Introducing Mindfulness to High School Students and Teachers
I grew up on Chicago’s Northshore, the area which, I later learned, had the highest teenage suicide rate in the country at the time. My own high school years were uneventful, but my younger brother’s were very troubled. I suspect that this was a major reason why I chose to devote my life to working with teenagers. After teaching high school mathematics for thirty years, I realized that there was something more I needed to do with my life. I took a year off to discover what that might be. Only a few weeks after receiving a leave of absence I found out what it was. My friend Sue Anne called to tell me about the tensions the students and teachers were experiencing in the schools in her area. “Someone should teach them meditation,” I heard myself reply. It immediately dawned on me, I was that someone.
The following is an account of this teaching and some of its outcomes.
Whether or not you are a teacher, if you would like to share mindfulness practice with others, you may be able to use some of my ideas. Perhaps you can share them with teachers you know.
During the last three years I have been given a number of opportunities to introduce mindfulness practice to students and teachers in my Quaker high school as well as to student and faculty groups in other private and public high schools. I usually advertise my presentations under the banner of stress reduction, since this is a fairly widespread issue for both high school students and faculty. Underlying these presentations are the following premises: high school students and their teachers are seldom aware of how their minds work. When given the opportunity to examine their minds, they enjoy doing so. The experience will in many cases reveal sources of stress which meditation can alleviate.
An Experiment in Awareness
I have presented a forty-five minute assembly to my entire high school and a workshop of similar length to high school faculty members in two other schools. In each case I have begun by suggesting that our minds play a significant role in our wellbeing. I then lead an exercise to give people an understanding of how this may be. “When I talk about mind,” I say, “I am talking about awareness.” It helps people to think of their awareness as a stage. On that stage a variety of things make an appearance: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, physical sensations. I tell the group that we will conduct a short experiment and watch what is playing on our personal stages. After the group gets comfortable, I ask them to close their eyes and tune in to whatever may be on their stage of awareness. I ask them simply to try to watch whatever thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations arise during the next few minutes, observing them, but not getting carried away by them.
After five minutes I invite a bell and ask people to slowly open their eyes. Then I ask for a show of hands to a series of questions. How many of you were aware of physical sensations: sounds, smells, tastes, your contact with your seat, your heartbeat, your breathing, your feet, your mouth, you hair? How many of you were aware of emotions or thoughts? More than one thought? More than five? More than ten? How many of you saw a thought arise, a thought end? These are very intriguing questions for many of the participants. Returning to feelings, I ask how many people experienced negative feelings, neutral feelings, positive feelings, then negative thoughts, neutral ones, positive ones. Focusing on the negative feelings and thoughts, I ask how many had to do with things that have already happened, things we are upset or guilty about. Usually quite a few relate to this. I then ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the future, things we are anxious about. This also gets a good response. Finally, I ask how many negative thoughts and feelings had to do with the present. As a teacher, I want to be open to the discomfort some may be having with this experience.
What our minds do during this particular five minute interval of our waking life is repeated about 70,000 times each year. If we multiply the number of negative thoughts and feelings we observed by 70,000, we might understand why the mind plays such a significant role in creating stress. However, if we are able to become more aware of the negative thoughts and feelings that enter our minds and develop ways to replace them with positive ones, we will be able to live happier, less stressful lives.
I explain that meditation is one way to help our minds turn more readily to healthy thoughts.
At this point in the presentation, in order to make a connection between meditation and the high school experience, I speak about how I came to do meditation. I tell the audience the following story. When I started reading The Miracle of Mindfulness fifteen years ago, I found Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings so compelling that I began starting each math class with a short reading from the book. The students greatly appreciated these readings, so I went on to read them The Sun My Heart. It all sounded great. However, the way of living portrayed by Thay in these books felt so different from my own that it seemed to me that I could not begin living this way just through reading.
At the end of the school year when the seniors returned from three weeks off campus working on senior projects, one of them offered a presentation on his three-week project at the Zen Center of Washington, DC. Here, I thought, is someone who is actually doing meditation. Perhaps I can learn something about how it works from him. The student, named Chris, began his presentation by telling us that a classmate and he had been reading Eastern religion and philosophy books since seventh grade. Recently Chris had discovered the local Zen center, and “decided to put my body where my mind was.” I felt Chris talking directly to me.
Chris spoke of his experience with tremendous enthusiasm. He showed pictures and recounted some dramatic experiences during a three day intensive meditation retreat he attended as part of his project. At the conclusion of his talk, another student, noting Chris’ enthusiasm, asked him whether, besides doing a lot of sitting on cushions now, his life was different in other ways. Chris first responded by saying that meditation had affected him in many ways. However, most were so subtle he couldn’t put them into words. After a pause, he went on, “I can tell you that I am less angry.” Chris’ presentation, especially this last statement, was very moving to me. As I thanked him, I made a promise to him and to myself that I would try to meditate. Thus Chris became my first meditation teacher.
During the following six years I met Thay, helped establish the Washington Mindfulness Community and attended two Plum Village retreats. On returning from the second, I was invited to give an assembly about my experiences there. This assembly featured a slide show and stories about Plum Village life. I concluded my presentation with a brief meditation focused on the breath.
I conclude the personal part of my presentation by reading from an article which Audrey, a senior, and I wrote for The Mindfulness Bell. In the article we described how a few days after the Plum Village assembly, as our high school sat in its weekly Quaker meeting for worship, Audrey spontaneously rose and spoke
out of the silence. She told the students how closing her eyes and focusing on her breath had dispelled her feelings of stress late the previous night. She concluded, “The action is so little, but the reward is tremendous.”
