Freedom Is An Act

I was meditating when I heard horns honking and loud yelling. At first I thought it was teenagers playing around. But it wasn’t just coming from just one place, but from all over. 

I picked up the phone and searched “election results 2020” and blinked. I had checked hundreds if not thousands of times between Tuesday and Saturday. On Tuesday, as results rolled in, my body grew tense, and I curled up into a ball on the couch, struggling even to respond to the questions of my ten-year-old son, Simon. Waking on Wednesday, I took a deep breath as I picked up the phone, terrified of a repeat of 2016 when I woke to a surprise election upset and a national nightmare for many, myself included. This time, votes in several key states were still being counted, and a nation bit its nails and tossed in its sleep for days. 

But now Biden was finally over the needed 270 electoral votes to win the presidency! I ran to the living room, where Simon was playing a video game with his friend. “It’s over! Biden won! Biden is the next president!” Both kids jumped up and joined me in dancing and jumping around the room. 

We set out shortly after to meet friends in Prospect Park. I stopped at a corner liquor store, “Do you have any champagne left in this place?” I joked. “It’s a good day today,” the shopkeeper answered, beaming. 

We drove down Washington Avenue, beeping enthusiastically at every car and passerby. Every time someone beeped, a host of horns responded, and a cheer went up. I caught the eye of a woman at a stoplight in the opposite direction, and we both started beeping, cheering, smiling, giving the thumbs up sign, and bouncing up and down. Someone zoomed by on a bike, rattling a cow bell. 

I kept thinking how powerful it was that Simon and his friend were experiencing all of this. 

Traffic was heavy and there were street closures, but for once I didn’t care at all. 

We found a parking spot near Grand Army Plaza. A band was playing and a huge crowd had assembled. We paused to dance before moving on to meet our friends in Prospect Park. 

The main lawn in the center of Prospect Park was more crowded than I have ever seen it. The weather was warm and the sky was clear. People were dressed joyfully, some in glitter and bright colors. An Uncle Sam wandered by, and a Statue of Liberty. There were open champagne bottles on many picnic blankets. 

We found our friends before long and immediately opened the champagne (and kid-friendly fake wine) and shared a toast. It was too crowded for soccer or other sports, but the kids began to rove and wrestle. 

Joy swept the park in waves. A cheer would start and then swoop across the entire big lawn. When a new friend arrived I ran to them, threw my hands up into the air, yelled with joy, and in some cases threw pandemic-caution to the wind and hugged them. I kept filling people’s cups with champagne, and often it bubbled over the top of the small plastic cup.

Someone wheeled a speaker into the middle of the park and started a dance party. I moved toward it along with another parent friend, throwing my arms up and dropping my hips low. A small child started breakdancing, so we opened a dance circle in the middle of the action and clapped and cheered for him. I couldn’t resist, and jumped into the center after he got tired, taking the opportunity to express effusive, uncontainable joy. Others stepped in after, and I cheered and jumped and held space for each of them.

A Black man I’m very close with shared a glimmer of hope, then bitter disillusionment, believing that a new leader would likely mean more of the same broken promises and hollow politicking.

I watched the video of Black Emmy Award winner and CNN contributor Van Jones fighting back tears and speaking with heaving words, of how much this election means, of what it means for so many people. “Well it’s easier to be a parent today,” he sobbed. “It’s easier to be a Dad. It’s easier to tell your kids character matters,” he said, wiping tears with a tissue from under his glasses. “It’s vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered,” he managed to get out, with considerable pauses, attempting to control his powerful emotions.

The next day, Sunday, I danced again.

This time it was at Henya Emmer’s 5Rhythms dance and movement meditation class outside in Battery Park.

I arrived early, eager to move with new possibilities, and to release the toxins of four painful years. 

I had attended Henya’s class in Battery Park three times already, so I knew exactly where to go, just to the East of Castle Clinton, and West of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. The site is a round, paved area in view of the harbor and Statue of Liberty, with trees curving overhead, and the tall buildings of lower Manhattan not far behind the trees.

As with the previous day, the weather was unseasonably warm and pleasant.

