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.