Holistic Self-Development for Teachers

Based on a workshop given at the Teacher Training Program at Zonnelicht School, March 2011

by Didi A.Devapriya

Have you ever had one of those days when your computer crashes while in the midst of a project you have been working on for two hours without saving it? Next, the phone rings and you find out that the car repair is going to cost you twice as much as you calculated, and it won’t be ready for another two days. You look at your watch, and realize you should have left for work ten minutes ago. Your phone rings again as you are hurriedly getting together your things, and your well-meaning friend gets a short, grumpy growl to call back later….

Everyone has a certain window of stress tolerance. When stress stays within that range – we are able to manage it with flexibility, creativity and a sense of humor. In fact, certain types of stress can be positively perceived as an interesting challenge, and can be quite exhilarating. Modern brain science calls this relaxed, calm, rational state in which we are master of our emotions a “regulated” state.

However, we also all have our limits – and when stress overwhelms our threshold of tolerance, we enter into “dysregulation”. This is the “stressed-out” state in which we become irritable, reactive and hostile or depressed, sad and withdrawn. Our emotional brain takes over – and we have greatly reduced access to memory and higher cognitive faculties, as its main functions are “fight, flight, or freeze.”

The ability to return to a regulated state after a dysregulating experience is called “self-regulation”. This is an increasingly vital skill for modern life and an essential one for effective Neohumanist teachers. As teachers, we experience our own emotional state mirrored in the children we work with. A teacher arriving at work after the experience described above, who has not tried to consciously self-regulate herself, will probably find her children particularly agitated that day, and her stress will continue to snow-ball. So how to return to balance, in the midst of spiraling stress?

It starts with breathing. Breathing slowly and deeply relaxes and harmonizes our entire physiological state. Deep breathing has the ability to “turn off” our stress response system, and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system – our relaxation response. It massages the knots that form in our heart and gut area and helps them to dissolve. The beautiful thing about breathing is that you can practice it anywhere, anytime. However, it can be particularly helpful to take a walk outside in the fresh air, and focus your attention outside of your stress, taking notice of the clouds, the sunlight filtering through leaves, the wind ruffling the grass.
v Empathetic connection with another human being can be a true gift when in the midst of stress, if the person is able to listen and offer warm support without getting tangled up in your stressful story. A calm, positive, regulated person can soothe a dysregulated one, and this is also true in working with children – in order to help children to regulate – the soothing influence of a calm, regulated adult is an enormous aid. However, such external help is not always available to us, thus, it is important to develop self-sufficient methods to return to balance.

Yoga asanas have many benefits, but one of their main effects is that they work directly on our hormonal system. If practiced occassionally, an enjoyable, relaxed state will be felt immediately after practice. However, if asanas are practiced on a regular, ongoing basis, and especially if they have been fine-tuned to your individual needs by an acarya (spiritual teacher), your hormonal chemistry will alter, and gradually you will find yourself much less easily disturbed by external factors, and able to remain in a balanced, calm state even in the midst of stress.

Similarly, spiritual practice and meditation have many wonderful benefits, and a person who is grounded in their meditation practice will have a much greater “window of stress tolerance” than others. This is not only due to the relaxing components of meditation, such as deep breathing and withdrawing the mind from distractions, but also due to the focus on a positive, spiritual thought. This practice of positive thinking helps one to “reframe” stressful experiences in a constructive way. It is often not events, but rather how we are interpreting those events, that upsets us. Though there are always many different interpretations for any given situation, the most relevant one for a Neohumanist, is the one that is able to give us a compassionate and constructive perspective. For example, a child refusing to eat her vegetables may be seen as defiant, testing our limits, manipulative or she may be seen as upset, overwhelmed, or even not feeling well. Our choice of interpretation will greatly influence how we will interact, and how we will be perceived by the child.

However, self-regulation is only one of the steps in holistic self-development for Neohumanist teachers. It is a fundamental step – because without the ability to self-regulate, it is very difficult to access the subtler layers of the mind. When our mind is in a stressful, reactive, emotional state, it tends to be functioning mainly out of “kamamaya kosa”, or our desire-mind. This is the part of the mind that is tamed by applying our own personal code of ethics. It is a gateway to the deeper potentials of our being.

