The Conscious Classroom

Cultivating Awareness

October 06, 2020 Amy Edelstein Season 1
The Conscious Classroom
Cultivating Awareness
Show Notes Transcript

Awareness is the foundation of stability, good relationships, and creative learning. Mindfulness techniques help teens cultivate self-knowledge – the awareness of their habits of thought and behavior, their likes and dislikes, and the way they feel happiness and sadness. In this Conscious Classroom episode, Amy Edelstein will shed light on how we cultivate awareness and lead you through meditation exercises you can do in your classroom.

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Cultivating Awareness



Hello! Welcome to the October Conscious Classroom Webinar. My name is Amy Edelstein. 


This month we are going to talk about cultivating awareness, why that’s important, how we do it for ourselves, the effect that has on the classroom, and how we teach our students to practice the art of consciously paying attention of being aware in an open and relaxed and very precise way. 


Awareness is the foundation for stability. When we know our own thoughts, we say that we have self-knowledge. Think about it. Do you know what’s going on in your mind? Do you know what you are thinking and believing? Are you aware of what your limits are? Are you conscious and observant when you want to change the subject? 


Do you know what the back text is when you are talking? When a student is talking to you? Are you aware of that back text dialog that you are thinking about when you are thinking about yourself? Are you aware of how you encourage yourself or how you discourage yourself? 


Cultivating awareness means that we know what’s going on in our minds, those things that are influencing us that are important. 


Once I went on a 3-month silent retreat to practice mindfulness, it was just a few years after I started my own meditation practice back in 1985. And I was practicing being aware 14 hours a day literally, sitting, walking, mindfully eating all in silence. 


During that time as you can imagine, over three months, I got a really good look at my mind. I got a really good look at what was going on. And what was amazing was even though up until then of course, I had experienced my thoughts and all the effects of my thoughts, the cycle from self-frustration to interest to stillness to irritation, I had never really paid attention or become aware of those thoughts as they arose in my mind and as they passed away. 


Although over the course of three months, I still experienced all those feelings and thoughts, frustration, self-criticism, self-doubt, happiness, peace, contentment, irritation, impatience. I started to become aware that they were really like weather patterns crossing the sky. I noticed how frustration would fade into awareness and how awareness would flow into stillness and that that might abruptly change into irritation and on and on. 


Before I started cultivating awareness, I just assumed that there was a pattern and a reason to the flow of thoughts that everything had significance. Once I started to become aware, I realize that oftentimes there wasn’t really a pattern or a reason, not everything was significant. I started to see that oftentimes thoughts flowed one into another in a random way. And that if I wasn’t aware, I might build a whole narrative around it or my mood would change, my sense of optimism would change, what I thought was possible would change. 


But when I was paying attention, I began to see that some of those thoughts were simply random and some of them had significance and were worth paying attention to. And those patterns were worth paying attention to. 


That’s why cultivating awareness is so foundational. As teachers, educators of others whether we are in the classroom or whether we are leaders of teachers or whether we educate our own circles in informal ways in our families with our friends, we need to be aware. We need to be mindful and sharp and focused and discriminating about which thoughts that passed across the screen of our awareness are significant and which thought patterns are significant and which aren’t. 


We really want to learn to know our minds, to notice and understand in a profound way how thought gives rise to feeling, emotions, mental states, how those mental states give way to action. 


Thoughts can be benign even if they are negative thoughts if we are aware and mindful. If we are not then those thoughts do become impressions, judgments, and actions. 


We might be irritated with ourselves about something we didn’t do well. That used to happen to me oftentimes. I would wake up and think that I just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. But really, what was going on was a self-criticism of some way that I felt that I didn’t measure up, that I hadn’t well enough. 


Now, those thoughts weren’t always objective. They were subjective. They didn’t necessarily have to do with fact. 


And before I become more mindful of them, those thoughts of self-criticism or regret or negativity would turn into a grumpy mood. I’m sure you felt it. You wake up. Something passes across your mind and you become grumpy. You become irritated with your spouse or your children or your colleagues or your students. And next thing you know, your whole day has taken a different track. 


