I taught mindfulness to over a hundred middle schoolers recently, and here’s what I learned:
Middle schoolers are desperate for stress relief. ALL OF THEM.
“Who wants better grades?”
“Who wants closer friendships?”
“Who wants less stress?”
I asked these questions, assuming better grades would have pulled the maximum number of waving arms in the air (because I know the parents and the district). But the volume and energy that responded to the last question floored me.
Without exception, all the students expressed enthusiastic yearning for reduced stress in their lives. Grades took a backseat. Maybe grades even got shoved in the trunk.
So, first I apologized, because stress is certainly the “legacy” my own generation has bequeathed upon these barely-teen stress-sufferers. Did I even know the word “stress” in sixth grade? Probably, but not as a concept related to my own life (the occasional piano recital under the tutelage of my strict and heavily accented Czech piano teacher was too intermittent, and too ultimately rewarding to rise to the level of “stress”).
Right about now, we adults could spend precious time hypothesizing about the “How’d this happen?” of it all, but would that serve us? I doubt it. (Plus, that’s all about the past, and it might make already stress-inducing adults even more stressed!)
I’m just going to skip that chapter and head straight to the important stuff.
The real question is, “How do we change the stress levels for our kids right here, right now?”
These students crave an easy-to-grab life saver, something to safely help them get to the edge of the pool and climb out. For me, the best Crazies Reliever is always mindfulness. I’ve practiced meditation and mindfulness over four decades, and have written and taught about it for years, so I have experienced for myself — and witnessed in countless others — just how far even a teensy bit of mindfulness can go. Really, just a smidge. Like, maybe even the size of a mustard seed.
I’d say it’s like magic, except that being mindful is far from “magical:” it’s the most natural thing ever. Mindfulness is not normal in our current society, but it IS natural! (Quick! Think of a baby right now: you don’t see her freaking out about anything in the past or future…right?)
There are about four zillion, three hundred and fifty-nine ways to be mindful, but I always carry The Big Three with me to my talks, since they’re such a powerful combo. Here are my favorites from my Quickstart repertoire that I shared with the surprisingly stressed-out middle-schoolers on Friday:
Phew, we’re already about 96.3% “there” if we’re breathing (a skill shared by 100% of anyone who’s ever come to a meditation class!) The mere knowledge that “calm” is as close as our breath relaxes people right away. How hard can mindful really be if the main ingredient is controlled by our do-it-without-a-thought autonomic system, and we don’t even have to write a Post-It note?
All that’s required is bringing our conscious attention to the process! Just watch. Easy as that.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to breathe, and this is where we Americans, lovers of the “How To _______,” must sit back and allow. Yep, just allow our bodies to breathe deeply and naturally (they came knowing how…no “expert instruction” necessary).
Sound silly? I know!
Only “allow” ourselves to breathe, and that initiates the mindfulness way of being? Shouldn’t getting to mindful at least include a weekend retreat? I’ve watched meditation gurus inform students that not sitting a certain way, holding hands a certain way, breathing a certain way — whatever — indicates an unwillingness, an inability to connect at a deep level…as if one way fits all. And to that I remind each one of us: WE ARE ALL OUR OWN “EXPERT!”
Just breathe while paying attention. Allow.
If you doubt the power of breath, let me share a delightful incident from just last week. A darling young man of a family who takes mindfulness classes from me, smilingly approached me and said, “Kelly, thank you so much for all the breathing tricks! I know I did so much better on the STAAR test than ever before! All I did was sit and breathe on purpose — and remind myself I’ve got this — and I didn’t feel any stress at all. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for me!”
2. Say thanks.
Gratitude is the fast-pass to calm. By now, studies galore bolster my own experience (for which I am very grateful). Here are some highlights from those kind and diligent academic researchers:
First, when we are busy being thankful, it’s hard to cram negative thoughts in our brain. Multitasking (unless it involves some completely brainless activity AND the different tasks use totally separate parts of our brain) is a big head fake. Literally. We cannot be grateful AND think of all the things going wrong in our lives. Not possible.
Second, our brains love a good confirmation bias (because who doesn’t like to be right?) So, when we repeat for ourselves events — stories — that deserve our thankful focus, our brains say (I’m paraphrasing here), “What? You’re looking for stuff to be thankful for? Oh, let me find some more for you. It’s all around. Who knew?”
This confirming bias drops a bit of dopamine into our system, which makes us seek more. It’s a great, self-induced, circular reward setup.
Third, gratefulness takes us out of “duality.” This is a topic for another bottle of wine, but I did want to offer this thought. Focusing on the “not-ness,” the want or lack, ends up yanking in more not-ness, because our brains can’t let go of the not-ness. Like the old “don’t think of an elephant” exercise, focusing (consciously or, most often, unconsciously) on anti-grateful, brings it dualistically into our midst. (See why I suggest this topic may warrant wine?)
Just practice being thankful as often as possible, experience the results for yourself, and you won’t even have to dive into the duality business!
3. Mindfully remember.
Have a “Mobile Backup,” a phrase on hand to help pivot us back to Calm when we feel things starting to unravel. One of my favorite statements is this: “I hold the vibration of Truth, witnessing everyone and everything I see in their Perfection,” but a lawyer and meditation student says that’s way too many words. So, I recommend you find whatever word or phrase works best for you. It can be anything! Here are just a few suggestions:
· The Universe leans forward to bless me
· All is well
· Wow, I’m AWESOME!
· Thank you
· Joy is my truth
We never leave home without our phones, right? Why would we go anywhere, then, without our own personal, life-balancing equanimity cue? We can pull it out whenever traffic, grumpy bosses, or a bad test score tries to smack us silly, and cause us to forget the peace we started with. (I used to call it a “Grab N Go,” but I don’t really like the image of having to grab for our own inner peace, and, anyway, “Mobile Backup” sounds so much more “necessary,” doesn’t it?)
Ta Da! There they are: The Big Three! Simple “tricks” to help take the stress out of any situation. No class, no expert, no special electronic gizmo required. Accessible to to every middle schooler on the planet…and the rest of us!