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A version of this article was first published on the Inner Strength Foundation Blog
The phone rang, and it was a number I needed to take. Awkward. I was rushing out of the subway, bundled against the cold, my eyes darting around for a place I could duck into to be able to hear over the cavernous echo of the concrete halls. Dunkin’ Donuts. Perfect. I leaned against the counter, gingerly balancing my bags on my knee off of the grime smeared floor, and pulled off my mittens to talk.
“Hello, this is Amy.”
“Hi, it’s Ms. Smith, do you have a minute?”
It was the guidance counselor at one of the schools that is bringing Mindfulness & Cultural Development Teen Program back into their school. Ms. Smith usually doesn’t take time for pleasantries or to set the stage. I wondered what was up. This school, while serving a high percentage of students who qualify for free lunches, ranks among the top in the State for academics. They pride themselves on disciplined, smart, high achieving students and have a zero tolerance for rudeness, violence, truancy, and other behaviors that are endemic in most Philadelphia inner city schools.
We ran through the specifics of start dates, schedule anomalies, and school needs, paring the program back from 12 sessions to 8. While Siddhartha Gautama recognized the time needed to train the mind and had students take a 3 month intensive rains retreat every year, now we’re sowing seeds for deeper resiliency in whatever short time we can get. For these teens, 8 class periods is practically an eternity.
Then came the real reason for the call. “Before you start, I also wanted to tell you a little about these kids . . . “ Apologetic and embarrassed, she started to lay out the virtues of the school and delicately imply that the double classes I was to teach mindfulness to were not representative of the school.
I cut to the chase. “You mean they have a bad case of Senioritis? Ready to be out of school, don’t need to listen to anyone, don’t bond together as a group, cynical about everything just because, with a prove-it-to-me-first attitude?”
She breathed a sigh of relief. I knew what she was talking about.
“I was probably just like them when I was in high school. I’ll see what I can do to make some bridges for them.”
If you’ve ever taught anyone, particularly adolescents, you know that you have a very small window to make your mark. And if you don’t grab their attention right from the start, the rest of the course is pretty much a wash.
This week was the first week of class. I was as nervous as the kids are on the first day of school. But I was also prepared. Teaching the depth and potential of the Mindfulness and Cultural Development tools is what I love to do. Having been immersed in hands on practice, peer-to-peer transformational coursework, and international education with mindfulness related tools for over 30 years, I am sitting on a wealth of experience and inspiration. My goal? I want to share the best of what’s possible and let the kids loose to discover for themselves the relationship between inner strength and outer stability.
The bell rings and students more or less arrive. “If you could solve one personal problem instantly, what would that be?” I asked to a group of 60 restless adolescents.
“Too many thoughts all stuffed in my head, never stopping.”
“We’re not going to learn to control our minds and we’re not going be able to change our external experiences. What we can change is our relationship to our experience.” I inform them.
“Let’s see who practices mindfulness and what settings. I don’t usually do this but I thought you might like to get a brief introduction to who’s doing what with mindfulness these days.”
Off went the lights, on went the video. We watched a clip of 50 Cent talking to Oprah about meditating, Kobe Bryant and Russell Simmons on the power of the mindfulness practice, Anderson Cooper hooked up to an EEG showing in real time what happens in the brain when he thinks about something that makes him upset and when he drops into mindful awareness.
The mood started to thaw.
“Let’s get a little practice in.” The unmistakable undulating ring of Tibetan tingsha bells rolls through the double classroom.
“Focus on the sound. Track the texture, vibration, tone, color, impression, all the qualities of the sound until you can’t hear it anymore. Let everything else go.”
The room becomes still. Spacious. The static of background noise–inner and outer—those thoughts, worries, and distractions that separate us from each other, separate us from Life as it’s unfolding fade.
A three-minute practice of sound meditation. Then we explore. Who felt a change? Who didn’t? What’s the nature and effect of shared focus? What is the quality of the space that letting go of thought can create? Is there frustration at not being able to understanding what you think is supposed to be happening?
“I’ve done a lot of long retreat in 30 years,” I tell the students, “months in silence, silent eating, silent sitting, silent walking. No talking except for a few minutes every couple days to check in with one of the teachers, no phone, no book. I’m pretty much familiar with whatever comes up in the mind, frustration, boredom, sleepiness, anger, agitation, space, insight, wonder. There is no right answer to what’s going to arise in the mind. We’re just going to let it all be without making a problem out of any of it. That’s one of the hardest tricks for anyone to learn.”
Things start to loosen up. How to get academically-achievement oriented students to care about their relationship with the mind? We explore:
What made the difference between Nelson Mandela and his colleagues? We don’t learn about it, but most of his friends who were sent to Robbin Island along with him went crazy. They couldn’t take the emotional, psychological, as well as physical challenges year after year. It was inner strength, strength of heart and vision that brought Mandela through. I had the good fortune of meeting him several times in South Africa, he was a beautiful human being. This is what we’re going to cultivate with mindfulness. It’s not a magic pill, but if you’re curious and you let yourself experiment, practice, explore, it can make all the difference when you really need it.
I share with them the time that proved to me that practice is worth it. A personal experience of extraordinary challenge, when my extended engagement with meditation indeed made all the difference, maybe even saved my life. That is another story, you can read about here.
I was just about finished, but not quite. The bell rang. No one moved as I showed them a photo from the story I had just recounted.
“We can’t control all of our experience. Things happen. Some are objectively bad, frightening, disappointing. I want you to know that however anxious you get about tests, grades, or college, however angry you get at your mom, your teachers, the principal, however isolated you may feel, there is a way to relate to that experience that will keep your head above water. There is a way through. That’s what we’re going to learn.”
They stood up. And started to applaud. As they filed out to their next class, some came and introduced themselves, shook my hand, some asked me questions, some just wanted to connect in whatever way, and some just moved on.
But we were in.
It’s going to be a good semester. The experiences they’ll have in the class, the tools they’ll take with them in and of themselves won’t change the economy, inner city violence, climate change, or college admittance pressure. But the teens who put them into play just might. The tools will light a spark in the heart. And that can become a fire.
Tools for Teen Mindfulness Teachers
As mindfulness educators, one of our biggest problems is giving our students something of lasting, life changing value in the few short minutes we have with them each week or each semester. Touching a student authentically, and pointing to the depth of the world of awareness world plants real seeds and gives them just enough to pursue on their own.
These three tools helped me connect with the class and set up the semester for a win:
1. Be candid and “out” the objections.
“My first week of High School, I knew I wanted to be finished as soon as possible, I heard that most of you feel the same way.” We share the same understanding without condoning negative behaviors and without abdicating authority as the educator.
2. Start with a question and really listen to the answers. Use them during the class.
“If you could solve one personal problem instantly, what would that be?” Whatever the responses you get, refer back over the duration of the class to these and how a mindfulness practice can or cannot help.
3. Use contemporary video.
Click on this link for some curated videos about uses of mindfulness in different settings that inner city teens enjoy. Cherry-pick a minute here or there from several shorts and give them the sense that there’s a whole world of mindfulness, they don’t have to fit into any particular milieu.