by Sandrine Harris
Grace Academy is on a mission. This school in the City of Hartford offers tuition-free education to disadvantaged girls in grades 5 through 8, and puts great care into each moment of their programming and the rhythms of the school day. One of the Academy’s emerging core values is to create an environment that cultivates personal growth, awareness, and connection through mindful practice. This is where I come in.
Schools around the world are recognizing the benefits of mindfulness for all ages and are increasingly bringing it into their daily flow. It is a joy to be a part of this process. Through Copper Beech Institute, where I have been a facilitator of retreats and a teacher in outreach programs for contemplative practice and mindfulness, I recently began a journey with the Academy’s students and teachers.
In August, my work began with a mini-retreat with the Academy’s teachers as well as the head of school and the dean of students—pictured here in our “selfie”! (Sandrine is on the right end of the back row and wearing dark-rimmed glasses). Our starting point was a shared interest in learning accessible mindfulness practices, inviting our experiences into the fold of the energy of the new school year, and beginning to understand — through our experiential learning together — how these might become a part of the students’ daily practices at the school.
As we set out to explore mindfulness practices in our time together, there was a mix of excitement and curiosity — a perfect combination, in fact, for good learning! We began with a series of movements to bring our attention to our bodies, and to awaken a spirit of mind-body presence and playfulness. Everyone dove in with laughter and a healthy dose of wondering, “What on earth are we doing?” As a facilitator, I welcome and relish these moments of question marks, so that we can launch into our learning with a sense of novelty and expansiveness.
With curiosity peaked, we gently settled into a sitting meditative practice. Connecting with the present moment and the breath to quiet the mind, we found stillness together. This is the fruit: when all of the energy in the room comes into the practice itself, and we are listening, breathing, and being — as individuals and together.
We emerged from our sitting practice with serene expressions, smiles, and discovery. One participant experienced a wave-like sensation, like the ocean’s water moving through her as her awareness of her breathing deepened. Another offered the valuable insight that she experienced moments of searching for “safety” during her practice. She bravely articulated that the act of slowing down, quieting, and becoming fully present brought up feelings of uncertainty. From this place, we talked about how we experience “being” less than we experience “doing,” and how allowing all feelings and sensations to be a part of our process of non-judgmental awareness is one of the cornerstones of becoming more fully present in our lives.
We completed our time together with writing intentions on the board. Participants shared such thoughtful goals as: one thing at a time, gratitude, patience, heart, presence, self-care, and love for learning. The result of our practice together became a collective wish to inhabit the best parts of who we are, both within ourselves and in connection with others.
As a facilitator, I always hold a beginner’s mind on the continuum of my own learning and am consistently in awe of what emerges from seemingly “simple” practices. Our internal lives thrive on this slowness, this listening, this quiet; and from this springs a natural shift into feelings of well-being, kindness, compassion, and community. In these moments of clarity and sharing, I feel yet more alive in myself, deeply connected to others, and truly fortunate to be doing this work.
Our work together with Grace Academy is ongoing and rich. Through this fall and winter, I am continuing to work with faculty to help them develop their own paths of mindfulness, both as individuals and as it informs their presence in the classroom and their work with the students. I have also been teaching the students in grades 5–8 about mindfulness and providing tools they can use in their lives, starting now. Eighth graders are getting special instruction on how to lead mindful moments to the lower grades.
There is so much more to come, and I look forward to the upcoming sessions with the students and staff at Grace. We are unfolding our journey of being mindful together, and I hold so much gratitude for the learning ahead.