Monday, July 28, 2014


Over the last decade or so, I have become better acquainted with the notion of gratitude. I have always whispered a 'thank you' to my concept of God after returning from a trip safe and sound, or after reaching my destination after a harried car ride with my child in the driver's seat (!) or when I was anxious about something that went well.  But finding things in the course of my day to be grateful for wasn't a part of my daily practice, until a few years ago when I was learning about myself in a new way. Rather than seeing the deficits, I decided to try feeling grateful for what WAS in my life. This new perspective put things into it's proper place and helped me to cope.

Below are some findings from the website of Professor Robert Emmons, psychology professor at UC Davis on this idea of gratitude.  His studies have shown that grateful people are more:

  • Loving
  • Forgiving
  • Joyful
  • Enthusiastic
  • Have better relationships
  • Take better care of themselves
  • Exercise more
  • Sleep more soundly
  • Recover quickly from illness
  • Have less stress
  • Have higher energy
  • Live longer
  • Earn a higher income
  • Have more friends
Not too shabby a list, considering that the rewards of gratitude make life totally worth the ride!

In the spirit of 'keeping it short' this week, I will end here.  Let me know what you think... or add to the list above.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

More about Mindfulness

So I can't help but notice that there has been a lot of attention recently paid to the subject of mindfulness. Certainly not because of my blog post from last week on mindfulness! But over the years people who study the brain, human behavior, and the psychology of success have been talking and writing about the benefits of being mindful all along.  But I think that in the past, mindfulness has been linked with yoga, spirituality and meditation which did not always fall into areas of general interest for all people, especially the scientific community (until recently).  I think that people's interest and involvement in yoga, spirituality and meditation have been the primary vehicles for mindfulness education, but now has a new ally in neuroscience.  Now that mindfulness has been paired, and rightly so, with neuroscience, westerners including traditional educators and politicians, are paying more attention to it.  And mindfulness isn't being tossed about just in terms of a life review at a milestone birthday, it is being defined as a present moment awareness, because frankly, the present moment is all any of us have.

This past year, I taught developmental guidance lessons to ninth and tenth graders. But just for the record, I have been teaching these lessons since 1986. This past year we used developmental guidance, a social emotional curriculum, in which we introduced students to a new tool: their brain.  With the support of the University of Connecticut, we delivered lessons to students that taught them about the value of mindfulness, mindset, the brain's role in fight-flight-freeze, attitude, perspective, empathy, and other related topics.  When I first started working as a School Counselor in 1986, I think the role we played as counselors was seen as a luxury item.  I knew what I had to offer wasn't math, science, English or history, but just as essential... our content provided the underpinnings for learning, the girding of student success. 

My friend Linda recently sent me an article from online magazine, MindBodyGreen on the matter. Below is what stood out for me, as this is the stuff that many of us look for when trying to validate something whose research has yet to enter the mainstream of popular interest.  "How Meditation Changes Your Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains" by Dr. Sarah McKay, February 28, 2014.

"What was startling was that the MRI scans showed that mindfulness groups increased gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. Brain regions involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking!"

This past week I had the fortune of attending two unrelated events, both on mindfulness.  Two weeks ago, a colleague emailed me about a conference that was being held in nearby Stratford scheduled for the following week and that it wasn't too late to sign up.  I immediately registered since it was completely geared toward social emotional education. It was sponsored by the Jesse Lewis Foundation.  Jesse Lewis, one of the little children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT. Jesse's mom, Scarlett organized this event as it has been her dream, since Jesse's death to bring mindfulness to the classroom. 

Among many of the amazing workshops, the first session was presented by the Goldie Hawn Foundation, in which their new educational curriculum was being handed out, called MindUp.  It is a social emotional curriculum that teachers and counselors can bring into the classroom to build and strengthen mindfulness practices among students as young as 5 years old, something school counselors have been doing since at least the 80s, that I know of. The Hawn Foundation pulls it's research from neuroscience, pairing mindfulness and the science of the brain. I guess if counselors can't convince people of the importance of social emotional learning, then maybe a celebrity can get the word out! (Go figure...)