Whereas with awareness, you can see, “Oh, that’s just a habit. That’s just a thought pattern. Not necessarily true. In fact, that thing that I was critical about, somebody else was positive about, which do I want to believe? Which is more true? Which is more useful? Which gives rise to a better state of mind and to better actions and relationships with others?”


Cultivating mindfulness is just so very important. We can also cultivate and need to cultivate mindfulness and awareness around sensation. Right now, I’m actually experiencing the beginning of a toothache. I woke up this morning. I was feeling not that well. So I kind of scanned my mind to see what it was and then I realized, “Oh, there was that familiar ache in my back molar.” 


And that without awareness, without mindfulness, without consciousness, that dull irritation could lead to reactivity, short-temperedness, harshness with ourselves or with other people. Sometimes we have the beginning of a headache or a toothache. Sometimes we are hot, we are overheated. Sometimes our shoes are too tight and they are rubbing and we are feeling irritated. 


When we become aware in this very open and simple way, we are not overwhelmed by sensations crowding in on us. It’s not like we are opening the floodgates to just that overwhelming observance of everything that happened. But we are aware of important things that might be nagging at us. 


In a classroom with 30 or 35, 37 students, all kinds of things are going on. We need to be aware of the important things that sometimes catch us out of the corner of the eye. Sometimes there’s one student sitting in the kind of middle of the class in that blank space, not in the back, not in the front, just in that spot that it’s easy to go undetected. Maybe that student has stopped talking, stopped saying anything, not disruptive, just disappearing. 


When we are aware and we aware of our whole class, we are taking in that little blank spot in the classroom will start to come into our awareness. We will notice that child. We will respond to them. We will find out if everything is OK. 


So with awareness of what’s there, awareness of what’s not there, as teachers, that awareness is essential. And we will also talk a little bit later in this webinar about how to help our students cultivate that. But for now, I’m really thinking about our own job as teachers in the classroom, about how critical it is to be aware and alert and open with all of our senses. 


The reason why awareness is so important is because it also helps us be in our lives as they are unfolding. We are aware of self. We are aware of body. We are aware of mind and we are aware of being alive, of that presence, of awakeness and aliveness. 


We’ve all talked about and heard the phrase, “Be here now,” coined by Ram Dass so many decades ago, a good five decades ago by now. But there’s a reason that that phrase is still in our cultural zeitgeist so many decades later. 


Be here now isn’t just a cute saying. It’s a profound command. And it’s a map like a treasure map to inner peace and harmony. 


When we are in our own lives and living them in the present as we are living them, not lost in our memories or so lost in our plans for the future that we are not aware of what’s happening around us. It doesn’t mean we don’t plan, which we do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t cherish our memories, which we do. It doesn’t mean that we don’t contemplate the significance of events in the past and our aspirations, our goals in the future. Of course, we do all of that. 


Being here now, means that we are in our lives living them as we are living them. We are not distracted by perpetual regret and remorse or frustration with the present so that we live in our dreams and we are aware in our classrooms even as we are planning, even as we are explaining the future to our kids, our students, we are aware of the sense of being in our bodies now, being in the present tense now, being in our lives. 


That awareness, that presence is a quality of freedom. It’s a quality of not being bound by our fears and desires. It’s a quality of being stable and available, alert and open and also deeply witnessing in a very heartfelt way all of our life, all of its fluidity, all of its depth, all of its complexity, all of its sorrow, all of its joy. 


When we are aware and awake and present in that way, we can be there goofing around with our students when the moment is appropriate, instructing them when they don’t understand and we need to keep explaining again and again to open their minds to complexity that they hadn’t been able to consider and we can be there to provide steadiness, steadiness and sensitivity when they really need it the most. And that awareness is worth everything. 


This week, we had quite a challenging time in one of our schools. One of the students died by a gun violence. He was just a sophomore in high school, a quiet and very smart young man with a promising future ahead of him. 


The school understandably and all of his friends and all of the kids who didn’t know him very well had a lot to deal with. They had to struggle with their own feelings of loss and grief of fear and frustration, of anger at a world that doesn’t protect them, of helplessness before forces that are not understandable and not explainable neither to adults nor to children. 


