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Contemplative practices and empathy building are effective, teachable, and easy to practice. During practice, teens from a variety of cultures and experiences can create a collective environment that fosters their well-being. These practices can create a paradigm shift in our educational system, a shift in what we teach and how we teach it.
Whether our students are new refugees, children of parents with substance issues, or twentieth-generation descendants from slavery, our youth will be more resilient and less likely to fall prey to the shadow of their experiences or to secondary stresses when practices that support their well-being are in place in the classroom.
Contemplative practices provide ballast. Shared silence and kindness exercises create an environment of empathy and resolution, without a teacher needing to address issues that are beyond our skill set or the boundaries of a classroom to address. When we are steady and provide an environment of ease and support, without delving into specific experiences and without pretending that our students all have an equal set of memories, we will make the classroom an environment of acceptance, warmth, and security.
Sharing mindful space together establishes a touchstone of support amidst unspoken emotional turbulence. It allows those students who need more specific care to find ways to reach out on their own for additional support.
Children who suffer extreme anxiety or post-traumatic stress from witnessing violence must be responded to with care and sensitivity. While mindful activities can be helpful, they are not a blanket panacea. Mindful activities can trigger anxiety. They can bring repressed memories to the surface or activate other triggers.
All educators must take care, be very sensitive, cautious, and conservative when working with children who have experienced trauma. Educators must also be well versed with contemplative tools themselves to be able to recognize subtle discomfort and signs of unwholesome anxiety that indicate a need to stop the exercise.
That being said, we want to do all that we can to help a student heal and normalize without solidifying an identity of victimhood, damage, or inadequacy. Our own contemplative practice, which lets us tap into an ultimately resilient aspect of our humanity—the human will to live—can guide us to affirm that vital life force in our students, all the while keeping our eye out for any extra support that might be called for.
A Cautionary Tale
Even among students who have suffered from trauma, as good educators and good mindfulness practitioners, we want to put into practice the art of not already knowing, not assuming that we are sure what a symptom or response might be without taking in the possibility of unexpected reactions. And always, exercise caution and seek professional or medical advice for the students without delay.
We just never know all the details about the kids we work with or what might be presenting itself as an issue in one form or another. Teens don’t always have the wherewithal or tenacity to insist when they may be being misread or misdiagnosed; that’s why we cultivate deep listening as part of our ability to see and feel into the situation before us.
Anyone can fall prey to overconfidence, even those who have a lifelong practice of meditation. I know this from my own experience at a ten-day silent mindfulness retreat in the summer of 1985.
I was feeling a little out of sorts when I arrived at the center. I thought it might just be the anticipation… But by evening after the third day I began to feel more than uneasy. My body began to shiver, and I broke out into a heavy sweat all over my body. I went back to my bunk. I must have been whimpering.
The next thing I knew an experienced retreat manager was standing over my bunk. She had heard that I was distracting the others with my shuffling and shaking.
“You’re going to have to settle down and be more quiet,” she said. “You are disturbing the others in the room.”
“I think I have malaria.”
Having already contracted the mosquito-borne infection in Delhi, India, the year before, I thought I knew what was happening.
She told me,
“We see all kinds of symptoms arise when people sit still. All kinds of mental and emotional disturbances surface and show up in a variety of symptoms, sometimes even extreme ones. Things like what you are experiencing are not uncommon.”
This conversation went back and forth for a while.
“I understand. I think I have malaria.”
In spite of her attempts to placate me, both my past experience with malaria and my experience of mindful observation made me pretty certain that there was something important that needed to be tended to.
She eventually called in a doctor and had my blood tested. It was, in fact, malaria.
In this case, the quiet confidence in my own experience that I had developed doing the practice enabled me to seek resolution even when the authority around me had doubts. It also enabled me to be firm without being combative or disrespectful of another’s experience, even when that experience proved to be obstructive to what needed to happen. These are all twenty-first century skills we need to cultivate in our students, as well as in our adults.
I like to share this story with classroom educators and teachers of mindfulness. Although those circumstances of a retreat environment are different than an inner-city public school, many of the conditions are the same.
Generally, in a classroom, we don’t know who we are with or what their history is. And even if we do know their background, something unexpected may be occurring that we couldn’t have anticipated.
As the instructor said, mindful awareness is a powerful tool. It can help us discover inner stability. It can be a clear mirror reflecting our own bad habits, behaviors, and voice of conscience back to us. At times, it can stir up forgotten memories or traumas. It can trigger desires, happiness, fears, and hurts. I always remind my instructors to respect the delicacy of this work and be prepared to take signs of discomfort seriously and respond proactively.
Sometimes it is best for students to sit through their discomfort and see how our minds manufacture difficulty for us. We often create our own dragons and scare ourselves with them.
But not always. Sometimes it’s best to call a doctor.
excerpted from The Conscious Classroom: The Inner Strength System™ for Transforming the Teenage Mind (p. 77-78; 102-107), ©Amy Edelstein, 2017. Used with permission.
Amy Edelstein is the founder of The Inner Strength Foundation, which trains adolescents to work with the tools of mindfulness and a developmental perspective so they can realize their highest potentials.