Mindfulness: Headspace’s “Take 10” (Taken!)

I’ve made it through Headspace’s “Take 10”.  It was a 10 part series of 10 minute mindfulness meditation sessions.  I couldn’t have been happier that I chose this series to start my mindfulness journey.  However, I’m moving on from Headspace for the time being to try some other mindfulness apps.  One reason I’ve decided to try other apps is that Headspace gives you the “Take 10” series for free and then requires you to sign up for a (fairly costly) membership.  This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem except that you need to pay per month or per year, not based on how much you use the app.  So, if you know you’re going to use it every day I suppose it’s a good deal, otherwise it may not be worth it.  The other reason I’m moving on (for now) is because I want to try some other apps that were recommended to me.  It’s only fair that for this investigation into mindfulness that I do at least a cursory check of the options available to me.  Beforehand, I want to reflect on my Headspace experience while it is still fresh in my mind.

As I mentioned, Headspace was a great place to start.  It was impressive in the way that it introduced me to the basics of mindfulness and meditation all while getting me started in the process.  Over the course of the 10 days there were a few short animated videos that helped to further explain some of the concepts behind what was being done in the meditation sessions.  I thoroughly enjoyed these videos and strongly believe that without them I wouldn’t have become as excited about mindfulness as I currently am.  On top of getting started with the meditations, I learned a few things:

  1. Training the mind through meditation isn’t about stopping thoughts or eliminating feelings during the exercise.  It’s about allowing yourself to have thoughts and feelings, acknowledging them (but not judging them) and letting them pass.  This allows us to view things with a perspective that we may not have had before.  Doing this allows us to reach a place of being more calm.  Occasionally during meditation exercises we’ll lose focus and run away with a thought, which is fine, we just need to return to that calm place of perspective and continue letting thoughts pass.  For a (perhaps) clearer way of thinking about this, check out this video.
  2. More effort doesn’t always mean more results.  The perfect example here is falling asleep…we can’t force it, and if we do, it usually makes it even harder to fall asleep!  Training the mind through meditation is very similar, once you stop trying it is possible.  There is a very good example about taming a wild horse in this video.  We need to do things slowly while training the mind through meditation.  Getting past the feeling of trying to get somewhere is important.  It takes time, enjoy the ride!
  3. The “Blue Sky” always exists, it doesn’t go anywhere.  The metaphor is of your blank, calm mind being a clear blue sky.  Sometimes our mind gets so cloudy with thoughts (good and bad) that we lose sight of that “Blue Sky”.  However, it is always there above those clouds just as our clear, sane mind is still there beyond all those thoughts and distractions.  The “Blue Sky” is always there.
  4. Acceptance.  We often talk about being accepting of others but what about ourselves?  The idea that we need to accept what is in our mind, in order to see what is in our mind is very interesting.  The analogy here is a pond, if we go chasing after everything in the pond we will muddy the waters and won’t be able to see anything.  Our mind works the same way, we can’t chase every thought or idea.  Allowing the waters to remain calm allows us to see everything that is in our mind, even the things we might not want to see!  However, even though we may not like everything we see, it is important to see it all and acknowledge it without judgement…during meditation we must withhold judgement of ourselves!!  

I have to admit that on Day One I found it extremely difficult to concentrate and focus on both the voice leading the meditation as well as actually achieving a sense of calm and relaxation.  However, as the days went on, both I and the sessions improved.  I improved my skills for relaxing and endurance (10 minutes is a long time when you’re just starting!)  The sessions improved because a) they were somewhat repetitive which meant I already knew what to expect and b) the narrator didn’t talk as much as the sessions went on.  This second point was probably the most important thing because, while his voice isn’t irritating, I can’t stand when I’m looking for quiet and someone keeps talking.  Understanding that you’re learning throughout this process is essential, I needed a teacher/guide!  

By the fifth or sixth session I was really into the groove.  In fact, one night I wasn’t falling asleep as quickly as I wanted so I put the session I had listened to that morning on my phone.  No exaggeration, I was asleep before the 10 minutes were over!  I knew then that I was really getting the hang of this, I was able to let my mind relax, turn off, and fall asleep.  The understandings I shared above, no doubt, played a huge part in me learning how to do this!

After day nine I started becoming frustrated, mostly with the fact that Headspace was making me pony up a bunch of money if I wanted to continue, this is good stuff!  However, after day 10 I’m happy that I made it through the whole “Take 10” and I’m also happy to try some new things in the name of research…but I think I’ll be back to Headspace soon enough.

