Mindfulness in a Hyper-Connected Culture by Sam Shapiro

Originally published in the Independent School Magazine, Summer 2015.

By Sam Shapiro

AT THE ATHENIAN SCHOOL (California), we’ve been asking ourselves a new and vital question: Given the hyperconnected 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 well-being?  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 were particularly excited about, and about which much momentum 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 mindfulness are now being offered around the country to very diverse audiences: mindfulness classes for hospital patients suffering from chronic pain; for employees of Google, Goldman Sachs, and ExxonMobil for inmates in juvenile halls; for worshipers at Synagogues and churches; for kids in Oakland, California, public schools; and now, for Athenians.


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-demonstrated 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. A study by Professor David DeSteno, of Northeastern University, 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 16 percent of nonmeditators intervened to help the patient in pain, 50 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 others struggles to actually striving to alleviate the suffering itself. Our schools mission enjoins us to aim this high. Now we have a practice that we know fires up that noble aspiration to life.


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 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 moments of “metacognition 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 rage 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.

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 20 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 schools community?


Our initiatives with mindfulness at Athenian started a few years back when about 15 employees signed up to participate in an optional eight-week training course with Kate Janke-Munding, founder of the HeartMind Education Project and a professional mindfulness coach. Meeting with Janke-Munding for an hour every week to learn and strengthen mindfulness practices, participants then spent 20 minutes each day on their own, practicing guided mindfulness by using MP3 recordings she offered to them on her website. The results of this experience were compelling. Word spread, and a second group of about 15 more adults began working with the coach for a second eight-week session in our spring semester.

At that same time, our learning support specialist became enthusiastic about mindfulness for students; she’d read about its efficacy for increasing focus and reducing anxiety. We drafted a model of a training course for students – once a week for six weeks, with 10 minutes of individual MP3 practice per day and pitched 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 18 kids committed to the class.

Soon after, a growing body of Athenian parents requested the mindfulness training for themselves – clearly our Schools parents face a similar panoply of pressures and distractions — so we launched an eight-week parent class with 20 participants and Io on the waitlist.

Finally, in June 2014, Janke-Munding and I offered a residential mindfulness and compassion retreat for anyone who works in the life of a school—public or independent. Forty-five educators and school leaders from around California participated. This event functioned on two levels, giving individual faculty and administrators the chance to unplug and rejuvenate and offering guidance and silent practice periods through which they could strengthen valuable mindfulness and compassion practices.


This recent focus on mindfulness at Athenian has drawn interest from others in the field. Recently, Camille Rae Whitney, a researcher in educational policy at Stanford University, began studying the Athenian adults involved with our eight-week mindfulness course. In particular, she examined the influence of the program on teachers’ and administrators’ focus, stress, job satisfaction, emotional regulation at work, and well-being. Her findings reflected many of the positives that the adult participants reported to us in anonymous evaluations at the end of the first eight-week session in the fall.


Just a few years ago, it was more challenging to get School communities to take mindfulness seriously: The word meditation” conjured negative and “oovy-groovy” associations for many people, and those of religious faiths often perceived it as a threat or somehow a contradictory practice. Fortunately, the secular mindfulness movement has hit the mainstream, and the word mindfulness” itself has entered our vernacular. Given the tremendous volume of press and positive attention the practice is garnering, now is an opportune time for schools to embrace and incorporate this simple, yet profound practice.

Convincing parents, students, and faculty of its benefits is not difficult. Depending on their priorities, everyone can identify a demonstrated benefit about which to get excited: less stress, improved test scores, stronger resiliency, greater compassion. And, because the practice is usually done in chairs, in classrooms, and without esoteric accoutrements (no incense or chanting needed), it doesn’t take long before gathering together in school, closing our eyes, and cultivating attention feels like the sensible learning and leadership tool that it is. When schools ask me about bringing mindfulness to their faculty and community, I suggest starting slowly: Spark interest and enthusiasm among early adopters,” making the training voluntary. As the benefits begin showing up, and they will, others will take notice and want in. At some point the momentum will build and tip the school community to be ready to embrace and adopt sincerely the commitment to practice and support the goals of presence and compassion. In the end, it seems to come down to this: Everyone wants to feel better and be better. Quickly we see that mindfulness gives us this. It’s really not so complicated.

In addition to the mindfulness initiative, Shapiro is ninth-grade dean of instruction, assistant director of admission, and humanities faculty member at The Athenian School in the Bay Area of California. Recently he was an NAIS Teacher of the Future and NAIS Aspiring School Head. In 2015-16, he will begin his role as head of school at Marin Montessori School (California).

At the end of the first eight-week session, the adults at The Athenian School who participated in mindfulness practices reported clear benefits. Comments included

“From day one of this course, I feel that my ability to focus, be more present, and have more patience was improved significantly, and im motiwated 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 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 | 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.”

Field Trips that Fuel Change and Inspire

By Grace Brown ’17

Our village is a community composed of learners—both students and teachers value Athenian’s mission to develop life-long learning. As an Athenian, I have been encouraged to reflect, to think critically, to have an open mind, and to utilize the world as my perpetual laboratory and classroom. It has been through this unique approach in my education over the last two years that I have had some of the most profound and life-changing lessons—lessons that have reshaped and redefined me.

Throughout grammar and middle school, I yearned for those special days where I got to go outside the classroom to delve more deeply into a subject.  During my freshman and sophomore year, I have experienced incredible out-of-the-physical-classroom journeys that have enabled me to gain a deeper connection and a broader perspective for my classes and their academic requirements. At Athenian, these types of activities are not an occasional treat; rather, the ingredients for each course have been grown with mindful reverence for what some at our school refer to as “experiential” learning or what I call “Field Trip” learning.

