So excited to be sharing the benefits of mindfulness with our McNair community. Learning how to be present is probably one of the greatest gifts we can cultivate. I look forward to being on this journey with each of you!
The simple practice of breathing with our students is planting a seed with potential to ground ourselves in the present moment and more gracefully handle the ebb and flow of daily life in all its beauty and challenge.
Mindfulness is present moment awareness. It’s one of the most important skills we can cultivate because it teaches us to BE.
We spend a lot of time doing. Because we have a lot to do!
School teaches us how to THINK + DO really well and becoming a critical thinker is a large part of what pursuing a Ph.D. is all about.
The problem emerges when we spend most of our time thinking and doing and not enough time being. The truth is we spend a lot of time inside our heads, and sometimes, it’s just not the friendliest place to be!
Consider yourself and your students. How easy is it to be carried away by the ticker tape in our minds, telling us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, or that the world might be ending, right? Our minds tend to be a constant stream of commentary often feeding into our stress and anxiety.
What mindfulness brings into focus is a counterbalance to all this thinking and doing. It teaches us to be in our bodies by using our senses and focal points, such as the breath, and helps shift into an alternate mode … that of simply BEING.
The #mindfulscholar movement invites us to breathe together on a regular basis.
Breathe with our students. Explore meditation and yoga. Talk about how we feel in our bodies, when we’re feeling well and when we’re dealing with stress. Let’s invite exploration + conversation on this important topic and how becoming more mindful can make a huge difference in our academics and life!
One of the things I love about attending a yoga class is being prompted to think in new ways. In addition to queuing the different poses, a teacher will usually weave in a particular “theme” or “language” meant to elucidate a certain concept or idea typically related to the philosophy of yoga. In essence, the goal of yoga is becoming more in tune with your true self.
Today, we were invited to consider how much of our “true selves” we actually show to the world on a regular basis. True, there are probably parts of ourselves that are easy to share, certain qualities, beliefs, manners of being. Perhaps even truer are other parts of ourselves more easily kept hidden. Perhaps they fall beyond what is considered “the norm” or maybe we are afraid that if we show who we really are or what we really believe in, we won’t be accepted by others. We are afraid to stand in our own truth for fear of being judged and rejected.
When we are mindful, we can usually start to notice how we only allow certain parts of ourselves to show, depending upon the situation we find ourselves in.
What’s interesting about a yoga practice is that we explore such topics through breath and movement. We take a look at these “more subtle notions” through tangible things like breathing and moving our bodies.
Today, we were encouraged to embrace the totality of ourselves, flaws and weaknesses, in all. Strengths too. By observing our mind as we move from pose to pose, we learn to lean into the discomfort of simply being ourselves, just as we are. We have lots of “stories” we tell about ourselves. We aren’t good at this, we aren’t good at that. This happened and so I’m this way because of that.
Today in our yoga practice, we were encouraged to let go of these stories (that “ticker tape” constantly running in our heads), and instead, embrace the present moment of who we are. Right now. At this moment.
Can I stand in my own truth of who I am as an individual?
The real opportunity comes from challenging those stories, or in many cases, “limiting beliefs,” we hold so dear. Today our practice culminated with a pretty challenging pose. Immediately, my internal “ticker tape” began saying, it would be easier to just stick with the simpler version of this, you probably can’t get your leg up like that anyway, it might be too strenuous.
Instead of listening to that ticker tape, I tried it. It didn’t look pretty, especially in relation to the two beautiful teachers surrounding me and going into the fully realized version of it, but I tried it. Then I refined how I tried it, on the second side, with feedback from my teacher.
It was probably a “smidge” better on that second side, but the deal is, it was *my version* of that pose for today. Sure, my teachers’ versions still appeared “more better” (vocab from my 8-year-old, smile) in my mind’s eye; but I dropped that story, if just for the moment, and recognized myself for having tried and having accomplished “my version” of that more advanced yoga pose, for today.
Heather doing “the pose” quite beautifully. This is “her version” of the pose.
