Why is a Stanford Researcher Studying our Faculty? Mindfulness & Meeting Our Changing World and School

by Sam Shapiro, 9th Grade Dean of Instruction, Assistant Director of Admission, Humanities Faculty

I turned off my phone and stashed it in the glove compartment of my car. I didn’t look back as I locked the car and walked to the front door of the retreat house. Finally, after six months of eager anticipation, I was here to spend nine days in silent, mindful meditation. After I signed up for the retreat in January,  the more my “to do” list overflowed with tasks, no matter how stimulating and rewarding they were, the more I couldn’t wait  for this time in a forest in Northern California, for simple, quiet, undistracted awareness of my moment-to-moment existence. Yes, it was going to be difficult. Silence? Mindfulness meditation?  For nine days? Still, what a welcome contrast from my otherwise hyper-scheduled and pressurized life.

For a few days, it was exactly what I needed. I was alive and unburdened. But on the fourth night, as I fulfilled my volunteer duties of washing dishes, I felt the urge to talk to the person who was working alongside me. The silence between us suddenly felt awkward. And in the awkwardness, I did what we have all grown accustomed to doing to fill life’s moments of shiftless waiting: I reached to my pocket for my cell phone. My inbox would give me relief. Of course, my phone was still locked away in my car’s glove compartment, but that didn’t stop me from reaching anyway. I sought to numb this unfiltered, uncluttered, and perfectly fine moment of life. Pavlov’s dog heard the bell and drooled. I felt mild social anxiety, and sought a screen. Disappointed in myself, I turned back to the dishes. I had come here to escape my inbox, and yet after only four days, I found myself yearning for it.

The Pressing Question

At the Athenian School, we’ve been asking ourselves a new and vital question:  given the hyper-connected and distracting culture in which we work and educate young people, how can we harness the benefits offered in such a technologized and high-octane world, and do it in a way that promotes and cultivates focus, compassion, efficiency, and wellbeing? More bluntly, how do we avoid the opposite:  adults and students who are harried, distracted, disconnected, too busy to care, and ultimately shallow as thinkers and citizens.   The solutions to the challenge are of course myriad, but one we’re particularly excited about, and about which much movement is gathering in our school, is mindfulness. Based on ancient contemplative traditions, this potent antidote to the stressors of modern lives is a simple yet challenging practice that offers a deep dive into your physical, mental, and emotional experience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the most well–known pioneer of the secular mindfulness movement, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

In the last two decades, researchers have revealed numerous compelling values gleaned from mindfulness practices. So much so, in fact, that courses in it are now being offered around the world to very diverse audiences: mindfulness classes for hospital patients suffering from chronic pain; for employees of Google, Goldman Sachs and Exxon; for inmates in juvenile halls; for worshipers at synagogues and churches; for kids in Oakland public schools; and now, this year, for Athenians.

Light Up the Mission

Why the enthusiasm? The demonstrated benefits of mindfulness continue to impress and inspire. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently discovered that people practicing mindfulness experience actual alterations in gene expression, allowing for stronger resistance to stress and increased resiliency. Other well-documented positives include increased gray and white matter in practitioners’ brains, stronger immune system functioning, greater emotional stability and well-being, greater potency of focus, increased standardized test scores, and stronger capacity for and tendency to act compassionately when encountering others in distress.

This last listed benefit—that mindfulness practitioners act more compassionately—is especially noteworthy: in a study by professor David DeSteno of Northeastern University, he found that when faced with what seemed to be a suffering patient in a medical  office, the subjects who were engaged in an eight-week mindfulness training course did something remarkable: while only sixteen percent of non-meditators intervened to help the patient in pain, fifty percent of those involved in the mindfulness training program got up to help.  This was especially impressive, because helping meant resisting the deleterious “bystander effect,” and acting on their own when everyone else in the waiting room ignored the struggling patient. We should pause and take this in: how many of us are in schools whose mission mentions the idea of developing caring, engaged citizens? While we know from recent research that activities like reading about characters through literature increases students’ tendencies to empathize with others, to feel their feelings, empathy isn’t enough. Brave, compassionate action is a whole new level: it moves us beyond just emotionally comprehending other’s struggles, to actually striving to alleviate the suffering itself. Our school’s mission enjoins us to aim this high. Now we have a practice we know fires up that noble aspiration to life.

What we Do

When we practice mindfulness meditation, as I do with my students at the start of every class and with teacher teams before I facilitate meetings, we sit in alert postures in our chairs, close our eyes, and we pay attention. Very close attention. In each moment we bring awareness to our bodies, our breath, our thoughts, our feelings, our senses, and we simply watch it all unfold without judging it or trying to change anything that arises in the theater of our inner experiences. Sometimes we have to watch our minds judging ourselves for judging ourselves, and we often see ourselves trying to change the impulse to change into one of not trying to change. These moment of “meta-cognition-on-steroids” get really interesting. Spend just a few minutes watching your mind, emotions, and body, and you’ll realize that simply within, there is never-ending richness to observe, consider, experience, understand, and, ultimately, with which to make friends. A common misunderstanding is that mindfulness is about getting rid of stress and discomfort. Rather, the truth is that mindfulness will often put us into the center of such inner storms. However, by—to adapt Kabat-Zinn’s definition of the practice—purposefully  and nonjudgmentally paying sharp attention to that storm, moment-by-moment, noting carefully its nature and allowing it to be, something usually settles; the push and pull of our judgments and inner conflicts that wage within ourselves, tend to calm. And by allowing our thoughts, emotions and sensations to rest in an attention of acceptance and curiosity, we do become friendlier with ourselves. Often while practicing mindfulness I’m reminded of the first few lines of Darek Walcott’s poem, Love After Love: “The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat…”

Instead of seeking to flee and distract ourselves away from our moment-by-moment experiences, we sink into them with interest and acknowledgment, and from this, a greater sense of ease is bound to develop. Do this mindfulness practice every day for about twenty minutes, and, in fact, as the research keeps showing: blood pressure lowers, attention sharpens, and greater emotional stability takes root. Why wouldn’t we want to offer this to our school’s community?

