Bringing meditation into a school or building is a delicate and lengthy process. It requires the navigation of a number of constituents and interests. And if it’s not done well initially, it can have a huge consequence for the long-term viability or success of a program.
In my experience, this type of work is most successfully integrated into the school when it’s initiated by teachers or students, or even better—both. Teachers’ grassroots desire to address the growing concerns and anxieties permeating the classroom environment, along with a motivation to integrate the work into their classrooms, is crucial to its success.
The basis for all the work I’ve done in the school and district started with one small group, Meditation Club.
How it all began
Our Meditation Club really began when Jak approached me about his science project, more than seven years ago. He was an eleventh grader, and I’d known him since he took my class in ninth grade. As part of an independent study project for science class, he wanted to explore the benefits of meditation on the teenage mind.
Jak had already done a lot of research on the topic and just needed to create an experiment to support his hypothesis. He also knew from our conversations, both inside and outside the classroom, that I studied and practiced meditation. He thought I’d be the perfect faculty advisor to join his experiment, and I’m eternally grateful he invited me to take part.
That first week there was just a small group of us, no more than five or six other students, including myself. We gathered in a circle in one of the science classrooms at the end of the lunch period, and Jak led us in a quiet meditation.
The first meditation was primarily silent, with only a word or two from Jak guiding us in finding the right posture or gently reminding us to come back to our breaths. What I didn’t know at the time, and struggle to believe even today, was that the circle Jak initially formed for his science experiment would eventually become an organization that would serve as the mindfulness bedrock of the whole school—Meditation Club.
Our weekly practice
Over the years, from the first week to the last week of school, the club has met continually every Wednesday. The size of our circle fluctuates throughout the year, from just two to sometimes more than 30 meditators.
Even if only one person shows up, the club still runs a meditation. The club is also open to any member of the school community, from faculty and students to secretaries and administrators. With the ebb and flow of the membership has come an evolution in how the club functions.
The club always gathers in the same classroom, and always during the lunch period. The meditation itself doesn’t take place until the last 20 minutes of the period, and students are invited to sit, eat and talk beforehand.
As we get closer to the time of meditating, I usually give people a five-minute warning, and then they finish up their lunches and begin to move desks and gather the chairs into a circle. Meanwhile, I close the classroom door and put up a sign that reads “Quiet, Please. Meditation in Progress.” I encourage students to turn their phones off, and then one of the club members begins the meditation with a simple stretch.
Particularly with kids, clearing personal space and defining boundaries are ingredients to making meditators feel safe and comfortable enough to turn their attention inward.
The stretch, always student-run, consists of some gentle standing backbends, a twist or two, and a stretch of our hands and arms, for all the texting and typing we do throughout the day. Once the stretch is completed, students find a seat in the circle and I join them.
As I mentioned before, I’m very intentional about where I sit, and I recommend you do the same. I almost always sit with my back to the door of the classroom. I think this serves several purposes, including holding the energy of the circle and positioning myself in a way that drowns out any noise from the hallway.
I’m fortunate to have a classroom away from some of the busier passageways in the school, but as you can imagine, it sometimes gets noisy towards the end of the period if you meet during lunch. I’d recommend finding a quiet room or explaining the need for quiet to the students who routinely gather outside your door before their next class. While you never want to find yourself competing against outside noise, you want to do your best to be prepared for it.
Once I find my seat and check to make sure everyone in the group has also found their seats, I gently encourage them to keep their feet about hip-distance apart and to try and space themselves out evenly, respecting the space of their neighbours.
I’ve said this before and feel it’s worth emphasizing again: particularly with kids, clearing personal space and defining boundaries are ingredients to making meditators feel safe and comfortable enough to turn their attention inward. I also might encourage them to make any last-minute adjustments and take a final twist or two to help with the alignment of their spine.
I then instruct them to place their hands in a comfortable position, either on their thighs or palm in palm. And then with three breaths, we begin.
Words from the founder
Looking back over the last seven years, I’m amazed at the number of club members, and in particular club presidents, who’ve gone on to attend many of the top universities in the country. I don’t believe this is a coincidence, as the capacity to reflect and to nurture our inner lives enriches the learning process and deepens all our experience.
And don’t take my word for it. Here’s a reflection from the original founder of the club, Jak Maguad, who recently graduated from Harvard. Jak describes his motives for creating this organization and how it changed over the years. He also does a wonderful job identifying the benefits and challenges of meditation in schools, particularly for young people.
