Addressing Anxiety with Tools from Mindful Studies – An Interview with a School Counselor

Heidi Tolentino is a school counselor at Cleveland high school. She believes mindfulness should be something all schools offer.

Heidi Tolentino is a school counselor at Cleveland high school. She believes mindfulness should be something all schools offer.

Heidi Tolentino is a school counselor at Cleveland high school. Interview by Rebecca Jamieson.
 
Q: What are the challenges that the teens you see are up against?
 
A: I definitely think there’s been a shift over the past few years. I see a real increase in the amount of anxiety, in terms of numbers of kids, and also the extent of the anxiety. I think there are lots of factors that affect that, but that’s one of the biggest things that we see.

I think this anxiety leads to a multitude of things: drug use and abuse, suicidal ideation, cutting and just a lot of different ways that kids are trying to deal with the levels of stress and anxiety they have.
 
Q: So you’re seeing this increase?
 
A: Absolutely. I definitely think that the counseling team at Cleveland, as well as across the district, has seen an increase in the number of kids who experience anxiety. We also see a lot more intensity along with that anxiety, which often goes along with depression as well. 
 
Q: Have you seen any impact from teens being in our Mindful Studies class?
 
A. Kids who have had a hard time opening up to me as a counselor, they’re just really guarded, have, within the class, opened up a lot. They've shared with other students, with the leaders in the class, and have been able to shift the way that they communicate about their anxiety. Also kids that have more severe, diagnosed anxiety, those kids have a chance to feel a little bit more in control of their anxiety. When they’re in the classroom and their anxiety starts to explode, when their anxiety keeps them from coming to school, they have tools to work through it. 
 
I think once kids have the opportunity to see what the mindfulness class can do, and when they open up to it, it’s pretty life-changing for a lot of kids. It’s an experience that many of them have not had ever, in having ways to work through anxiety. For kids who have had anxiety their whole lives, for some of them this is the first time they’ve ever been able to feel like they have some control over it. It’s really amazing. It’s mind-boggling.
 
For this to be in a school is amazing. A lot of our kids have to go outside of school to be able to find ways to deal with their anxiety, whether it’s outside therapy or whatever else they’re doing. But to have it as a class that they have every other day, and to be able to work through the anxiety they have at school, while they’re at school, is pretty amazing. 
 
Q. What tools do you see Mindful Studies giving your students?
 
A. The ability to communicate about what they’re feeling. Just to be able to say “I’m anxious,” just being able to say it aloud and asking for help is a really big deal. They’re not shutting it down. They’re aware of it, and then they can work through it. 
 
The class teaches such a wide variety of skills. It’s really important for kids to learn and practice skills when they aren’t anxious. The classroom is so peaceful. Learning it when they’re not anxious allows them to practice it later when they are feeling anxious. 
 
Q. Do you think mindfulness provides something that is currently lacking in our schools?
 
A. I think school in general, but especially high school, is really stressful. There’s a lot of pressure on kids – everything from getting good grades, thinking about college, being involved in activities, trying to make social dynamics work, struggling with bullying and everything else that happens at school. A lot of the anxiety I hear about is school-related. For kids to feel like there’s a place in their day where they can go into a space that’s comforting and calming and teaches them how to deal with the rest of their day at school is really something that I don’t think we as counselors can give them. It’s much bigger than what we can do in our office, because just talking one-on-one with an adult is not the same as being able to talk with peers about what’s happening, in the space where it’s happening. 
 
Adults don’t understand kids in the same way that kids understand kids. For them to be talking about it with each other is something that we as adults – no matter how gifted we are – can’t do for them. I don’t think there’s another way that we provide that in public schools. I’ve been both a teacher and a counselor and I’ve never seen kids have that same opportunity to really begin to self-assess, look at themselves in a different way, share the intensity of their feelings with their peers, and then learn how to deal with that and feel like they have control over how they manage that. I’ve never seen kids get that kind of experience within a school setting. 
 
Q. Should mindfulness in education be funded?
 
A. There really isn’t anything better that we could provide them than what is offered in this class – to communicate what’s happening for them, share the stress and worry that they have, and to learn that it is ok to feel that way, that it’s normal, that it’s common, and that they have the power to control and work through what’s happening with them, the choices they make, and that there are positive ways that they can deal with it and a positive place for them to be. 
 
That’s the number one thing – we are educating the whole person. If we are not looking at their mental health, if we are not helping them work through their struggles and feel as though they have power over what happens to them, that there is hope, if we don’t focus on that mental health component, we are doing kids a disservice. That’s what mindfulness brings is hope for kids. We should have this mindfulness class for every high school student.  

Johns Hopkins Researcher Partnering with Peace in Schools!

Gia Naranjo-Rivera is a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University and is conducting research on our Mindful Studies program. She's pictured here working with children in Uganda.

Gia Naranjo-Rivera is a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University and is conducting research on our Mindful Studies program. She's pictured here working with children in Uganda.

We're delighted to announce that Gia Naranjo-Rivera will be doing her dissertation (or thesis research) on our mindfulness courses! Gia is a Cuban-American yoga and mindfulness instructor, youth program leader, and doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Gia says that personal, academic and professional experiences have impassioned her to improve the health and quality of life for vulnerable, low-income, and minority youth, families, and communities.

As a Brown Community Health Scholar at Johns Hopkins, her studies focus on adolescent health and development, specializing in vulnerable youth and mixed methods research – which involves integrating quantitative (e.g., experiments, surveys) and qualitative (e.g., interviews, focus groups) information. Gia’s dissertation will assess how mindfulness-based interventions improve health outcomes among youth with past or present adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse, neglect, or dysfunctional home lives. 

