Our minds love to be busy, and the busier our lives are, the busier our minds are. How often have you driven a familiar route and arrived at your destination with only the haziest memory of what happened on the journey? Luckily, many of our daily activities don’t require much thought. It would be exhausting if we had to keep telling ourselves to breathe, for example, and we wouldn’t have much headspace to carry out other activities. But you can have too much of a good thing. Perhaps we would be less exhausted if we occasionally did tell ourselves to breathe.
We congratulate ourselves on being able to do fifteen things at once as though one life on its own isn’t sufficient: we need to be living two or three to get our money’s worth. Media messages have to be instantaneous. According to statistics the average attention span in 2012 was 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Seventeen percent of web users spend 4 seconds or less on a webpage.
In schools, teachers have to be more and more creative and insightful to engage the attention of their students. If you haven’t caught them in the first 12 seconds, they’re off somewhere else – and that’s only the majority. If you have students with a shorter-than-average attention span in your class (and who hasn’t?) even if the majority are ready to concentrate for longer than 12 seconds, their attention will be diverted if something or someone distracts them.
Isn’t it time we challenged this ‘faster and more is better’ assumption? While technology has made it possible for google to find 28,300,000 matches for ‘go slow society’ in only 0.59 seconds, our brains do not equip us to respond to requests so quickly. I can’t pretend I’ve got this cracked, but I am at least aware of the need to make changes to a life that’s feels as though the only way I can get to the bottom of my list of things to do is not to sleep for 72 hours.
Three things happened in the last week or so that made me question the way we are living our lives. All of them involve schools.
I decided to take myself in hand and attend a mindfulness course in the hope of improving my concentration, learning to listen to my physical needs and stop living half my life on auto-pilot. We were being encouraged this week to stop twice or three times during the day to spend two or three minutes just noticing what is happening ‘right here; right now’ as the saying goes. The idea is to pause and re-centre ourselves, to be aware of everything that is happening, rather than blocking out or fighting the inconvenient thoughts, feelings or sensations. The teacher in our group was looking uncomfortable. She really didn’t know how she could fit that in on a work day, and when I remembered my recent visit to a school, I could completely understand her difficulty. It was lunchtime, and while some teaching staff were in the staff room, others whooshed through the corridor, picking up coats as they went, grabbing a sandwich en route (or not even doing that) and rushing off to supervise a lunchtime club. Not a second to ‘waste’; not a moment to take stock of their own needs before the start of afternoon school.
The second event was at a recent conference run by AMDIS. One of the delegates commented that her headteacher had initiated something called (I think) ‘The Calm Option’ on a Wednesday afternoon, designed to give space to those who signed up for it. What an enlightened headteacher! Compare her with the one described to me in the third encounter that’s made me stop and think: a friend who has recently started a new job in the office at a primary school told me ‘It’s really full on. We just don’t stop. Lunch-hours are for wimps, apparently – that’s what the headteachers says’.
Some schools teach their students resilience. Mindfulness is also becoming known and practised in schools. It would be good to think that the practice extends to staff and that their need to refresh mind and body at regular intervals is taken into account, but I fear that the headteacher spoken about at the AMDIS conference is in the minority. I suspect (and hope) that the ‘lunchtime is for wimps’ head is also in the minority. I’m also aware how difficult headteachers find it to stop for just 5 minutes at school, rather than darting from one thing to the next, never taking breath. The new headteacher I encountered on a resilience programme I ran, told us that her role was not really proving nearly as challenging as she’d imagined. Only later it emerged that she didn’t stop to eat during the school day, and when she got home in the evening her usual dinner was a bowl of breakfast cereal. There was apparently nothing unusual or worth questioning in that practice.
If this sort of behaviour doesn’t seem unusual or unhealthy to headteachers, what message are they giving to their staff, who have even less opportunity to pause if they are in front of children all day? What is this frenetic pace modelling to the next generation? Is this the way we want to educate our children? Teachers sometimes get frustrated when they discover that students are doing their homework while playing computer games over the internet, chatting to friends on Facebook and setting up a meeting by text. And yet is it really so different from the way most of us live our lives, rushing from one thing to another without ever stopping to check whether our bodies feel okay about it? When we finally notice their protest (a suspected heart attack in the case of one headteacher I worked with) how many of us keep going anyway, telling ourselves ‘we just need to get to the end of the day, week, month’ – whatever time span that promises to relieve us from the tyranny of deadlines. The truth is, that’s never going to happen unless we take control. We need to stop running so fast. Running will only get us to our final destination more quickly, and what’s more, we won’t even be aware of what happened on the way.
I’m with Mary Oliver
When it’s over, I don’t want to end up wondering if I have made of my life something particular, and real … I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.