The Importance of Mindfulness in the Classroom

It’s time to get my blog up and running again, so I will start with a post that is about 15 months overdue. When the class of 2013 chose me as their faculty speaker at graduation I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I was also just overwhelmed in general. I was trying to finish my second master’s degree and dealing with a serious situation with my older son, along with all the usual end-of-year craziness. As difficult as it was to write this speech, I am glad I did it. Not only did it help me crystalize my thoughts about the importance of mindfulness, but I also learned a lot about writing from Sarah Redmond. And, while it was nerve-wracking to speak in front of an audience of 1000 people, at least now I know that I can do that!

I’ll spare you the introduction and the inside jokes. Here is the part of the speech that I thought would be a good post about the power of mindfulness in the classroom:

 

So, although the past and the future are promising directions for this speech, I would rather talk to you about the present. The here and now. We have a tendency to overlook the here and now, but that is a risky proposition, because, no matter how comfortable your past was and no matter how bright your future may be, the present is all you really have. If that sounds a little too ominous, you can flip the script a little: no matter how awful your past was, and no matter how daunting your future may be, the present is the one thing you really have. Sometimes, dwelling fully in the present is a great comfort. It behooves us, therefore, to be mindful of it and to experience it completely.

 

Those of you who have had me as your teacher know that I like to start every class with a moment of silence. In the hectic pace of a GDS day, I find that just a brief moment of silence is enough to hit the reset button and prepare our brains for learning. After all, before my class started, a student may have just sprinted up the stairs to the third floor all the way from L2 because the elevator was already above capacity. Or another may be hoofing it back from Safeway with a bag of steaming hot chicken tenders in his hands, or maybe an ice cold can of Refreshe. Or perhaps you just took an AP French test and you aren’t even THINKING in English, much less ready to LEARN in English. In times like these, a moment of silence can play a critical role in your learning. It gives you a chance to be mindful of the present.

 

As important as it is, though, being mindful of the present is really hard for humans to do. It is especially hard for people like us. We spend most of our quiet moments planning and strategizing, working on moving forward. “Where should I apply to college?” or “Which career path is right for ME?” The wiser ones among us probably also spend time reflecting on the past – learning from mistakes, considering the effects of choices we have made. “I should have known this would be one of the essays on this test” or maybe “Well. I’ll never try THAT dance move again!”

 

On the rare occasions that we have to sit in silence and be alone with our thoughts, most of us suffer from a condition some Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind”. Instead of placidly considering the world around us as it is right now, our minds prefer to jump into the tree canopy of our thoughts and swing from vine to vine. The human mind can be trained through practice, however, to dwell in the present. Some of you may already have experience with this if you have done yoga or meditation.

 

Before I started using the moment of silence in my classes, I actually used an image given to me by my yoga teacher about twenty years ago. She told me to think of my mind as water and my body, or my life, as a chalice holding that water. If the chalice is agitated, the surface of the water will be rough, choppy and broken. If the chalice is still, however, the surface of the water will be smooth and calm. We must look upon the surface of that water to see reflections of truth in the world, and we can only do that if the chalice is calm and the surface of the water is quiet. Only then can we savor the details that make moments like this one so important.

 

Graduation from high school is a rite of passage and it is worth paying attention to, because after today, you can no longer be considered a child.

 

Look around you for a moment. Make note of exactly where you are in this room… in this city… on this planet. Who is sitting next to you? Where is your family sitting? Why are we all here? This is one of the first of many important moments in your life that you are old enough to pay attention to, so if you have never practiced mindfulness before, today is a good day to start.

 

I’ll share an image with you that might help, if you’ll allow me to geek out a little. In chemistry, we call moments like this “transition states”, when the reactants have just come together and the products are about to be formed. In math, you might think of it as the inflection point in a function – the point where a curve changes from concave down to concave up. However you choose to look at it, it is clear that today, right now, is a time to make note of.

 

Well, let’s do that.             Together.

 

In just a moment, we’re going to try our own moment of silence. It may feel awkward or strange at first but remember — this is important. It’s important for everyone in this room. Everyone in this room is experiencing a transition of some sort. FOR THE PARENTS… it may be the transition to an empty nest, or it may be the first time one of your children moves on to adulthood. FOR THE TEACHERS… this may be your first graduating class at GDS, or maybe your last. FOR THE STUDENTS… it is one of the most significant milestones in your life so far.

After today, you are truly no longer a child.

So…

In the stillness that follows, try to be aware of exactly where you are, of what your senses are telling you at this moment. Is your stomach grumbling with hunger, or maybe tight with anxiety? Are you shoulders tense or relaxed? Can you hear people fanning themselves with the Graduation Program? In the stillness, your mind will wander toward the past or to the future, but gently rein it in – focus on now.

 

After a period of time, I will break the silence and we’ll continue with the rest of the ceremony. But for now, its time for us to have our moment of silence.

 

[SILENCE]

 

Thank you, and congratulations, Class of 2013.