Reflections on Returning

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by Bella Penberthy, Peace in Schools Intern and Mindful Studies Graduate

Earlier this week, I returned to my old high school to spend the day observing the Peace in Schools’ mindfulness classes. I took the class for three semesters while at Cleveland, I graduated, and now am working as an intern for Peace in Schools. A year, six months, even three months ago I couldn’t have imagined my life going in this direction – I wasn’t even supposed to be in Portland this semester, but life is unpredictable and the loss of control ended up better than I could have imagined. I emailed Barnaby Willett, the mindfulness teacher from Cleveland. And now here I was, back in high school, helping Barnaby unroll yoga mats in preparation for the students about to arrive.

Returning to Cleveland to observe the class was a multilayered experience. It was both surreal and way too real to be back in my old high school, tracing routes I’d walked every school day for four years like I’d never left. It made me anxious, old stories about my social anxiety resurfacing and making my hands shake. With the return of school came the return of old sticky and disorienting self-talk, a snake trying to force itself back into old skin. As I sat through the class, I thought back to my sophomore self who had sat down for her first day of mindfulness three years ago, listening to this exact lesson. I felt like an entirely different person compared to her and it was strange to have that version of myself come back and remind me of where this started.

It was both surreal and way too real to be back in my old high school, tracing routes I’d walked every school day for four years like I’d never left. It made me anxious, old stories about my social anxiety resurfacing and making my hands shake.

Returning to places we have left for good is often disorienting. In Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, the stages of returning are often thought of as some of the most tricky; after you’ve changed throughout the “journey” it’s hard to return to the sameness of where you started. Integrating your new self into the old, ordinary world is not easy. I knew some of my friends and I shared this feeling coming home from college for the first time. It doesn’t always appear dramatic, but throughout the day I became aware of past stories and fears that I thought I’d worked through trying to creep back. Recognizing the story instead of believing it to be a true, inseparable part of myself was the key difference between myself now and myself three years ago – not that I’m “over” them, but years of mindfulness training had given me clearer perspective and awareness of the narratives.

In her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes about returning to the beginning. “We find ourselves then back at the start, filled with listening and saying our own words, new poems, new ways of seeing, new ways of acting and thinking… Instead of resisting or dreading our chosen work, we move into it fluidly; alive with new notions and curious to see what happens next.” All these returns – going back to Cleveland after graduating, coming home to Portland from college, revisiting the mindfulness class and my sophomore self, the completion of all the micro-Hero’s Journey cycles – showed how far I’d come since the beginning as well as the new ways of thinking and acting I could now choose instead of old patterns. At school I could differentiate anxiety from reality and calm myself using reassurances, choosing to act from a place of truth. This is just one example of the many practices learned from the class that now extend deeply to all areas of my life. I can choose to move into the next cycle fluidly and determined, curious to see what will come.

Mindful Studies students at Cleveland High School with teacher Barnaby Willett.

Mindful Studies students at Cleveland High School with teacher Barnaby Willett.

Recognizing the story instead of believing it to be a true, inseparable part of myself was the key difference between myself now and myself three years ago – not that I’m “over” them, but years of mindfulness training had given me clearer perspective and awareness of the narratives.

The first mindfulness class was small and calm. Barnaby was assured in his role as teacher and I noticed the clever seeds he planted throughout the class in words, concepts, and paying full attention to students when they talked, something that’s usually missing in student-teacher interactions. Returning to the class, I was reminded of how powerful it can be, even on the first day. I’ve experienced firsthand how it can transform lives and heard this echoed in countless other students.

Mindfulness education feels like it should be a universal right, but only a privileged few get it, and even less get it for free in their high schools. We should always place wellbeing first – this class saves lives, and it’s not being prioritized in the school system. Now more than ever we need greater empathy and awareness in the world. Who better to bring it forward than the high schoolers who are already creating the future?

At the end of the first class sophomore year, Barnaby told us with emotion in his voice how much it meant to him to be able to teach mindfulness to teens. He rang the bell and invited us to close our eyes. Sitting there as a fifteen year old, I felt a deeper understanding that I wasn’t able to vocalize; I had no idea where this class would take me, no idea how it would transform my life, through three years of summer teen retreats and eventually to the internship I hold now. Something was building, not only in me but a movement, a thousand candles being lit.

Mindfulness education feels like it should be a universal right, but only a privileged few get it, and even less get it for free in their high schools. We should always place wellbeing first – this class saves lives, and it’s not being prioritized in the school system. Now more than ever we need greater empathy and awareness in the world. Who better to bring it forward than the high schoolers who are already creating the future?

Barnaby rang the bell to end class and invited us to close our eyes. Since sophomore year my thinking had completely changed because of mindfulness practices; I’m able to integrate my returned past lives and selves with my life today thanks to these tools. I returned to the class, I work with Peace in Schools closely and I’m incredibly grateful to have these opportunities.

I thought about the Peace in Schools’ classes spread throughout ten Portland Public high schools. Five years ago, there had only been one; the first for-credit mindfulness class in the country. How many schools will there be five years from now? Fifteen years? I felt the same sense of movement, the resistance, the inextinguishable fire spreading through the circle of students. A sense of the change that is coming and happening already, that I get to be a part of, that is so much bigger than me.

The bell rang again, and I opened my eyes.