by Cory Muscara
“I wish I learned about this when I was younger,” a school counselor in her fifties said with a sigh. I was teaching mindfulness to a group of school leaders at Columbia’s Teachers College, and the whole class chuckled in agreement with the counselor’s sentiment. Buried in her whisper may have been deep pain, but what I saw was her soft, grateful smile.
I did learn mindfulness young and I know it was an unusual privilege. In the chaos of college, somehow this practice found me. My first mindfulness experience was lying on my dorm-room bed, inspired by the 10-minute meditation described in Jon Kabat Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living.” That practice was a pivot point in my personal and professional life, taking me into mindfulness trainings, a six-month silent meditation retreat in Burma and the year-long certification program with Mindful Schools.
I work as an outside provider in schools, and as a result, I wish I had more dedicated time with my students. They benefit far more when mindfulness is integrated throughout their school culture. So when I received a call from Columbia Teachers College to create and teach a curriculum on mindfulness for over one hundred school leaders and principals, I nearly lost my breath: “Mindfulness for school leaders? I get a full hour each day with them? Five days a week? For SIX WEEKS?“ Wow, I thought. If I can get principals on board, imagine the trickle-down effect.
Mindfulness was the first class of the participants’ nine-hour day, beginning every morning at 8 a.m. Some came in energized. Others were half-asleep. We stuck to the plan: a half hour practice, then a new topic related to mindfulness with time for discussion. I wanted them to taste the practice in many forms: sitting meditation, mindful movement, body scans.
Perhaps the most impactful practice we did was a walking meditation on the streets of Manhattan. My instructions were simple. Walk around as you normally would, but see if you can notice something new. They came back a half hour later, as excited as children. “New York City is amazing! I never knew I could be so peaceful walking in Manhattan! I can’t believe how mindless I usually am!”
There is nothing more rewarding than watching people wake up to their lives.
The group was never instructed to bring mindfulness back into their schools; the practice was always discussed in the context of leadership. However, once they tasted a daily practice for themselves, they found ways to bring it to their students.
On the last day, I heard the most rewarding comment of all: “So much of my life was spent on automatic pilot,” the participant said. “I didn’t even know who I was. And now, for the first time, I feel like I’m actually living my life. All I want to do now is bring this back to my school, so the kids don’t have to say: ‘I wish I learned about this when I was younger.’”