The class is silent-disco-style, which means each person wears a pair of headphones that pick up the teacher’s music and microphone. Before I even picked up headphones to tune into Henya’s music and teachings, I began a wild, joyful jig with a friend, to the music of some street performers who were installed nearby.

A friend I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic appeared. She had battled a serious illness but is now recovering. “Are you ok with a hug?” She asked and a sob ripped my throat as we embraced tightly.

Putting on the official headphones, I found Henya’s music subdued at first. I really wanted to let the bubbles overflow, and periodically removed the headphones to dance to the music of the street performers. I recognized the importance of slowing down and finding ground, though, and reflected that I was lucky I hadn’t hurt myself or anyone else, that for the last 24 hours I had been in Chaos-Lyrical without much sense of ground.

I continued to move in and out of dancing to the street performers’ music, and moving with the group. 

I spent some time stretching, hesitant to put my hands on the ground in this era of Covid, but finally settling in, sinking low inside my hips and finding weighted balances as I moved my biggest muscles into stress to protect them from later injury.

I was a little concerned about my knees on the concrete surface, so moved beyond the edge of the circle to a soft gravel surface, where I could move with more abandon. 

I went into the circle again, and joined with one friend who was visibly moved. We both vocalized, moving with grief, rage, and joy. I briefly wondered what it seemed like to Henya and passersby, but did my best to put it out of my head. In the past, I had been hesitant about vocally expressing the depth of emotions, but today that was not the case.

I thought about what it was like when President Obama was elected. When the streets in Brooklyn were streams of dancing bodies, when I cried for days. When we danced in a 5Rhythms class a few days after his election, the entire room was three feet from the ground. It was the most powerful collective joy I had ever experienced. I wasn’t even sure I could stay with it. It was almost too much for me.

This weekend had the same quality of shared, wild, uncaged, roving joy, of release, of relief, of surrender.

For now, though, I worked against my ebullience, and settled into the attenuated, low grooves that Henya served up. As she moved us through attention to various body parts, I lost self-awareness and time, sometimes nearly closing my eyes. A chemical release seemed to be taking place, filling my senses with an odd electrical feeling, and I just kept moving. 

I spent the majority of the class on the soft, gravel surface, but moved repeatedly into the paved circle and the larger group, connecting joyfully with everyone who would meet my eye. 

After this low, slow start, Henya shifted us gently into Staccato. I played with my knees, the weight of my shoulders and diagonally-arranged upper body, my elbows. 

Many passersby stopped to watch or take pictures of the group, to the point that the street performers had to work hard to bring attention back to themselves. “It’s ok to show off your moves,” Henya said into the mic and into our headphones with a tone of humor. One dancer offered his headset to a woman who was sitting on a bench and she jumped in and threw down. 

Staccato came and went for me between 2016-2020. It was incredibly variable. Today, I felt energized and competent. My little gravel patch made me very visible to onlookers, and it gave me just a tiny extra edge of energy and creativity. I ranged back and forth, side to side, finding many different ways to step on the beat, and using pauses and suspensions for maximum impact.

In Chaos, I went all out. I moved in a snarling matrix at times, at times moving with aerial changes, finding beat shifts with my knees, ankles, and feet in the air while soaring in an overarching, directional gesture. Sinking low, I took off the headset and flung my head–the end of a train that started with my coiling feet, sacrum, and spine.

Grief and joy ripped through my throat throughout the class, but especially in Lyrical. I left my little patch and joined the larger group. I danced with the recovering friend who I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, then leaned toward her, pointed to myself, then to her, nodding, silently saying, “I follow you!” She understood and playfully led me throughout the dance floor. After a while, I pointed to me then to her, saying “You follow me!” and she knew exactly the game, her eyes glittering as she chased me around bodies, keeping her eyes on me as I dipped and turned, playfully eluding her then falling within her reach.

Henya played the Leonard Cohen’s gravelly version of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah,” and many of us sang the Hallelujahs out loud. I moved through, feeling energetically porous, not separate from any other person.

Sunset turned New York Harbor orange and pink. 