Then on Tuesday of this past week I attended a lecture on mindfulness at the invitation of Dr. Bryan Cradall, from Fairfield University.  Dr. Crandall had been dropping in on my class all year, adding his voice (and wit) to my lessons which was invaluable.  I had the opportunity, via Bryan's summer writing class, to hear Dr. Paula Gill-Lopez talk about "why counselors and English teachers need to be friends... a presentation on mindfulness, counseling and writing". How cool is that!  I learned from both Dr. Crandall and Dr. Gill-Lopez that while English teachers are preparing lessons using the common core state standards regarding writing, reading and literature to guide their lessons, counselors can collaborate with English teachers using another set of state standards (that to my knowledge haven't been approved by the Connecticut State DOE yet) called SEL, or Social Emotional Learning. A common core that includes SEL standards enrich and deepen a lessen, enable collaboration between teacher and counselor, and bring about a more mindful understanding of the human condition and hopefully themselves.

In another on-line magazine, Edsource, there is an article entitled "Social and emotional learning gaining new focus under common core" by Jane Meredith Adams, May 15, 2013.

"Interest in social and emotional learning is burgeoning, fueled by a desire to create positive school environments and prevent bullying, disconnection, and academic underachievement. Most recently, the fatal shootings at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut and teen sexual assaults in California and elsewhere have “triggered an avalanche of interest,” said Libia Gil, vice president at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based advocacy organization."

This article discusses how more people than ever before are giving SEL a second look.  Now that the consequences facing society are in everyone's backyard there is a renewed interest in the topic of mindfulness to which School Counselor's can only utter a collective, "Duh!". 

I'd love to read your thoughts and feedback on this post. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Just thinking about thinking...

 Mindfulness and Regret

I think about mindfulness quite often. Mindfulness is how we think about thinking. I teach it to my students when I have the opportunity to discuss goal setting, I try (still learning) to practice it on a regular basis and I hope I've taught it to my own kids to the best of my ability. Modeling mindfulness can be difficult especially in moments of indecision, (the times kids secretly want you to make the decision) when you have to think out loud, in order for the process to be evident.  I believe that mindfulness is the state in which I am fully present. And I think for many of us, in this world of anxiety, distraction and fear we pick and choose which situations we are going to 'show up' for.  Hopefully we pick the right things to be mindful of and pay attention to... the people and things that matter most. 

The online edition of Psychology Today says that mindfulness refers to "present moment awareness".   And there you have it from the experts!  But what is the down side to not being mindful of our thoughts, feelings and behavior and how they all connect?  Thinking about this topic, I am reminded of the song, "I know the Truth" from Aida.  It is about regret. Regret, I believe is a consequence of living life without the mindful awareness of how you take up space in this world. Regret is the haunting point of this song. If you will, bring your attention to three important lines in the song, below:

“How did I throw half a lifetime away without any thought at all…” 
·        Being mindful about how we spend our time and appreciating what is in front of us including the people around us is how we build meaningful relationships that make us happy.
“ This should have been my time, it’s over, it never began…”
·         Here I am with nothing to celebrate because I didn't invest my time and energy in the things and people that matter. I wasn't kind and the world is mirroring that back to me.
“I try to blame it on fortune…”
·         I've heard people make excuses for their circumstances by deluding themselves that somehow it was somebody or something else’s fault. This person is not conscious, is not awake, is not mindful of the breathe they take and aren't able to connect the consequences of their actions with their thoughts, feelings and behavior.

When we take little or no responsibility for our life’s journey, we miss important opportunities to mindfully connect with others, make a positive impact on the world as well as to act on our own goals.  To act on our goals... or not... takes us to very different places. When we are too busy planning for the future or reminiscing in the past, we lose touch with the present moment and our life passes without even a backward glance. I don't mean to say that mindful people have never had a mindful-less moment or a moment where they didn't feel very proud of themselves. Conversely, I don't think the opposite is completely true either. It is a question of what we practice on a regular basis. What is it that makes us who we are in the long haul?  Whether we are queens, kings, or working people, I doubt any of us want to look back at their life with regret and disappointment.  

How will you look back on your life some day?  Whatever your answer is and no matter how old you are, I think there is time to do more and there is still time to make changes, to produce positive results and to connect with something larger than yourself.   From Aida, original soundtrack is a musical with music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls, and David Henry Hwang, and produced by Walt Disney Theatrical.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Give Yourself Credit... You know lots of Stuff!