Gia is excited to partner with Peace in Schools to assess the changes in health and wellness seen in students who participate in our Mindful Studies courses, and advance our understanding of who these classes benefit and why. She will administer and analyze the data from evaluations that students complete assessing their health and wellbeing at the beginning and end of the class, and conduct focus groups and interviews with key stakeholders to gather additional information. She will examine changes in student health outcomes across all students and by subgroups, such as by gender, age, race/ethnicity, and the level of exposure to adverse experiences or traumas. 

Gia is excited to partner with Peace in Schools to assess the changes in health and wellness seen in students who participate in our Mindful Studies courses, and advance our understanding of who these classes benefit and why.

Gia says that personal, academic and professional experiences have impassioned her to improve the health and quality of life for vulnerable, low-income, and minority youth, families, and communities. She received Master of Public Administration and in International Relations degrees from the Syracuse University in 2011 and a BA in Political Science from Columbia University in 2008. She has conducted research for organizations including the Johns Hopkins Center for Adolescent Health, Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization, National Institutes of Health, and MacArthur Foundation.

Putting her knowledge into practice, Gia has also managed youth programs from the Oregon coast to New York City, served as a Public Health Analyst at the National Cancer Institute, and worked on human rights initiatives with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and Human Rights Watch. Through these experiences, she discovered her passion for working with vulnerable adolescents, and their families and communities, and the need to develop effective, affordable, evidenced-based programs to improve youth outcomes.

We couldn't be happier to have Gia lend her talents to study our program and help further the body of research on mindfulness in education!

The Gift of Full Attention

Cindy (center) and two of her colleagues, all of whom participated in our recent Mindfulness for Educators weekend at the Still Meadow Retreat Center.

Cindy (center) and two of her colleagues, all of whom participated in our recent Mindfulness for Educators weekend at the Still Meadow Retreat Center.

Cindy Ewers is a Special Education teacher who participated in our recent Mindfulness for Educators weekend. Here's her beautiful reflection about the experience.

The Mindfulness for Educators workshop provided an opportunity for me to deepen my personal mindfulness practice so that I can be more grounded and present in my work with middle school students.

It is so important for us to slow down and give each other the gift of our full attention, even if it’s only for brief moments. Two of the skills we used, compassionate listening and reflective listening, have increased my ability to effectively communicate in my personal and professional life. When the focus is on listening fully, my busy mind doesn’t need to become distracted with formulating my response, making the conversation about me, or coming up with unsolicited advice. Focusing on what the other person is trying to convey has allowed me to become less emotionally reactive in stressful situations. I’ve come to understand that I don’t need to take others’ behavior or struggles personally, even when it’s directed at me.

It is so important for us to slow down and give each other the gift of our full attention, even if it’s only for brief moments.

The workshop was the perfect blend of introducing and practicing mindfulness skills ourselves so that we can bring more mindfulness to our students.

As exemplified by the instructors, our own mindful presence can be the most powerful tool in teaching mindfulness, or in fact any content. The instructors’ embodiment and modeling of vulnerability and authenticity allowed us to experience firsthand the possibility of creating deep connection with our youth.

Having a personal mindfulness practice can reduce the stress that so many educators endure and it has helped me to experience more joy with my students.

I am grateful that I was able to attend with two of my colleagues so that we can create momentum in sharing mindfulness in our school (with students and staff). They are both newer to mindfulness and the workshop allowed them to personally experience how powerful it can be to practice mindfulness as it increases our capacity to connect with others, be more present in our daily lives, and as self-care. 

I am hopeful and optimistic about the change that is possible when we are able to bring mindfulness into our lives and classrooms in this way.

Want to bring mindfulness into your life and classroom? There's still time to register for our 8-week Mindful Teaching course! 

What it Truly Means to Win

Janice teaches our Mindful Studies class at Lincoln High School. She shared this amazing story about one of the teens in her class.

One day after class Molly (not her real name) approached me and handed me a beautiful gold medal with a blue ribbon. She smiled at me and said, "This is for you." I was a bit surprised, but thanked her and asked her to tell me more.

I never thought being kind to myself mattered until taking this class.

Molly practices fencing competitively and has for all her life. Recently she’d been seriously injured, and after a long and hard recovery, she was back at it, but her fencing just wasn't the same. She was constantly plagued by doubt and negative thoughts about herself. Her performance suffered, and she hadn’t won any medals in a long time.

The previous weekend, she was at a big competition, facing off with a life-long opponent. Her chances of winning seemed impossible, and she felt the familiar tide of doubt and self-criticism rising. But as she walked out onto the floor for her match, an amazing thing happened.

The last class in Mindful Studies had focused on self-compassion, including examining the negative ways that students talked to themselves and developing reassurances based on unconditional love. Molly had always been skeptical of self-compassion, but as she faced her competitor that day, it suddenly struck her that she had nothing to lose. She took a deep breath, and instead of the critical things she’d been saying to herself, she started saying things to herself like, "You're ok just the way you are," "It doesn't matter if you win or lose,” and "I'm here with you."

Every time there was a pause in the match, Molly would take more deep breaths and keep offering herself compassionate reassurances: "I love you no matter what," reminding herself that her self-worth was so much more than the outcome of this match.

But Molly didn’t lose. She won the match.

It isn’t the fact that Molly won the match that’s important. What’s important is that Molly’s story is a beautiful example of the power our thoughts have to shape our reality.

When she told me her incredible story, with tears in her eyes, she said, "I never thought that being kind to myself mattered until taking this class." Molly qualified for a state-wide competition, and she reported that self-compassion is now a mandatory part of her pre-match preparation.

It isn’t the fact that Molly won the match that’s important. What’s important is that Molly’s story is a beautiful example of the power our thoughts have to shape our reality. She redirected her attention, and it changed how she felt and therefore how she acted.

