Don’t adjust your set – there is a problem with reality

Guest blog by David Bignell, Associate Trainer for MiSP

These are challenging times for everyone working in the public sector for reasons that everyone knows – can mindfulness help?

My answer based on my personal experience of twenty years as a primary school headteacher is yes it can. Why?

Well, we can’t control external events but we do have some agency over how we react or respond to them. In one of my mindfulness books it says that 10% of our stress comes from the things that are bothering us and 90% from our reaction. Now I don’t accept the numbers given – but even if it’s 50/50 or 30/70 that still gives us some room to make a difference.

The importance of setting up your day

What I learnt was the importance of setting up my day so that I had the best possible chance of getting through it with as little as possible collateral damage to my wellbeing. So I started to get up earlier and my morning routine was walk the dog (20 minutes), mindful movement (20 minutes) and sitting practice (20 minutes). I found that if I did all of this before 7:00am I could then get on with the rest of the day with a sense that I had already completed the most important part. It felt like putting on a suit of body armour.

This meant that I was better prepared to take the knocks that come with school leadership. Whether it was the angry parent, the upset child or the staff member who was finding it hard to cope I was better resourced to deal with the situation as well as I could and then let it go.

My internal mantra as a headteacher became “Do what you can and then step back”. Another useful one was “It’s not my fault”.

“I can’t think for you – you’ll have to decide”

In my time as a headteacher I always had two quotes on the wall of my office for people to read when they came in. The first was from Bob Dylan and said, “I can’t think for you – you’ll have to decide” and I found that helpful in reminding me that it wasn’t my job to find solutions to everyone’s challenges. The second one was from the Prophet Mohammed and stated that, “A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world” which I found to be a useful recollection that all of my interactions gave me the opportunity to make things just a little bit better.

Mindfulness practice throughout the day

In terms of mindfulness practices throughout the day I found the movement ones to be really helpful. Just getting out of the chair, stretching, going for a mindful walk around the school – these all became ways to reset and recharge. Pausing between meetings or emails also helped. As did having friendly thoughts before a challenging meeting – wishing for the best possible outcome for all parties rather than trying to make things go my way.

At the end of the day the body scan became my go-to practice. In my favourite guided version Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds me that “if you are breathing there’s more right with you than wrong with you – no matter what the state of your body or what you are experiencing right now.”

And sometimes that was just enough to know.

David had a career in primary education for 33 years which included serving as a headteacher in four different schools.  He is very familiar with the challenges facing school leaders and is keen to support staff to develop strategies to create and sustain good mental health. Since training as a mindfulness teacher, he has worked closely with the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) delivering courses to children and adults in the education sector. In addition, he works for a local charity, leading mindfulness courses for NHS staff and the local community.

David has just started a new role as a Mental Health Practitioner for an NHS Trust  promoting positive mental health with children and young people, families and school staff.