Henya called our attention to the glowing Statue of Liberty across the harbor; and despite the sacred, tapered ending the music offered, we began to whoop, clap, and cheer–perhaps knowing that our freedom is both incomplete and is fragile, incomplete in that it does not yet apply equally to all, and fragile in that it is bolstered only by our collective beliefs and actions.

In the words of the late congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, quoted by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in her acceptance speech on Saturday night, 

“Freedom is not a state. It is an act.”

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

***Photo by Clarissa Best (from Pinterest)

 

 

Daily Practice in Grueling Times

My right thigh resounds with little earthquakes, loosening tremors as I let my weight relax into a hard rubber ball. It’s been a long time since I remembered to roll out my muscles, and lately there have been many days hunched over a computer, working hard and fast.

I wake up long before sunrise so I can make sure to have time to meditate. I light a candle on my altar, wrap in a soft blanket, and try to be patient if my ten-year-old son, Simon, wakes up and wants to tell me about his dreams or a video game that’s on his mind.

Practice has had to find its way into the empty spaces. Some days instead of lunch I would put on music in the living room and dance a short wave. Some days I found a little time at night. For the last several weeks, I’ve dropped everything, rolled up the rug, and danced an independent wave from 3-4pm.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March, I’ve danced alone every day, gone deep, and loved the opportunity to practice being self-generating. I’ve been able to attend a few outdoor, silent-disco-style classes with Henya Emmer and others, and have enjoyed the opportunity to be alone together. But since the start of the pandemic my practice has become daily, and most of the time it is me by myself.

I had a triggering weekend last week. It sat heavily on my shoulders, head, back. It was hard to get through the work day. The psychological brambles I’d stumbled into felt overwhelming and insurmountable.

Then I danced.

It was almost 3:30 when I started, so I had just 30 minutes to work with before I had to go pick up Simon. I played a six song wave, with two songs for Flowing, and one song for every other rhythm. Emotion swelled, and I moved with sadness, anger, overwhelm, and confusion, often giving it voice. I skipped the entire middle part of the final song in Stillness because I feared being late to pick up Simon. 

Even so, something shifted. The issues that were presenting didn’t feel as overwhelming or as tangled together. Everything felt much more workable. The anxiety I’d carried for two straight days dissipated. I wasn’t fancyfree, but I was no longer in agony.

In September, one space that opened up unexpectedly was a work holiday for Yom Kippur. I assumed that Simon would also be off, but learned at the last minute that he did have school, so I headed to Jacob Riis park, a beautiful, wild beach where there are plenty of places to be alone.

After a short run along the shore, I drew myself a big circle on the packed sand close to the water and began to move in arcing spirals, taking care to churn the sand in every part of the circle.

Before long, I felt too confined, and moved beyond the circle I had created. 

I stayed in Flowing for ages, wondering (as is often the case) if I would ever feel the calling to move into Staccato. It took me some time to let thinking recede and the body begin to settle. I told myself it was totally fine if all I wanted to do was stay in Flowing all day. Big, lowing sobs gathered and tore out of me, then faded away. And still I circled, feeling the sand give under my feet, and responding to the arriving waves and their tangled, pulling returns. 

After nearly an hour, Staccato surprised me by igniting suddenly. A song I love to move to lately came to mind, and it was enough to get me started. Then the rest of me was tinder, and I moved energetically, playing with my own shadow, pulling taut and low, rocking my hips, advancing and receding from the sea, and exhaling sharply.

I was panting and beaming by the time I finally melted into a soft Chaos. My spine coiled and head rocked in gentle release, dipping down and casting up, spinning and flopping, my feet periodically submerged and splashing. 

In Lyrical, I ranged over the wide beach and back to the water, even extending to soar over the dry, loose sand, delighted. 

A soaring bird in the distance caught my eye, and I slipped into the rift of Stillness, moving with a silent mind. I waded into the sea, watching for a gap in the surf, then dove and did butterfly up and over the backs of the rising waves. Last, I floated, feeling the pull of complex, dynamic forces.

Schools are in chaos. There are COVID spikes in Brooklyn and many other places. The election is days away and the nation is holding its breath, many of us praying for a new vision and a peaceful transfer of power. 

