Cultivating Academic Humility (Part II): Allaying Anxiety

Have you ever had the experience where you are so sure of an erroneous understanding that you practically persist and argue to hold on to it in light of counterarguments?


Diversity of Expression

Often, in the classroom, I observe students that are so fixed in one way of thinking or doing things that they push away and stayed close-minded to well-intentioned activities and exercises that challenge their current way of doing things. Let’s take the following example from my own classroom:

I asked a group of students to determine the exponential pattern behind earning 2% annual interest rate on an investment of $13,000. We created a chart that mapped the money accrued to date for Year 0, Year 1, Year 2, etc. We discovered that we could just multiply $13,000 by 1.02 as many times as need (ie, number of years). Students began to protest that this was not a good way of solving the problem. They argues, why not do the following –

Year 0: 13,000

Year 1: 13,000 + .02 x 13,000

Year 2: Year 1 amount + .02* Year 1 amount = (13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)

Year 3: Year 2 amount + .02* Year 2 amount = [(13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)]+.02[(13,000 + .02 x 13,000) + .02(13,000 + .02 x 13,000)]

And so on and so forth…

I asked students to practice our newly discovered approach y = 13,000(1.02)^x (^ represents the raising of a base to an exponent). At the same time, I respected their arguments and gave space for them to make a decision on which method was more efficient and captured the pattern in a simple way. So, I allowed my students to work on the material during class on their own. Some students still persisted – the more tedious previously learned method (which is very important to understand in earlier math so it definitely should not be skipped) was “THE right way” and they were fixed on using it. However, something interesting happened…

The next day, I put together an activity to show the significance of exponential functions in solving similar problems – perhaps they would buy into using y = 13,000(1.02)^x over the longer method they supported. So I began modeling the longer method, and students started protesting again! No! Why can’t we just use the new way – it’s so much easier!! We like it!

This is not the first time I have seen this sort of hesitant behavior among students. Of course, there are many reasons for it. I am choosing to elaborate on one aspect: academic humility. Students (and all of us) so often think of MY or OUR method of doing things as “THE way”. Flavors of this feelings show up in subtle ways and sometimes bar our ability to open up to others and their ideas – because perhaps, they could be better and we could embrace them.

So, I stopped to talk to the students about why there was such a sudden change of opinion since the previous day. We spent time reflecting on the initial hesitation. And then, in this honest conversation, I dropped my message:

Learning well is not just sticking to what I (me only) feel is the best way in the moment…learning well is practicing the understanding that I may not know what is the most conceptual, practical, or effective way of thinking or doing things. And I am going to open up to new possibilities from my classmates and teachers.

This was, perhaps, a lesson that was more important than the lesson on exponents I had set up. Developing the idea that “I do not always know and there is much more to try and be curious about” (of course in limits) would change the way students approached material in class. It allows students to take a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief. There are a number of reasons why a humble attitude would leave us less anxious:

  1. We no longer feel that we (as individuals) are the sole resource for ourselves.
  2. We reach out to one another and develop a sense of community.
  3. We are not so worried about being wrong.
  4. We accept the possibility of others’ ideas being better than our own.
  5. We begin to open up to others’ ideas and any sense of hierarchy in the group diminishes.

Thus humility allows us to be less anxious, uptight, and closed-minded. It is academic humility and humbleness regardless of grades, accomplishments, or accolades that keep us grounded – free from fearing failure and linked to true learning and growth.

Action for this post:

When you are in class or with a group of people next time and there is an argument or debate, stop to listen to others and, when necessary, question your own stance. Weigh the evidence against your feelings of what is right or wrong.

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Cultivating Academic Humility (Part I): The Doorway to Curiosity, Innovation, & Passion


The Jungle of Infinite Possibilities

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” –Albert Einstein.