If even one teen has an experience like this, we’ve been successful.

Janice holds the fencing medal given to her by her student.

Janice holds the fencing medal given to her by her student.

Advocating for Mindfulness in Education

Gwen meets with Oregon Governor Kate Brown on a trip to the state capitol to advocate for mindfulness in education. Gwen is a student in our Mindful Studies class at Cleveland High School. 

Gwen meets with Oregon Governor Kate Brown on a trip to the state capitol to advocate for mindfulness in education. Gwen is a student in our Mindful Studies class at Cleveland High School. 

By Gwen Kaliszewski

On December 12th, 2016, I went on a trip to Salem and visited the capitol building with the Oregon Association of Student Councils Capitol Ambassador Program. This trip was so we could get a feel for the legislative process, and while we were there we had the opportunity to meet with legislative assistants, legislators, the mayor elect of Salem, and the Department of Education. 

During our meeting with the Department of Education, we had a discussion time, and one of the questions we talked about was along the lines of “what do you enjoy/appreciate about education?” After a few people got the ball rolling, a student from Wilson High School raised his hand and started talking about the Mindful Studies program, how he personally had not taken it but that he had seen how impactful it was on the lives of his peers. 

The education system is inherently stressful and taxing, both mentally and physically, and to have a space where we can calm our minds and our bodies is vital to our success and happiness.     

Dr. Salam Noor, the Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Oregon, and the rest of the adults in the room were pleasantly surprised to hear about Mindful Studies. I excitedly raised my hand and started talking about my experience in the class and how incredible and beneficial it was. Right after I finished speaking, a girl from a school outside Portland mentioned that they had something similar that they were slowly implementing. Students all around the room were nodding and smiling, and whispering “that’s so cool!” 

I guess I had just taken it for granted, because that was when I first realized how amazing Mindful Studies is, and how lucky I was to have the opportunity to take it. As we continued our discussion, other students chimed in about how it must be so nice to have a relaxing class during a busy day, and to learn strategies on how to combat stress. 

School is a pressure cooker, for me especially. The pressure from our teachers to maintain good grades. The pressure from myself to always get an A, because god forbid I get anything less. The constant comparing to my classmates, the pressure to do better than my peers, or at least add up. The pressure of being a teenager, of running in the right social circles, of saying the right thing, of dressing the right way. The pressure of college looming in the distance, of resumes and test scores. The education system is inherently stressful and taxing, both mentally and physically, and to have a space where we can calm our minds and our bodies is vital to our success and happiness.     

In the current climate of America, empathy and compassion are vital. Through this class I have seen the effects of it, and how much it can transform a community. 

Mindful Studies has had an incredible impact on my life. Often I take small setbacks or worries and mull them over so much that I spiral into feeling overwhelmed. I am constantly stressing about everything I have to get done. Mindful Studies has helped me immensely in reducing this. The first day of class we started off with a short sitting meditation, and the entire time all I thought about was all of the math homework I had to get done. By the end of the semester, I was able to quiet my mind much more and breathe into the moment. This has been extraordinarily helpful in my life, but I would say that the two biggest skills and knowledge I took away from the class was reflective listening and the importance of empathy and compassion. I am a very talkative person, and I often dominate conversations. Reflective listening is a way for me to step back and allow other people more space to speak, but still show I am engaged. Finally, in the current climate of America, empathy and compassion are vital. Through this class I have seen the effects of it, and how much it can transform a community. 

I truly believe that Mindful Studies is a key to educational success, and that it is important for it to be slid into mainstream education, and made available at all schools.

Dr. Noor told us he rarely has high school students come speak with them, something that is so shocking to me. When strategizing on how to improve education, having student voices at the table is vital. Dr. Noor would not have known about Mindful Studies had we not spoken up. The seed has been sown, but the only way for it to grow is for students to continue to voice how crucial mindfulness in schools is. I truly believe that Mindful Studies is a key to educational success, and that it is important for it to be slid into mainstream education, and made available at all schools. The only way to do this is for students to advocate, to talk to their administrators, principals, teachers, and even legislators. As Dr. Noor said, they welcome our ideas.

Resources for students to get involved:

Department of Education:
503-947-5600
ode.frontdesk@ode.state.or.us

Find who represents you in the Oregon state legislature: www.oregonlegislature.gov/findyourlegislator/leg-districts.html
 

A Flame of Hope: A Letter from Our Executive Director

During a time in which many struggle with a sense of hopelessness, I feel honored to share with you a deep optimism. This is not an optimism based on a fairytale or blind faith. It is rooted in experience. Our current generation of teenagers is learning how to pave the way for a more conscious and compassionate world. I see it and feel it daily.

We end our semester-long mindfulness course with a final project that invites teens to spend four hours in silence and solitude utilizing the tools that they’ve learned in the class. This is their opportunity to practice befriending themselves and resting in that which is most authentic within. In preparation, teens are asked to create an intention for the project.

I could tell you about countless beautiful intentions from teens who have been deeply engaged in the class I teach at Madison High School. Instead, I pause to share what two teens who have struggled deeply in life had to say:

“I hope to be more fully with me on this retreat. To be able to see the world and the conditioned mind differently. To see it all clearly.”

“My intention for this retreat is to connect with a real part of me that I haven’t. I know this part of me exists now.”

 

This is huge. These are marginalized students, with lives affected by intense inter-generational trauma, violence, substance abuse, and poverty. It is huge that the teens who have the most obstacles are seeing new possibility. They are having a direct experience of knowing how to find peace.

As cliché as it might sound, these teens truly are our future. For me, this is a flame of hope. Every day I witness teens learning to experience a deep connection with others, feel their own adequacy and inherent worth, and love unconditionally. Every day I see teens learning to embody an experience of presence and love. Every day.