Some people, I don't think, give themselves credit for stuff they already know. However, Wikipedia, in its discussion of Malcolm Gladwell's, Outliers: The Story of Success, would say that you definitely know something if you've practiced it for about 10,000 hours.  After 10,000 hours or 1 year and 51 days to be exact, umm, I think you'd have it down pat.  We refer to the stuff that we know as practical intelligence or common sense.  The problem is for many people... we don't give ourselves credit for what we know because we are so preoccupied with being humble, or we turn a deaf ear to our inner voice, or we've been told that whatever we do know, doesn't matter... and slowly we learn to lower the volume on our value.  

So what do you know, regular old common sense... it's a thing! 

Everyone has a kind of practical intelligence.  I think it's fair to say that most people who live in cities probably know how the transit system works, people who live on farms might know a lot about nature and animals, military families know a lot about other cultures because they have lived in other countries for periods at a time, couples who've been married for a long time know what it takes to make a marriage last. People who live on islands learn how to gut fish, people in Denmark (the happiest country) know how to live together in groups and people who work in hospitals know how to spring into action when crisis hits.  But what about the rest of us?

We shouldn't despair.  There is a way for us to feel good about what we already know.  Once we decide that we already know stuff and trust that we know it, this knowledge can actually sustain us by allowing a transfer of what we know to other situations . We take a little practical intelligence (what we already know) and mix it with a faith in ourselves that we are receptive beings and that we acknowledge in ourselves that we know.  But what if we are taught not to trust ourselves? Or worse, what if we are taught self-shame? Read Brene Brown on shame... she's an amazing psychologist, author, lecurer.  There in lies a huge dilemma.  Sometimes, a family culture will not assign value if you are a girl, if the family system honors humility, if the family struggles to survive. If the people in the following scenarios were taught that they had little or no value, I wonder if they could be successful.
  • Bilingual children who interpret for their parents at the doctor's office or help their parents read a rental agreement and have skills that could transfer to jobs in translation or advocacy or anywhere else multi-linguistic skills are valued.  What would their future look like if they were told they did not serve any purpose?
  •  The woman who has opted to stay home with her children for a number of years and begins to entertain the thought of going back to work...  She could capitalize on the skills she used in running a home to running a business.  She has a practical intelligence that lends itself to transfer.  What would this woman's future look like if everyone in her family told her she was 'not very bright'.
  •  Kids who have sold drugs on the street might be able to sell other things because they have the gift of gab and can persuade others to buy what they have to sell. They could take a misguided activity and adapt it to a more pro-social way of making money. What would their future look like if no caring adult ever told them how smart they were?

 If we can transfer mundane or common place skills to something more lucrative (and hopefully legal), we might be able to realize our goals by using those skills in a different setting. So a student who has had to hold down 2 jobs, take care of their sick mother and get the siblings off to school, while still getting their own school work done has a lot to offer an employer, such as drive, passion and commitment.  As hard as this life is, it will serve this student well in the end, because they will be able to fulfill their own needs with greater ease since they have learned so much about taking care of themselves and others.

What can we learn from this blog post that would help us transfer the skills we already have to an idea or project we've been thinking of giving shape and form to? We need just to acknowledge the stuff we already know, and honor it by using it to breathe life into that project.  I know. And so do you.

Any thoughts?

Friday, July 4, 2014

Generating a LIST is the first step...

I have a list of things I want to do with my house this summer.  Some are possible now, some will have to wait.  Some, I have to call in the pros for, and some I might be able to try my own hand at. If I don't make a list with priority and possibility rankings, I will feel that nothing is possible.  For me, 'the list' is all powerful. It helps me to figure out what I can do now, given my resources at the moment.

Just like with hunger where my body has alerted my brain that I have to find food, something is moving me toward my list of home improvement projects. Taking action, I read the list (a small but wise step). The list fuels my momentum and imagination (as if the list itself is a form of energy!) which revs the motor of my brain that starts to seek images of new flooring, a new and improved kitchen faucet, a new staircase to the backyard, I feel moved to action. That 'moved' feeling is tingly and feels like inspiration. It is actually unexpressed energy. Just as there is a relationship between hunger and finding food, the energy of my thoughts lead to an energy of action, no matter how small the step.  As long as I don't look to the top of the ladder from where I am at the bottom too often, I can take a step at a time and feel happy. But, every now and then I love to walk a few yards away from the ladder to gain a better perspective on what I've accomplished. 

From that first tug of energetic possibility, to envisioning the master piece and then to outwardly express the energetic pull is better than... vacationing in Tahiti! ... well, probably not, but it's high up there, for sure!