Thursday, November 28, 2013

What teaching ESL taught me about mindfulness

 It can be hard sometimes to stay present in our daily lives. Have you ever asked yourself how you can cultivate a feeling of happiness in your daily life?  This is how one aspect of my life, teaching English as a second language, taught me the important lesson of how to stay present.

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I began teaching ESL online about a year ago. I had what many working, breast feeding mothers would give their electric pumps for: a well-paid, stay at home job where I earned enough to afford a nanny. But teaching online was new for me and I missed in person contact with colleagues and students. Sleep deprived, easily distracted, I was tuning out my student’s answers. I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.  

A year prior, I attended a retreat with a Buddhist monk.  An Australian with an acerbic sense of humor, he told us that mindfulness could help us cultivate healthy emotions and a balanced life. Unfortunately for me, I had an allergic reaction to the monk’s sarcasm. His jokes weren’t softened for me by the interpreter.  It wasn’t until a year later as I sat in front a computer screen, did I remember monk’s teachings. I realized that mindfulness could help me that very moment.

When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don't miss them in being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed we are present enough to understand what needs to be done. Being mindful is not a substitute for actually participating in our lives and taking care of our own and others' needs. In fact, the more mindful we are, the more skillful we can be in compassionate action.

It was the subjunctive that triggered my memory of the monk’s teachings. Talking about imaginary or unreal situations, I helped students formulate the questions and I had to reflect upon my own answers. “What do you wish you had?” “Where do you wish you could go?” What do you wish you were doing right now?”  The monk had told us that it was possible for us to find joy in daily chores through paying attention to what we do and say, keeping our minds in the present tense. In other words, I could be present and happy right now. 

Practicing mindfulness as I teach online is how I now get the most out of my chosen profession instead of focusing on the “what ifs” and the “if I had onlys”. When I am in my virtual classroom with a live connection to my students, there is nothing else I would rather do at that moment. I am helping another human being pursue their own worthy ideals. My students, for the most part, live in Spain and have set their goals to improve English in order to have better opportunities. Many of my students have been or are unemployed, and working with the unemployed is a lesson in gratitude. Earl Nightingale said “success is the progressive realization of a worthy goal or ideal”. Practicing mindfulness when I teach is how I actively turn my wish for a better life into a reality in my own present moment. Staying present also called my attention to my need for in-person contact. By teaching at a local university three days a week, I have created balance for myself.

Trying to understand mindfulness by its definition is like trying to understand what it is like to fall in love by reading a textbook. You might get a general idea, but you’d be missing out on the best part: what it actually feels like. Mindfulness is all about experience, about the actual aliveness, of each moment. You learn to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, not because someone said that it would be a good thing to do, but because that is where you find your life.

Mindfulness has also helped me navigate when things don’t go according to plan. Life is full of surprises and that applies to online teaching as well. For example, the internet can and will cut out. During the rainy season, a storm will render it impossible to hear students. And then there was the time the school had to cut back my hours because of a drop in enrollment.

Months prior to teaching online, I was worried that, since I was about to have a baby, I won’t be able to find a decent job. Also, I felt anxious over the prospect of having a newborn in daycare. I had closed my eco-friendly business that I ran for three years. I was uncertain about my future and my income capabilities. Today, my past insecurities about teaching online provide me with important lessons. There are still distractions, but I am better equipped to handle them. Every time I come to the subjunctive exercise, I answer the question “what do you wish you were doing right now?” with “I wish I were doing exactly what I am doing now.”

To learn more about how to incorporate mindfulness in your life, I suggest the following websites:

1 comment:

  1. This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing and describing the ways that mindfulness can be transformative.