Not Mindful. Not Perfect. Just Me.

“No! Why don’t YOU stop? We’re just trying to get in this car!” I shout to the cyclist at the top of my lungs.

“Christ. What was that at all about?” I ask the Uber driver as I finally get in.

A woman zooming through the city streets on her bike had just yelled at my sister and I to get out of the way. The driver admitted he shouldn’t have picked us up in the bike lane. This is when I realized Toronto has bike lanes. Oops.

Although I value kindness and compassion, I slip up and lose it sometimes. I get impatient, frustrated, and angry. Instead of pausing before I react, I react.

I share this to be clear with you: I’m not perfect. I’m not enlightened. I’m not mindful a hundred percent of the time. Heck, I don’t think I’m mindful twenty percent of the time. When someone or something pushes the right button, mindfulness goes out the door.

But you know what? I’m able to pause much more than I did before. My reaction time is getting longer, and I sometimes don’t react at all. Some things that used to drive me crazy don’t faze me one bit now.

And when I do go overboard, like I did on the streets of Toronto, I don’t blame myself as much as I used to. I don’t waste my energy and mind space beating myself up for being a fraud. The old inner dialogue used to be quite nasty, and used to go on for hours, if not days.

“Who do you think you are, Josette? Preaching compassion, mindfulness, and nonviolent communication all over your social media. You’re one to talk. Those yoga and meditation retreats are working wonders, eh? Wow. You are the embodiment of a Zen monk. I think you need to do a bit more work on yourself before you start preaching again.”

Helpful, right?

Thankfully, my inner dialogue is much gentler now. Now it involves me acknowledging the embarrassment, guilt, annoyance, or anxiety that come when I react in a way that isn’t congruous with my values. Then I might run through the scenario a few times trying to describe what happened. After that, I consider why things may have happened the way they did, looking at it through lens of the other person, and through the lens of my emotions or experience. Essentially, I pause. There’s a lot of power in the pause.

I credit this shift to my daily meditation practice (sometimes it’s just 5 minutes a day), consistent contemplation (journaling, blogging, talking with like-minded friends, counselling…), and various movement practices (see my last post). But this shift took a some time. It wasn’t overnight, and it’s still a work in process. And truthfully, I may never get there… where ever “there” is really.

I’m so glad I’ve come down from my pedestal of perfection. I’ve learned the hard way — almost a 40 year practice — that perfection is a painful goal to strive for (click to tweet). It just sets me up for failure, anxiety, and overwhelm. To avoid all that, I’ll take a few non-Zenlike outbursts any day.


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Teacher Self-Compassion #RedThumbForLove – Compassion Training 3

I want to propose an idea to all teachers: be kind to yourself no matter what happens. No matter what. If your lessons flops, it flops. If you couldn’t answer a student’s grammar question, it happened. If you couldn’t finish correcting homework on time, so be it. If that little voice in your head creeps up and says, “you’re stupid, incompetent, and lazy,” respond to it with love. How? I will propose a strategy, but first let me tell you how I discovered it.

(Feel free to scroll down to A Visual Reminder of Self-Compasssion – #RedThumbForLove if you’d rather learn the strategy right away.)

Lovingkindness Practice – Opening to Self-compassion

During the second week of Compassion Training with Mark Coleman (see my previous posts on this topic) we transitioned from mindfulness practice to loving-kindness practice. Sharon Salzberg defines loving-kindness as follows:

“Loving kindness is a form of love that truly is an ability, and, as research scientists have show, it can be learned. It is the ability to take some risks with our awareness – to look at ourselves and others with kindness instead of reflexive criticism; to include in our concern those to whom we normally pay no attention; to care for ourselves unconditionally instead of thinking, “I will love myself as long as I never make a mistake.” It is the ability to gather our attention and really listen to others, even those we’ve written off as not worth our time. It is the ability to see the humanity in people we don’t know and the pain in people we find difficult.” – from Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation

And how do we see this humanity, how can we look at others with kindness when we can’t do it for ourselves? Here’s an idea from Mark Coleman,

“The primary abandonment we do is with ourselves. The most healing thing we can do is to not leave ourselves; not to abandon ourselves. This practice of self-metta (self-lovingkindness) allows us to hold ourselves, to stay with ourselves, to befriend ourselves, to love ourselves.”

