However, students are more likely to get help if someone notices they are struggling. Such a simple strategy that seemingly pays rich dividends, especially for the person who may be struggling. This was something I could do.
I knew I could do this, because I was already practicing this. Not necessarily with students, but with myself. This strategy, noticing, is one of the basic principles in the practice of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is commonly referred to as the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre, says mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (1994, p. 4). So, really, it’s all about noticing what is happening right here and right now. If I am doing this for myself through my mindfulness practice, surely I can do this with my students. Easy!
Or is it? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m on a journey. Recently, I found myself worked up into a ‘right state’ – as some might say, my knickers were in a twist. Once again, I was angry; I was frustrated. And I had been this way for almost 2 weeks. It had taken me two weeks to notice just how angry and frustrated I was. Turns out, after reflecting on and processing the situation, I was feeling disempowered. I didn’t know what to do. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. The problem was, it didn’t yet feel like a realistic course of action. This “fact” in and of itself probably wound me up more. When I eventually realised I was feeling frustrated and disempowered, all at once, my anger turned to sadness. I just wanted to cry. I was sad. I was verging on hopeless. And I was scared.
But I am fortunate. I am too lucky in that I have people I can process with. That has always been my ‘go-to’ strategy when negative feelings get the better of me. Talk about it with a trusted friend, then think about it some more, then talk about it again, either with the same trusted friend or another trusted friend. Then think about it some more and, then, more talking. Again and again (and sometimes even more!) until the solution appears or the problem is resolved. So, I had noticed my negative feelings and away I went to ‘processing-land’. Unfortunately for him, my husband is a good listener – and fortunately for me, my husband is a good listener. So that’s where I went. Explaining in grave detail all those things that triggered these feelings of frustration and disempowerment over the past ten days. Reliving the frustration, becoming re-aggrieved at the situation, digging and digging to try and find a way out. And my husband listened. And my husband offered solutions and my husband listened some more.
After a night of two of processing, I noticed again – I noticed I was still sad. I noticed I was still feeling hopeless. I noticed I was still scared. I’m not sure exactly when or how the noticing happened, but I’m pretty sure it was at a time when I was taking a break from processing (even I can tell when my husband is getting tired because I’m going round in circles in ‘processing-land’.) And in that break, in that moment, instead of berating myself for not being able to find the solution, for being completely unable to fix the problem, I noticed - and accepted - there may not be an immediate solution. I noticed this might actually be where I need to be right now. No, it’s not a comfortable place; no, it’s not a pleasant place; no, it’s most definitely not a happy place. Regardless of all those things, this is where I was. Sad, fearful and without answers. Sigh. What an ugly place to be and this is where I am.
Having struggled through the week and wandered into all the nooks and crannies of ‘processing-land’ for days, I had finally noticed I noticed. Usually the way I do that is through writing – either in my ‘Happiness Project One Sentence Journal’ (by Gretchen Rubin – it’s a kind of 5-year diary with a few lines for each day) or in my ‘gratitude list’ that comes with my Aura mindfulness app – and sometimes these things just come to me when I’m doing something else. This night, my lines in my journal were about being grateful that I had someone to process with who wouldn’t judge me and being grateful that I noticed where I was. In a somewhat presumptive way, I also wrote that I was grateful that tomorrow was another day that might be different from today. And then, it’s more likely than not that, instead of drifting off peacefully to sleep, I played Pac Man on my phone for a bit to offer myself just a wee bit more of a distraction from where I was at that particular moment in time.
I woke up the next morning – day 11 now – with frustrating scenarios still playing through my head. Still processing, but now silently. And then something really interesting happened. I remembered what I had noticed the night before. I had noticed that this wasn’t a very nice place to be and that there might not be an immediate solution. And I sighed – and then got up and started my day. Funnily enough, I didn’t need to process any more. It was now tomorrow and there was possibility. Since I knew where I was (and where I had been for the past ten days), I found I didn’t really need to worry about it today. In noticing where I was – and accepting this – I was able to decide that there wasn’t anything I could really do about feeling disempowered except try to take my power back. And the first way I took my power back was to stop disempowering myself by expecting myself to come up with solutions to fix my environment when, actually, there were no immediate solutions available.
And, lo and behold, the frustration and the anger dissipated. Nothing about the situation had changed – except my dogged and determined expectation that I fix the situation. I cannot change the way others treat me, but I can change how I treat myself. I am worthy of respect; I am worthy of kindness and compassion. Even when I don’t get these things from others, I am still very capable of giving these things to myself. Noticing I was struggling, accepting myself where I was that day and being kind to myself was exactly what I needed. I even began to feel excited – I had noticed! Really noticed! And look at what noticing had allowed me to achieve! I had actually been able to leave my worries, anxieties and negativity in yesterday. I have heard it been said (by the ever-inspiring handsfreemama once again – see https://www.handsfreemama.com/2016/06/24/from-seeing-my-worst-in-you-to-seeing-hope-for-both-of-us/) that today matters more than yesterday. And – oh – so it does. I had noticed. I had accepted. I had been kind. After all of those days of worrying, of berating, of getting frustrated by trying to find the solution to those things that were worrying me, this was like a breath of fresh air.
I had noticed what was happening and in noticing was able to make a conscious decision. I decided that I was worth it; that today really does matter more than yesterday. I have come up with a plan for dealing with the frustrating scenarios that plagued me for 10 days. That plan involves 3 tactics: 1. Standing strong in my values; 2. Being kind to myself and others even in the face of frustration and 3. Noticing – noticing when I am becoming frustrated and noticing when I’m feeling disempowered – so I can consciously choose what I need to do for myself. This might, just maybe, keep me from getting stuck in that place where my knickers are twisted. And if I find myself in that place again, which I’m pretty sure I will, I am more hopeful and confident that I will notice this sooner. In this way, my own journey will become smoother – and likely somewhat easier and more pleasant.
And, if I can do this for myself more consistently, I am highly confident that I will also be able to do this more consistently with others. Because I"m convinced this is what we need – all of us. To be noticed. To be accepted. To be treated with kindness. So today, and every day that follows, I will make a pledge to myself – and to others – to notice. Really notice. Without judging and with kindness. Because that may just make the difference we need to move forward. Will you join me?
If you'd like to read more about mindfulness:
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness meditation for everyday life. London: Piatkus Books.
For more about Gretchen Rubin's take on happiness and/or for your own 5-year journal see:
Rubin, G. (2011) The Happiness Project One-Sentence Journal: A Five-year Record. New York: Potter Style.