It is no coincidence that one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century spoke these words. Hearing Einstein’s name often conjures up the image of a genius thinking and discussing his ideas with great scientists in the gorgeous landscape of Princeton. I would like to offer another image of Einstein as a dedicated student of science, acutely aware of how little he knew relative to the knowledge that exists in the world. He was immersed in imagining and dreaming of possibilities, single-mindedly persevering, and often starting from scratch and throwing away old ideas. These habits lend themselves to a curious and highly creative mind. Had Einstein assumed he knew everything, the pondering, discussing, and “efforting” would have come to an end.

So, if we consider the quote above, we come upon a simple yet profound realization. Despite earning awards, gaining fame, and winning the adulation of peers, the mind of the student (which is lifelong) remains acutely aware of the unimaginable size of all knowledge relative to his or her own. Any sense of ego or “I know” turns to “I wonder” and a string of humble questions. We realize that no matter how well we understand something, the essence of it may still be floating undiscovered. For example we may think we understand the counting numbers, “1, 2, 3,…”. But what is 1? If 1 is not tangible, where did the idea of 1 arise? If 1 is 1 more than zero, what is zero? Zero may be “nothingness” but what is the absence of everything? These questions don’t require memorization or some specific strategy. Instead this belief that “I know a mere drop of the deep wide ocean of knowledge” draws us back to childhood when we lay on our backs and pondered about the clouds, spurred to action upon the most mundane sounds, and peered at flowing water wondering what it is made of. Our minds traveled billions of stories, hopes, curiosities, plans, and dreams all in one day. Nothing was enough and there was more to do and know – ALWAYS!

Action for this post:

Notice the activity of your mind as you work on a task: Do you assume expertise in what you do? Do you assume that everything you have learned or been taught is the only framework that exists? Do you assume that there is one and only one way of approaching things, as opposed to a myriad of possibilities? These questions purposely focus on observing assumptions. This practice of self-observation forms the basis for growth as a lifelong student.

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On Struggle (Part 3): In Conversation With Struggle

In the my last article, On Struggle (Part 2): Embracing the Evolving Mind, I promised to post my meditation on understanding struggle and embracing the evolving mind. Today’s post is primarily a video containing a meditation with the background image of a tree with numerous branches, representing the activity and thoughts of the mind. Just as the tree changes over time and gives rise to new branches and roots, our minds also change in response to its environment. The environment for our mind is the set of experiences, new information, and stumulations absorbed in every moment. If we engage in productive struggle in every moment as the mind collects new information or insights, then we open the doors to growth and evolution of the mind.

The meditation I present below, In Conversation with Struggle, engages the listener in a deep conversation with Struggle in its personified form from On Struggle (Part 1): Befriending Struggle.


Note: Background “Piano Meditation” music by Chris Collins.


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On Struggle (Part 2): Embracing the Evolving Mind

Thought Processes of the Mind and Spaces in Between

At the core of productive struggle is a practice in which the mind accommodates new experiences and ideas by first allowing room for the questioning, and if necessary, loss of pre-existing notions. This practice is simply represented in the following elementary math students experience:

Kriya learns about squares one day in math class – an intangible four-sided enclosed shape, with congruent sides that come together to form four right angles. All class, students tackle square-related problems. Then, the teacher presents a challenge problem in which there is a diamond-shaped figure. Kriya’s peers observe the drawing…they all begin to assert how it must be a “weird square” but a square nevertheless. Kriya begins to wonder, “Is a square the only four sided enclosed shape in the world?” She looks around the classroom – the ceiling didn’t have four congruent sides and the textbook on her desk was not quite like squares either. “Then, perhaps, not all four sided shapes in the world are square,” Kriya wonders.

What was it about Kriya’s mental habits that allowed her to engage and grow as a math student? Unlike her classmates, who began to classify all four-sided figures as squares, Kriya questioned the belief that “everything presented to the class will be some sort of square.” She left room in her mind for the possibility of the loss of beliefs and the arrival of new notions and learning. This space for letting go and accepting the loss of thought processes when old ideas fail to provide a clear view of reality is the cornerstone of productive struggle.