I recently developed the following chart as a tool to help teachers think holistically about their own process of self-development. It is based on the layers of the mind model, and allows teachers to reflect on personal goals in each level of their being. It also gives Neohumanist directors a valuable tool to engage with staff in a deeper way. We used it in individual staff meetings, and it gave me a much greater appreciation for the spiritual beauty and fullness of each person’s being, as our usual interactions do not always give the space for deeper aspects to be revealed. The teachers also found it quite practical and helpful, even if several were more used to focusing on others, than on themselves.

In the recent Holland ETC, teachers spent time filling out the chart, and then placed it in a sealed envelopes. They then wrote their name and a date on it. The school director then collected the envelopes and will give them back to each person on the date they wrote – a sort of gift to themselves in the future to see their own progress.

“As you think, so you become”, is one of the fundamental truths underpinning Neohumanist philosophy. The very act of setting goals already helps us to move towards them. It is often quite amazing to re-read goals set months before that have dropped out of conscious awareness, and yet have been since realized, due to the momentum set up in the planning process. I hope that this tool can be useful for your own journey and encourage you to consider posting it to your future self, or sharing it with your Neohumanist director!

Using Layers of Mind for Personal Self- Development

Dimensions of Consciousness How to develop it? Questions Examples Personal Goals for 2011
Body Physical development (diet, movement, exercise, yoga asanas) What do I want to do to take care of my health? Do I need to focus on curing any particular physical problem? Healthy balanced alkaline diet; drinking water; eating some raw foods + yogurt daily; sufficient sleep and rest; curing physical problems; sports, dance, running, walking, martial arts; asanas; time in nature, sunlight, air
Desire Mind Development of self-discipline, will power and self-restraint through a personal ethical code (such as Yama and Niyama)1 How would I like to improve my self-discipline and strengthen my will power? What area of Yama and Niyama would I like to focus on? How can I make the world around me better? Time in nature; practicing silence and mindfulness; fasting; Yama +Niyama; 15 shiilas; communication skills; team-building skills; conflict resolution skills; practicing time management and organizing skills; taking personal responsibility towards making the world around you better;
Reflective Mind Intellectual developmentIntellectual development (continued) What is something new I would like to learn? In what areas do I want to deepen my knowledge and skills? taking courses; self-study; professional development; reading; researching; puzzles, mathematics or problem solving; constructive debate and discussion; critical thinking;
Creative Mind Development of creative expression, aesthetic awareness and imagination How do I want to express myself creatively? What things help me enter into a deep creative flow, where I forget time and feel connected to something bigger than my ordinary self? What is a symbol or metaphor that is meaningful to me? Entering a focused “flow” (even in sports), metaphoric thinking; reflecting on symbols and archetypes; painting, drawing, sculpting, singing, expressive dance or movement; practising creative visualization; playing an instrument; visiting museums, concerts, expositions, galleries, theater; reading poetry and good literature; developing artistic taste and discrimination; avoiding pseudo-culture;
Intuitive Mind Development of self awareness, spiritual discrimination, conscience, expressing service spirit, intuition How can I listen to my inner voice? How can I differentiate it from the voice of my ego? How can I develop my ability to see the positive meaning in everything around me? What are my opportunities to help others and practice a spiritual perspective? Breath awareness, deep contemplation, mindfulness, questioning “who am I?”, searching for the positive in every situation, developing the feeling of serving Spirit while serving others; mentoring others; listening and connecting through empathy and intuition; listening to your conscience; discriminating between ego/ spirit; practicing positive thinking + affirmations
Sublime Mind Spiritual development How can I experience spiritual bliss? Meditation, spiritual contemplation or prayer; expressing spiritual devotion through songs, poetry, movement; reading spiritual poetry and stories about spiritually elevated people; discussing your spiritual growth with a mentor, creating space for spirituality in your life; attending spiritual gatherings or retreats


1 Ten universal cardinal human values; principles for relating to society (yama) and principles for personal integration (niyama)