Mindfulness Comes to RCDS

Mindfulness Comes to RCDS 
posted by Dr. Meredith deChabert,
Middle School Principal and Assistant Head of School

On January 26, 2016, members of the RCDS community had the opportunity to learn about the connections among neuroscience, stress reduction, and well being from Dave Mochel of Applied Attention. A teacher for over 25 years, Mr. Mochel now partners with schools, businesses, leaders, and athletes in an effort to help individuals bridge the gap between what matters most and how time and energy are used.

Mr. Mochel spoke to parents, faculty and staff, and students in the Upper School, the Middle School, and the fourth grade. His talks, full or humor and energy, were well received by adults and students alike.

"Applied Attention is a mindfulness consulting company that partners with businesses, schools, and individuals to bridge the gap between what matters most and how time and energy are used. The goal is to teach people how to consistently refocus on what is present, what is important, and what is effective. Refocusing in this way is fundamental to optimal well-being and performance. This simple and powerful practice builds the fundamental skills necessary to embrace challenge, learn from others, and thrive in any circumstance. The result for individuals is greater engagement, flexibility, and resilience. Within teams and organizations, this practice creates powerfully positive and purposeful cultures.” www.appliedattention.com/meet-dave/

Below are some of the highlights of Mr. Mochel’s presentations:

  • Peak performance does not require high stress. We should choose to have a school culture where people work hard and are healthy. We should not have to choose between the two.
  • We are conditioned, and our brains count on that conditioning, for survival. Our attention wanders; we get distracted, triggered, or stuck; we indulge, resist, and avoid – all of these are normal human behaviors. In our brains, the limbic system constantly monitors for danger and threat – for problems, limitations, and obstacles. It is concerned with what is urgent, comfortable, and familiar. Mr. Mochel provided the excellent example of procrastination being a biological response to something uncomfortable. We know the task will be uncomfortable, so we choose comfort instead. And it’s not until the discomfort of not doing the task outweighs the discomfort of doing it that we engage. The more evolutionarily advanced prefrontal cortex in our brains, however, is concerned with opportunities, possibilities, and connections. It is concerned with what is important, meaningful, and effective. Mindfulness helps us to engage the prefrontal cortex in response to everyday situations. As such, any situation can be framed as either an opportunity or a problem.
  • Our health, happiness, and effectiveness hinge on the skill of putting attention and energy into what is present, what is important, and what is under our control. “It’s exhausting running the universe,” Mr. Mochel said with humor to the parent audience. Yet we often put exorbitant amounts of energy into things we simply cannot, and will never, control.
  • Mindfulness is the skillful use of attention. It involves noticing when your attention wanders and bringing it back to where you want it to be. Being mindful means thinking about what is present; being open in posture and breathing; noticing one’s surroundings, sensations, and thoughts; accepting ones circumstances, humanity, and responsibility.

    With each audience, Mr. Mochel began his presentation with a 3-5-minute activity to refocus our attention by asking us to stop, open, notice, and accept what was going on inside ourselves. When we stop and ask ourselves the three questions – what is present, what is important, and what is in our control – we begin to practice mindfulness. Dropping into the present moment and becoming aware helps us to shift our attention and allows us to focus on what truly matters. And it is with that awareness that we can then make choices about how to act on our feelings – we are less likely to act on our physiological responses in a negative way when we are aware of those responses and why they are there. This practice of refocusing wires our brain to respond to stress in a healthier way. Whatever we practice grows stronger in the brain. It does not matter to the brain if it practices stress and creates strong stress reactive neural pathways or if it practices calm, reflective, nonjudgmental responses to stress. Our experience and our daily responses to our environment shape the quality of our brain. If we want a healthy brain, we need to train it.

    All audiences were introduced to the practice of Take 10-10-10. Practice stopping, opening, accepting, becoming present. Then take ten breaths. Do this in the morning, afternoon, and evening. According to Mr. Mochel, the research is conclusive: the more we can drop into the present, the healthier, more resilient, and happier we will be. 
Mr. Mochel highlighted a number of studies suggesting real benefits of mindfulness practice, including improvement in attention and concentration skills, regulation of emotions and building emotional resilience, managing negative emotions effectively, and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Through the work of the Balance and Wellness Committee, RCDS will pilot mindfulness training by offering three voluntary mindfulness courses after spring break – one for Middle School students, one for Upper School students, and one for faculty and staff. Each course will run for eight weeks and will be taught by a certified mindfulness teacher. After the pilots, we will evaluate the benefits of the training and make recommendations for 2016-2017. As Mr. Mochel cautioned, mindfulness is not a magic fix for imbalance, but it can be a powerful tool in one’s wellness toolkit.