Let’s fast forward 7 years – Kriya is now in 12th grade and, with her flexible mind and habits, she has thus far experienced success in high school mathematics. She is now taking College Calculus. One day, the teacher presents a graph and asks the students to work together to find one method that accurately approximates the area under the curve between two bounds. Kriya talks to classmates – initially befuddled, they put their heads together to come up with some idea. For the first time, Kriya feels like she just can’t do math, “Perhaps, I’m actually not cut out for this? Maybe real math is too hard for me. I can’t even come up with a simple method.” Dismayed, Kriya doubts her abilities…as the teacher comes by to give hints to the group she is still lost in thought and misses the guidance.

While Kriya had practice in leaving room for new content in her mind, she now faced a very different aspect of the practice: leaving room for new insights that impact one’s psychology. Kriya had trouble fitting two ideas, failure and mathematical success, in her mind. There was no space or flexibility for the two notions to co-exist. However, to make room for the notion that failure is part of learning math, Kriya needs to modify the second belief. Instead of just believing “I am successful in mathematics”, she can more accurately accommodate the belief, “Success in mathematics entails failure, frustration, and perseverance.” This belief leaves room for failing, trying again, failing, and trying again…building immense capacity for perseverance.

What have these examples shown us? In order to learn, we must practice letting go of and accepting the loss of beliefs that no longer align with reality or lead to growth. This practice is not confined to learning content (subject-specific material). It encompasses our psychology and we must choose between being static or embracing the evolving mind. The mind evolves with loss and renewal, allowing all of us to engage in productive struggles. As I wrote in On Struggle (Part 1): Befriending Struggle, struggle is our toughest teacher – it helps us question our beliefs so we can evolve into more resilient individuals ready to absorb and assimilate knowledge about the world around us and within us. In my next post “On Struggle (Part 3),” I will post a meditation on Embracing the Evolving Mind.

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On Struggle (Part I): Befriending Struggle

Struggle. This one word often invokes frustration, annoyance, and hopelessness among students. But why? I always ask my students: What’s so bad about struggle? Tell me about it! What’s the big deal?  In fact, I just asked these questions to one of my classes last week. My students often laugh back at me when I ask this (and yes, they laughed last week too :D). I think we all know the answer. My question is neither sarcastic nor rhetorical. It is an earnest attempt at possibly finding answers on why the human mind doesn’t like struggle.

Brilliant Rainbow Breaks Through Grey Clouds of Struggle

One reason is that it is energy-consuming (as opposed to energy-conserving, a principle of survival). In other words, struggle requires change. The brain undergoes physical changes as the brain cells (neurons) rewire. The emotional parts of the mind need refueling as the mind deals with the patterns of joys and frustrations. Habits of  perseverance need to be sustained with action: practice, thinking, practice, thinking, practice.

So, how do we deal with this unpleasant energy-consuming reality of learning? If we choose to be self-caring individuals, we face struggle – but not as a stranger. We do this by befriending Struggle. We give Struggle the status of our truest friend – one that asks questions until we find answers, the one that stumps us until we prove that we understand, the one that argues until we justify, and the one that cries until we present a means that resonates with it. This is Struggle. Struggle, when dealt with in a healthy manor, is the bitter truth that will help us evolve and change as humans. In any endeavor, Struggle never leaves your side because she knows that, without her, we will most likely remain iert, careless, and blase. Struggle is our toughest and best teacher – in searching for answers, it is struggle who leads us to asking our classroom teachers, coaches, parents, and mentors the most essential questions to breaking open daunting concepts and skills. So, let’s embrace Struggle – let’s give her the status of an unwavering and most truthful friend. Let’s thank Struggle for helping us change through learning. Let’s rejoice for a newly made friendship with Struggle!