This practice of self-lovingkindness has a long history, and the premise is simple: send yourself loving thoughts and from here you will open yourself to loving others more easily. First, it starts with yourself. Then, you move on to people who are easy love, and from there you move on to more distant and challenging people. During my first week I found it hard to extend my thoughts to others. I would lose focus, and my mind would drift off towards more enticing ideas. After talking this through with Mark, I learned that maybe I just needed to focus on myself for a while. It seemed that I needed the most care at that moment. Trusting that this was not a selfish act ,but something that would actually help me connect more to others in the end, I kept sending myself thoughts of lovingkindness, or another way to look at it, self-compassion.

Loving myself - a work in progress
Loving myself – a work in progress

Lovingkindness starts at home and our relationship with ourselves. – Mark Coleman

But this isn’t the strategy I want to propose to teachers — though, I still recommend it. The strategy first came to me after Mark asked the question, “What are one or two ways that you could realistically and practically begin to practice more kindness towards yourself?”, and then after seeing Chuck Sandy‘s Facebook post where he shared:

How often do we poison our own spirit with negative thoughts about ourselves? That’s why I painted my thumb red today – to remind myself to push away unloving thoughts about myself & to practice love for others more.

A Visual Reminder of Self-Compasssion – #RedThumbForLove

From Chuck’s red thumb sprang more colourful pictures of teachers’ nails. And so this is what I propose to you: paint your thumbnail red or any colour of the rainbow so that each time you see it you are reminded to be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate with yourself.

Teaching can be a lonely profession. Often, we don’t have anyone to turn to who understands the challenges we face. Self-care may be the only strategy we can turn to when the job gets too hard. When you feel overwhelmed, this little self-compassion reminder may just be the thing to bring you a little ease. Each time you look at your coloured nail, check your state of mind to see if you’re in your old pattern of blame or shame, and remember that you are doing the best you can at that moment. Acknowledge what you are feeling: don’t push it away and don’t dwell in it. Just feel it.

A Community of Self-Compassionate Teachers

Post your picture, and a story of how your nail helped you, on the Self Compassion for Teachers #redthumbforlove Facebook page. You can also send the picture directly to me via Twitter @josettelb or tag me on Instagram @josettelb. If you use Tumblr use the #redthumbforlove hashtag and I’ll load it up on our blog redthumbforlove.tumblr.com.  Use the #redthumbforlove hashtag anytime you post a picture. By doing this, we can help each other stay motivated in being self-compassionate.

The more I teach and work with teachers, the more I realize how important self-compassion is. If you connect to this idea too, I look forward to seeing your loving colours shine.

For more about self-compassion, I recommend visiting:

For more about “whole” teaching, please visit:

And for more about Lovingkindness:

Compassion Training 2: Mindful or Mindless?

In my last post, Compassion Training: Trying not to fall in the hole, I described the eight-week online compassion/mindfulness course I’m taking. Each week we have meditative tasks to practice and reflect on. My hope is to write a bit about something from each week that has had an impact on me, and how it relates to teacher/learning. Below is something that struck me during week 1.

*Reflections

What causes you to lose contact with mindfulness in your day? What are the situations in your life / experience in which you find it most difficult to be mindful? What would support you in bringing mindfulness into these parts of your life?

As I was typing the question above, I felt a desire to click on Facebook and my hand reached out to click the new fitness app I downloaded on my iPhone. Clearly, social networks are external stimuli that keep me from being mindful. They chop up the moment, making it necessary for me to put pieces of that moment together again. It feels like I’m starting from the beginning every time. Not an easy task. I know paying attention to the moment creates satisfying results, but I just can’t resist the click!

Click!!!

*Practices

Continue to meditate every day, perhaps expanding the time from 20 to 30 minutes, cultivating mindfulness of the breath. Take time in the week, both in formal sitting practice and at other times, to notice when you are feeling uncomfortable, either in your mind, body or heart.

After writing the answer above, I had a strong urge to stop thinking about all this. I felt uncomfortable and I could hear myself thinking I needed to be doing something else, so I decided this might be the perfect moment to work on the following task:

Notice how you are relating to the uncomfortable experience – with care or reaction?

