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.
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.
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.
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.