Action for this post:

List the pros of struggle and give struggle a life, as I did in the article (above). It may be useful to look at all the struggles you have had, and list what you learned from them. Sometime, we view struggle through a negative or warped perspective and it seems that we did not grow or learn – but if we look closely, we can continue to learn from struggle – even today! The more human “Struggle” becomes, the more likely you are to befriend her! 

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Judging, Labeling, & Mathematics: An Unfortunately Common Practice

Every year, I come across students that say one of the following phrases in the beginning of the year and I work hard all year to change the beliefs behind such statements:

  • “I used to be good at math but these problems make me feel like I’m bad at math.”
  • “I’ve never been good at math and never will be.”
  • “I’m just not a math person.”
  • “I’m good at math – I like it”
  • “I am a math person”
  • “Oh no…this is not going to be fun.” (as soon as we begin a new topic).

At the surface level, these comments show that students believe that they are either good or bad at mathematics. Finding a substantial middle ground is rare. Underlying the labels of oneself as fitting into either a “good at math” or “bad at math” category is the unhealthy belief that one’s mind is fixed (I recommend reading Carol Dweck’s work on fixed vs. growth mindset). Rather than having the ability to learn and grow and change, the mind is somehow incapable of stretching and expanding to build pattern-recognition skills, develop creativity, and hone visuo-spatial abilities. What an insult to both ourselves and the the powers of our minds!

Hand in hand with these self-limiting beliefs comes the tendency of our minds to constantly judge our actions and their results, further pushing us into categories (slow/fast, dull/creative, failing/promising, etc):

  • If I see a classmate moving ahead on practice problems, then I must be slow.
  • If I answer a question in correctly in class, then I probably looked and/or sounded dumb.
  • If my teacher challenges me to think deeper, then he/she must be out to get me. (Teachers push students beyond what they think they could do in order to promote growth, not to test them.)
  • I got a bad grade. Therefore, I must be bad at math.
  • I have gotten bad grades in math for the last 3 years, so I’m probably not cut out for math.
  • I am good at math but now it feels challenging – so I must be bad at math.
  • I got all the problems right on my last homework, so now I am good at math.

All of these thoughts lead to more judgemental thoughts and before you know it, you have become an expert on judging yourself (often, quite negatively)! While we could list many reasons for why we, as a society, have a tendency to label our mathematical abilities, I choose to move myself and my students beyond the “why”s and into action. We learn to “un-condition” a mind that is so used to thinking in a black and white manner about mathematical abilities.

But how? One of the answers lies in a simple yet profound meditation on non-judgement. At the core of meditation is the idea that the mind is capable of profound growth and change through active effort. In the “Non-Judgement Meditation” (which will be posted in the next article!), we specifically train our minds to break links between subsequent thoughts AND replace judgemental thoughts with non-judgemental thoughts. For example, instead of reacting to being slower than a classmate as an indicator of being incapable at math, the mind stops all analysis after recognizing the characteristics of the situation as follows:

  1. My classmate finished the 3 problems we were assigned.
  2. I am working on these 3 problems.
  3. Instead of giving time for the mind to wander, you direct your mind to work on the task in present moment.
  4. If labels or judgement arise, let them pass by as unimportant thoughts.

Let’s look at another example:

A challenging math problem is put on the board. Instead of thinking “I can’t get this”, “this is going to be too hard”, or “I never get challenges”, we train the mind to think:

  1. Challenge problem.
  2. You read the problem.
  3. That’s it! And now, the mind is actively directed to the task of tinkering, finding patterns, and collaborating on the task in the present moment.

Now, does this mean that one should never judge a situation to see how things are going? Definitely not! However, space for non judgement needs to be made if judgemental thoughts have taken center stage – especially in places like the mathematics classroom where labels and judgements are unfortunately plentiful.

Action for this post:

For the next few days, notice the judgments your mind forms during the day.

  • What labels do you apply to yourself?
  • How do these thoughts help or harm your progress and growth as a student (this counts for adults too because we are learning everyday in our classroom, the real world!).
  • How do you react to mistakes?
  • How often do you label yourself as good/bad for not getting everything right the first time around?
  • How do you perceive your abilities in different situations?