This last story provides a good opportunity for me to invite the participants to move, as I did, from learning about meditation to practicing it. I then lead the group in a ten minute guided meditation, meditation, using Thich Nhat Hanh’s gatha:
Present Moment/Wonderful Moment
I prepare the group for the meditation by having them sit erect, shoulders relaxed, both feet on the floor. Then I ask them to focus on their breath and to coordinate their in and out breaths with the phrases of the meditation verse. I use a bell to begin and end the meditation and to signal each transition. At the conclusion of the meditation, I ask the participants to turn to a neighbor and share their experience.
I have found this short introduction to be effective in emphasizing the importance of awareness of the mind and using this awareness to tune the mind to healthy channels. I’ve encountered a variety of reactions. In one faculty workshop, a teacher told me he could not even begin to focus on his breath and the words I gave him because he was so riled up about an interaction he had just had with a student. This verse is one of many possible meditations, I replied. The breath can also assist us in being with strong emotions, helping us hold them in our awareness without getting lost in them. However, our meditation practice needs to be strong in order to do this. If we are able to embrace our emotions with our breath, we may learn some valuable things about ourselves and relate to our emotions in a less stressful way in the process.
The members of the Physical Education Department at my school were not able to come to my meditation assembly, so they invited me to do a special workshop for them. I started in a similar fashion, inviting them to observe their minds. Then, since the group was interested in developing concentration and it was lunch time, I invited them to do eating meditation with raisins. Later, the boys’ varsity basketball coach asked if there might be something I could do with his team members to help them improve their foul shooting. A week later I was with the team as they stood in a row facing a basket, each with a basketball in his hands. I asked the players to assume a comfortable position with eyes closed. When I blew the coach’s whistle, they began watching whatever was passing through their awareness and continued doing this until I blew the whistle a second time, five minutes later. Although they never repeated this meditation during subsequent practices, the coach told me the team’s foul shooting did improve.
Several years ago an invitation to share mindfulness practice with her twelfth grade class came to me from a religion teacher at another Quaker school. The class had been studying the events leading up to the Holocaust and would soon be reading disturbing, graphic accounts of the Holocaust. To help prepare the students to be open to the suffering they would be encountering, I told them that mindfulness practice could provide them a way to be with suffering without being overwhelmed by it. I described the process of holding emotions in one’s awareness like a mother cradling a crying infant, holding the emotions with great tenderness. Class members then chose personal experiences of suffering, perhaps an argument with a friend, or receiving a low test grade,. After establishing themselves firmly in their awareness of their breath, they got in touch with their suffering and held it gently for five minutes. Afterwards, some students chose to share their experiences with the class.
I took a different approach in working with two other classes. The eleventh/twelfth grade Peace Studies class students had gotten advance word that I would be coming to teach meditation. I was a surprise guest in ninth grade English class. I began both classes by telling the students that I taught high school math and also taught meditation to students and teachers. I wondered what reasons their teacher might have had for inviting me to teach meditation to their class. In both classes a number of hands immediately shot up. I took notes on all the students had to say. When they finished, I used the students’ comments to shape my remarks and, to some extent, my choice of meditations. One student in the English class suggested that I had been invited by his teacher because the class tended to be restless. This gave me a great opportunity to invite the class to do a short meditation on restlessness.
Following my meditation assembly I offered a twelve week introductory mindfulness course, which a ninth grader from my school and two faculty members took. Like Chris fourteen years before, this ninth grader is a young man who needs to deal with his anger. Mindfulness practice has provided him a much-needed tool for doing so. My two teacher friends reported that meditation, when they take the time to do it, gives them relief from stress they experience at work and at home. A few other students, who have not pursued meditation in a formal way, have mentioned using it to reduce their anxiety before tests. All of the students and teachers have experienced meditation as an inner resource which they might recall and draw upon at some future time when their lives signal to them a need for change.
Over the last few years my own understanding and practice of mindfulness has been affected by my teaching experiences. I began using the stage metaphor for consciousness as a way of helping my students be more able to step back and observe their minds. The more often I use this image, the more real it becomes for me. These days I find it easier to get some distance from the goings-on on my own stage.
My teaching has also developed. I first approached my students with the notion that negative thoughts and feelings not only lead to stress but are intrinsically bad. Watching their negativity was part of a sales pitch I was making for the guided meditation to follow, a means of changing the mind’s channel. Now I find sitting back and just watching whatever is on stage tremendously important in and of itself. I continue to call it an experiment in my presentations, though I see it as a valuable skill to develop and employ. To the extent that I am able to watch without engaging, I have less need to tune in to a different show. I can see both negative and positive scenes on my stage as transitory products of my mind, whose primary significance lies in what I make of them. I no longer present the guided meditation as a means of escaping negative mind states. Rather, it is a form of enrichment, a pick-me-up, which my students and I might use at any time.
My foremost goal in teaching meditation and mathematics is the same, to offer my students opportunities to be mindful – mindful of their minds, of their breath, of mathematics and math problems, of other students. If I am successful, students will find their own personal meaning and values in their experiences. The effects will mostly be subtle and evident only over time, just as they have been for me.
Dear fellow teachers and educators you may be interested in joining the Mindfulness in Education Network (MiEN) listserv by sending a message to MiENfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a member of the Washington Mindfulness Community and the Mindfulness in Education Network. He teaches high school math in Wash, D.C.