One of the joys of teaching mindfulness to teens is the many times when, in the course of a short lesson on breathing or listening, a fifteen-year-old can drop a truth-bomb that explodes with all the wisdom of a wizened Zen master.
These small insights from young people reveal so many universals of the human experience.
Teaching Mindfulness to Teens:
A few weeks ago, I led an exercise in mindful listening in a high school classroom. I instructed students to listen to the resonant sound of the singing bowl, trying to stay with the sound until it faded completely (usually about 20-30 seconds). Afterward, I asked students to share what that experience had been like.
Many students found it soothing, but one young man said, “It was weird.”
“Weird how?” I asked in my mindfulness teacher voice.
“It was really weird to just focus on one thing.”
This student shared how, normally, he would be doing his homework but also listening to music and checking his phone … and it was a strange feeling to just keep his attention on one thing. FOR 20 SECONDS.
This is a perfect example of the state of continuous partial attention that many of us spend our days in, simultaneously attending to multiple stimuli at a quite superficial level, rather than deeply attending to a task with focus, concentration, and reflection.
The research tells us that this distracted state is rather uncomfortable, and that we are happier when we singularly attend to the activity of the moment, whether it’s doing our homework or listening to music. When we attain this state of “flow,” we feel competent, engaged, and productive.
And apparently, that feels weird.
Have we become so, dare I say, addicted to the abundance of information available for us to attend to in any given moment that we feel uncomfortable when we “detox” by shifting from our digital, connected world to the analog experience of attending to something as mundane as the breath?
Several weeks ago, I was teaching mindfulness to teens in another school, and I invited students to notice when their minds wander, and where they wander to. I asked, “If you’re sitting in math class and your mind wanders, where does it go? What are you thinking?”
A girl in the back of the room answered, “I’m usually thinking…
“I don’t want to be here right now.”
How often during your day is that what you are thinking? I don’t want to be in this meeting. I don’t want to be stuck in traffic. I don’t want to be changing this diaper. I don’t want to be making dinner…
Yes, life is full of unpleasant experiences — and mindfulness won’t change that. Life is not all rainbows and unicorns.
But at the same time, NO MOMENT SHOULD SIMPLY BE AN “ON THE WAY” MOMENT.
We sit in traffic wishing we were already at work, and then we sit in our meeting wishing we could just get started on the project awaiting us in our office, and then we sit in the office wishing it was time to leave for the day, and then we sit in traffic again wishing we were already home, and then we make dinner wishing the dishes were already done, and then we bathe the kids wishing they were already asleep so we could have 10 minutes to ourselves before we start wishing we were already in bed….
How much of YOUR day is spent thinking, “I don’t want to be HERE right now?”
I’m not suggesting you jump up and down with excitement over a dirty diaper, or that you actually start to like sitting in traffic. But this mic drop from a seventeen-year-old has a lot of wisdom for all of us — you may not want to be here right now, but the fact is, YOU ARE HERE RIGHT NOW.
So how are you going to BE with that?
Are you going to accept it or fight it? Are you going to do what needs to be done with curiosity, openness, and equanimity? Or are you going to do it with resignation, indignation, and frustration?
The choice is yours.
Right here, right now.
I’m quite convinced these two insight nuggets are related, and though I was teaching mindfulness to teens in these cases, I think their experiences resonate with ALL of us:
We don’t want to be here, so we turn to something that distracts us from here, and our novelty-loving brain gets really excited about all the not-heres that are available, so we start to habituate ourselves to constant stimulation and the relentless pursuit of ALL THE THERES, and if the theres we find don’t live up to our expectations, we think, “I don’t want to be here, either…”
My challenge to you is to take in the wisdom of a few truth-bombs from some of the youngest among us, and see if, for even a little bit, you can focus on just one thing without wanting to be anywhere else.