As I pondered my friend’s counterphobia and why I would never in a million years jump out of a plane that wasn’t heading for a fiery crash, I realized that, in fact, I had recently taken my own plunge of sorts. Last fall, I agreed to teach … wait for it … middle school. Now, I know this is not nearly as life-threatening as jumping out of a plane, but I have to say it does require a certain effort to screw my courage to the sticking place every time I walk into the classroom. Thus far, it has been an exhilarating journey that sometimes leaves me flying and sometimes flat, sometimes with my faith in middle schoolers restored, sometimes not really so much. (Spoiler alert #1: I will say that the more time I spend with these young people the more my faith is restored, and I recently came across a wonderful short essay by Elizabeth Gilbert on her FB page entitled "Kids These Days" which I hope to have time to read to my students.)
By way of background, I am friends with the principal of our middle school. I have known and admired this man for many years. Last spring, he discovered that I was running a mindful meditation group at my house and asked if I would be willing to teach his middle schoolers. Sounded like a good idea to me, so I took some courses with an organization called Mindful Schools to train myself to teach kids how to sit still and meditate (you can find them and their wonderful work in schools across the country at www.mindfulschools.org). I started teaching middle school mindfulness in December, just before the winter holiday, and since several of my dear readers have asked for reports, here is Installment One of my personal plane jump.
Crash & Burn
Because this is a pilot program and due to the vagaries of squeezing it into the schedule, I've been given 3 groups of roughly 25 kids each – two groups of all boys (the soccer teams and the basketball teams) and one group of girls (who are in PE for the term). I was anxious about having all boy groups, I’ll admit, especially groups so big. Would these 7th and 8th grade boys ever be willing to sit quietly amidst their peers with their eyes closed and think only about their breathing? Seemed about as likely as flying swine.
So on my first day, I decided to start with the girls. I’m a girl. I have a daughter. This would be a gentle way to ease myself into it, right? Um, wrong. I forgot the modifier “middle school” before the noun “girls.” Boy, did they give me the once-over (making me so glad I let my daughter dress me for the first day). As I worked to get them excited about mindfulness, at a certain point I realized that I was having to work too hard and I became aware of an inordinate amount of fear in the room -- fear that was not mine. These girls refused to participate, their facial expressions changed only microscopically when I told them Miranda Kerr and Katy Perry meditate, and they glared at me as if they would die if I asked them to talk. They were as frozen as statues. Were we that self-conscious in middle school? I suppose so, and maybe that's why connecting with their fear made me deeply sad. Needless to say, I walked out somewhat deflated and shaken and had to count a few deep breaths to re-center myself. It’s probably a good thing that my demanding trick-or-treaters didn’t show up in the class – that might have been adolescent overload.
Thank God for the boys! Yes, they were loud; yes, they were rowdy; and yes, I had to work for their attention. But they played! They listened. These 7th and 8th grade boys were like puppies – I threw them a bone and they tossed it around a bit, but it came back to me. They answered questions. They flopped all over the room. They loved my sports analogies. They were spellbound as I told them about the Seahawks and LeBron and Barry Zito. They hoisted my confidence back into the air and I literally left them flying.
Obviously, Lesson 1 was about buy-in. Here’s the hook that even got a miniscule blink of recognition from the girls: How many times in your life have you heard an adult tell you to pay attention? And how many times have you heard an adult tell you how to pay attention? Most adults will assume that if a child is looking at them they have that child’s attention, while in fact this could be the furthest thing from the truth. As humans (or rather, as primates), we are often at the mercy of what Buddhists call our “monkey minds” – minds that constantly strive to distract and entertain us with visions of horror, speculation, worry and regret. How do we wrest control of the movie projector and maintain focus when there are so many fascinating films our brain is ready to play? So this, then, is mindfulness: The practice of paying attention on purpose to what is happening now. It is full-sensory living.
How many of us live moment to moment fully present in our present? If you’re interested in giving it a shot, play along with my students. Here’s the practice from Lesson 1: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your spine straight but not overly erect. Let your muscles hang loosely from your back. You should find that you’re in a comfortable but attentive posture. This is your mindful body. Now slump down into your chair. Spend 30 seconds or so there. What just happened to your mind? Did you just get a bit sleepy, a bit fuzzy? Now sit back up in your mindful posture. Notice how your mind feels now. A bit more alert? When we sit up, we naturally take more air into our lungs which gives our brains a greater oxygen flow to work with, making us feel more awake. It’s not rocket science, but when my students came back and reported on their week of practicing this, you’d have thought I’d just given them the keys to the kingdom. Play with your mindful posture this week. See if it helps your brain to be a little more alert and focused. Maybe you can save a few bucks on all those late afternoon lattes.
I promise not to record every lesson here, but I will continue to share the nuggets. Spoiler alert: I’ve now taught about 6 lessons and am well into teaching the kids how to meditate and, shockingly they are doing it. At least most of them are and really, what teacher can ask for anything more?