What follows is a long, student-unfriendly version of a 3-paragraph paper (not an essay) on a 30-day challenge that I did with an intermediate integrated skills class. The paper has to have an academic paragraph on the time before, the time during, and the time after the challenge. Originally, the paragraphs had to use the past tense, present tense, and future tense (with any aspect), but I haven’t followed that rule faithfully here.
Getting lost in hectic thought was the default mode of my mind before I started my 30-day challenge. The challenge, which was to meditate 10 minutes a day for 30 days, came at a time when I my mind was almost constantly in a state of emergency. Every thought of grading, making new assignments, or updating a class vocabulary list was a red alert in a long line of red alerts. I would be exhausted at the end of a day of classes, but unable to take a nap without thoughts of all the papers I had to grade rushing in and beating back my attempts at rest. As a result, I was often in a sour mood and was inclined to greet any attempts at contact from colleagues or students as yet another demand on the limited resources of my attention. When I had a minute, or just a desperate need to pretend that I did, I spent it with value-free distractions (the App Store specializes in them), afraid to glance back at the wave of paperwork threatening to crash over me from behind.
Since I started meditating, I haven’t ceased being distracted, but I have been better able to incorporate distraction into my workflow, i.e. to be mindful of distraction. In the interior of my mind, thoughts of work have begun to appear less like photobombing tourists in the lens of my attention, and more like part of the shot. I have become better able to take a long view of my own time and attention and to refuse to devote my full mental resources to every problem, incomplete task, or request that jumped into frame. What is called “mindfulness” is key to this. While I meditate, thoughts still appear, and I still think them, but I am aware of the process, and that awareness prevents me from identifying with them completely. I become something of an observer of my own mental life. I see how this could be described as being “mindful”, as it does in a sense feel like an additional layer of abstraction has been placed between my stream of consciousness and the thoughts that usually occupy it, but in a sense more important to me, something is also taken away. That thing is the formerly irresistable urge to load that thought into the chamber of my executive-function pistol and start manically squeezing the trigger. It is also the need to build a spider’s web around each thought, connected to all my other thoughts, and claim it irrevocably as mine. In these senses I believe “mindlessness” is just as good a term as “mindfulness” for what occurs in and as a result of meditation. In any case, disassociation from my thoughts, most of which are proverbial red circles with white numbers in them, has helped me to control the way that I react (or not) to them.
This brief experiment with meditation has given me a good deal of perspective to take with me into future semesters. I can now see the regular rhythm of the waves of classwork as something other than a renewed threat. Now, they seem more like tides, dangerous if unplanned for but predictable in their rises and falls. Importantly, I also see the high water mark and know that as long as I keep my mind somewhere dry, it will recede without doing much damage. In the future, as long as I refrain from doing something crazy like teaching 20 units, I think I will be able to maintain calm with the help of this perspective. Also, in a more specific sense, I will be better able to resist the call to distract myself from my work. I can recognize the formerly irresistable need to latch onto an interesting task, and this recognition enables me to prevent YouTube or WordPress (except for right now) from hijacking monotonous tasks like grading or… well, mostly grading. Next semester and into the future, I will feel less threatened and better able to deal with inbound masses of schoolwork.