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Are You Paying Attention?

What's mindfulness all about? As Amy Proctor found out, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention.

Tom Bassarear photo by Will Wrobel Tom Bassarear

When Tom Bassarear offered the first round of mindfulness instruction, I signed up. You could say I was a little wound up. Mildly agitated. OK, I desperately needed help reducing my stress.

You see, I am a multitasker in the worst sense of the word.

I can be working on a budget spreadsheet, answering the phone, greeting guests, sorting and collating a mailing with one hand, while eating lunch and preparing a mental grocery list.

Well, almost. This kind of unfocused activity can compound stress levels.

Here's what I know about stress and me. I've always had it. And, as I learned recently in a class called Brain and Behavior, our brains are not made to withstand long-term, chronic stress. We have the hardwiring for short-term, fight-or-flight responses.

Constant stress negatively affects our brains and in turn impairs our ability to learn and to remember. And that's just what it does to our brains. Our overall health and well being is greatly affected as well.

What a great reason to find ways to de-stress. Tom's class would be about putting awareness, with kindness, toward my own self. What would follow, theoretically, would be kindness and compassion for others. And less stress.

I was hedging and looking for an excuse to avoid class. That was when I realized I was stressing about taking a class about de-stressing. I went to class.

As the first day of class drew closer, I became anxious, fretful, truly worried. I tried to tell myself things weren't really that bad and that perhaps I should drop the class and just buck up. I was hedging and looking for an excuse to avoid class. That was when I realized I was stressing about taking a class about de-stressing. I went to class.

I admit that it was awkward at first. All this sitting around and paying attention to our breathing and sensations in our bodies. I was convinced I'd never "do it right." Tom helped me realize that there is no "right" way.

Amy Proctor photo by Will Wrobel Amy was one of the first KSC staff members to complete Tom's course on mindfulness. She is senior administrative assistant in Advancement.

As I struggled with paying attention to myself, he guided and encouraged us to approach this practice with curiosity and compassion. His instructions were always gentle invitations to explore, to feel, to see, to smell, to taste, to listen, to experience, and just to be. This is what I mean about paying attention. He was really asking each of us to put our attention somewhere – one place at a time. Whoa! What a concept.

Tom structured each class with periods of sitting meditation, gentle yoga poses, and small group exercises, and allowed time for each person to share what they experienced. He closed each class with a poem. On the first night of class, as I was sitting there listening to the critical self-talk in my head, he began to read a Mary Oliver poem out loud.

To this day, I'm convinced he was speaking directly to me. The poem was Wild Geese. The very first line is what spoke to me so powerfully: You do not have to be good. With those few words, I softened the way I was thinking about myself and this new practice. Not only that, but I also began to open to the realization that there was no room for judgment. I could be open to learning new ways of being.

With Tom's class, I had the honor of getting to know and practice with staff members from across campus each week. If I hadn't taken this class, I might never have met them even though we all work here at Keene State. I met people from Butterfield, Spaulding Gym, Mason Library, Fiske Annex, and some folks from downstairs in Elliot Center.

To this day, I feel connected to these people and I believe they feel connected to me. Walking along Appian Way during any given day can bring smiles, waves, or just a kind and knowing look between the people that took this class. We learned compassion for ourselves and others by paying attention. What a wonderful community builder.

Imagine if everyone practiced mindfulness: the perfect core curriculum for life. With no gadgets, no gimmicks, this has become the greatest tool in my wellness kit. Mindfulness is available to each of us at any moment, and all you need is yourself.

I've been to other mindfulness-based classes with different teachers, including yoga classes, and the instructor always thanks the class for practicing with her or him. This gentle expression of gratitude helps me remember that even for them, the teachers who I imagined as having the magical ability to blissfully float in some serene realm, mindfulness continues to be practice for them – always.

You see, the great thing about this practice is just that. It is always practice. "You do not have to be good." You just have to practice.

With a campus emphasis on health and wellness, education professor Dr. Tom Bassarear offers classes on mindfulness-based stress reduction to faculty, staff, and students.

Tom has been an educator for 35 years and a professor in the Education Department at Keene State for 23 years. He has taken professional training in mindfulness-based stress reduction at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, based on the ground-breaking program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Tom is a founding member of the Monadnock Mindfulness Practice Center in Keene.