I’m doing this in CrossFit too. Just yesterday I back-squatted 120 pounds. Five more pounds than I did last week. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried it. I focused and leaned into the discomfort involved in trying something I hadn’t done before; something I, in the back of my head, was already second guessing I could do. Darn ticker tape running and doing its job, like it always does.
And so I did that too. And maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I did it. And as a result, I inserted this notion of being able to do it, into my brain. Cool thing is, next time around, my “ticker tape” might just resurrect this belief instead!
My teacher then read an excerpt from The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo:
“Like many of us, I seem to be continually challenged not to hide who I am. Over and over, I keep finding myself in situations that require me to be all of who I am in order to make my way through. Whether breaking a pattern of imbalance with a lifelong friend, or admitting my impatience to listen to my lover, or owning my envy of a colleague, or even confronting the self-centeredness of strangers stealing parking spaces, I find I must be present – even if I say nothing. I find I must not suppress my full nature, or my life doesn’t emerge.
Aside from the feeling of integrity or satisfaction that comes over me when I can fully be myself, I am finding that being who I am – not hiding any of myself – is a necessary threshold that I must meet or my life will not evolve. It is a doorway I must make my way to or nothing happens. My life just stalls.”
What it comes down to is leaning into the discomfort of new territory and discovering who you really are, even if it’s scary and even if it’s easier to stay right where we are. When we do this (especially on a regular basis), we expose, more and more, our true selves and who we really are as individuals.
It’s how we grow.
It’s how we shed our stories and allow ourselves to evolve.
I get to spend a bunch of time with my students, especially during the summer. And I love it. We get a first-hand view of them learning how to do research, busting a move for the GRE and searching for the *most amazing* graduate opportunity out there among the gazillion options available (read: can be kinda challenging). We get to eat with them – quite often actually – and workout with them – sounds weird, but really cool – and just hang out on occasion – think sitting campfire-side + maybe crashing weddings, but I digress.
The point is: we are teaching our scholars a lot about the process of becoming successful graduate students, but we get to learn a lot along the way too. Win win you say! That’s what I say. In a sense, we’re all experimenting with this idea of what it means to live your best life. We all want to do work that matters. We all want to reach our potential, challenge ourselves. We want to feel good while we’re at it, which means taking care of ourselves too. It’s an ongoing dialogue, it’s trial and error, it’s sharing breakthroughs and challenging each other to step up to the plate. Which could mean applying for that reach school or doing that strict pull-up by December first.
Either or … or both! lol
One thing in particular that happened this summer is: singing in the car. That’s right, singing in the car. Like a boss, I might add. (okay, maybe I stole that line from my students) McNair road trips have translated into having the McNair playlist ready to go, and I have to say, it’s been pretty interesting for me. You see, I’ve always been shy about singing. I remember being at church and feeling the pressure to sing, and just not wanting to. I guess I was just really self-conscious about the whole idea. Not that we sang a ton in the family vehicle (two-tone blue station wagon), but in those scenarios I wouldn’t sing either. I’m not sure if it’s more awkward to sit mute when others are singing or to make myself sing, but probably not “do it full-out” since I’m shy about singing in the first place. I would say it’s a bit of a catch-22.
along for the ride!
I admire people who can sing. We’ve had several scholars come through who consider themselves “singers” and it fascinates me. I think it takes a lot of courage to sing. So when I found myself in a vehicle on the way down to Kentucky with a group of scholars who like to sing along to the radio, I found it pretty entertaining! Let’s just say that not only did I find myself loosening up and smiling a lot, I learned the words to some new songs as well (that’s as much as I can say about that). So it happened that this same “sing along group” would congregate in my vehicle throughout the summer. I’m now the proud owner of an aux cord and I have a monthly subscription to Spotify. So I can access our McNair playlist, of course!
enjoying some tunes!
The reason I bring this whole thing up is that I think it’s good thing to loosen up sometimes. Let yourself go and just ease on into the moment. Let yourself be yourself. That’s what my scholars were doing as they all sang the Journey classic, Don’t Stop Believin’ at the top of their lungs. I’m still not singing full-out, but I’m loosening up if just a bit. And I’m definitely looking forward to that next car ride. Turns out my students have a ton to teach me + I love it.