Testing Newton’s Three Laws of Motion

My ninth grade Conceptual Physics field trip to Pleasanton to participate in go-cart racing was a testament to the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton and an opportunity to help me uncover how I use physics, not just in the classroom, but in my everyday life. This was the most creative way to assist me in comprehending Newton’s laws. I experienced exactly what centripetal acceleration feels like, and I developed a greater understanding for friction, force, momentum, impulse, current, torque and angular acceleration. A scientific and scholarly day indeed! My conclusion—Physics is F=U=N. This new-found appreciation and acquired knowledge helped me process and ultimately bridge the concepts I had been learning in class.

Visiting the California School for the Deaf

A project initiated by humanities teachers Leslie Cushner and Sam Shapiro for my freshman World Literature class required me to independently step out of my comfort zone and put myself into an environment that was uncommon or uncomfortable. After much thought, I arranged for a personal field trip to visit California School for the Deaf in Fremont. I knew this was going to be a day spent in an environment completely foreign to me. I arrived early at the school and was assigned an interpreter. I spent the day shadowing middle and high school students. I did not know one gesture of sign language; however, my interpreter, Tracy, was amazing at helping me connect with the students. By lunch, I had picked up a few essential gestures and tried to leave my voice inside of myself. The students were incredibly welcoming—sitting with me, shaking my hand, patting me on the back and tapping me on the shoulder to get my attention and to initiate conversation. They were all so kind, trying to include me in every aspect of their daily lives. One of the younger students even went as far as to get me to a whiteboard, so we could better communicate with each other. I had lunch with the students and the only noise I heard was of chairs, plates and utensils clanking—it was intense. I finished the day with weepy goodbyes to all my new-found acquaintances. Hugs, sign gestures, and many waves as I drove off, deeply moved, and armed with an empowering new perspective and wisdom of what the hearing impaired go through every day. This type of real-world learning made me productively uncomfortable and was truly life-altering. It led me on an astonishing and rewarding journey of self-discovery, one which I am confident that I could have not received in a classroom.

Art in Jail

A teacher who is constantly creating daily student-centered activities for us in the class and discovering inspirational ways to incorporate experiential learning for us outside the classroom—”Field Trip Style”—is Stacey Goodman and his Art Revolution course. Adventurous and educational art journeys have not only complimented the interesting curriculum but impacted my knowledge and craving to learn more about the importance of art in our society. On one of our many art appreciation outings, we traveled as a class to San Francisco and arrived by boat on Alcatraz Island. We were there to experience the installation of contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei. The extraordinary exhibit transformed the haunting, old, decaying prison on Alcatraz into an amazing electric backdrop that housed the daring artist’s masterful works. The underlying theme was human rights and freedom of expression—two important issues I care deeply about.

After viewing the unusual and moving forms of art, I started to look at all art differently and questioned the overarching philosophy behind why people create it. I started examining how art made me feel—the interplay of artistic freedom within the confines of prison walls was statement enough to see the world anew—and how liberating it was to view different versions of art outside the walls of traditional museums and galleries.

This course offered me the opportunity to observe art in San Francisco on two occasions. We went to Walnut Creek and Berkeley to interview people on the street and get their opinions about art; most recently we took a trip to Oakland—highlighted by a delicious lunch of Burmese food. I have become authentically engaged with art and the place it holds within our communities at large because of this class. Inspired by the Street Art Movement I have studied in class and noticed on the Streets of cities outside of Danville, I convinced my family to spend Easter Sunday in Oakland—observing, discussing and photographing the most beautiful murals that grace buildings all over the downtown area. Contemplating the “street life” that is depicted in “Street Art” was one of the best days I have spent with my family all year. I felt the tension of the streets and the liberation of art crashing together at once.

Learning by doing. Achieving knowledge through real world experiences. Adventure education.

These are types of educational experiences that I have enjoyed in the last two years that have had a significant impact on me as a student.  Not only have I had the chance to learn, but to retain and reinforce the knowledge in a really inspiring and conceptual way.  Field trip learning—food for thought indeed.

Spring Sports Review

This Spring’s athletes shined at league and state tournaments.  Congratulations to all our scholar-athletes who participated in Spring sports!


Track and Field

Grace Brown ’17 and Dawson Reckers ’17 qualified for the North Coast Section Meet of Champions at UC Berkeley on May 29 and 30th.  Grace qualified for the 800 and 1600 meter and Dawson qualified for the finals in the 1600 meter.  Congrats Grace & Dawson!





Varsity Golf

The golf team performed well this year. Ryan Grauman ’18 was a standout, named MVP of the BCL-East accumulating an impressive 1.56 index for 9 holes played.  Ryan set the School record this year with a 3 under 31 at Diablo Country Club and he won the league tournament shooting a 3 under 69.




2015 relay[1]

Women’s Swimming

The women’s swim team sent four swimmers to State this year! Athenian’s freestyle relay team–Emily Hamren ’15, Kenna Van Steyn ’17, Emma Cottrill ’17, and Natalie Knowles ’16–placed 10th at State in the 4×200 and qualified for All-American status. Emma also competed in and finished 7th in the State for the 50 Freestyle and qualified for individual All-American Status.



IMG_3438College-Bound Athletes

Congratulations to our scholar-athletes from the Class of 2015 who will continue to play competitively in college.  You have represented yourself, your team and the School with honor.  Well done!  Good luck to each of you in your respective sports.

From left to right:
Dylan DeWalt, basketball, Pacific Lutheran University
Sam Hollenbach, baseball, Macalister
Tessa Sternberg, soccer, Occidental College
Miguel Rodriguez, soccer, Goucher College
Annalise Stevenson, crew, Colgate University
Zach Ottati, swimming, Williams College
Abigail Kardek, softball, University of Oregon
Gabrielle Rigby, sailing, Western Washington University