The school had an open day and extra counselors and teachers were there. They had an open room for drawing and talking and being. And our inner strength instructor who has taught at that school was there on hand just to bear witness, just to be aware, just to be present, and to be able to be with all of the students. Not forcing anything, not insisting, not overstepping. And her own practice of awareness and quality of awareness was so deeply appreciated by the principal and the teachers. They felt her steadiness even though she told me how emotional and sad she was. She could sense which kids wanted to talk, which kids wanted to be left alone, who wanted her presence, who didn’t, who wanted to ask a question, who wanted simple companionship. And she was there. 


That quality of awareness, of sensitivity, of nonviolence, not needing to be there in any other way than what was needed, not needing to impose, not needing to force, and all the while holding space for that which is unnamable, holding space for grief and confusion, for frustration, and for kids also just to be kids in the middle of it. 


Mindful awareness is the capacity that we cultivate and we develop and we grow in ourselves so that it can be a gift for our students, for our schools, for our colleagues during the times of grief, times where we have to find a way through the unspeakable, through the unjustifiable, through the unexpected. 


That inner freedom that we discover through mindful awareness gives us that reservoir of goodness and joy so in times when we may not be feeling that joy, we may be feeling the heartbreak of human tragedy. 


We are still as a presence stable. We still carry that presence of goodness, that presence of love. That’s what we give to our students as gifts. That’s what we give to our colleagues. We give them that stability. We give them that reservoir of goodness, not whitewashing difficult events but carrying in our being, in our knowledge, in our experience that profound stability that comes from being with bearing witness, being open to life as it is, to the self-knowledge and to that – the extra sensitivity that gets cultivated when we practice awareness. 


While you might think that being more aware, less dull, will open you up to more of the pain of the world around us, more of the harshness, more of the incoming, it’s actually quite the opposite. When we are so aware and present, we are able to witness the world as it is and also be at the same time rooted in a quality of awakeness and being alive that is deeper. It’s like substrate underneath. 


And that quality of being alive and awake is like the pure sky behind all the stars that come and go, always there whether the weather is stormy or the weather is calm. And when we are rooted there, the sharpness and harshness of life doesn’t carry the same sting although in some ways we feel it and are aware of human suffering even more. It’s a paradox that we have to lean into to find our way through. 


Let’s do a practice, a practice of mindful awareness and then we will move into a practice of mindful observation and finally we will move into a practice of care because cultivating attention is also ultimately about cultivating a truly profound compassion, a truly profound love with a capital L for ourselves, for our students, for humanity as a whole, for the world, for the balance of the cosmos and the wonder of it all. 


Let’s begin with a meditative practice, sitting up straight. This is one that you can do with your students. But this time, let’s just do it for ourselves so that we know what we are trying to teach our students from the inside out. 


Let your body settle. Let your attention settle. And begin to become aware of sensation in your body. Notice, are there places that are tight and stiff? If your legs crossed, do you feel one pressing into the other? I’m seated cross-legged and I can feel the press of my ankle bones into the floor. You might feel the press of your body against the chair or your hands resting on your thighs. 


Let your attention go to the sensation. Is it warm or cool? Is it heavy or light? Is it smooth or rough? Is it pleasant or unpleasant? 


Does the experience of sensation have a beginning, and a middle, and an end? 


When you put your awareness on one sensation, do you begin out of a corner of your mind’s eye notice a second sensation in a different part of your body? 


Keep your attention soft but notice, really notice. 


Notice the weight of your tongue in your mouth, the weight of your head on the back of your neck. 


Notice the air, the sensation, the skin of our nose. 


Notice the feel of the air going in. 


Be with the smallest sensations with precision and immediacy. 


Really noticing, keeping your mind there. 


As we bring this part of the cultivating awareness practice to close, notice that really precise paying attention to sensation also give rise to an emotional quality. Did it give you joy, a sense of vibrancy, a sense of being alive, a sense of that urgency of life, that fullness of life, a sense of happiness? Happiness almost as a feeling not a thought or an emotion. 