Thank you – not only for the way that you support Peace in Schools but for the way you value creating the possibility of a more conscious and compassionate world. During such times of turbulence and divisiveness, it is, indeed, a powerful thing that we have ways to embody the alternative.

Peace in Schools is building a model that manifests the alternative. It is a model of love and of connection. We are so deeply grateful that you are part of this. Thank you for feeding this flame.

—Caverly Morgan, Founder and Executive Director

"This Program Could Benefit the Entire World"

"This Program Could Benefit the Entire World"

Keiona is a student in our Mindful Studies class at Cleveland High School, and we were incredibly fortunate to have her as a featured speaker at our annual gala.

Here is some of what she shared:

I used to get extremely anxious and flustered and tear up about school problems I couldn't figure out. My physical body suffered as well due to this anxiety. Insomnia and eating problems began to be more and more common for me. All of this together made it hard for me to even want to get out of bed in the morning.

Through mindfulness, I’ve received the gift of recognizing my own strengths.

Before I had this program, I felt utterly lost. Inside, I felt I had no control over my mind. I searched for problems to worry about, and often found myself hiding or covering up to fit in. Without self-love and other tools I learned in this class, I was starting to go down a detrimental path in my life.

Through mindfulness, I've received the gift of recognizing my own strengths. This powerful recognition has helped me battle against anxiety, fears, and depression. Mindfulness has helped me alleviate feelings of hopelessness and given me a newfound confidence, like a breath of fresh air, patiently waiting for me to take it. I have the choice. 

Through the option of choice, I can now choose compassion for myself. This has opened doors for me I hadn't even imagined. It has given me the strength to love myself wholly, and the strength to empathize with others on a deeper level. Just like a hug from the heart and a smile from the soul, compassion is a lovely tool that I have full access to. 

This program has truly changed my life. I'm so grateful to have this experience accessible to me at school. The class environment feels as if it's a paradise or sanctuary for me and many others.

I'm now excited to wake up and face the day. I genuinely wish everyone had this experience and class accessible to them. I feel like this program could potentially benefit and change the entire world.

Click here to see photos from our 2016 gala.

The Love Squad: Reflections from a Teen Mindfulness Retreat

The Love Squad: Reflections from a Teen Mindfulness Retreat

Barnaby Willett is the Director of Program Development at Peace in Schools and also teaches our Mindful Studies class at Cleveland High School. He and many other Peace in Schools teachers served as staff on Inward Bound Mindfulness Education's (iBme) Pacific Northwest teen retreat in early August. Here is a short essay he wrote about his experience:

It’s day two of retreat.
 
I’m sitting in the male dorm as our teens prepare for sleep. We’re brushing our teeth, using the bathroom, reading, and writing in journals.
 
There’s a deep sense of peace.
 
In this same lounge an hour ago, my small group met. We posed the question, “What do you daydream about?” One shared her dream that an iBme retreat could last all summer. Another expressed the wish that it would last a lifetime. Heads nodded around the room.
 
So many of these teens have only known each other twenty-four hours. Already the depth of vulnerability and connection is beyond words. So is the care, and the respect, and the love.

What would the world be like if everyone lived in this way?

What happens when humans really get to know each other? Does everything fall apart? That’s the message we sometimes get.

 “I love you’s” are being exchanged. And wonderful hugs. We asked our small group, “What should we be called?” It took about five seconds to decide on The Love Squad.

What happens when humans really get to know each other? Does everything fall apart? That’s the message we sometimes get.

It's not true. When we come together in trust, in love, in openness, in kindness, we are a model for a new world.
 
Listen to these teens. They are opening their hearts. They give each other and us hope in a sometimes broken world. If you were here with me, you would know. Hope is alive. Love is here.

Photos by Darby Gillis, a Mindful Studies student at Portland's Cleveland High School. Additional photos by Jess Jarris and Barnaby Willett. 

Teen Essay: Cultivating My Own Happiness

Teen Essay: Cultivating My Own Happiness

Every day at Peace in Schools, we are privileged to hear inspiring and heartwarming stories from our teens. As part of their final project, we asked the students to reflect on their experience in Mindful Studies class. One teen shared this. 

Growing up I came to understand one thing to be true: I was a weirdo. I didn’t talk as much as other kids, and when I did, it was usually to tell a joke that nobody understood or to say something about fairies or dragons which made for good times as a youngling, but other kids grew out of it before I did. I didn’t like to play with kids growing up. I preferred to tag along with my mom, galavanting about the city, discussing local fairy habitats and aliens. I got along better with adults anyways. I grew up thinking I was weird and I suppose that belief stuck with me. I grew up thinking I was weird, so for years and years, as interacting with people my own age grew more important to me, I tried not to be. I became the most convincing chameleon. This uncanny knack for shapeshifting has been handy these past 16 years. However, one of the many things I’ve learned because of this class and the space you provide is that I don’t need to be like everyone else in order to be loved.

Our class has meant more to me than words can describe but I will try. Sometimes in class we talk about how rare it is to walk into a classroom and feel connected with everyone in it; not often do we walk into a classroom authentic and eager. For me, as the year has gone on and my love for the class has deepened, I find myself taking that attitude with me to every class. 

 

Our class has given me the power to not only get through life, but to enjoy it.

Of course I’m not always so optimistic, I still complain out of habit. But our class has also taught me that acceptance and growth are what I should strive for, not perfection. The fact that I’m saying this and believing it is kind of a miracle. I have long since been labeled as a perfectionist and my own worst critic. When I started high school, it didn’t take long to pick up on what others expected of me and what I expected of myself.

