In Touch with… Leigh Burrows

Harnessing the benefits of mindfulness has become a growing focus for Dr Leigh Burrows, whose years of research, teaching and counselling to help others reach their full potential has informed a holistic, spiritual attitude that fuels her approach to all aspects of life.  

Your post graduate teaching topics on mindfulness, relationships and creating calmer classrooms reveal the value of being in touch with ourselves to help others. Is this the essence of creating teachers who embrace mindfulness?

I think at its most basic, mindfulness is about choosing where we place our attention. As the philosopher, writer and teacher Susan Sontag said in a 2003 speech to graduating students: “Pay attention. It’s all about taking in as much of what’s out there as you can, and not letting the excuses and the dreariness of some of the obligations you’ll soon be incurring narrow your lives. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

I would describe mindfulness in education as a process of becoming attuned to self, others and the environment. For me that means I aim to be in the present moment when I am teaching, attuned to my own thoughts feelings and sensations, attuned to my students and attuned to the physical environment of the classroom. It’s a real balancing act for most of us.

Do you incorporate activities in your own life to stay mindful?

Mindfulness for me is not necessarily an extra activity that I do, its embedded in my life so a walk in nature, spending time with friends or family, writing, cooking, teaching a workshop, meeting with students, letting go into sleep and waking up can all be a meditation when approached in the right way, with awareness.

My key personal and professional interests are all linked somehow with mindfulness. I teach undergrad and post grad topics on mindfulness, work with teachers, research and write on it and try to live it in some form or other.

This has been useful as I navigate current challenges and changes, such as moving from a balanced to a teaching specialist role in the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work.

Mindfulness can be seen as a bit of a buzzword. I guess its instinctive to a large extent in some people, while others are focused on achieving future goals or getting through an often hectic list of daily tasks. Can you share a specific example of how deliberately focusing on this approach has made a difference?

In a recent research project I worked with a highly anxious teacher who had experienced workplace bullying, which had brought on panic attacks at school. She was overly preoccupied on herself already and feeling quite self-conscious, so I suggested she focus more on what she could notice in her surroundings than on her overwhelming and quite debilitating inner sensations.

She practiced noticing what was new in the classroom, such as the view out the window, new additions to the noticeboard, any plants in the room, art work, what hand the students were writing with, their hairstyles or pencil cases. Over a period of three weeks she felt herself becoming more grounded in the classroom, less daunted, and more confident and natural in her teaching. She emailed to say: ‘I am finding this technique of noticing rather dynamic and has a grounding effect, which keeps me in the ‘here and now’. I can focus on being present, which is particularly helpful at the beginning of a lesson’.

I was recently interviewed by some Flinders Screen and Media students who were making a documentary on mindfulness and how it might benefit our students. They had noticed how many students were looking down at their mobile phones, instead of looking up and out. We wondered together what they might be missing out on, our beautiful campus, the natural environment, the people they could connect with, being in the here and now.

So it’s not all about being in touch with our inner selves, but can also mean the opposite.

Of late I’ve become more interested in this kind of mindfulness that could be called ‘external mindfulness’, ‘sensory mindfulness’, or ‘organic mindfulness’- something I am working on developing. This is particularly appropriate for people who are sensitive or have a trauma background and find that focusing on inner sensations can trigger physical and emotional reactions of disorientation and dissociation.

I’ve located research that found a gender difference in how inner sensation is experienced; being felt more intensely by women than men, and that sensing into the body does not always feel safe for women. This has inspired my next book on mindfulness, on women’s experience and ways of orienting and grounding mindfulness – for mindfulness is definitely not one size fits all or a panacea for all our problems as it is often portrayed.

For many people there is already too much going on at an inner level that it is something of a relief to focus on what is beautiful and enjoyable in our environment, what brings us pleasure.

I presume you take the time to absorb and appreciate your own environment often?

Absolutely. I am so drawn right now to the colour orange. I see it all around me in the Adelaide Hills and the Onkaparinga area, with the autumnal tones of the European and English trees and the rich earthy tones of our own Australian blooms, proteas and so on. I find tuning into the external natural environment is so grounding, settling and orienting. This is so needed in these times where we have such a focus on the environment, but it’s about more than talk, we need to actually experience the environment.

Speaking of experiencing the environment, has your work taken you to any exotic or unusual places?

I’ve been lucky to visit some amazing places in my roles. Travelling makes us extra aware of what’s new different, engaging, we’re already primed to notice. In all places it’s probably been the natural environment that has moved me most, from the Sabbaday Falls in New Hampshire to the sight of the Himalayas in Nepal. A highlight was walking around Walden Pond, made famous by the contemplative philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau. I remember stopping to read a sign about the site and losing my sense of orientation and gradually sliding to the ground as I had been standing on ice!

It’s the people too of course, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood actor Holly Hunter, a parent at a school in Brooklyn where I worked with teachers; meeting parents of children with disabilities in Kapilavastu – a remote area of Nepal and the birthplace of Buddha – and learning about their passionate desire to be included in decisions about their children’s schooling.

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