NOTE: I will be posting the “Non-Judgement Meditation” very soon, so stay tuned to practice after reflecting! The meditation will be most effective if you are familiar with the judgements that arise in your mind!


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Test Anxiety Meditation II: Decluttering the Mind and Heart

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can use this by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

In high pressure situations, such as exams or performances, our minds have a tendency to try looking into the future. What if this doesn’t go well? What if I fail? What if the results make me look bad? What if…

All these “what if” scenarios about results are a preoccupation with the future in disguise. They distract us from the task at hand and transport us into an unknown future. If we let our thoughts and feelings of worry and distress build up in our minds, they will inevitably manifest in our bodies in the form of tights jaws, faster heartbeats, dry mouth, etc. Recall the cycle we sketched in “A New School Year…An Old Habit”, below, showing what happens in the middle of an exam or exam-like scenarios when the panic response turns on.


Exam Anxiety Cycle

Our insides fill up so quickly as the initial future-oriented thoughts snowball into a full blown preoccupation with the possibility of failure so that there is no space left in the mind for thoughts that are needed right now. The mind becomes so cluttered that our bodies also feel suffocated and vice-versa. We blank out. We can’t think logically. We lose our capacity to recall basic facts.

So, how can we prevent, or at least slow down, this snowballing process to save and free up some space in our minds? We do this be creating a route for the fearful thoughts and feelings to leave our mind and body right through and out of the heart!

Try this brief meditation technique “Decluttering the Mind and Heart”:

  1. Close your eyes. As you breathe in, acknowledge all of your future-oriented thoughts and related feelings hindering your ability to think. Examples of thoughts include: “I’m not going to be able to do this. Last time I did horribly, what if I fail this time?” Examples of feelings include feelings of desperation, feeling like giving up, etc. On the exhale, imagine all of these bottled up thoughts and feelings drop down into your chest. A thousand birds are waiting to pick them up. As soon as you exhale and the thoughts and feelings drop down into your hIMG_2220 (1)eart, a thousand birds pick them up and fly away, flapping their strong wings. The birds fly right out of your chest and into the world and travel so far that you cannot even see them anymore. Your worries, frustration, and self-deprecating thoughts leave along with the birds, creating space in your mind for the present moment.
  2. If the bird imagery does not work effectively for you, bring your hands together in front of you, as if you are creating a bowl for water using your palms. Imagine your thoughts and feelings flow into your hands. On the next exhalation, the thoughts and feelings leave your hands and disappear into the air.

In creating a route for overwhelming and anxious thoughts and feelings out of your mind and body, you create more space for the thoughts that you need in the moment. If you are taking a test, you may be able to think about the questions in front of you with greater ease now. If you are racing in a track meet, you may be able to more easily access your coach’s advice. If you are giving a speech, this will create space for you to retrieve information.

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Exam Anxiety Meditation I

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can use this by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

I had promised that I would post a series of reflective meditations for A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety, and this post introduces the first of a series of exercises. The following picture was used to describe what happens to some of us when we get nervous during exams.

Exam Anxiety Cycle

The aim of the first meditation is to address the link: “shallow breathing, tightening muscles”. If we weaken this link, then the following links grow weaker. This allows us to regain some composure. To use this exercise effectively during times of need, we must diligently practice using the meditation.

Action for this post:

Practice “Exam Anxiety Meditation I” (below) everyday for the next week or so and try using it just before or during an exam or other high-pressure situation!



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A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can read this article by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

As summer begins to point towards Fall and we catch glimpses of subsiding summer heat, it is time to prepare ourselves for the unknowns of a new school year – new teachers, new courses, new classmates, so much “new”ness! Among so many unknowns, there are some old pieces we carry with us – positive and negative memories, friendships, and knowledge from the previous school year. We also bring our old habits with us – healthy and unhealthy.

