by Richard Brady
Teachers who practice mindfulness experience it as more than sitting on a cushion, following the breath, and clearing the mind of thoughts. Thich Nhat Hanh offers us this way of understanding it:
Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment. (Nhat Hanh, 2009, p. ix)
In late June of 2022 I co-led an in-person mindfulness retreat for educators, which prompted me to reflect on the role of mindfulness in teacher resilience—the flexibility and capacity to renew oneself after encountering challenges. I began teaching in 1970. In those days, teachers who flourished in their first years of teaching might well go on to enjoy long teaching careers. With winter and spring breaks to dispel any negativity that may have accumulated and a long summer vacation to rest and renew, resilience, except for some nearing the end of their careers was hardly an issue. Now teacher burnout is a national crisis. Teachers cannot wait for systemic change, but they can grow their own resilience individually and collectively. They can be the change they wish to see in the world. Here is a small illustration:
Once Ann, another experienced teacher at our school, and I were leaving a first meeting for new teachers where I’d cautioned them to be careful about the number of extra duty assignments they took on. From my experience, I’d told them, the first year of teaching at our school had a steep learning curve. Ann remarked to me that even without taking on any extra responsibilities, life at school was already too full. I agreed and made a suggestion which I hoped might be helpful to both of us. “Every time we see each other this year, no matter where we are and what we’re doing, let’s stop, smile to each other, and breathe slowly in and out three times.” Ann was not a meditator and wasn’t familiar with mindfulness practice. Still, this idea appealed to her. We honored our agreement for the entire year. Stopping and smiling helped us both be more present to the sacred work of teaching. Eventually Ann became curious about how the idea of doing this practice had come to me. I told her about my mindfulness experience and about using bells of mindfulness as invitations to stop and come back to the present moment during retreats—any kinds of bells, including telephone bells and clock chimes. “We’re human bells of mindfulness for each other,” I told her. (Brady, 2021, p. 87)
At our retreat, educators shared their grief over the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas and, following a substantial loss of in-person school community due to COVID, the fear they had in common with their students for their own safety. The educators also described the pressure of creating online lessons, anxiety about returning to classrooms too soon, and uncertainty about when they would return—all of this in an environment of COVID-related illness. In this setting, mindfulness practice has played an important role vis-a-vie teacher freshness and presence, as in the case of one long-time mindfulness practitioner who told me the last two years had been the best of her career, her classroom becoming a sanctuary for her students and herself. Where might change begin?
Twenty-six hundred years ago the Buddha identified consumption as a major contributor to wellness, specifically, consumption of four kinds of nutriment: edible food, sense impressions, consciousness, and volition (see Nhat Hanh, 1998, pp. 31 – 39). Mindfulness of the body and the mind enables practitioners to be aware of their wellbeing and of the nutriments that are enhancing it as well as those that are diminishing it. This awareness allows them to make choices that nourish wellness with more intention.
Mindful eating (see Nhat Hanh, 2009) provides a foundation for resilience. It involves not only what and how much is eaten, but also the manner with which it’s consumed. Once a tenth-grade student waited until others had left our class after a pre-vacation “party.” This celebration involved slowly eating two cookies and drinking apple cider in silence, enjoying to the full the tastes and textures of each bite and the flavor of each sip. Approaching my desk, she quietly told me she had problems with food and that this experience had given her a new and healthier way to relate to it. I hope she was able to hold on to what she discovered. Even with the support of others sharing mindful eating, we need to renew our intention again and again as we encounter our ingrained habits.
While objects of taste and touch effect the wellbeing of both body and mind, the primary impact of those of sight, hearing, and smell is on the mind. A teacher once told me that every evening she watched the news for only as long as she was able to feel compassion for whoever or whatever was on the screen. Then she turned the TV off. This teacher not only responded to what she was seeing and hearing, but also to what these sense impressions evoked in her consciousness.
Challenging school environments wear out some teachers, but they also bring out the best in others. Are they received as personal assaults or as opportunities to grow compassion, equanimity, patience, and care? Received with judgment and blame or with curiosity and creativity? Everyone has the capacity to respond to challenge in healthy and unhealthy ways. Our “choice” is largely determined by our previous experience, beliefs, and habits. Mindfulness of what arises in one’s consciousness, whatever its causes, provides an opportunity to choose a healthy response, one that promotes resilience. And it invites us to transform negative traits and strengthen positive ones.
Transformation comes through practice. It requires commitment and energy, the fruit of strong volition. This drive that underlies one’s thought, speech, and action plays a huge role. During the retreat one teacher shared with me that her principal had counted down the days left until school ended. “Survival”—how different a volition than “helping young people grow and thrive,” the passion with which many teachers enter their profession. Volition may be unconscious, but it can become the object of mindful awareness. Teachers may find they’ve fed their volition unhealthy thoughts and emotions and it needs to be refreshed with compassion practice —compassion for oneself and others (see Nhat Hanh, 2009) and with the practice of reconnecting with their original ardor and devotion.
The second evening of our retreat participants took part in a candlelit ceremony. Accompanied by a solo cello, we chanted to evoke compassion, first for ourselves, then for the others gathered around us, finally for all teachers and students. As the chanting continued, we each walked mindfully to the front of the meditation hall and gently placed a candle and a few red flower petals, representing the blood of the dead children, on the altar. Many tears were shed and hearts opened. The following evening our community of educators gathered again, this time for a Be-in, a time to share poetry, songs, music, stories, and dance. In the Plum Village tradition, these are celebrations of shared practice. This time the joy and laughter were unprecedented. Our hearts, still fully open after the previous evening’s ceremony, connected deeply once again, this time with exuberance.
Even in the face of the painful experiences these educators brought with them, the retreat—these ceremonies in particular—seemed a significant step in the direction of resilience. However, transformation that leads to finding and maintaining resilience likely requires commitment to ongoing mindfulness practice, most importantly to practices that involve caring for negative emotions and for generating happiness (see Nhat Hanh, 2009).
As our four-day retreat drew to a close, smiles on the faces of the twenty-six participants testified silently to transformation at work.
Brady, R. (2021). Walking the Teacher’s Path with Mindfulness: Stories for Reflection and Action. New York: Routledge.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1998). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
Thich Nhat Hanh (2009). Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices. Berkeley: Parallax Press.