Contemplative Photography & Reflections

Mindfulness and Education at Omega

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
-John Lennon, “Imagine”

I recently spent three days at Omega Institute for the sixth annual Mindfulness and Education Conference: Bringing Mindfulness to Children Grades K-12. I had wanted to attend the conference for the past few years but this year received a full scholarship that finally made it possible. My guess is that about 300 people attended the conference, and it was powerful to gather with that many like-minded educators who value holistic education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. Actually, I’ve never experienced anything like it! I have a few friends online who teach in schools committed to a holistic approach to education, and the college from which I received my master’s degree offers a holistic, student-centered educational experience and a faculty that attracts a diverse and alternative-minded student body. One faculty member literally “wrote the book” (several, actually) on holistic, progressive, and alternative education. It’s been eight years since I completed the program, and it was my last experience of being in community with so many like-minded educators until going to Omega this summer. For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water in the current educational environment and have questioned how much longer I can continue in the profession. I attended the conference hoping to connect with kindred spirits and to be inspired.

Buddha outside Ram Dass Library, Omega Institute

A passion for social-emotional learning brought me to the teaching profession in the first place. After trying to implement the MindUP curriculum in my classroom for the past three years with limited success, I was in need of practical suggestions. Is it possible to implement such a curriculum successfully without support, given the present realities of public education? How do you fit it into an already packed school day?

Keynote speakers included Jack Kornfield, Amishi Jha, and Daniel Rechtschaffen. Social-emotional learning expert, Linda Lantieri, also was scheduled to present but was unable to attend due to health issues. I took so many notes at the conference, and there is so much I want to share! I am organizing this post around the ideas that stood out the most for me, indicated in bold. Clicking on the numerous hyperlinks included throughout the text will provide you with a wealth of information about mindfulness in education if you are are interested in learning more about it. I’m also including a list of book recommendations at the end.

The major understandings and inspirations I took away from the conference are as follows:

Mindfulness must be wed with compassion.

It’s not mindfulness unless it’s also heartfulness! Teach children to discover their worth, to value one another, to befriend themselves. Honor them by holding a beam of love and understanding. Teach them not only how to calm their minds and focus their attention but also how to be wise and loving beings.

Mindfulness and compassion training should not be something you’re forced to do but an invitation to well-being. It is a process of paying kind attention. The teaching of mindfulness and compassion is not religious; it promotes the development of universal human values, or what H. H. the Dalai Lama refers to as secular ethics. It is about teaching children and teachers to train their mind, regulate their emotions, and be more loving and compassionate.

Establish the classroom as a place of mindfulness, for tending and befriending ourselves. Consider beginning mindfulness exercises with a bell or a poem. Depending on the needs and energy of the group, there are times when sitting, walking, or heart practices are best.

Trace thoughts and feelings to the body.

Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings must be traced to the body – to where you feel them. One way to practice this with children is to put your hand in the air (where the thoughts are), and trace thoughts down the arm to the part of the body they’re attached to. The first step is to notice the thoughts and track down to the sensations in the body. The next step is to bring self-care to the body. Our body needs so much love and compassion when our head is spinning!

I realized that I tend to live in my head. Since the conference, I have reminded myself to drop down into my body, and it is a powerful practice! I did this once in a doctor’s office when I was in the midst of my “white coat” anxiety habit (in which my body seems to have a mind of its own), and the results were quite profound. Another time, I was awakened during the night by a thunderstorm, and immediately my mind started spinning. It was right after the conference, and my mind was trying to make sense of why I experienced such an emotional response to the conference. (More about that later.) Within a few minutes, my mind had created a tidy theory and was quite pleased to have wrapped it up so nicely. But there still was tension in my body. Then I remembered to sink into my body and practice mindfulness – to feel the sensations and hold them in kindness and compassion. A storm had come along, and I got caught up in a whirlwind of thought for a while, until I remembered and practiced – and quieted my mind. A couple hours later, I was awakened by another clap of thunder, and my immediate response was to practice. It was as if the thunderclap was a meditation bell! I sank down into my body and felt the sensations, thus strengthening that response. And that is what it is all about. Making an analogy between meditation and exercise, one of the speakers at the conference said that each time you bring your mind back is the equivalent of one rep. I love that.

I’ve also found that sometimes it helps to physically touch the place in which I experience the sensation in my body – for example, putting a hand on the solar plexus (where I often feel a stab when I remember my mom has died) or the heart. When I am falling asleep, I sometimes like to rest one hand on the pelvic valley and the other hand on the solar plexus and become aware of the wave of breath between those two areas. It is like ocean waves and is so calming. Likewise, you can teach children to focus on their breath by inviting them to put one hand on their heart and the other on their belly.

Create a safe place.

Establish safety first! Do whatever you can to help a child feel emotionally safe and relaxed and present in their bodies. We must get kids into a place where their parasympathetic nervous system is in control so they can grow and learn. Help them to understand that they are not alone in their suffering – that we are all in the same boat! Help them to see that other children have divorced parents, have felt bullied, have fears, etc. Let them see each others’ beauty and troubles. Teach them of their own goodness and vulnerability. Teach them mindfulness and heartfulness when they’re calm. Young children need to learn what it means to “pay attention.”

Include movement first.

Younger children have so much energy that you need to allow them to release a little through physical movements before asking them to sit and breathe. Include a movement activity before attempting seated mindfulness practice. When kids are antsy throughout the day, do yoga poses.

I find this is also true for myself. It’s always easier for me to do seated practice following yoga or another form of physical exercise.

Begin with yourself.

For years, I have struggled with how to teach focused awareness to a whole group of children – some of whom struggle with attention control or can’t sit still – without any assistance in the classroom. When I try to lead a core practice in mindful awareness, inevitably one or two students will effectively sabotage the whole experience by acting out, seeking attention, etc. For example, in the MindUp curriculum, there is a daily core practice of focused listening (to the sound of a resonant bell) and deep, belly breathing. Each year, I have grown weary of trying to manage behavior throughout mindfulness practice – and abandoned it altogether because the behavior management became so exhausting. But I always was pleasantly surprised when some children later begged to listen to the bell ring because “We haven’t done it in a long time.” They must like how it feels to do the practice, and I don’t want to allow the behavior of a small minority to ruin the experience for the whole!

One of the biggest realizations I brought home from the conference is that if you can’t control anything else in your school environment, the most basic step you can take is to maintain a daily mindfulness practice. Even if I’m teaching in an environment that doesn’t actively embrace the benefits of mindfulness, I can do it in my room, in whatever capacity I can manage. Some years I might be able to do more than others. The first step is for me to practice mindfulness every day. Before school and even during the school day when the kids are out of the room, I can turn off the lights, lock the door, and do it! Do it on my own, deliberately. Make it an individual practice until the cavalry comes. Or if the opportunity arises, link up informally with others who are doing it.

Chris Cullen, cofounder of the Mindfulness in Schools project, offered these priorities to keep in mind:

  1. Be mindful.
  2. Teach mindfully.
  3. Teach mindfulness.

Rather than throw my hands up in frustration because I’m not able to teach mindfulness the way I’d like to, focus on being mindful. That is a great start! And if that’s all I can manage, then that is enough! It is a worthy accomplishment to succeed at that first step. If you’re doing it, you’re doing a good job! Success is not opening the refrigerator or turning on the cell phone!

The missing piece: Caring for teachers

Teachers cannot solve the whole problem of fixing what is wrong with public education. Because we are the ones on the front line, we need to cultivate self-compassion – so we can stay in the job! Someone at the conference said they realized they had to make a choice between changing their mind or leaving their job.

Our schools aren’t failing. Our kids aren’t failing. Our schools are failing our teachers. The missing piece is taking care of our teachers. When you’re doing your best in an impossible situation with an impossible workload and your professionalism is questioned when you act with deep integrity on behalf of children, and your core values are not reflected anywhere in the curriculum, and you don’t feel supported or valued, how can you create a safe space for children? Our schools are filled with burned out, stressed out teachers who are expected to do more with less each year. Children absorb the teacher’s energy and ultimately are the ones losing out despite the teacher’s most sincere and heartfelt efforts. The teacher’s state of consciousness is the unwritten curriculum.

If our schools fail to care adequately for teachers, it is essential that teachers practice self-care. It is so much more satisfying and empowering than being a victim and squandering precious time and energy by complaining and feeling bad. That is precisely how I became serious about nature photography. I challenged myself to connect with beauty every single day. It was a way for me to unwind and re-attune after an exhausting day at work and often occurred during a walk (for physical exercise is also essential to mental health). Now I’ve added some quiet time for seated meditation, for I find that it makes a huge difference in the quality of my day. It clears my mind, weeds the garden of my senses, and is time well spent. It’s so easy to get caught up in the endless stream of work during the school year, but it is essential to learn how to put work aside and take time to care for ourselves and enjoy our families. It sounds so basic, but with the extra demands put on teachers now, the need for self-care becomes more urgent than ever.

Keynote and Breakout Presentations

Jennifer Cohen Harper, founder of Little Flower Yoga (The School Yoga Project) encouraged us to be our students’ superhero and to have a plan for when we’re not feeling like a superhero – a song, breath work, etc. Everything is harder when you’re exhausted, so give everyone time to relax during the school day. She asserted that children make their own experiences and meaning when you slow down and leave lots of space. There’s no need to process everything! Allow some experiences to simply be. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, stay connected to your kids! That is the most important thing.

Her program is based on five elements:

  1. Connect – with the world around us, to other people, and to our own inner experience
  2. Breathe – nose to belly breathing
  3. Move – joyful experience
  4. Focus – teach how to pay attention, mindfulness activities
  5. Relax – guided visualization or storytelling but also quiet time.

She emphasized that the relaxation element is crucial and makes everything else you do during the day more potent.

Cofounders of the Holistic Life Foundation (Mindful Moment Program), Andy Gonzalez, Atman Smith, and Ali Smith, described how they use guided visualization, yoga asanas, breathing, movement, chair-based exercises, games, and student leaders in their work with schools. They underscored the mentoring component (in which older kids help younger kids) and the use of students leading their peers through mindfulness exercises. In order to become a leader, a child must model good behavior. An added benefit is that kids go home and naturally teach their parents (and probably their dolls and stuffed animals, too)!

Daniel Rechtschaffen, who facilitated the whole conference, led us through a “popcorn thoughts” activity from his book, The Way of Mindful Education. It is a great exercise for elementary school-aged children. Explain that your mind makes thoughts like a popcorn maker makes popcorn. Instruct children to sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Whenever a thought comes into their mind, they raise their hand (like a popcorn kernel popping) and let it fall as the thought falls away.

Amishi Jha‘s presentations were energetic and engaging and truly wonderful, but I don’t want to get into the neuroscience of attention here and encourage you to visit her website and/or the website of Dan Siegel (who wasn’t at the conference but is a major researcher).

The most poignant part of the conference for me was a guided visualization led by Jack Kornfield. Up until this time, I was interested but not emotionally vested in the conference. After a very tough school year, I was at the end of my rope, unsure about returning to my job in the fall. I’d even revised my resume and applied for a non-teaching position right before leaving for the conference. But I was open to inspiration and miracles. Jack Kornfield invited us to see ourselves in the toughest situation we’ve experienced at work. In the middle of it, there is a knock on the door, and a luminous figure (for me it was H. H. the Dalai Lama) enters my body and takes over managing the situation while I witness it as an invisible presence. A while later, he goes back to the door and on his way out gives me a gift and whispers some words. To my great surprise, somewhere in the middle of the visualization I realized that, lurking below my residual feelings about my most awful experience, there is still a pulse in my teacher body. I was very surprised to discover this! We took a short break, during which I retreated to my room to release some tears. When we returned, I looked into Jack Kornfield’s eyes and told him that I’m a teacher who was this close to not going back for another year but realized during the visualization that there is still a heartbeat. He held his hands to his heart, expressed gratitude, and held my hands in his. From this point forward, I was fully engaged!

On the final day of the conference, there was a panel discussion of administrators and teachers who have put mindfulness into practice in their own schools. Here are some examples of what some schools – both independent and public – are doing to promote a deep culture of mindfulness and compassion:

  • Whole school participates in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course
  • Create a breathe room – a quiet, inviting space you can drop into anytime during the day
  • Mindfulness as a special class, like music, art, and P.E. (Oh, how I love this idea! I want that job!)
  • Every teacher receives chimes and a copy of Linda Lantieri’s book on cultivating inner resilience
  • Begin faculty meetings with a couple minutes of mindful breathing, or lead them in a moment of mindfulness.
  • Faculty gratitude circles: Reflect on what you are grateful for that happened in the last week, and send out intentions for next week
  • Yoga class for teachers
  • Offer stress reduction workshops for families.

I love the idea of a breathe room! But paring it down to something simpler, you could establish a breathing space in a classroom. I have a single-person “Quiet Tent” in a quiet corner of my classroom right next to my desk (which is my private, quiet space). I’ve always allowed children who need some quiet space to retreat to the Quiet Tent when they need to. However, it also could be a place for mindful breathing once I teach them how to do it.

Someone else spoke of bringing children into nature as an important part of mindfulness. Read them some stories or poems (perhaps Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry) to open their eyes. Then invite them to write or draw. As a photographer, I might show them an image I captured and ask them to consider why I took the picture. What drew me to that image? Where is the beauty? How did it speak to me?

Pond outside the Sanctuary at Omega Institute

There was a teacher from Manhattan’s independent Blue School on the panel. I had learned of Blue School from a panel discussion during the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit that included two founding members of the Blue Man Group. The school looks like this dreamer’s dream come true! The Blue School teacher described a joyful, holistic environment that includes singing bowls, singing lullabies, yoga poses, art, breathing, and children leading breathing. She spoke of so much goodness that I couldn’t write it all down! The school also has a mindfulness blog, and parents drop in for mindfulness on Friday afternoons. Wow.

The general consensus was that mindfulness programs did not encounter anticipated resistance but spread with joy – though it’s best to take the time to grow them slowly. One panelist suggested starting in kindergarten by training kindergarten teachers and then filtering it up. They also emphasized the idea of teachers practicing together. Even if there aren’t any school-wide mindfulness or yoga classes for faculty and staff, a small group of colleagues could meet and practice mindful breathing for ten minutes before school, to set the tone for the day. It’s much like having a workout partner. You are less likely to skip your exercise if there is someone else to whom you are accountable. Similarly, if your school does not have a room devoted to mindfulness, you can cultivate an environment or create a space in your own room. If all else fails, simply maintaining your own mindfulness practice makes a big difference!

If you do encounter resistance in implementing a mindfulness program, there is a lot of neuroscience data to back it up. Dan Siegel’s book, Brainstorm, is a good resource. You also can emphasize that you’re not stealing time from the rest of the school day curriculum but are replacing pieces that don’t work with what does work, and you are educating children to take care of themselves. Furthermore, you can ask families to notice that their children are coming home more relaxed.

Closing

At the end of the conference, we were guided to reflect on the ways in which we were inspired and what we need as we go back into the world and return to our classrooms. My greatest inspiration was discovering that there is a heart inside me still beating to teach in ways that allow me to:

  • Reflect to others their own inner beauty and help them to love themselves
  • Open the hearts and minds of others to the beauty and interconnectedness of nature
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the light that shines through nature and people – the essence that shines through the forms and connects us all.

My needs are to practice myself and to feel valued in my work environment. I could begin by sharing with anyone who might be interested what I have learned from the conference and through my own experience. Perhaps I am mistaken in assuming nobody would be interested. You never know until you try! (Postscript: Two days after publishing this article, I received a bulk email from a teacher at my school who wants to offer a yoga class once or twice a week so colleagues can practice together!)

As I prepare to return to my classroom in a few weeks, I will bring with me an excerpt from a poem entitled “School Prayer” by Diane Ackerman, which Jack Kornfield quoted. I intend to post it in a prominent spot and read it daily:

I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.

Book Recommendations

The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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