And somehow practice still and always holds me. Even when I have to look for gaps to flow into, even when I have to relax and trust that space will open up, and even when it seems overwhelming and impossible to move forward.

November 1, 2020, Brooklyn, New York

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

Currents Pulling Resolutely Along

My Auntie Mae survived 100 years and four months. She was an institution, holding one corner of a huge family together. And she was kind, good-humored, and deeply committed to her Catholic faith. Because of this strong faith, the family held a traditional funeral despite the ongoing pandemic. I traveled to join them in Northern Connecticut while maintaining social distance.

When everyone was inside the church, I sat on the steps outside and meditated. I was supported by the step behind my lower back and my ankles were folded in front of me. I rocked slightly from side to side, enraptured by the racing clouds, and feeling the chilly wind on my arms.

After many extremely busy days when I could barely take in this loss, a range of emotions tore through me: grief, for the loss of my aunt, for all she takes with her, and for the painful fact that everything dissolves and changes, even my own precious life and the lives of those I love. At moments I lowed with sadness, then settled back into calm rocking. I also felt fear, as COVID cases rise in Brooklyn–where I live along with my ten-year-old son, Simon–anxiety, intense job stress, joy, nostalgia, and tenderness. 

I felt very close to my aunt in these moments, even though I wasn’t inside the church observing the Catholic rituals. 

When the rest of the family went to a banquet hall, I made a cup of tea in the attached apartment at my parents’ house, and carried it next door with me to sit on my Aunt Mae’s steps. I watched the ghosts in the windows and yard, seeing a movie of my own parents’ wedding in the driveway on my father’s 21st birthday, imagining the tobacco and vegetable fields that the family once owned, remembering picnics long in the past, thinking of the Christmas Eve parties that I have attended every year of my life in the house, and of the antique wooden toys in a chest in the living room that my mother, now 69, played with as a toddler, that I played with, and that Simon also played with.

I sat there patiently for some time.

Then I went to a place my grandfather loved, in the woods by the Scantic River. I drew a big circle in the soft dirt and danced inside it. I spent ages in Flowing, and wondered if I would ever move into the rhythm of Staccato. When Staccato did finally present, it was gentle, muted. Chaos was the same, releasing me in tiny increments. Lyrical shifted me quickly into Stillness, and I gazed up at the sunlight breaking through the leaves far above, and felt the currents of the river pulling resolutely along.

A few days later, I attended Henya Emmer’s weekend class in Battery Park, led on this occasion by Ray Diaz.

That morning I had done a remote yoga class with my cherished teacher Maria Cutrona. At the end, I stayed on the floor rather than rising to join the circle. I had the curious sense that I was spinning down through deep space; and remembered that as a teen I would feel the same sensation after a long run, while laying on the roof of my parents’ house in the sun with my eyes closed, some kind of unknowable source briefly opening its portal. 

Ray greeted me with an extended elbow as I entered the tree-lined enclosed circular area near once-immigration-center Castle Clinton and Pier A, a dock for large tourist boats.

I checked in, then stepped onto the dance floor. Trees curved above, lawns stretched behind, and boats glided by on the Hudson River–close to its transition to the Atlantic Ocean. The pavement in this area was set in rolling circles, perhaps once home to a fountain, next to the famous Castle Clinton national monument.

Ray started us with an invitation to shake and I dove right in. This is a silent-disco-style event; and I held onto my headphones to avoid accidentally flinging them off. Soon holding the headphones became part of my dance, and I experimented with tipping myself and balancing the headphones on one side of my head. At times, I held the headphones in my hand and danced without music, especially when I was swept away. 

I took my shoes off in Flowing and moved off to the side, where instead of pavement there was soft gravel. The sensation was too much, almost tickling. It forced me to slow down, but I before long I put my shoes back on. 

I thought of my teacher Maria Cutrona’s words from the same morning, “The world needs you to believe that you can be a healer.” 

“It’s time to wake up,” Ray said firmly into the mic as we shifted into the rhythm of Staccato. I ranged around the circular dance floor, then moved again to the soft gravel at the side closest to the river. I danced with my own shadow, rocking my hips with big, powerful arms. “Use your knees to power it,” Ray encouraged, and I became ferocious, sinking low and settling back into the hips, bursting and spinning, and pausing with creative vigor. “Give it a voice,” Ray further encouraged and I vocalized along with the group, only dimly aware of how odd it must seem to passersby who were out for a dusk stroll in the park.

