Friday, March 22, 2013
How to Keep Calm in a Storm
Years ago, I complained to a friend of mine about the atmosphere at the school where I taught in the spring. The stress level in schools is incredible when spring rolls around. It wasn't just that particular school, either. This was a yearly occurrence, in my experience, no matter how long I had been teaching, and no matter what school I was teaching at.
I love kids and I love teaching, but it was tough going in the spring. Some of my still-teaching friends have mentioned the stress level recently, so it's starting. My friends love their jobs, too, and always feel obligated to mention that they love the kids. Otherwise their remarks are apt to be misunderstood.
It's pretty easy to figure out why stress goes up in the spring. The kids have been cooped up all winter, because city schools in the northern states nowadays don't allow kids to go out for recess if the temperature is below zero. If you're from a rural area, you might not understand that, but you have to remember that there are a lot more truly poor students who can't afford warm clothes, and when kids go outside to play in the snow, wet clothes result, which lead to colds and flu going around. It's just easier to keep them inside. In the spring, the kids are understandably eager to be outdoors, and chafe mightily at having to sit in a classroom when the sun is shining and warm breezes are blowing. Well, duh! Most teachers would rather be outside enjoying the mild weather, as well.
By springtime, all the little idiocies of the school year start to creep up on a person. For kids, this means being sick and tired of standing in line, sitting in an assigned seat, and taking test after test. For teachers, this means trying to plan lessons using a crappy reading series, attending yet another required meeting after school - or before school, entering grades into a computer and having trouble saving the data, keeping up with all the paperwork, proctoring standardized tests, and dealing with all the discipline issues, which seem to mushroom as the weather gets warmer. Plus, there is the added stress of playing "beat the clock" with the curriculum, trying to get it all in before school shuts down for the summer.
For the poor kids, there is always an additional source of stress: a looming summer vacation. Most people look forward to summer break, but it became heartrendingly obvious to me, the longer I taught, that kids from the poor families did not welcome the end of school. They didn't have a bike to ride, to get out of the house. Many of them did not have a yard or safe place outdoors to play in. A lot of the kids were not allowed to use the telephone – especially the ELL kids whose parents did not speak English well. (The parents simply did not want their kids jabbering away to someone on the phone when they couldn't figure out what they were talking about, and to whom. Sad, but understandable. And those were the caring parents.) For a great many kids, the breakfast and lunch they get at school were their only meals. In the summer, they would have to make do with whatever they could get at home. Their parents, meanwhile, had the added stress of having to shell out more money for food during the summer months. And then there was the problem of finding something to do with no money to do it, staying clear of adults on drugs or alcohol who were prone to unpredictable and destructive behavior, and just generally staying safe from neighborhood gangs or drive-by violence.
A lot of my friends pointed out that people in other jobs were under stress, too. What I couldn't understand was why it was so hard for us to deal with this problem in schools. I quickly realized that if the adults weren't able to handle their own stress, they couldn't very well expect the kids to handle theirs. At least adults are able to talk about and enumerate their stressors, whereas kids just don't have the vocabulary or the life experience to do this. Many psychologists say that when we can't name what's bothering us, our feelings of anger, our worries, our fears, and the resulting stress only increase.
The friend to whom I complained about all this was sympathetic, but he also gave me some information that I'd never heard before. He told me about the Law of Facsimiles. If you're in business, you probably know what a fax is. It's essentially a copy machine attached to a telephone line. You put a piece of paper into the machine at your end, dial a special fax number, and a copy of your document comes out on the receiver's end. The word "facsimile" itself means "copy."
My friend explained that all of us unconsciously broadcast our feelings and pick up on the broadcasts of others. The stronger the emotions, the stronger the broadcast. When we are in a room with a lot of people, then we pick up on a lot of broadcasts all at once, an emotional storm, as it were. If everybody happens to be broadcasting the same thing, it can be pretty overwhelming. It has been proven that our brains don't distinguish between a stimulus that is physically present and one that is not. That's why we cry when we watch a movie or read a book. The thing that makes us cry is not physically present; it's in the book or movie.
When we receive a strong enough broadcast, our brains react to it as usual, and we begin to feel that same emotion, whether it is joy, grief, anger, or fear. That's why crowds of people can turn into a mob. Only a few of them are leaders. The rest of the people are really just picking up on the emotions of the crowd.
In schools, where hundreds of people are jammed into one building, and where the majority of those people are children, you can see how this works. The kids are stressed, the teachers are stressed, and everyone broadcasts their stress to everyone else. The kids act out inappropriately because they don't understand what is happening to them, which creates more stress for the adults, who are not helping by broadcasting their stress to the children. See the feedback loop?
