Like many educators, I have struggled this year with my mental and physical health. I have a strong sense of urgency for the work that needs to be done. My boundaries are constantly challenged by competing demands on my attention. Prioritizing in a time of uncertainty is difficult. I have experienced periods of despair, hopelessness, restlessness, anger, and resentment, sometimes in the span of a single day!
I have found many ways to cope, including coaching from my colleagues, setting firm wake-up and wind-down periods each morning and night, and exercising regularly. I also committed to a regular meditation practice, which has done wonders for my sense of peace and well-being.
Recently, as I struggled to keep up with life in the wake of weaning off anxiety medication, I had to lean hard into my self-care strategies. I was exhausted, irritable, and experiencing a strange sensation called brain zaps as my neurotransmitters fired off electrical impulses in my brain in response to a lack of the abundance of serotonin they were used to. It was terrible and gave me a profound sense of empathy for my fellow humans who struggle regularly with mental health issues.
My coping strategies were put to the test during this difficult time. The one thing that sincerely helped me gain a sense of control, peace, and focus was meditation. I was encouraged by the way this simple daily habit gave me a small boost of calm in the midst of chaos. I tried to start a meditation practice for years, but it was only recently, while searching for support strategies for my son, who has ADHD, that I finally discovered a practice that works for me. It’s simple, and it starts with a metaphor that illustrates how the brain maintains focus.
Imagine your brain is a white board. All day long, from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep, your white board is filling up with thoughts, images, and words. These are things you are asking your brain to hold on to, to remember, to file away for later. For some of us, the whiteboard gets very, very crowded and nothing gets erased until we go to sleep at night. Some people are very good at intentionally clearing the board with a walk, nap, or other relaxing activity that allows the brain to sort the information. Many of us are not.
The white board gets information from two basic sources: your flashlight (focus on the micro) and your floodlight (focus on the macro). Imagine you are in a very dark room and you can gather information using one of these two tools. Do you choose the flashlight, which allows you to focus on one specific area without the distraction of the surrounding information, but also might miss the bigger picture? Or do you choose the floodlight, which allows you to get a lot of information about the entire room at the expense of the smaller details?
Your flashlight and your floodlight are controlled by a command center, hosted by a “juggler” who helps you toggle back and forth between these two modes as needed. (Sidenote: people with attention issues, such as those who have ADHD, have a very weak juggler and are often stuck in one of these two modes and struggle to independently and thoughtfully deploy flashlight or floodlight mode without the support of a skilled juggler.) You may have a mode preference, or you might use the modes in certain circumstances when they are most helpful.
My personal preferred mode is the floodlight mode. I like the big picture, seeing how details are organized, and I get frustrated when I have to focus on a small piece for too long. My floodlight, however, exhausts me, because I am constantly scanning that lit room for information. It makes it difficult to offload the unimportant information I am filing away for later. This means my favorite meditation mode is to intentionally activate my flashlight.
Here is how it works:
- I set my timer for 12 minutes. (Amisha P. Jha, author of Peak Mind, the book that taught me this particular technique, has conducted numerous studies in high-stress environments like the military and emergency medicine to determine this is the shortest possible period for daily practice to be effective over time.)
- I close my eyes and take a deep breath, 4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 4 counts out. I repeat the breath 3-5 times or until I feel calm and still.
- I concentrate on the area just above and between my eyes. I imagine a flashlight shining here and feel the breath going in and out.
- When my attention wanders (and it does, every few seconds… I rarely make it even close to 10 seconds without a distraction), I softly tell myself “flashlight on the breath” and focus my flashlight on that area above and between my eyes.
- I continue this practice until my timer goes off after 12 minutes.
I started this practice with one minute of meditation. I increased by one minute each day until I got to five minutes. Then I increased by one additional minute each week until I was able to sustain this technique for a full 12 minutes. It took about 2.5 months for me to get to that point.
Here is why I continue to use my flashlight in this way:
- When my timer goes off, I feel an overwhelming sense of peace and joy.
- After meditation practice, my whiteboard feels clear, as it does when I first wake up in the morning. My internal dialogue is quiet and I often have my most aware and productive moments immediately after meditation.
- I am exponentially less grouchy with my friends, family, and colleagues after 12 minutes of meditation. I can use it as a de-escalation strategy in times of extreme stress and frustration.
- I am able to rank priorities and the relative importance of my worries after meditation practice. Things that are bothering me often disappear after my 12 minutes. When they do not, I know they need my time, attention, and focus.
- If I miss more than 2-3 days of meditation, I am profoundly less capable of focusing. I am easily distracted, less capable of listening to others, and much less likely to complete my list of tasks for the day. I often have trouble falling asleep or I wake up several times in the night.
Six months ago, I would have rated my emerging meditation practice as “nice to have.” When I was experiencing my brain zaps, however, this habit became a lifeline for me. If you struggle with mental health challenges and meditation is not part of your regular routine, I highly suggest you check out Peak Mind. To learn more about the relationship between mindfulness, anxiety, and detoxing from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), I recommend The Anatomy of Anxiety by Ellen Vora, MD. I hope you’ll share your own ideas here as well!