Bringing Mindfulness to Athenian

Our initiatives with mindfulness started when about thirty Athenian employees signed up to participate in optional eight-week training courses (one in the fall and one in the winter) with Kate Janke, founder of the Heart-Mind Education Project and a professional mindfulness coach.  Meeting with Kate for an hour every week to learn and strengthen mindfulness practices, participants then spent twenty minutes each day on their own, practicing guided mindfulness by using MP3 recordings Kate pre-recorded.

Athenian participants were enthusiastic about their experience with the training, and Director of Learning Services,  Jeannine Morales, became intrigued too.  She had read about mindfulness’ efficacy for increasing focus and reducing anxiety, natural benefits that would be great for students. We drafted a model of a training course for students—once-a-week for six weeks, with ten minutes of individual MP3 practice per day—and offered it to the community. Thinking we would need a minimum of six students to sign up to make the course fly, we were delighted when eighteen kids responded with the desire to enroll.

There is now a growing body of Athenian parents requesting the mindfulness training for themselves—clearly our school’s parents face a similar panoply of pressures and distractions—and this parent class is in the works. Finally, in June, Kate and I will offer a residential mindfulness and compassion retreat for anyone who works in the life of a school—public or independent. This will function on two levels, giving individual faculty and administrators the chance to unplug and rejuvenate, and, offering guidance and silent practice periods through which to strengthen valuable mindfulness and compassion practices. These benefits can then be brought back into work lives and school communities next fall.

Growing Interest

This recent focus on mindfulness at Athenian has drawn interest from others in the field: recently, a researcher in educational policy from Stanford University began studying the Athenian adults involved with our eight-week mindfulness course. She is examining the influence of the program on teachers’ and administrators’ stress levels, effectiveness, and well-being. Based on what adult participants reported to us in anonymous evaluations at the end of the first eight-week session in the fall, the researcher will likely find clear benefits:

“From day one of this course, I feel that my ability to focus, be more present and have more patience was improved significantly and I’m motivated to continue this practice into the future.”

“I found our once a week meeting to be something I looked forward to with my colleagues. I felt closer to the colleagues with whom I shared this experience …”

“Allowing myself to participate in this training has given me the reminder that I can practice mindfulness whenever and wherever I intend, i.e., that this is a practice when done at its best is not only added to but also integrated within my daily life.”

“Since beginning this practice, the time it takes me to fall asleep each night has decreased significantly… Also, my partner noticed the positive change, noting how I stop and think before speaking, keeping our conversations on course where before they might have become full blown arguments.”

“Mindfulness practice allows me to see the bigger picture, to be more patient and more accepting of things how they are.”

“This training was a wonderful gift.”

A Personal Connection

My own relationship with mindfulness began when I was a senior in college. As part of a research project for an independent study with a professor, I participated in a hospital-based, eight-week mindfulness training program modeled on the one Kabat-Zinn pioneered at the University of Massachusetts’ medical school. Soon after graduation, I spent the next year practicing mindfulness for thirty minutes every day as I lived in Sumatra, Indonesia, and worked in the field of H.I.V./AIDS prevention. During that year, I had countless instances when I could see that this practice brought my life to life: I tasted, spoke, smelled, felt, thought, and lived more clearly, more openly, more effectively, and with greater satisfaction. After a year of consistent practice, I had a distinct feeling that my brain, the structure and hardware of my thought processes, quite literally, had changed. Too embarrassed to ever say such a wild-sounding statement then, I now write it without bashfulness, for in the last few years, numerous studies have shown just that: due to the plasticity of the human brain, the regular practice of mindfulness meditation creates real, positive changes in a its wiring and structure.

After my time in Indonesia though, I got married, started a career in independent schools, had kids, became a commuter, and dropped my regular mindfulness meditation practice. It always lived as something that nudged at me as I raced through my long days and sleep-deprived nights, reminding me that this practice had once improved my life tremendously. In the last few years, mostly because my own children are older and more self-sufficient, I’ve come back to the practice, and attended two extended residential mindfulness retreats. This year, practicing mindfulness with colleagues, and even just spending the first sixty seconds of each class and meeting I run in silence and in settling, has been a surprising gift: the discussion and work is more focused and thoughtful, and the shared awareness that we are engaging in learning and endeavors worthy of close attention and communication, well, it is just right.

Linking to our History

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Dyke Brown drafted his vision for the ideal Athenian students and what they would receive from their education. Included in this “mandala” are: Understanding of self and others, bodily capability, aesthetic and spiritual capabilities, understanding of nature, understanding of society, understanding of humanity, and rational ability.

Fifty years ago Dyke Brown, Athenian’s founder, envisioned a school in which students experienced intellectual growth, fitness of body and character, commitment to humane values, aesthetic sensitivity, and readiness for adult citizenship and leadership. While mindfulness is not a panacea—in fact, beware of anyone who promotes one approach to education that is a cure-all—it is striking that an ever-increasing body of research is showing that mindfulness practices can play a vital part in cultivating each of the core qualities which Dyke Brown hoped to see in Athenians: stronger cognitive abilities, healthier bodies, greater awareness of and compassion towards others, and more potent sensitivity.  Athenian has always been forward-looking and ready to wisely embrace change as the world in which we teach and learn changes itself. Our incorporation of mindfulness practices into the life of our school is another example of this, and another reason I am proud to be part of this creative, smart, and brave project called The Athenian School.