Another truth I have come to know: in high school, the frame of thought is that if you get through this miserable time and do your best, you’ll get into college. If you get into college and get your degree, then you’ll get a good job. Somewhere along the road after you get a job and make lots of money you’ll finally be happy. We are taught that if we do all these things we can earn our happiness. But our right to happiness is granted to us the second we come into this world. Before our class, I didn’t know that I was allowed to cultivate my own happiness whenever I wanted to. My peace does not have to depend on any factor outside of myself.

I have learned so much from you; I have learned so much from this class. I genuinely love every single person in it. I’m still working on knowing these lessons to be true in my heart and in my head on a daily basis, but this class has given me a place to start the work. Here in this class, because of you, I have truly commenced a lifelong practice that will help me cultivate a life I enjoy living. And for that, I will forever be thankful. Thank you so much for the year and the life ahead that you two have given me. 

Teen Essay: How Mindfulness Helped My Eating Disorder

Teen Essay: How Mindfulness Helped My Eating Disorder

A 17-year-old from one of our high schools shared this inspiring essay about how our Mindful Studies class helped her eating disorder and changed her life.

I can’t even begin to express how thankful I am for this class. Before coming into this class I struggled every day with inner battles that I felt I could never win. This has changed though. With the help of this class I now have a more positive look at life and take things moment by moment.

Before this class I struggled with high anxiety, depression, and poor body image. Unfortunately all of these aspects combined caused me to develop an eating disorder. I felt as though I needed one aspect in my life that I could control and that became eating. In the beginning I always struggled with the [mindfulness exercises] because I found myself constantly worrying about what I was eating or going to eat.

Throughout the course of this year, I slowly was able to move my mind to the present moment and get some moments of silence from these distressing thoughts. With this class, I also started to pay attention and listen to my body more. Beforehand I would only eat foods that I had deemed as safe and never actually listened to what my body wanted. As I became more in touch with my body, I learned to trust it and give it what it was wanting. This class was a big aspect in my recovering from my eating disorder and has helped me deal with the intense feelings that come on when I am anxious or depressed.

I truly believe this class helped save my life.

Along with my mental health, the quality of my social life has become more positive. For as long as I can remember I hardly ever told people how I truly felt because I was scared I would scare them away if they knew how emotional I could be. Because of this, I would find myself miserable without anyone knowing, with everyone thinking I was fine and okay. This class taught me about unconditional love and made me more open to telling people how I felt. I learned that many people out there will love me no matter how I am feeling. I also learned that one of my coping mechanisms is to withdraw myself from people to just stop feeling. Once I was able to notice this I started to challenge myself to stick around those who cared about me and tell them how I felt instead of just hiding away. This has strengthened my connection with my parents and now has made it easier for me to share with them.

Lastly this class has helped me tremendously with my racing and competing. At the beginning of the year, I would get so worked up and stressed about my races that I would either cry before, during, or after my race. All I wanted was to live up to the expectations of my parents and be as good as my sister was. I put so much pressure on myself to perform well that it was in turn hurting me. All through my race negative self-talk would scream in my head. I always felt as though I had done terribly. After I started to disidentify and give myself unconditional love, I stopped crying during and after my races. Now after a race that I feel I didn’t do well on instead of putting myself down I tell myself that I tried my hardest that day and there will always be another race. This has made racing so much more enjoyable.

Honestly, I feel like I wouldn’t be the person I am today without having taken this class. I now have so much more love for myself and less negative self-talk. I have learned to take refuge from my anxiety-ridden mind by becoming present to the present moment. I am so thankful for how supportive you were within this class. I found myself opening up about stuff I had never told anyone because you made the environment feel so safe and caring. You have helped me become comfortable in sharing with others and become so aware of all that goes on in my mind. I truly believe this class helped save my life. Thank you. 

The New Science of Thriving

 
“Simply put, our well-being—as individuals and as a society—depends on mindfulness.”
— Dr. Christina Bethell, professor at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative

Dr. Christina Bethell is a professor at Johns Hopkins and a leading researcher on childhood development. She's focused on the impact that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on health and how emotional resilience, positive health, and healing can offer transformative change. Dr. Bethell writes in an article for Johns Hopkins Public Health magazine:

 

Simply put, our well-being—as individuals and as a society—depends on mindfulness. You wouldn’t be the first to raise an eyebrow at that statement, but I’m no advocate of woo-woo pseudo-science. The data are strong and growing. Adding to the neuroscience findings, epigenetic research now demonstrates the role of both negative and positive emotions on gene expression. Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and colleagues in 2011 found that mindfulness meditation may slow the rate of cellular aging and extend life expectancy. The new science of thriving and the role of mindfulness show us the possibilities to flourish despite adversity.

This brings me back again to my grandmother’s admonition that “all you need is inside of you.” My evidence-based, public-health-oriented take on her sage advice is that we need to really put the “we” in wellness. We need public health approaches and policies that prioritize fostering safe, stable and nurturing relationships in early life, prevent ACEs and promote resilience, mindfulness and positive health in populations.

In November 2015, Dr. Christina Bethell presented a lecture at Johns Hopkins: “We are the Medicine: Human Development Sciences and the Epidemiology of Child and Family Adversity and Well-Being”.



Peace in Schools at the iBme Teen Retreat

Last week Peace in Schools partnered with Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) to hold a mindfulness retreat for 48 teens in the Pacific Northwest. Our Executive Director Caverly Morgan was invited to be a lead teacher on the retreat and five Peace in Schools facilitators were on staff.

iBme is a non-profit that offers mindfulness retreats for teens nationwide — helping them to cultivate awareness, compassion, and kindness. iBme was recently named to Huffington Post's Next Ten list as a cause that is shaping the next decade.