In another phase of the class, Ray put on a compelling Reggae song, and I shifted from stretching to breakdancing, toggling my knees fast back and forth with one hand on the ground, then leaping into heavy balances and spins, and hopping back into my outstretched heel. 

Ray played song after song that delighted me, including the Cold Play song with the lyric “You’re a Sky Full of Stars” just as dusk gave way to darkness. I settled into a dripping Stillness and swept through the shared dance space with great inspiration and love.

Sometimes in the silent-disco format I feel a bit lonely. Not so tonight. I felt connected, inspired, athletic, and free, believing for a time that everything was perfect and that I had everything I needed. Connecting to something I can only call source, and grateful for every dripping minute. Grateful to be alive, in this odd, frightening, complicated time. Grateful for the chance to breathe, unapologetic. 

Moving with the gliding boats that were casting light reflections on the wide river, I realized at last that it was fully dark, and time to shift into rest. 

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

Photos: Original images by the writer of objects from the home of Mae Grigely, October, 2020.

 

To The Waves and the Wind

The wind was blowing west so I decided to move in the same direction, in sync with the waves. It was like using a pedal-assist bike. Each time I pulled the water with my cupped hand I shot forward. The sea rocked and lifted my body, and I kept my senses immersed, timing breathing with the rolling swells. After several days of this daily ritual, I started to feel grounded, like I could let go of the stress and anxiety of the previous months and move into the oncoming stress and anxiety with less baggage. 

Usually by the end of July I’m really starting to relax. I look my best and feel my best. But this year, as fall looms, my stress level is increasing rather than decreasing as I scramble to organize conditions for my ten-year-old son, Simon’s, schooling, and prepare for my own job, which is also in a school, during the ongoing pandemic.

Driving to Cape Cod with my Dad, we ranged through heavy topics, like the upcoming election and issues related to racial justice. I used an expression – I wish I could remember what it was now – and realized I had no idea about its origin. I shared that for all I knew, it could have racist roots and I should find out its history before I used it again. My Dad shared that he had recently heard an expression that definitely has racist roots, but was used in conversation without its original intention. He felt that if the original intention was lost, it was no longer problematic. I disagreed with him, and we also talked about whether or not the association of light with positive things, and of dark with negative things might have a racial implication. He felt like this was going too far, and expressed frustration. I said, “I’m not trying to shut anyone down or make it impossible for anyone to express themselves. But I’m very interested in mining language for clues about my unconscious and the culture I’ve been raised in. And everything seems like fair game for examination at this point.” 

Something small triggered me one evening during the week, and I realized how sensitive I was. I took a break and went to the beach as sunset lit the sky. Walking west, I talked by phone with my brother, who advised me there had been a significant COVID spike in the area of Cape Cod where we were staying along with extended family for the week. Anxiety surged in my body.

Dusk and the sky’s full expression had my back as I headed toward home. Pausing a few beaches away, I decided to dance a 5Rhythms wave, which is to move in sequence in the energy of each of the 5Rhythms – Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness.

There were still some lingering beach walkers, but (feeling slightly conspicuous) I drew a big circle in the packed sand close to the water, calling my ancestors, guides, and helpers to help make a space of safety and power, where I could work with the strong emotions that were coming and hear underneath what can be heard with my ears. 

As I settled into the circling cadences of Flowing, I tried to avoid eye contact as a group passed by. “What are you dancing to?”  a middle-aged white man in a baseball hat asked curiously. “To the waves and the wind,” I answered, trying for good humor. “Oh! And you made a circle!” “Yes, there’s a lot to move with lately,” I responded in a trying-for-bantering tone as they passed, though this probably made no sense whatsoever to them.

I settled deeper into Flowing, giving myself the space to express the obvious underpinning of anxiety: fear. My mind gushed with recent news items such as the local COVID spike, conversations, possible scenarios for fall, and ideas for how to protect Simon and myself. But I kept bringing my weight low, and bringing attention back to the feet and back to the senses, gathering mindfulness, and accepting the fear that has danced with me and so many others for months now.

