The stillness at the top – keeping an ear to the ground and responding with empathy

Stillness at the top

My 9 year old son likes to do sleep meditations before bed. Sometimes we listen to sleepy recordings designed for kids (we like dinosnores on spotify), sometimes I make them up (visualisation depending on what we are into or have done for the day) and sometimes we try a more adult mindfulness option. Well, in an accidental discovery during a breathing meditation the speaker asked us to breathe in and notice the stillness of a full breath before releasing. The same stillness exists at the bottom of the exhalation. What I found interesting is, if you really tune into the breath, these still moments are like the moment on a rollercoaster before you start the speedy loop-de-loop after a busy click-clacking climb. Then it got me thinking about how we are so busy in our lives that we don’t get a still moment ‘at the top’ to survey the hustle. So how might we? And what might the benefit be?

Where is the top?

The use of the word top implies job completion, seniority or pinnacle. The top of the breath could actually be in the middle though. The mindful middle in a busy classroom could be just stopping and taking a moment to notice the room. The mindful middle in parenting might just be stepping back and observing how you are feeling for a moment. In my classroom I can climb some stairs and literally look down to survey the room. When supervising sports, it could be watching from the sideline rather than actively coaching from the centre. The stillness and insight that comes from stepping back can provide more scope for ‘deep noticing’.

Noticing from the still space

Stepping back and pausing for a moment can be useful for reflection purposes. If you survey or gather data at the beginning and end of a project, you can measure growth. If you allow for beginning, middle/during and end noticing points you can allow for changes in tack, shifts in approach and maybe even a change of mind about what data is relevant to the moment. Looking at how people are in the moment and noticing their pain points can allow you to change things to smooth the path. For example, stepping back and watching exam procedures I noticed that students who had reader writers were anxious about knowing who was supervising/writing for them. My solution was to provide ‘airport cards’ for staff to hold with the students’ names on them to show students and simplify the pairing process. Stepping back and watching interactions on a sporting day allowed me to notice that grounds staff were feeling disrupted because the field was not allocated as a classroom space/they were not privy to day to day planning. Their lawnmowing schedule had to change to accommodate both sports and NCEA exams. My solution is to add them into a communications flow chart for all school events and add a text alert to school notices. Being caught up in the hustle without taking time out to look and listen in the ‘stillness at the top of the breath’ does not allow for noticing things to improve on.

Empathy on the ground

Noticing feelings is important to grow empathy. Without empathy, you can not effectively manage situations or people. “Empathy doesn’t require that we have the exact same experiences as the person sharing their story with us…Empathy is connecting with the emotion that someone is experiencing, not the event or the circumstance.” (Brene Brown). Who could have known that thinking about breathing and cycles of breath as naturally occurring pauses and then linking it to the busy-ness of work and life could result in such an interesting space for reflection? The reflective moments we mindfully take can have great impact.

Considering the whole

Mostly I was thinking about change management, systems design and work when I linked the stillness at the top breathing metaphor to noticing as an active ally for doing things better. But it isn’t just work that pushes us into bursts of busy without a break. Breaking the cycle of always getting things done feels almost counter productive at first. If I break, then I won’t get my lists done… Breaking not for a break but for a calm window to notice things sits differently and much more productively somehow. Yes take a break. Yes do something non-work for your own wellbeing. Yes aim for balance but also, notice that breathing has a stillness at the top. Notice that every busy task has a space to observe it calmly. Breathe, float in the stillness, step back, exhale, find more empathy. Do things better.

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