The retreat was particularly meaningful to us at Peace in Schools as we had ten students attending from our Mindful Studies classes at Rosemary Anderson High School and Wilson High School. Nine of those teens were on scholarship for the retreat.

Teen Mindfulness: Brooklynn's Story

by Brooklynn

Brooklynn is a student in our Mindful Studies class at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon. For the final class project each teen did a 4-hour silent retreat and employed the mindfulness tools they've learned. Students later wrote a paper on their experience. Here's Brooklynn's paper.

I anxiously sat down on my yoga cushion and began to take in my surroundings. Compared to my previous retreat, my new environment was lively and filled with visual interest. I was aware of the various chirps of the birds overheard. I don’t think I have ever been so aware of just how different every sound is. Each bird contributed its own unique instrument to the orchestra. I also noticed just how many shades of green there were surrounding me. After settling in, I decided to journal about my thoughts heading into the retreat. I was nervous about spending four hours outside. Would there be enough to do that would occupy me for four hours? 

After flushing out all of my concerns, I began to perform some movement. I started out lightly with poses such as child’s pose and cat cow. I was frustrated with myself in tree pose, because I was not able to balance like I usually could. I told myself, however, that every day is different and that I could use my breath the gradually come into the pose. 

Eventually, I worked up to some harder poses such as pigeon. I decided to hold these poses longer in order to really feel the benefits of the stretches. I surprised myself in cow-face pose, because I felt like I was more flexible in the posture than I have been in the past. 

After I finished this movement portion, I went back to my cushion. When I was settling back into the space, I heard a woodpecker. Usually, I would be very annoyed by a woodpecker, but I felt extremely grateful for the little guy. It dawned on me that this woodpecker is doing the one thing that he was put on this earth to do. How amazing would it be if I was able to do the thing that I was put on this earth to do as well? I watched the woodpecker for a while, and then, he flew away. I am confident that I would not have noticed the woodpecker without mindfulness, because his noises were so faint. I really had to be present to notice him and to appreciate him.

During my meditation, a neighbor walked by, and I immediately experienced negative self-talk. I was worried that they were whispering or thinking about how strange I must be. I told myself that it is my experience that matters. If I am happy, it should not matter what others think, and I returned to the breath. 

I found myself wanting to stick to a strict time schedule instead of freely allowing myself to do what felt right. I realized that this is probably the perfectionist aspect of myself. The perfectionist wants things to be exactly right. In this exercise, there is no right or wrong, so I distanced myself from the clock and went into a meditation. 

After the meditation, I did a few sun salutations and even a headstand. I was able to actually be in a headstand for a little while before my body told me it was time to come down. I embraced my shakes but also respected my body and did not force myself to stay up when it didn’t feel right.

I went on a walk, where I really let myself explore my senses. I found myself wanting to touch everything. I realized that everything felt different, and even by just touching a leaf, I could tell whether it was old or fresh. I loved the smells of the flowers, too. I even noticed things that I had never given my attention to before such as a rusted no parking sign. It amazed me that I can see something 1000 times, and on the 1001st time, I could still notice something new.

I returned to the mat where I went through a body scan and some restorative yoga poses. During the body scan, it was easier for me to access my right side than my left side. I really had to focus in order to access points on my left side. The yoga poses felt very nice. I spent a lot of time working on hip openers as well, because I felt particularly tight. 

I decided to go on another walk. Again, I noticed things that typically do not register in my mind. On my way back, my cat Tiger was sitting in the street waiting for me. It was almost as if he was worried that I would not return. It was in this moment that I realized that Tiger has unconditional love for me. I always knew that I had unconditional love for him, but I never thought of him as a source of unconditional love for me. It made me feel appreciated and loved; it also cultivated internal warmth within me. 

When I returned, I decided to meditate with this feeling of unconditional love. It made me happy and content. I loved the feeling of being in my body in that moment. I realized, too, that my mom was showing me unconditional love by giving me the privacy of my own personal retreat. This sensation was extremely comforting. 

After this meditation, I went onto mindful eating. I noticed just how quickly I became full. I also noticed different textures and elements to the foods that I eat on a daily basis that I had never noticed before.

Once I finished eating, I decided to journal and explore the topic of befriending myself. I realized that in order to befriend myself I have to accept all aspects of myself. I finished my retreat with a small meditation.

I enjoyed my retreat experience very much. I learned more about myself as well as how to care for myself. The retreat was a great way to escape all of the stresses surrounding my life. If I thought about the stresses, I was not present, so all of the stresses had to go away for those four hours. It was nice to just do what felt right to my body and not what others wanted of me. It was also incredible to see things that I had never really seen before. Mindfulness opens doors that are invisible to the occupied eye. It also is a great way to care for one’s self.

Teen Mindfulness: Emma's Story

by Emma

Emma is a student in our Mindful Studies class at Wilson High in Portland, Oregon. For the class's final project each student did a 4-hour retreat in silence, employing the mindfulness tools they've learned in class.They later wrote a paper on the experience. In Emma's paper she writes of the loss of her friend 'S', who died by suicide.

At exactly ten a.m. I started my retreat. I was extremely nervous and was positive that I could not sit for four hours straight. My anxiety was kicking in as I imagined myself falling asleep and eventually failing the class. My main concern was disappointing everyone, I didn’t want anyone to have high expectations, not even myself. I tried meditating for the first ten minutes but eventually gave up, my head was in a flurry. I was fighting my thoughts instead of accepting them. I moved on from that failed attempt and started my body scan. The body scan was incredibly relaxing and by the time I was done I had no idea how much time had passed, almost as if in a trance. Words cannot describe how I felt, my worries had vanished and I was now in a state of peace. Before I knew it, my stomach was grumbling. A voice inside me screamed, “FOOOODDD.”