Notice what happens when you begin to become aware in such a precise and focused and open way, see how we can really train our attention. And when we train our attention in that way, look at what opens up in your own consciousness, in your own awareness. 


And we can bring that practice to a close. 


Let’s turn our attention now to a different way of cultivating awareness. Let’s use our powers of observation in a similar, very precise way. Usually when we look around and we see objects, we just see them almost through our concept, through our memory, through our knowledge of what they are.


I’m looking at a bookcase full of books of all different colors. I think about them as books that I’ve read or ideas that I hold or authors that I like. I look at the colors and I have a relationship to those colors, blue or red or white or yellow that I like, that I have feelings about. 


Now, let’s take that familiar quality or sense of observation and let’s break it down more mindfully. And this is something that you can do with your students. Let’s do it now together so that you have the experience. 


Look around you. Choose an object that your gaze rest upon and look the color. It might be a book or a chair or an object on your desk, or a curtain at a window. Notice everything you can just about the color. Is that color that you are looking, is it brilliant or dull? Is it opaque or transparent? 


Be very, very aware. So aware that you almost lose the sense of knowing what the name of that color is. Just be aware of it as it is. 


Does that color evoke a smell or a temperature? Is it hot or wet or cold? Is it flavorful or bland? Is it pungent or spicy? 


Does it have a feeling associated with it? 


Is it hurried or is it slow? 


Just taking the color as it is and notice how when you let go of the concepts around it, the color’s name, and the flatness with which you take it in because you already know what it is, but take it in afresh, very aware. See how alive it becomes. Taking away the filters of concepts, being aware, being lift, being present, being connected with that color just as it is. 


And let’s bring this exercise to a close. See how you feel. Do you feel somewhat startled because you approached something so familiar in such a different way that it became alive and took on qualities and characteristics you didn’t imagine? 


When you do this with your students in your classroom, you can choose a sound in the room, in the building, outside. There’s so much notice about sound, about when it starts, whether it’s long or short of abrupt. 


Practicing being aware in this way changes our experience of our environment. It cultivates creativity. It brings our senses alive and it brings us in touch and in relationship with sharing a present and a presence, being in the present tense with everything that we are sharing space with, being witness to being present for, sharing that sense of immediacy and vibrancy and wholeness and life. 


And let’s close this session on cultivating awareness with a meditation on care, really paying attention this time to the quality of care, resistance to care. Sometimes we feel closed to care. Sometimes we feel blank to care. Sometimes we feel that care is abstract or conceptual and not connected with us. Sometimes care feels so emotional or it doesn’t feel authentic or meaningful. So let’s be aware of care, care in ourselves, care towards others. 


And in a short love and kindness practice, as I send these wishes, be aware of your own experience of care, of openness or resistance, of immediacy or distance. 


Without judgment, with openness, bear witness. And as you bear witness, notice softening. 


So allow yourself to sit in a relaxed but open way with your spine tall, your body still, your feet planted, your head balanced, and send yourself these wishes. 


May I be happy? 


May I be safe? 


May I be present? 


May I be free? 


May I be caring? 


May I be cared for? 


May I be open? 


May I be whole? 


May I be aware? 


May I be present? 


May I be with? 


May I be immediate? 


May I experience life as it is in all of its fullness and all of its love? 


Let your attention be soft and just rest for some minutes in this space of open awareness. 


And now, let’s bring that meditation to a close. Notice how you feel. Notice that quality of awareness of presence, of awakeness, of compassion, and of groundedness. 


Cultivating awareness is so very important for everyone but especially for anyone who is in the position of teaching which really we all are, and for anyone who is working with youth trying to get them to open their minds and their hearts to the fullness of life. 


You can use these exercises, mindfulness of sensation, mindfulness of observation, mindfulness of caring as ways to cultivate the attention of your class. And if you work with these on a regular basis in a really focused way, really demanding that quality of open attention and awareness and observation, letting go of the conceptual mind, letting go of past and future and really observing, really being with, you cultivate in your students an incredible quality of creativity and curiosity and presence that can really change your classroom in an unexpected way. 


Thank you so much and I look forward to our next session next month. 


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