Reaction! Here were my thoughts at that moment:

I want to check Twitter; Byongchan is doing things in the kitchen so I should help him; my stomach is grumbling so I want to get a snack; I should bring Samsoon (our dog) for a walk so I need to get ready; my butt is asleep so I should get off it!

It was very hard not to do at least one of these things, but I sat with the discomfort. I just sat and allowed all my thoughts to happen: not judging, just watching. It took a while, but all those “shoulds” turned into curiosity. How could I worry about all those things at once? I wonder how often that happens during my day? How does it impact my ability to focus on what is happening around me?

Choosing this small moment of inner turmoil gave me a lot of insight into the power of patience and observation. By watching the feelings that were passing through me, they eventually moved along, and then I was able to make a decision that was more grounded. If I had chosen my regular pattern, reaction to any or all of those thoughts, I may have gone through the rest of the day in a frantic manner.

I know all the options I mentioned above weren’t decisions that were serious, but that is the power of that moment. It gave me something to weigh up against heavier moments. Like moments at school that require that extra bit of attention. The time when you have to plan a class, finish up paperwork, and your boss knocks on the door. That moment when a student tells you something he has been too afraid to tell anyone else. Those times when you wonder how your class could have taken such a wrong turn. All these moments might not be as intimidating from a mindful place. The only way I can test this is to keep aiming for mindfulness rather than my old mindless reactions.  Practice sitting rather than clicking. We’ll see how that goes. Six more weeks to go.

For more about mindfulness, I recommend visiting:

*The Reflection and Practices questions were provided by Mark Coleman, the teacher of the Compassion Training course.

Compassion Training: Trying not to fall in the hole

I think I’m between chapter  2 and 3. It all depends on the circumstances.

An Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
by Portia Nelson (excerpt from her book “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery“)

Chapter 1
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in. I am lost….I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

walking down the sidewalk

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the side walk.
I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I fall in….it’s a habit…but my eyes are open.
I know where I am. It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter 4
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter 5
I walk down a different street.

This is why I’ve decided to take this course: Compassion Training with Mark Coleman (you can listen to the podcasts here). I made this decision after recently noticing myself being less than compassionate with someone and myself. Something which should have been simple to deal with left me thinking, “Wow, I am really a bitch.” Now, that is not the type of language I want fermenting in my mind, and my behaviour is not the kind I want to continue cycling; because looking back, it is a reaction (both the action and the thought) that continually reemerges.

So why am I writing about this on my teaching blog and not my personal blog? Because as you’ll see from the tagline under my blog’s title, I am passionate about compassionate communication. I think the world needs a lot more compassion and as a teacher of language, I think I’m in a position to make this happen. As language teachers, we are all in this position. I’ve always thought that the first step in creating this change should come from me (see a post on this by my friend and fellow teacher: In Order to Change the World). But I didn’t truly understand what that meant.

I think I’m closer to understanding it. My understanding is I can’t teach kindness if I’m not kind with myself. I can’t be compassionate with students and other teachers if I’m not compassionate with myself. Once I do that for myself, I’ll be ready for the world.

Awareness is the foundation of kindness. Kindness is the expression of awareness. – Buddhist verse

So for now I’ll sit and do my best to be mindful of what arises because that is the kindest thing I can do.

*I’d also like to take this chance to let my dear readers know that I am starting the WordPress “Post a Week” blog challenge. The fancy new badge you see on the right makes this official. I took this challenge back in 2011 (check out my “Post a Week 2011” posts) and I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about myself, my teaching, and my learners. I hope to gain similar positive results. And it wouldn’t be a real challenge without challenge without challenging you too! Are you up for it?

Thank you for reading and your continued support,

Josette

The ‘Don’t Know Mind’ and Teaching

Seven days at a Buddhist temple, forty-one hours of sitting meditation, two personal interviews with Zen Masters, one Dharma talk, and many hours of silence can have a great impact on one’s mind. The greatest impact for me was the realization that I have very little, if any, control over my mind. One of my favorite quotes from my week at Musangsa – International Zen Center, related to the idea of control, comes from one of the monks. As we hid away in the storage room for a chat over coffee on the last day, she shared:

“One of the greatest delusions we have, is the delusion that we think we make decisions.”