So what's the solution? My friend told me that this is one of those problems for which there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Each and every individual must find his own solution. But knowing what the problem is helps a great deal. When you know that you are sending broadcasts to others and receiving broadcasts from others, you have a statement of the problem that lends itself to a solution - at least, for the individual who is aware. The solution is two-pronged.
First of all, you have to find a way to shield yourself from the broadcasts of others. One way to shield yourself is to put yourself in a bubble of light. The bubble can be any color, but white seems to work well for this exercise. Inside the bubble, you are protected from the onslaught of emotions that others are broadcasting. You begin to separate your true feelings from those that have been foisted on you. Some of the stress you were feeling because of the broadcasts begins to melt away, and it's easier to deal with your own issues.
You may think this is all just smoke and mirrors, but the subconscious mind is very powerful, as I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, and it reacts to visual images. A visual mock-up such as a bubble of light can actually help us re-program the subconscious mind, telling it that it doesn't have to record all the broadcasts of others. The effect is not necessarily immediate. You have to feed your subconscious mind this same image for a while. Dr. Maxwell Maltz, whom I mentioned in my blog post about the subconscious mind, found that it takes the brain at least three weeks to adjust to anything new, so if we are re-programming it, three weeks is a minimum amount of time to feed it the new data. This has to be a consistent and continuous process. A once- or twice-daily meditation lasting for only five or ten minutes each can do the trick. When you visualize the bubble, see yourself going about your day as usual, but within the bubble. Notice how you feel. Notice the absence of "noise" from others. Notice how relaxed and happy you are feeling. Enjoy the feeling of contentedness. Feel the peace.
Once you have gotten the hang of the bubble of light, you have to find a way to broadcast pleasant thoughts and not broadcast unpleasant ones. Everyone experiences fear, anger, and worry. These will not go away, your bubble of light notwithstanding. But you can learn not to let these thoughts take root and grow within yourself. In her book, Walk Two Moons, Sharon Creech created the character of an old blind woman who was given to collecting wise sayings, which she shared with the protagonist, a young girl of middle school age. One of those sayings was, "You can't keep the birds of sadness from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair." This quote contains great imagery, and is a perfect expression of what I am talking about. The thoughts that people broadcast are the ones that are "nesting in their hair," as it were. We don't generally broadcast everything we think, just the thoughts that stay with us. If we can find a way to let go of the worrisome, fearful, and angry thoughts, we won't broadcast them. This is not to say that whatever situation has caused worry, fear or anger will go away. The situations will still be there, but we will no longer allow the emotions they generate to control us. Sure, there are things that worry us, but worry, itself, won't solve the problem. We have to take action to solve the problem and make the worry go away. Same goes for anger or fear. There's no good reason to entertain these emotions on a long-term basis, because they don't solve any problems. They just make us feel miserable, and when we then act accordingly, a vicious cycle ensues. The thing is to acknowledge the worry, the anger, the fear, and then let it go, realizing that the thought itself is only a reminder that we need to take some sort of action to correct the problem. This takes practice, but if we engage in simple meditation each day, we can train our minds to serve us, rather than be held in thrall to what the Buddhists call the "monkey mind."
To ensure that I was broadcasting only pleasant thoughts throughout the day, I learned to quiet the chatterbox inside my head and substitute what you might call "musical thoughts." I basically just let the music run inside my head as if I were listening to a Walkman (or an iPod, nowadays). This worked especially well when the class was working independently and expected to be quiet. While the kids worked, I would re-create some of the beautiful instrumental music that I listened to at home. Other teachers would comment that I had a way of calming a classroom full of kids, and they wondered how I did it.
One other thing that I do to calm myself is something that I learned from my spiritual training. HU is an ancient name for God, from a time before organized religions. Many African friends of mine tell me that they learned about HU from their mothers, before they ever heard of a religion called Eckankar. All sounds carry a vibration. When we sing or chant a name for God (in any language), we set up a vibration that is in harmony with the vibration from the Source. We are in harmony with God. When we achieve this state, our fears, worries and feelings of anger melt away, and we experience the "peace that passeth understanding." You may ask why I don't just chant the word "God." Well, if you think about it, the word God ends with a consonant, so it's harder to sing or chant this word. It's much easier to chant something that ends in a vowel. Besides, God doesn't really care what name we use; God understands all human languages. I sing HU out loud at home, and in my mind, when I'm out in public.
The photo and quote I posted at the beginning of this blog entry reminded me of my experience learning about the necessity of protecting our inner worlds. Sure, we come in contact with all kinds of people in our daily lives. We can't make everyone disappear just so we can feel some peace. But we don't have to let them into our inner sanctuary. We don't have to accept their unconscious broadcasts. We have the power to maintain our own inner peace. :-)