Westbourne Grammar

Learning something new: Discovering the power of mindfulness

At the end of each academic year I invite students to use their summer break to learn one new thing. Staff are encouraged to participate, and we share our ‘one’ thing with each another.

In a Senior School Assembly recently I shared my experience of learning something ‘new’ with students. Apart from enrolling in an online history course, via MOOCS, my real learning challenge was to complete a five-minute headstand.

This was a significant physical personal challenge which I had attempted in a desultory fashion, achieving a stiff, fear-ridden 10-second topsy-turvy few moments. The sense of fear I felt in imagining myself upside down, balanced on the crown of my head, was an extraordinary surprise. Swinging into action, my brain marshalled a phalanx of perfectly reasonable questions:

“Of what value is this to me in life… you know, in the scheme of things?”

“Why would you even bother – it’s kids’ stuff, not the business of a grown woman”.

Shutting my internal ears (difficult) I found myself balancing long enough for my narky inner voice to begin a second assault:

“I can’t do this!”

“This is stupid – I hate it!”

“I’ll damage my neck”.

“I’m nuts – what if my eyes pop out?”

“My nose might bleed!”

This whirlwind of noise created such levels of anxiety that, upon descent, my entire body shook with exhaustion and, yet, the task remained simple. I continued.

Whilst I didn’t so much as learn how to do a headstand, what I did learn to do, and it took me every day for about five weeks, was how to make my brain ‘shut up’. I learned not to let fear overcome my ambition to complete a task.

Our minds will tell us all sorts of things we don’t want to hear. “You can’t do this. You can’t do that”. So, if we want to be frightened, our minds are happy to do this for us.

Once I realised that accomplishing the physical task was not about the actual physical task, it was about a mental task, I realised I could achieve what I desired. I learned that managing my mind was the key to be able to complete the task.

The truth in all of this is that when we want to learn any new skill, or break habits of a lifetime, the biggest inhibitor to our success is our self-talk. As humans, we rather quickly adopt the default position of laziness: “I’m too tired”. “I haven’t had enough help”. – We call it defeatism.

But humans, in fact, have the most enormous capacity to achieve anything they want. The biggest hurdle for me was managing my mind, not the physical task.

So what did I learn over the holidays?

Manage your mind and you can do just about anything.

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