These days, I am constantly reminded by the elementary-aged kiddos whom I counsel (now via Zoom), each week that they want to show me their world (including their real and imaginary pets), they want me to meet them with curiosity, to connect, and they want my full presence. In the words of one of my 3rd graders, “Ms. Pam, I feel like you’re the only one who really listens to me, like, you get me”.
In order to give my full presence to them, I have to actually become present: become aware of my sensations, my feeling states, and my thoughts, and continuously re-direct my attention back to what is happening right now. When I’m replaying the conversation with the stressed-out parent who was fuming at me because they couldn’t get their kid onto the right Zoom meeting, while also still waiting for my morning coffee to kick in, I have to feel the texture of the carpet under my feet, feel my breath expand into my belly, and remember that there is a bright-eyed young person looking back at me through a little outlined box on my screen.
Sheltering-in-place and the tectonic shifts toward online learning that had to take place within a matter of days, for many schools, has brought us into the paradox of being forced to slow down and speed up at the same time. Sheltering-in-place has also been a profound practice of present-moment awareness, that reminder that wherever we go (or don’t go), there we are– sensations, emotions, mind chatter, all included. It turns out that present-moment awareness actually has been shown to increase stress resilience and promote more constructive coping skills. And, understanding how our own nervous systems respond to stress is key to meeting this moment with wisdom, rather than just from our wiring.
Our stress responses vary vastly, and are informed by past experiences and traumas, attachment patterns, and our neurophysiology. The Polyvagal Theory, put forth by Dr. Stephen Porges, purports that there is actually a third branch of our nervous system (via the vagus nerve), the social engagement system, in addition to our sympathetic (fight, flight) and parasympathetic (freeze, rest, and digest) systems. Some of us tend more toward an “off” (freeze) response, a collapse, dissociation, depression, shutting down; it could feel like you’re in a thick fog, and can’t think clearly or focus, and are needing lots of sleep. Some of us tend more toward an “on” (fight/ flight) response manifesting as panic, anxiety, anger, or rage; it could feel like you’ve been in a heightened state running on adrenaline and can’t seem to come down. Some of us (I am in this category) vacillate between the two states.
When we are not in immediate danger or threat, requiring one of these responses, we can actually build our capacity to move toward that third branch, the one that contributes to our sense of connectedness, joy, compassion, curiosity, and mindfulness or present-moment awareness. Even within this broader context of crisis, we can access these states, signaling to our nervous system that in this moment, we are safe. We access this vagus nerve and social engagement system through some of the following activities (more can be found here):
- Deep belly breathing
- Singing, humming, or chanting (the vagus nerve extends from behind the ears, with branches through the back of the throat, lungs, heart, and down through the digestive tract)
- Meditation (and grounding exercises)
- Socializing (even if via Zoom or FaceTime for the time being) and laughing
- Massage & acupuncture
In order to move into whatever the upcoming school year holds for us as educators, service providers, and humans, we need to have felt experiences of shifting out of our “on” and/or “off” response and into our connection response. From here, we can meet the next moment with curiosity, with presence, with compassion, and maybe even with a little bit of joy. Then, we can meet our students from this space, and we can meet ourselves and our loved ones from this space.
There’s no better time to practice presence than right now, so before you close this tab and return to the myriad of others you have open, I invite you to try out this brief presence practice:
Notice 5 things in the room around you, or from a window that you can see.
Notice 4 things that you can touch or feel the texture of.
Notice 3 sounds you can hear.
Notice 2 things you can smell.
Notice 1 thing you can taste, and now, take 1 deep deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth.