“I don’t want to have another year like last year.”
“What if I fail [insert standardized test name here]?”
“If [insert name of challenging student] is in my class, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
As a clinician who works with children and adolescents, these are a few of the statements I hear around this most wonderful time of the year from students in addition to teachers and parents.
These may be regrets from the past … or worries about the future.
It is a strange sort of time travel that we do: we go back to the past and really feel what it felt like to go through the difficult experience, or we imagine a new difficult experience in the future, and really feel what that would be like too! All the while, in this present moment, neither one of these is actually happening.
Let’s go back to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
So how might the practice of mindfulness address a new school year?
It is time to pay attention!
Many of us heard this from parents and teachers when we were younger. Generally, it was because something out of the window or that our neighbor in another desk was doing was infinitely more interesting than integers. But the sort of attention that we are “paying” is a practiced, “on purpose” sort of attention.
One of the first activities that you might encounter in learning mindfulness meditation is to focus on the breath, but with an intention to notice the cadence of it, the physical sensations of expanding the abdomen, filling the lungs, and the feeling of the air passing in and out of your mouth and nostrils.
The focus on the very real, physical sensations is important because it helps us be in the present moment.
For young people, I often give away stones which can become a sort of focus object, to practice noticing the variation in color and texture of the stone, to notice the weight and balance, to rub your finger across any places where there are pits or dimples. All of this means that it is harder to worry about the past or future when our focus is on the present … on the physical sensations associated with this stone in their hand.
Perhaps you were in a classroom where the teacher would call each student’s name. And while sometimes students would get creative (especially when there was a substitute teacher), most often students answer with some variation of “here” or “present”.
In a very simple way, this is what we do with mindfulness. It is a call to be present … to really be “here” in this moment.
In more structured settings such as a meditation class, you may hear the ringing of a bell to signal the beginning or end of a period of meditation. Just as often the bell is used as a reminder to come back to the present moment.
The bell is a signal to stop, … to breathe, … to be “here” again.
Here are your grades for the assignment.
This is where our tendency to evaluate others and ourselves comes in. Grades are a way of saying that you pass or fail. But with this feeling of being evaluated also comes a triggering of our stress response. With that stress response comes a type of “fight or flight” thinking that narrows our choices, leads us to be less creative and quicker and cruder in our decision making. After all, if a tiger is running at you, you don’t have time to think about an imaginative response.
A non-judgemental approach means that we observe the present while pausing to decide what to do next.
This does not mean that we never evaluate our work or ourselves, but it does mean that we stop before rushing to judgment. We pause. We breathe. We are gentle with ourselves. We respond instead of reacting to the situation in front of us.
Reaction is more of the fight/flight system; responding means pausing and making a thoughtful choice.
In the classroom, this looks like a creative response to a difficult behavior by a child, recognizing that this child is behaving this way for some reason other than trying to annoy the teacher. This may mean that a student pauses, breathes, and responds in a more thoughtful way. A parent may need to recognize that this one grade is not EVERY grade; pause, breathe, and respond in a way that helps.
So as you begin a new school year take some time to stop, to be present, to breathe. Approach this new year with compassion for yourself and for your fellow students and teachers, remembering that loving-kindness helps us to be open to each other and all the lessons that are there for us.