I don’t know about you but I’m way more productive and happy when I care less about things. It’s not like I don’t give two shits about whatever might be at hand, but when I start trying to achieve a certain outcome or begin second-guessing my actions, that’s when I get stuck in the muck.
And I don’t know about you, but I much rather be free floating and jamming it at the same time. In the zone, if you will. It’s like that inner confidence swells and I just am. I’m being who I am. I’m being who I want to be. I’m being what comes most natural. And it feels f*cking awesome.
I feel myself slipping into this mode more and more, if even for small segments of time. The more I do it though, the easier it seems to be. It’s like I’m one of those beautiful metallic blue damselflies that float from reed to reed along the rivers of summertime. They’re touching down and releasing their magic but then they’re off to the next spot in the next glance.
the beautiful damselfly. one of the best things about summer.
So I’m going to be my own way these days and float from place to place and person to person – touching down with sincere connection but not thinking too long or too hard about it. These days I’m intuiting my way.
This past Friday I got to do what I love to do the most – expose people to the wonderful gift of yoga. Had the studio at OmBodies filled with “old” and “new” CMU McNair Scholars. I feel blessed that I’m in a position to actually do this in my work, in addition to “planting seeds” with pretty much any person I meet or talk to. I took a risk and started incorporating yoga into our scholar programming almost five years ago now. You see, we strive to support our students in ways that go far beyond academics.
When I talk about McNair, I like to say that we’re in the business of developing confident individuals who have the wherewithal to achieve an advanced degree if they so choose. I also like to say that no matter what you have for a goal, you aren’t going to be busting out anything of any real magnitude if you don’t have yourself together with baseline self-care. I call it EAT SLEEP MOVE. If you aren’t taking care of how you are doing each, you’re not going to be in any shape to really flourish in your life.
The fact is, our scholars spend a lot of time working very hard in their classes, many have jobs in addition, and they just have really full schedules that sometimes don’t allow for things like downtime, exercise, healthy eating, etc.
So where does yoga fit into this picture? And what makes yoga special?
Most logically it fits into the MOVE category of self-care, but it’s so much more than just exercise. It’s a type of exercise that offers physical benefits like strength and flexibility, but it also incorporates things like breath work and present moment awareness that can really lead to significant shifts in the way we exist and move through our daily lives.
It’s really a “practice” that one develops over time that usually starts with the physical postures, but often ends up becoming a way to feel more connection among your mind, body and spirit. The physical practice becomes more like a “moving meditation” and allows you to become more in tune with yourself. Some people even say that yoga can help you discover your true self.
Yoga helps me get rid of things that don’t really matter.
When you practice yoga, you begin to develop an “inner stature” or state of being in which your mind is at ease (thus, yoga is great for stress management). By going inward and focusing on the breath while engaging in the physical postures, you can, in a sense, train your mind to be more aware – more aware of how you might be feeling, more aware of external circumstances, aware of the constant flow of thought. The thing is, at the same time yoga teaches us how to become more aware, the goal is to not attach to any sort of outcome or desire. The goal of the moving meditation is simply to acknowledge what comes up and let it go – let it just float on by.
In talking with one of our scholars about what makes yoga great – she said, “It’s like cardio for the mind.” Brilliant.
This is where the real beauty is – as you go deeper inside yourself, you become clear on your intentions in life and who you are as a person. You also start to de-clutter the mind, getting rid of “stuff” that doesn’t really matter. Things in the past, things that might stress you out (that you can’t control), things that might not really matter all that much in the long run. You simplify. You simplify on lots of levels.
After I do yoga, I always feel wrung out. Wrung out on a physical level, but on the level of my mind too. It’s as if I’m getting down to the very nitty gritty of life, stripping away all the layers of bullshit that accumulate and getting down to my very core. Somehow, as I develop a sense of mindfulness, I’m finding myself letting go of things that don’t really matter. That might mean, something that someone said offhandedly that might have rubbed me the wrong way, to festering about the quiz that I didn’t do as good as I could have on, to being okay with where I’m at in my life, today. I think sometimes we can become so swept up in our daily responsibilities, our problems, our goals, that we can lose sight of the sweetness of life, that is, whatis right at this very moment, right now.