I doubted I would ever move from the rhythm of Flowing into the second rhythm of Staccato. Instead, I rocked myself in motion, churning up the sand in every section of my inscribed circle, but staying inside its boundaries. I gave myself the space to settle my body – language emphasized by Resmaa Menachem, whose excellent book on embodied personal, generational, and racial trauma I read over the course of this healing week.

I finally did move into Staccato, but only for short intervals, noting the increased energy and activation, then settling the body back into Flowing again and again. I sensed or imagined that a presence joined me, a dark goddess, almost a pillar in the center of my circle, energetically overlapping with my body. I moved in and out of Flowing and Staccato, feeling her power and support.

I moved into the third rhythm of Chaos, again only for short intervals, again repeatedly returning to the first rhythm of Flowing. I let go softly as the sky drained of light, leaving only streaks of purple and blue on the west edge of darkness, feeling less conspicuous and more a tiny moving part of vast dynamic emptiness. “What do I need to hear?” I asked as I danced in shadows, and the sky whispered back.

I thought about Resmaa’s remarks on how important it is to know the difference between when we are productively settling the body, and when we are escaping into a calmly drugged state.  This led me to reflect that intuition, conditioned responses, and trauma responses can look very similar, and how important it is to learn to discern between the three, especially as we are working to unravel racism in our bodies, minds, and cultures. 

The next morning, I did my swim as usual, gently rocked by the sea as I moved along the shore. I went past the lifeguards, past the beachgoers, and nearly to a river in the town of Yarmouth. After some time, I emerged from the waves and walked back east. 

I stopped at the beach I’d danced on the night before to pick up an exquisite piece of beach glass – with smoothed edges and frosted white surfaces – and held it in my hand. 

I turned toward the ocean, remembering my dance of the night before, with tears streaming down my face. I could feel the entire universe in this one little piece of glass – the sand used to form it, the fire process that made it into glass, the person who used it and held it, the process by which it made its way into the sea, the vast body of the ocean and its endless motions smoothing the edges of things, and bringing this little piece of glass in with the tide, and now into my open hand.

***

Simon was already on the beach with my Mom when I finally made it back, so we got into the water together, playing at climbing onto an inflatable raft and trying to tip each other over, then letting the waves rock us and talking about the world and our place in it.

August 10, 2020, Cape Cod, Massachusetts

This blog consists of my own subjective experiences on the 5Rhythms® dancing path, and is not sanctioned by any 5Rhythms® organization or teacher.

Photo1: Photo of artwork by Meghan LeBorious. Please not copy without permission. Photo2: https://www.theknot.com/us/christine-mariano-and-adam-frymoyer

How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues

Students may be drawn first to the calming impacts of mindfulness, but mindfulness can also be seen as empowerment – a way to eliminate the internal obstacles that stop them from stepping fully into their power, dignity, and creativity – essential tools on the path to racial justice, and essential tools on the path to real freedom and equality.

Over the four years since I started a mindfulness program at Cobble Hill High School in Brooklyn where I teach, I’ve watched student after student find their power by turning inside, where it was waiting all along. In the process, students learn to be strong advocates for themselves and for their communities.

During the Spring 2020 semester, more than one student wrote, “Mindfulness doesn’t mean you always have to be peaceful.”

Several students shared how mindfulness has helped them cope with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, and also with the ongoing pandemic.

“What stood out was how much more this was affecting me than I realized, until I actually sat and broke down what I was really scared and worried about,” shared one student. Another wrote, “You have the right to be completely angry or sad, but mindfulness helps you break away and meditate to calm down.”

Students had a full semester of mindfulness before the pandemic, but I had no idea how it would play out once they were in remote learning and almost totally on their own. We started using a popular mindfulness app to support us, and many students dove deep, some understanding the benefits of mindfulness for the first time. One student shared that while every member of his household was sick with COVID, he would practice daily on his balcony to stay sane.

