By Marcus Lorenzo Penn
After having our largest ever Lunch Conversation earlier in the month of February, we at the Peaceful World Foundation were glad to have had another full table discussion for our follow-up Breakfast Conversation on February 28, 2019 at the Cafe RX in San Francisco’s Presidio. We were gifted the presence of our PWF Board President, Dave Whitridge as well as others from Art Seed, Parramatta Institute, Redford Center and No Bully.
Our focus this morning centered around organizations bringing mindfulness (non-judgemental acceptance and witnessing of whatever is happening) practices into Bay Area schools. Two of our 2018 Grantee organizations are doing just that: Seeds of Awareness (SOA) and RISE Yoga for Youth (RYY). Each of these organizations had representatives to co-facilitate our Breakfast Conversation topic:
“Exploring the rise of mindfulness based socio-emotional learning within our Bay Area schools, we will be discussing both the challenges and rewards of such an endeavor.”
As our ice-breaker for this morning we were simply asked, “How do we individually find our peace?” Interestingly the responses we received all had some aspect of mindfulness interwoven. We heard folks say, “meditation, yoga, walking meditation, nature, running, walking a dog, wandering the city, any movement, art making, assuming good intentions, and movement balanced with stillness.”
After our ritualized reading of our founder Sami Sunchild’s 6 Ingredients of a Good Conversation with brief sharing of our organization’s history by our Executive Director Heidi Majano, I introduced the topic to everyone in attendance.
Doug, the Executive Director of SOA, kicked things off by guiding us all in a mini-mindfulness experience having us explore our breath, hands, feet and embrace our 5 senses from a relaxed and calm space. Once he gently brought us back, he asked us, “How can what we experienced be beneficial to youth?”
Initial response from an attendee was that it was “a gift given” for youth to embrace “grounding” themselves and strongly encouraged others “don’t make it too complicated” when introducing mindfulness to young students. Another attendee spoke to how the mindful experience “gives children a sense of not needing to do anything, to just be.”
At this point, our other co-facilitator, Jedra, from RYY shared that mindfulness is about bringing attention back to the body. She spoke to how her organization’s mindfulness with yoga programs help students to self-regulate by using ‘tapping’ and ‘shaking out’ techniques. I added to the discussion how our youth these days are exposed to so much from media and otherwise, that it is so important to emphasize taking time to “relax and be still.” As our Board President Dave put it, bringing it back to “rug time” from when he was in school or “taking the pause” before the next task, as our Director Heidi stated.
The next question posed to us at our Breakfast Conversation was, “Where/Are there any potential challenges in bringing mindful practices to schools?” The first participant responded anecdotally with how difficult it was for their parents to relate to the concept of mindfulness. Since they were never taught it, they had a clash of understanding what it means. She since tried to share the benefits and a detailed experience of the practice with her parents and observed how she was “being mindful about being mindful about mindfulness.” Another potential roadblock to sustaining these mindful programs in schools is how the students respond to being asked, “Why are we/you doing this?”
As a natural segue, our participants were asked a similar question of, “Why would you want to practice mindfulness?” In response, an attendee who teaches Cultural Studies to youth with an emphasis on people of color history saw how mindfulness in schools can help quell some of the emotional overload that can arise especially when reviewing historical injustice and oppression. She could see how it would help the students process what they are learning and help them relate to the content better.
Doug from SOA added how important ‘emotional regulation’ is particularly on one’s physiology (decrease heart rate and blood pressure). Noting how hard it is for anyone, let alone a young student, to learn in a ‘fight or flight’ triggered state, Doug from SOA can attest to the benefits of the practice on emotional overwhelm and triggering.
Jedra of RYY shared with everyone a technique her organization uses for moving youth through painful experiences. She invites the students to warm their hands by rubbing them together and then apply their hands to the areas on their body where they feel pain or the need for healing. They are also invited to look at their tight muscles with warmth and compassion resulting in helping to relax those particular muscles. She noted that this approach did not work for all students she came across.
Sometimes for students coming from tougher backgrounds going about more directly using voice or ‘tapping’ or grounding yoga poses are more suitable methods. One particular class Jedra encountered for over a month, she noted better self-regulation of the students knowing that the organization is only offering a seed to the class and is doing what they can to help.
Our very own Heidi introduced a question:
What about family? and bringing practices of mindfulness home?
Doug for his programs responded simply, “It’s a challenge.” He went on to say how working with kids and parents in the community showed that the children were more open to the practice but the parents were more so not. Largely parents have seen and focused on the religious practice bias over mindfulness and so Doug’s priority is to desecularize the practice and bring it in as a scientific practice.
Ultimately, he wants students to bring home media to share with their family. He also shared a tool he introduces to students using guided imagery to bring the youth to a safe place in their mind that they can return to again and again.
Representatives from No Bully were asked how/if they introduce mindfulness in their programming. They responded noting that they use the mindful principle of compassion as an initial approach to school and cyber-bullying. Buy-in from parents is invited through a “Parents Night” where these tools are showcased to families of the students.
Knowing how important developing a sense of trust with youth to open up is a journey of itself, I was curious if organizations observed how incorporation of mindfulness changed the trust level amongst the students to share difficult feelings and emotions.
The first response from an attendee addressed a time when a person died that the students knew. The kids asked about the process of death and ended up helping the adults move through their grief. Use of ‘infinity bracelets’ helped cultivate trust among the students to share what they thought and felt.
The second response came from our participant involved in giving cultural curriculum. They noted a deeper trust was evident by having tough but good conversations on many times a violent history lesson. The feedback the kids gave the organization was that they felt glad they were able to talk about the difficult issues and better able to process the info they learned.
Trust and trauma were big concerns for youth embracing mindfulness practices. One caveat to the commonly embraced quiet mindful sitting practice for traumatized youth is that it could have the reverse effect of increasing the intensity of the past trauma the child endured. Doug shared that with SOA this can be a challenge to assess especially when working with a bigger class. He addresses this opportunity for the students to have the option to either sit still or have slow gentle movement.
Another participant at the breakfast contributed to the discussion that doing gentle movements like Tai-Chi forces the mind to be focused on the movement as a meditation not allowing other thoughts to enter the mind.
As the Breakfast Conversation came to a close, many attendees gave testimonies of their own journeys to and through mindful practices. Some were skeptical at first, while others remained open along the way. The invitation here is not to ‘make it perfect’ but rather to make mindfulness yours however it looks. Our co-facilitator for the morning, Doug, summed up perfectly the charge for our youth, “We can’t change the world around the kids, but we can give them tools to be resilient.”