In the early spring of 2007, I took my first graders on a field trip to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. Back in the classroom in an effort to occupy ten minutes before dismissal, I had my students take out a notecard and write about the trip.
I saw a tulip and a duck and a daffodil. And I was happy.
I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but something about Ethan’s reflection stopped me in my tracks that afternoon. I have held onto that notecard for almost eight years.
Have you ever noticed how little kids play? Those of you who teach PreK and Kindergarten and those of you with young children, nieces, and nephews will know exactly what I’m talking about. Young children play attentively, joyously, and presently. They tend to be so absorbed in their blocks, or Play-Doh, or Ninja Turtles, that it never occurs to them to be (physically or mentally) anywhere but here, now. Young children don’t unplug the Easy Bake Oven to take a few minutes to dwell on yesterday, nor do they ditch the Legos in favor of fretting about tomorrow. Young children at play stay in the present moment. Young children play mindfully.
This fall I kicked off my dissertation research project, which aimed to use mindfulness as an antidote to teacher stress in a local Austin school. Mindfulness, as defined by John Kabat-Zinn, is the act of paying attention in a specific way: (a) on purpose, (b) in the present moment, and doing so (c) non-judgmentally.
In other words, being mindful involves intentionally focusing your mind upon this moment right now while simultaneously shutting up the Voice, that tape-reel of judgments and labels with which we attack so many thoughts and ideas.
Research studies document the positive effects that mindfulness practice can have on various symptoms of stress, anxiety, and physical pain. My goal, therefore, was to see if a six-week mindfulness group tailored to teachers might reduce their symptoms of stress. Quantitatively, the jury’s still out (the data should be analyzed some time next month), but qualitatively, participating teachers at this Austin middle school claim to have benefited significantly from the experience. One teacher even said that one six-minute session of mindfulness, in which he sat in silence and practiced focusing on the present, was, “one of the most profound experiences of my adult life.”
Mindfulness practice works like exercise or strength-building (with practice, results build over time), so while this blog post alone isn’t going to Zen you out immediately, my hope is that it might inspire you to start your own mindfulness practice, even just a few minutes a day. My hypothesis for the aforementioned teacher’s reaction, and for my own reaction to Ethan’s botanic garden reflection, is that both individuals were present in their surroundings. Six minutes of mindfulness for that teacher, and a mere six years of age for my student allowed each to stop, marvel, and smell the roses (tulips, and daffodils).