In my opinion, the hardest part about introducing people to meditation is getting them started—people tend to shy away from it if they don’t understand it or if they try it and do it incorrectly. It’s easy to get discouraged if you try it and have to struggle on your own.
I think that in a school setting, it’s possible to leverage a lot of things that make this introduction easier: meditating in a group can make it less intimidating, especially with other beginners, and guided meditations from more experienced friends or teachers can also be great for supporting people who are new to it.
I found that convincing people to start was the hard part, because once they understood how it could help them and knew how to meditate correctly, they were much more enthusiastic.
I also think that a huge reason our Meditation Club took off had to do with the social aspect and the sense of community that we built, which was also made more powerful by a school setting. I remember that when we were growing very quickly, a lot of our new members often heard about us through word of mouth or were brought to us directly by a friend.
– Jak Maguad, 2018
Breath, body scans and metaphors
When Jak first began Meditation Club, the meditations were primarily silent and lasted eight to 12 minutes. Today the meditations have grown in length and explore a variety of images and topics. Some of those images have been inspired by the calendar, others by a conversation we’d had only minutes before and some by a simple request.
The source of the inspiration is secondary; what matters most is the leader’s presence and ability to authentically lead the students out of the everyday buzz of their minds and into a quieter space of reflection.
I almost always begin these meditations with a focus on the breath. Sometimes I’ll have the meditators practice alternate-nostril breathing, and other times I’ll have them place their hand over their heart, feeling their chest rise and fall.
In the vast majority of cases, I simply have the students become aware of their breath by breathing in through their nose and out through their mouth. Even if students do this for only three or four breaths, the simple act has the powerful effect of drawing their attention away from all the things buzzing around in their head and calming their mind.
From this opening strategy, I usually invite students to become more aware of their expanding breath, noticing when it first begins and becoming aware of the point where it ends. With each breath, and in each direction, I encourage students to allow their thoughts to quiet and to return to the breath when they find themselves getting distracted.
When exploring the heart, I might use the image of a flower; for the breath, the image of the ocean or waves on the shore. For issues of rooting or centring, I might explore a tree or a forest.
As the meditation deepens, this rhythmic breathing can also be the soundtrack behind the leader’s voice that draws students into themselves.
From the breath focus, I often move into a scan of the whole body, inviting the students to inhale into each area of the body, one by one, and using the exhale to clear and open blocked areas.
This simple yet powerful tool can be used on a physical, an energetic and even an emotional level, inviting students to visualize each area of stickiness or stress in the body, starting with the head and moving all the way down to the feet.
Knowingly or unknowingly, we often hold emotions and even trauma within our bodies on a cellular level. While a simple body scan might not be enough to clear deep-seated feelings or emotions, facilitators must be aware of the potential this practice can have to awaken old, sometimes forgotten, memories.
At the end of the body scan, it is really worth emphasizing and detailing the exploration of the feet. Inviting students to take an extra minute to feel their feet on the floor or imagine roots growing out from the bottoms of their toes can help ground and centre them for the day.
If you’re new to leading meditations, I’ stop after the body scan and regrounding. However, when you feel comfortable enough and ready to move forward, you can continue, leading the students deeper into a visual meditation. Drawing upon images and unconscious symbols can be a powerful way for students to explore an issue, a challenge, a goal, a relationship or an aspect of self in their lives.
For example, when exploring the heart, I might use the image of a flower; for the breath, the image of the ocean or waves on the shore. For issues of rooting or centring, I might explore a tree or a forest. For thoughts moving across the mind, I might play with the images of the sky and clouds.
There is really no right or wrong metaphor here—the idea is to connect students with images and symbols that they can relate to, that are non-threatening and comforting. Simple images of the summer or a grandparent’s home can be comforting, while the mention of homework or tests can instantly trigger anxiety.
As you experiment with images and words, you’ll find you’re almost like a conductor, tapping into the musical landscape of the interior.
At the end of every meditation, it’s worth making time for each student to share their experience from the meditation. What did they feel? What did they see? How did it compare to earlier meditations? Students often will revisit the same places over multiple meditations, and these places shift in subtle yet meaningful ways.
With a simple glance or gentle nod of encouragement, give space to those who are willing to share their experience. Not only will this prove invaluable in guiding your future meditations, providing you with feedback and insight on what worked and what didn’t work, but it’ll also help foster a sense of community among the members.