Is not the stilling of the mind a prerequisite for the solution of a problem? The mind is not a few layers of superficial consciousness. Consciousness is not just the dull actions of the mind. When a problem is created by the superficial mind, the superficial layers have to become quiet in order to understand it.
— J. Krishnamurti, Reflections on the Self
The importance of self-knowledge is mentioned in many school mission statements, and this is not surprising. The benefits of even a small measure of self-knowledge are described in cultural heritages throughout the world. Routine school activities, when planned and executed thoughtfully, can become meaningful opportunities for students and teachers to learn about themselves. A discussion of great literature can naturally lead to an exploration of the human condition, or a chemistry class seminar on the Periodic Table can inspire questions of epistemology, method, and habits of mind. Often missing from class schedules, though, are explicit opportunities to be still, to listen intently, and to pay attention to the body and the mind's activities… to be aware of awareness and to know oneself in the present moment. Scheduled time for mindfulness has become a regular part of the curriculum for Oak Grove students, from kindergarten through high school, and what the students and teachers say about the exercises speaks for the benefits of the initiative.
'I didn't realize how fast things moved, until I slowed down.'
'I hardly ever think about my heart beating, until I stop and listen.'
— Grade 7 students
Jeanette Stampfil-Berkovitz, Oak Grove's Aftercare and Summer Programme Director, has been engaged in a formal meditation practice for over twenty-five years, and has trained in presenting mindfulness to children. Jeanette works with each grade level once a week. She describes the classes as, 'the practice of being aware of the present, here and now, through focusing the mind on one thing at a time'. Based on her experience, Jeanette believes it is never too early to begin working on mindfulness. 'These are skills we can all cultivate, and the earlier in life we start, the easier it is.'
Classes can take many forms, tailoring the modality to the particular characteristics of each group of students on a given day. In kindergarten, for example, the students sometimes lie on the floor with a rock placed on their stomachs. Jeanette then gently guides the class to notice what they are experiencing while they focus on the rock moving up and down with each breath. Occasionally, a student might want to wiggle, and Jeanette opens an opportunity for awareness: 'You might want to move around, but you can choose to wiggle or not to wiggle'.
In Grade 6, the class sits comfortably and are given a fig bar to hold in their hands. Of course, the first impulse is to eat the bar, but the students are asked to wait. They notice the colour and scent, they feel the texture of the bar. They are asked to attend to what is happening with their bodies, especially with their mouths. They sit for moments, and then take a first intentional bite. They smell and taste the fig bar, some reporting that they never stopped to notice their eating before. They take a second bite and swallow, experiencing what is actually happening when they eat. Some students report that time seems to come to a near standstill during these classes, and that they never realized there was so much to notice. The more they looked, the more there was to see.
Grade 4 might listen to a Tibetan bowl being rung, and stay focused on the sound until it is too faint to hear. The ring of the bowl carries on much longer than the students realize it would. Similarly, the middle school students walk through the oak grove at a slow careful pace, listening to what is there. They are excited about what they hear: the hawks, the sound of the wind flowing through the trees, the far-off notes of their friends in music class. Sometimes, the students say they have a hard time staying calm. Jeanette says that the focus is not to stay calm; it is to pay attention to what is happening. The release from expectation, externally or internally, is one of the benefits of the activity.
Sometimes the class ends with an exercise in standing firmly but comfortably, imagining roots growing down from the feet and into the soil. Jeanette then speaks softly: 'Often it's not the storm from the weather that sends us adrift, it's the storm of our feelings. That's when you can plant your feet firmly in the earth and find strength and patience.'
In response to these exercises, students describe the following:
'I feel lots of energy when we finish.'
'I feel heavy.'
'I feel light.'
'My mind buzzes a lot, from idea to idea.'
'When I pay attention, things taste better.'
'I didn't realize there were so many sounds going on around me!'
'I like being able to think about one thing at a time.'
A typical homework assignment for students is to find a time to focus only on their breath, a place where the mind and body can quickly meet. Further, if a time arises at home or in class, where the students are inclined to react quickly and hotly to a friend or family member, they are encouraged to pause and go to their breath—even just for a moment—and then respond if necessary. Krista Swanner, Oak Grove School's Grade 4 teacher, believes that the mindfulness classes offer a valuable opportunity for students to be aware of the present and provide a shared language for the class in general. 'When we are working on a lesson and a student's attention is drawn away, I can say "come back", and the phrase has a new meaning. It invites the student to return to the present, to what is happening right now. But equally important, the way students can listen to each other and build their relationships is so critical for their entire experience, including how they grow to understand themselves. This has always been a focus of the school, and the mindfulness class supports sustained activity in this area.'
Mindfulness is not only for the students, but also for teachers, staff, and parents. Teachers accompany their students to the mindfulness classes and Jeanette has worked with staff during faculty development days. In the Oak Grove Parent-Student Handbook, within the section on Communication and Conflict Resolution, the concept of P.A.W.S.S is introduced—when conflicts arise Put Attention Within for Sixty Seconds before responding. This applies to conflicts and struggles among students as much as it applies to the Oak Grove staff. The intention of the community is to learn to be mindful together, and as Krishnamurti's quote below mentions, self-knowledge is uncovered in relationship. To that end, mindfulness classes are also being offered to Oak Grove parents, beginning in November. As we all strive to be present, to be compassionate, and to understand what is, we naturally become supports and reflections for each other.
When we are aware of ourselves, is not the whole movement of living a way of uncovering the 'me', the ego, the self? The self is a very complex process which can be uncovered only in relationship, in our daily activities, in the way we talk, the way we judge, calculate, the way we condemn others and ourselves. All that reveals the conditioned state of our own thinking, and is it not important to be aware of this whole process? It is only through awareness of what is true from moment to moment that there is discovery of the timeless, the eternal. Without self-knowledge, the eternal cannot be.
— J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life