One habit that many of my students bring back to the classroom every year is anxiety around exams, tests, and quizzes. The notion of a timed test throws many students into a frenzy. As a result, the new school year sometimes loses its charm not because of tests, but because of how we handle tests at an emotional level. To some of us, exams are unforgiving monsters, ready to gobble up all of our confidence. Others view exams as unnecessary and unending suffering… only to end in June and begin again in September. Many students get to the point of saying, “I just hear the word exam or test and get very nervous – I just can’t do it – I get so overwhelmed and I feel horrible about myself.”

Well, here’s the good news: test anxiety is not an insurmountable problem. With time, patience, hard work, and practice, the unhealthy levels of nervousness felt during exam time does begin to subside. A consistently anxious reaction towards exams is an old habit. The presence of an exam followed by an immediate reaction further implies some underlying habit that has become deeply ingrained in your brain over time. An example of how the brain may travel under pressure is as follows –

see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing,tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →…

And it all starts again.  It becomes very difficult to retrieve and logically analyze information.  The old habit is also a cyclic pattern, and it grows stronger over time if not resolved at any one piece. We could more easily understand the chain of events like this:

In order to break the cycle, we could try to distract ourselves from the nervous thoughts. The problem with this is that we are already distracted from the exam by a deeply ingrained habit. The thoughts and feelings that arise as a response to an exam pop up right away because the habit has become almost automatic. The one piece we could definitely loosen is the “shallow breathing, tightening muscles.” Once we loosen that piece, all the pieces afterwards also grow weaker and weaker over time!! It could look more like this (larger letters implying greater strength):

see exam → oh no! → shallow breathing,

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try to regaining focus → see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →oh no! → shallow breathing, 
tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam…

As you can see, the magnitude of the response diminishes as soon as one of the pieces loses strength.

Action for this post:

I am down with a cold and will be recording meditation again in a few days. Instead of one meditation, I will be posting a series of short meditations to counter test anxiety over the course of the next two weeks rather than today. Stay tuned!

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Unplugging for Clarity

When we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to unplug (literally, from all the electronic devices we use), and sit down with ourselves, acknowledge our exhaustion, our joys and failures of the day, our feelings of defeat, and our feelings of triumph, we lose the opportunity to reconnect with ourselves. Our minds lose focus and, with this loss, we find it difficult to build meaning and purpose in our lives.

There’s an emptiness that sometimes fills the soul when we lie down and just watch TV or surf the web day in and day out during our free time. During that time, we pull ourselves away from what truly exists right now in our immediate environment and, instead, get pulled into a screen that makes us feel like we are traveling, meeting people, and learning about the world. Now, there’s nothing that says there is anything wrong with occasional leisurely indulgences and escapes from reality. However, almost anyone who has experienced some sort of live retreat – a temporary shift of focus away from everyday activity – will say that turning off all digital devices left them with a feeling of deep relaxation, as if having let go of some of life’s burdens. The tweets, Instagram pictures, and facebook newsfeed posts that make people feel incomplete at times are turned off. And now, with this new space created inside, we can engage in the present moment. This helps reset our focus and refresh our minds.

The action for this article comes in the form of a retreat of your choice:

With the next school year just around the corner (and for those of us out of school, with the next season just around the corner), perhaps it is time to take a mini-retreat of our choice. For a series of 3 consecutive days, do not use your phone, laptop, iPad, TV (etc..) during IMG_0129 (2)your free time. This means that, once you are finished with work that requires the internet, you do not take even a few more minutes to browse the web or check your phone for text messages.

What happens when you leave your devices behind?  Listen to what your body and mind say and do in the moment! Maybe you can write a letter to a good friend or bake in the kitchen without the luxury of looking up recipes on the internet. You could take a quiet walk or lay down in your bed to re-reading a childhood book. You might feel like checking your phone or turning on the news, but you can also let these feelings pass like waves of the mind. If a 3-day retreat is challenging, try one day at a time!

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