Teachers have been independently bringing mindfulness to NYC students for twenty years or more, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the New York City Department of Education placed their official stamp of approval on mindfulness instruction as a valid option for meeting the social and emotional needs of students, appointing Barnaby Spring as the first-ever Director of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness in Schools for Student Wellness & Equity

Mindfulness is learning to pay attention in a certain way. In the words of mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness meditation is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness training involves choosing a focus such as the breath, then calmly noticing whenever the attention shifts, and gently returning it. In this way, students build up the ability to concentrate and remain present with their experiences.

Mindfulness instruction has implications for helping students develop healthy relationships, resilience, empathy, motivation, the ability to make responsible decisions, and the ability to effectively regulate emotions.

These are important benefits for all students, but may be particularly important for students of color. Resulting from centuries of oppression, Black and Brown students disproportionately suffer from poverty and loss. Having to cope with racism on a daily basis also takes its toll.  According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems than White Americans. In addition, there are multiple barriers for Black and Brown people when it comes to receiving adequate mental health services despite the likely added stressors that many face.

Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Mindfulness training in schools can help to fill this urgent gap.

Mindfulness supports students in confronting internalized stereotypes and processing painful experiences when they have been marginalized, judged, or accused. In the words of a 9th grade student, “Mindfulness is beneficial because it relieves stress and anxiety and lowers chaos in your emotions.”

Dr. Donald Fennoy, superintendent of schools in Palm Beach County, Florida, created a division for Student Wellness & Equity after the start of the protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Fennoy is not the only school leader to connect wellness and equity.

In a 2019 interview, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams stated, “We put a greater level of emphasis on the academic stability of a child, and not the emotional stability, and that’s a big mistake.”  Adams, himself a disciplined meditation practitioner, argued that teaching students mindfulness, a priority for Brooklyn schools, allows students to “become their own healers,” and begin to address PTSD, grief, the impacts of racism, and the stressors of daily life.

“The overwhelming number of our million plus children are living with trauma every day. We have become extremely successful at masking trauma and normalizing it. It’s not a black eye, it’s not a broken arm,” Adams shared. Rather, trauma and PTSD are internal, invisible injuries.

I asked, “Do you think that students of color might stand to benefit in particular from mindfulness because of the added burden of having to deal with racism?”

Adams responded, “The first step forward is to acknowledge the fact that we treat people differently based on how we see them because of our predispositions. Black and Brown students are dealing with an obstacle that’s larger than their White counterparts. And acknowledging that doesn’t mean their White counterparts are racist, it just acknowledges the fact that we come from a country with a history.”

Studies published between 2009-2020 in Psychological Bulletin,  School Psychology Quarterly, and other journals indicate that students who receive mindfulness instruction tend to have better focus, more ability to self-regulate, less stress, healthier relationships, and less incidents that lead to disciplinary consequences, which is of particular significance since Black and Brown students tend to receive harsher punishments both in schools and the judicial system.

Unite NY Rally. Adrian Childress/Bklyner

Mindfulness Helps In Teaching, Too

Mindfulness can also positively impact the adults in school communities.

The first layer of mindfulness, decreased stress and improved mood, can support teachers in meeting students with patience and understanding.

Another layer, when practitioners naturally begin to examine the workings of their minds, has other implications. Practitioners begin to note self-talk and repetitive thoughts, to monitor the body’s feedback, and to examine underlying stories. For many, this leads to a decrease in the impacts of implicit bias.

Committed mindfulness practice leads to a key insight: that we are profoundly interconnected. The small-minded categories and distinctions we make crumble when subject to intense scrutiny. This realization leads to increased empathy and the knowledge that injustice anywhere affects every one of us – a counteragent to individual racism that can lead to systemic impacts.

In addition, when school leaders and teachers develop the ability to stay present with discomfort, a key component of mindfulness training, it may be easier to ponder difficult personal and systemic questions, and lead to greater transparency and accountability – important attributes for systems that are working toward anti-racist goals.

No one knows what the coming school year will look like, but even in the best case scenario, we will have to cope with stress, uncertainty, and powerful emotions. Mindfulness is an important ally as we weather these storms, and work toward a brighter future.

 

 

How Mindfulness Helps Students in Brooklyn School Cope With Pandemic And Social Justice Issues