When I first was walking to the “eating area” I was antsy and secretly hoping that we would all talk and share stories of our first two hours. However once I reached the room, silence overcame me and I no longer felt that need to talk. I was comfortable without the constant chatter of a usual lunch. It felt good and I was no longer hearing that voice in the back of my head. I ate slowly, not to starve myself or make the time go by, but to actually taste my food. To feel the textures on my tongue as I put each piece in my mouth. I smiled as the realization hit me, I actually love vegetables. It was not hard being quiet, I was content and felt at one with myself. I enjoyed the presence of another human even if we were not talking. I think back to it now and wonder why I wasn’t worried about people hearing me chew or even swallow. Was it because I was in such a state of euphoria that I didn’t even notice? Or maybe because I trusted these people, strangers, to not pose judgment on me? I certainly heard other people chewing, but it wasn’t bothersome, in fact it was almost calming. A background noise to my own thoughts as I searched my food for a story. While I was eating I was thinking about where my vegetables came from, where they grew, how they got into my pasta. After all it must have been a long journey.

As I made the journey back to the room my head was clear and I was feeling up to do something new. Around 12:20 I reached my room and went right into a breathing activity. I closed my eyes and focused on the breath, I counted my exhales all the way up to seven and then back down again. If at any point I wasn’t sure what number I was on I started all over again. When I was done I once again was not aware of the time, but felt at peace with myself and my choices. At one pm I journaled my thoughts. They went a little like this, “Everything will not always be okay, comfortable, the way I want it and I am okay with that. Not everyone will like me and I am okay with that because I do not like everybody. I do not need a boyfriend or a ton of dates to feel special. That does not define me. I am happy with myself and who I have come to be.”

Around 1:15 I mindfully drew and wrote this response, “I watched my hand make each shape, each line. At first I was just doodling but then I would start to see something and go with that image. While drawing I was also mindfully breathing, again from one to seven and back down again. Am I doing this right?” I then went into some yoga poses that were on my flash cards. I put the cushion under my lower back and slowly rolled down. While in this position I used a new breathing technique. For this I would inhale for five seconds, hold for five seconds, exhale for five seconds then hold for five seconds. I did this all the way up to ten and then back down again. I did this exercise in two other yoga positions, child’s pose and bridge. After, I then once again tried sitting meditation.

For the last thirty minutes of retreat I wrote about whatever came to mind. “I feel content with myself. I feel grateful and at peace. I feel that yoga and meditation have given me a new look on life. I am relaxed and not distressed. I feel in control for once in my life, like I am stepping out of this hole. A hole with nothing but monsters lurking in the shadows. Throughout this whole experience I haven’t once forgotten about S____. I keep thinking to myself, if she was taking this class, would she be here today, would it help her escape a black hole like the one that I was once in? Then I remember, she couldn’t sit, she was a runner. She would have probably been passing notes through a crack in the door, giggling about the silence because she was not comfortable in it. Meditation has really helped me cope with the loss of her. At first I was so angry, but I understand why and accept the fact that she was not happy; no matter how hard she tried to pretend to be. I will never fully accept that she is gone. She is in my thoughts every day, every hour and every minute.” Being on my own for so long left me to think a lot and I have realized a lot about myself and who I have become as I grow up. I used this time to reflect on my past and my future, to learn to accept what has happened and what will happen, for the time being I am at peace.

My four hour retreat was hands down the best experience I’ve ever had. I didn’t feel that urge to be on my phone or talk to anybody, I was comfortable in the silence. I took this time to really step out of the everyday life schedule and focus on me and my needs. I cleared my mind and left the stress behind, taking that weight off my shoulder even if it was only for a little bit. I have noticed throughout the year that my anxiety is slowly diminishing along with my constant negative self-talk. As a whole I feel better than I have in a long time. I think I will be taking time out of my week or even my day for a retreat of my own from now on.

 

The Power Of Mindfulness & How You Can Join Us

By Barnaby Willett, Director of Administration at Peace in Schools

A month after we moved to New York City I started high school. There were 3,000 kids and I didn't know anyone. I was too self-conscious to be seen eating alone, so I took a job in the vice-principal's office — and skipped eating lunch that first semester. At day's end I slipped out a back door to avoid the throngs of students out front. I walked to a distant bus line, so no one would see that I didn't have friends.

What was I thinking? How did I feel so isolated and alone? Why didn't I tell anyone? I had a loving family. I had inspiring teachers. But no one taught me how to be with my own thoughts and feelings. 

I discovered meditation late in college. It changed my life. For the first time I saw that I am not my thoughts. That I could be present in my body. I began to see that the answers weren't outside of me. I had found a refuge — the capacity to bring my attention to the present moment.

This simple act of waking up from conditioned thoughts into the present moment is the most valuable thing I've ever learned. I still feel like a beginner, and it hasn't sorted out all my problems. But I would not give it up for all the money in the world.

For all of us at Peace in Schools, this is not a job, it is a vocation. To give young people the experience of this invaluable gift — which can never be taken away from them. We see unlimited possibility for the power of mindfulness to transform lives.

This year we created the first for-credit mindfulness class in the country. Educators from Kansas to Minnesota to Canada are asking us — how can we do this in our schools? One of the leading figures in mindfulness education, Dr. Robert Roeser, has just joined our board. We have the passion and energy of a start-up and I feel like we are only at the beginning of what we will accomplish.

Mindfulness in education is a new field — only 10 years old. Science is just catching up to the possibilities. How do we nurture this opportunity we have with Peace in Schools? How do we make this work accessible to teens, while maintaining its integrity? What positive impact will this work have on society — 5, 25, and 50 years from now?