I previewed a bunch of other apps and finally settled on one that I’m going to take for my next test drive.  I guess this is a lot like buying a car, you want to know it’s a quality car and that you feel comfortable inside it before you commit!  I’m one session into my next ‘test drive’ and look forward to seeing where it will take me.  More to come but I can say with confidence, that if you’re looking to try out mindfulness then you should try the Headspace app.  Go through the “Take 10” sessions and see what you think, I’d love to hear!!

Finding a Place for the “Soft Skills”

The “hard skills”.  Math, Language…the Sciences.  These are the things we teach our students, the things they “must” know to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate.  But what about the “soft skills”?  Compassion, perseverance, teamwork, confidence and other social-emotional skills; these are crucial to their success, not only in the long term, but in the short term (to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate!)  

Time.  Time is extremely valuable.  With only about 60-65 thousand minutes in the school year it feels like a bit of an indulgence (perhaps some would say a waste) to take class time to teach things that aren’t actually “on the test” or “in the book”.  I’m willing to challenge that theory though, I believe it is a valuable use of time to ensure that our students receive a balanced education that includes both “hard” and “soft” skills.  The imbalance, one without the other, will lead to imbalanced students who find success in the “hard”, academic skills as difficult.  

If you can take 5-10 minutes now to save you hours later, wouldn’t that be a time investment worth making?  That’s what I’m proposing.  Investing some time to teach students these “soft skills” within the context of your classroom will lead to payoffs down the line.  Less anxious students, organized teenagers, compassionate young adults, and “gritty” learners.  These are the results of teaching and learning the “soft skills”, these should be goals in all classrooms.  

Here are a few areas of focus that will pay dividends for you, should you invest the time:

Start with a Goal:  All of our students have set goals and will revisit these goals in the second semester.  But, how easy is it for these young minds to set their goal and forget it for four months?  Pretty easy.  Take a couple minutes to have students set a goal at the beginning of each class and write it down.  This goal should only be for the next hour or so, just until your class is over.  At the end of class, allow time for students to stop and reflect (and maybe share) on whether they achieved their goal.  I’d recommend having students write a goal on one side of a notecard, then reflecting on the back side.  You can collect these and gain valuable insight, while also holding kids accountable to the process.  

These goals might look like:  “I want to clarify my understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem.”  “Today I will help my classmate practice their scales on the saxophone.”  “Today I will receive feedback on my essay from two peers and my teacher.”

Organize (papers, thinking, lives!):  How do your students organize for your class…is it working?  Many of us use Edmodo.  It’s a great tool for some elements of our classes but does this tool work for everything or just parts of what you’re trying to accomplish.  Would your students benefit from a different organizational system for your class?  What about student thinking?  Graphic organizers, anchor posters, word walls…all of these things are easy and benefit all learners.  How can you help your students get organized?

Mindfulness:  A huge trend in education these days, if you have a lot of Facebook teacher friends you’ve surely at least seen something about Mindfulness.  It can help adolescents more easily navigate the craziness of growing up.  Building skill sets in concentration and impulse control, cultivating empathy and generally helping students become more mindful will all lead to healthier students.  So what is “mindfulness”?  The short explanation is: purposeful and non judgmental awareness of the present, being in the now.  The second part here is key.  Especially with our teens.  They need to understand that they are not constantly being judged, that taking risks and making mistakes is not only okay but expected.  Anxiety is about the future, our worries about all the things that could go wrong if something happens.  Being mindful means that you’re in the moment, you’re in the present and aware.  Mindfulness meditation exercises help focus the mind on the present and get kids ready for the task at hand.

It doesn’t take much, 5 minutes at the beginning of class is all it takes.  Give it a try for yourself first, then give it a try with your students.  I think you’ll enjoy it in both contexts.

Try this basic mindfulness meditation (only 5 minutes).

Then, investigate HeadSpace a little bit.  They have a free trial that is worth the effort and if you see the value there are other options.  Beyond HeadSpace there are lots of other options, if you’re keen let me know and I can share.  

Trying these strategies with your kids is a time investment worth making.  Budget yourself 5-10 minutes over the next few classes to give them a try, you won’t regret it!

[Update] This article was shared with me today.  It’s a great piece from the Wall Street Journal called What Teens Need Most From Their Parents.  It’s all about the soft skills and how tweens/teens develop through the years.  A great read for parents and educators alike!