What she essentially was saying is that we have no control over the outcome of any event. We may have plans, we may have expectations, but in reality, what happens doesn’t always match up. No matter how often I ask the barista and think I’ve made myself clear, I may decide to have a cappuccino, but may only receive a cafe latte. I may decide to move to Ottawa to continue my French studies but may end up teaching English in Korea instead. I may decide to arrive at work at 8:30am, and I may arrive at 8:30am. Life unravels as it will.

What does this mean for the ultimate control freaks: teachers? We are trained to create SMART objectives, to plan minute-by-minute lesson plans, and to “manage” our students’ behavior. Teachers need control!

Our obsession with control is connected to our attachment to outcomes. We use the textbook, we plan a few speaking activities so students can practice the past tense, and of course, we expect our students to be able to use it. To our surprise, the reality is usually very different. The reality is we don’t really know what our students took away from this experience.

What if we went into the classroom knowing that we just don’t know? What if we entered the classroom with the “don’t know mind” I heard so much about during the retreat?

“Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.”

“An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.”

Gil Fronsdal

If educators could see with unbiased eyes, maybe they would see that Jong Won doesn’t want to talk about what Mary and John did during their summer vacation in Paris. Maybe he wants to talk about the girl he met at the PC room. With a beginner’s mind, maybe Sun Hye’s teacher wouldn’t laugh and tell her she is wrong when she tells the class “I always fly.” In truth, she does fly: each night in her dreams.

I think a teacher with the “don’t know mind” would have lessons such as the ones Scott Thornbury describes in Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E):

Think about it: how many of your best lessons just happened? For example, a really good discussion cropped up, and you let it run. And run. Or something that had happened to a student in the weekend became the basis of the whole lesson. Or, because you missed the bus, or because the photocopier wasn’t working, you had to go in unprepared. But the lesson really took off.

During my retreat, I realized it’s very hard to let go of my attachments. I realized that I don’t have the “don’t know mind”. Despite this, I’m glad to say I realize the its power. From what I’ve learned and experienced, this mind offers more peace and spaciousness. I think it’s from this space that deep learning can come… or not. I really don’t know.

Ask Not, “Why?” Ask, “What Am I Going to Do About It?”

When a quote like this one pops up in your mailbox, just as you are about to sit down and write your weekly blog post, it’s safe to take it as a sign:

We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. – Carl.G. Jung

Can we accept the current state of English education in Korea? I think it is safe to say that almost all English teachers in Korea know that the current system that is in place does not foster English proficiency. I’ll push it a little further and say that the system also doesn’t foster a space conducive to building confidence in both its students and its English teachers. And when I refer to teachers here, I am talking about Korean teachers of English. When confidence is lost, no one enjoys learning or teaching.

The system sends these teachers to yearly training programs where they learn about ways to teach communicatively, and then they are sent back to their schools where their principals tell them to keep their classes quiet and in order. And of course they are told by all stakeholders that they had better help their kids pass that test.

But then they face over-crowded classrooms of disillusioned students who aren’t sure why they really need to learn English. The students quickly give up if they can’t see progress in their middle school and high school classes. But some really need to see progress. Their future, their family, depends on this progress.

So they go to hagwons. The system is fed by the need for progress.

High school and middle school teachers watch this cycle, and they lose hope.

“Why bother try?”, they ask themselves in exasperation.

The system is a paradox (역설). This we know. This is why the machine is fed, and learning only selectively occurs.

But if we know this, what are we as educators of English in Korea going to do about it? How are we going to shift this paradox so that students flourish and feel proud of their English education? How are we going to help Korean teachers of English feel proud of their teaching? How are we going to help them support their students’ meaningful growth?

As English teachers and teacher trainers, these are questions we can ask ourselves. As a teacher trainer, these are questions I ask myself all the time. But when I first started asking these questions, I didn’t accept what Carl Jung suggests. I complained about the system. Now I realize I need to accept it and allow change to happen from there.

I don’t need to see a revamped system in order to foster positive change. I can start now. Where I begin is by helping participants in our training program understand how learning happens. I help them experience the power of authentic, meaningful learning. The kind of learning that manifests success, satisfaction, creativity and empowerment. I help them understand and accept what is possible for them do. This is what I can do. From this space, I have faith these teachers will start moving the wheels of positive change in this system.

I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.- Edward Everett Hale

So I put this question to you: From the space that you stand in now, accepting the system as it is, what can you do to foster the kind of English education you want to see in Korea?