We are sharing this vision with you and asking for your support. Will you join us in bringing this vision to life? Do you too believe that we can change the lives of teens? Do you believe that we can change our world? I do. One moment at a time.

What's It Like Teaching Mindfulness To Teens?

By Liz Morgan, Mindfulness Instructor with Peace in Schools

Class has begun. The students lay out their mats and cushions. They take their seats amidst the rustling of backpacks and the loud energy of the group. I ring the bell, a gentle call to bring the attention inward. The room falls quiet. 

We begin the class with a brief breathing exercise. The teens close their eyes and listen to the sound of their breath. The shift in energy is palpable. Next, we move into our daily “lightning round,” an exercise in which we go around the circle, each student asked to describe whatever they’re present to. Half way around the circle, one teen says he feels “distraught.” We continue around the circle and after a short while he speaks again. “Wait, can you come back to me? Mine has changed,” he says.  “Absolutely,” I say. “I feel animated now,” he says. I respond, “Can I ask what changed?” He pauses and then says, “Just saying the word out loud made me feel better.”

While it may seem small, this moment is significant. These teens are learning, through turning their attention to their present moment experience, to recognize and express their feelings. This class offers a rare moment in their otherwise hectic and stressful lives to pause and give themselves the gift of their own attention. One teen said it best when asked what has been most impactful for her, “Practicing on my breathing. I know it seems like something simple and easy but it relieves a lot for me.”

I’m so often asked, “What’s it like teaching mindfulness to at-risk teens?” People wonder what it’s like to bring this work to teens with histories of abuse, drugs and homelessness. Many of these teens have never heard of mindfulness and none of them elected to be in this course. They were placed in it. With all of this, unsurprisingly, comes resistance. It’s a challenge. Beneath the resistance, however, is the reward.

So, what do I tell people? I tell people it’s inspiring. And while it may sound hyperbolic or cliché, it’s true: The moments I share with these young people enable me to see so nakedly the beauty of human existence, the beauty of human connection. 

These young people have lived through struggles many of us will never know. One student battled hard drug addiction at the age of 13. One student lost his brother to gun violence. Another student was abused by her alcoholic stepfather. In hearing, daily, their stories of suffering, my conditioned response is to want to “fix” or “save” them. My heart wants so deeply to make it all go away. But it isn’t possible. Suffering is inevitable. More importantly, it isn’t my job. What is my job is supporting them in their self-discovery, their self-understanding, and, in turn, their self-love. As I see self-acceptance cultivated, I simultaneously witness the cultivation of a wider acceptance — one that includes each other, life experiences, and hopefully, over time and with practice, the world at large. I feel blessed to witness this process unfolding every day.

Mindfulness Can Lead to Safer Schools

By Caverly Morgan, Executive Director of Peace in Schools

One of the students was so afraid he vomited in a school trashcan. In hearing that, I felt the magnitude of the situation. This is not the same world I grew up in, I thought. Back then, students prepared for fires, not school shooters.

A week before the trashcan incident, teens at Wilson High School took part in a complete lock-down drill. They learned where to hide best in classrooms, protocols for locking up, and strategies for blocking entranceways with desks and bookshelves. After the drill, in the Mindful Studies classroom where I teach, students had an opportunity to talk about their experience. It was sobering to hear that, for many, this is their new normal.

Less than a week later - too soon for another drill - the call for lockdown blew again. It happened during first period and came as a shock to all. There were accounts of students coming into school late, being locked out of their classrooms and hiding under stairwells in fear. Some students who were taking a bathroom break, hid in the stalls with trashcans as shields. Many cried. One teacher, after organizing a class huddle, stood by the barricaded door with a golf club.

That day, fortunately, the worst did not come to pass. There was no shooter; a substitute teacher accidentally set off the lock-down alarm. The day ended peacefully, but it left me with an unsettling thought: in our culture, we’ve become so accustomed to an environment of fear and violence, that it rarely occurs to us to consider and examine the cause. We, instead, turn our attention solely to survival.

I’m heartened that Wilson High School – in partnership with our nonprofit, Peace in Schools - is taking a broader approach. In addition to the procedures Wilson conducts to ensure student safety (something every parent can feel good about), they’ve partnered with Peace in Schools to launch a course designed to support the emotional and mental health of teens. The purpose is not only to prevent violence, but to give students the supportive tools they need to deal with all manner of social, academic and personal stress. This course offers teens the opportunity to experience who they authentically are as they learn to consciously respond to life’s pressures, rather than react.

As of September, Wilson became the first public high school in this country to establish mindfulness as a for-credit elective discipline. Within weeks, Rosemary Anderson High School in Gresham became the second. Now, other area high schools are contacting Peace in Schools to explore Mindful Studies courses of their own.

Mindful Studies empowers teens through an array of complementary practices, including meditation, conscious and compassionate communication and mindful movement. The course enables young people to see themselves and each other with new eyes. With guidance and practice, teens learn to become more aware, without judgment, of their thoughts and feelings. They come to recognize self-critical thinking and move beyond it. By finding compassion for themselves through mindful practices, teens learn, in turn, to develop compassion for others. They build stronger more connected relationships with peers and families.

While the practice of mindfulness can't eliminate all of life's pressures, it does enable young people to respond to those pressures in way that supports their whole being. Learning to direct the attention to the present moment makes it possible for teens to live life more fully and joyfully. That’s what Peace in Schools is about.

As a teacher of this practice, I’ve seen that feelings of isolation and alienation are common among teens. It is no coincidence that incidents of bullying, self-harm and violence are on the rise in many schools. Fostering self-acceptance and healthy relationships are essential aspects of our program. They are designed to assist teens in recognizing that they are not alone. Ultimately, that leads to safer schools and a more peaceful world.

Published in the November 2014 issue of Portland Family magazine.