On Christmas morning, we marked Santa’s generosity with the usual hubbub of excited squeals, exclamations, and the cataloging via smart phones. And through it all I watched a child’s infectious joy blossom. The feeling was one of gratitude – for the warmth of a healthy, happy family, and for my mother’s quiet presence amongst us this year.
Then I added a new ritual – a morning run with my little girl. It turned out to be the highlight of my day! While I was busy trying to teach her to “Jog! Don’t run so fast!… Breathe slowly!” she turned the tables on me in a way that I couldn’t have predicted. In the quiet hush of the morning, we proceeded to make our way through our neighborhood along a 2 mile route.
Her child’s mind discovered, observed, recorded and commented about every little detail that she came across – seeing shapes in clouds, counting dandelions, naming flowers – even the act of kicking at little pebbles took on greater import than usual. And in this process, the child became the parent! I realized that I was deeply satisfied after running those 2 miles than ever before. Because in a sense, I was awake, alert and mindful, of all things – inside and out.
“Mindfulness”. You hear the term often enough. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term like this: [ the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. ] Ok. So now we have a definition. Simple enough. Try putting it into practice and you discover the complexity involved. Most of us have tried it at some point or another. But then we muddle through life with our attempts at multitasking, with to-do lists and alarms to help us get through them, and we relapse into previously conditioned behavioral patterns. Operating in chunks of time, we are happy just making it through the day having checked off those boxes, failing to acknowledge that for the most part, we are largely dissatisfied – in the qualitative sense. This becomes a vicious cycle that feeds our sense of hopelessness. It feeds many other things besides. Stress is one sad byproduct.
I observed a mounting panic inside myself while I waited at a store recently. It showed me a side of myself I was unaware of. The reason for this unsettled feeling was the fact that my smartphone had deserted me – quite literally. Having clumsily dropped it on its face a few days prior, I needed to replace its screen. Hence the wait – all of 20 minutes – with my body and mind exhibiting technology withdrawal symptoms! It was, in a sense, another subtle variant of self-induced stress.
The thing about stress is it percolates and manifests in physical ways. It festers and builds up steam, finally breaking free to pervade the lives of others around us. The fallout is immense – a house of cards – a domino effect. And yet, we don’t quite understand how we enable this process. There is an industry catering to the management of stress. Seminars, webinars, books, blogs – all devoted to help us ‘manage’ this state of being – or ‘un-being.’ They teach us that the first step is acceptance, before we can make a change for the better. They all advocate mindfulness practice, to help the process of “unlearning” patterns in our lives that cause harm. The practice seems simple. And yet, here we are.
We teach our children many things in their formative years. But we forget to give them this important tool. The trouble with that is – we need to learn to practice it ourselves, before we start dispensing advice. And therein lies the problem. My grandmother quoted a saying that went something like this -: “You cannot bend a grown tree, when you have not shaped it as a sapling.” I think of this quote often these days. I am discovering that motherhood is about trying to shape myself into the kind of person I would like my child to be. Easier said than done! Because, like the saying goes, I realize that I have scar tissue on my mental grooves, conditioned patterns that require a great deal of coaxing and cajoling – before I can get my mind to learn new patterns. And I know that it is time to accept that the road to change will be a long one!
Thankfully for my child, there is hope. Her kindergarten class engages in mindfulness exercises as part of their classroom routine. I happened to witness it when I stopped by one afternoon. From my vantage point through the window, I noticed the children sitting on the floor around the teacher. She held a metal bowl in one hand and a wooden mallet in the other. Striking the mallet gently on the side of the bowl, she then proceeded to circle the mallet along the outside rim slowly. It produced a steady, harmonic sound that vibrated through the classroom. The children were instructed to close their eyes and breathe deeply, in and out, while the teacher repeated the motion a few times. I could see the children trying their best to follow through. It was clear to me that they were all engaged, followed instructions and were calm. And it was also evident that this was not a new practice to them. The teachers did not have to reprimand or correct them while they were at it. They were eager and willing to participate. At the end of the practice, the teacher signaled them to continue on to the next task – lining up at the door – which they proceeded to do quickly and efficiently.
I was aware of the use of this technique in Buddhist meditative practices. But curious to know what my child had understood, I asked her about it on our drive home. She called it the “Singing Bowl,” and shared that her class engaged in the practice once or twice, sometimes even three times, during the course of their school day. When I asked her how it made her feel, she said she liked the sound, and that breathing deeply made her quiet inside. I smiled at her description, thinking of the many times when I craved for the same state of “quiet” within my own head! It made me happy as a parent, to note that her school was using alternative and wholesome practices to inculcate discipline and encourage cooperation in classrooms. More importantly, the children were being empowered with a self-help tool to enhance well-being.
Kindergarten class teachers, Ms. Dipali Bhatt and Ms. Charito Mendoza, willingly shared their experiences through a questionnaire I compiled for them. Having helped pilot the Mindfulness program at their school campus, they have only received positive feedback from the parent community. Their curriculum is well balanced with Art and Music, thrown in with Science, Math, Geography and Phonics. But admittedly, it can be daunting for Kindergarteners as they strive to bridge the gap between Pre-K and 1st Grade. Cultivating mindfulness from this early age helps ease the transition. The teachers have observed a decline in behavioral issues among the children. They are more aware of themselves both at a physical and emotional level. Breathing techniques teaches them to calm themselves when upset, for instance. It also helps them stay focused and receptive in the present moment.
Ms. Bhatt received her training with the “Mindfulness Fundamentals” online course. Offered by the Mindful Schools Organization based in Oakland, California, Mindfulness Fundamentals is a 6 week, instructor-led course, where you are taught the basics of mindfulness meditation through a series of videos, readings, reflections, and guided mindfulness practices. The course serves as an introduction to mindfulness meditation. It also helps inculcate personal practice.
The Mindful Schools Organization believes that a mindful classroom begins with the teacher. When teachers impart mindfulness to students, they are serving as models and guides through their own personal practice. The organization was founded in 2007 with a small team who used their experience in education, social justice and mindfulness, and launched the program in a classroom at Emerson Elementary School in Oakland, California. Today, it has trained over 25,000 educators, parents and mental health professionals and reached over 1.5 million children worldwide.
Ms. Bhatt confirms that Mindfulness practice has become a part of her daily life. It has improved her focus and helped her become a better teacher. She is able to give her best in everything she does, with a sense of gratitude and loving kindness. As a parent, I am thankful that my child is learning and growing both intellectually and emotionally. I am further gratified that her teachers are helping shape her into a wholesome individual. Along the way a bigger change takes place at home, when a child teaches her mother a simple and effective way to “be present.”
And so, I begin my journey.