At a recent conference I attended, the main topic of conversation was mindfulness. I must admit that in the past I have been skeptical of mindfulness (or any educational buzzword, for that matter), but there were a couple concepts coming from this conference that really resonated with me, the most important concept being that mindfulness, when put in action, really boils down to being able to focus on the task at hand. It is about training the mind to be in the moment–training the mind to accept the things you cannot control and focus on the things you can control. As anyone I have ever coached can attest, one of my favorite sayings is, “If you take care of the little things, the big things take care of themselves.” What really resonated with me is that mindfulness really is about taking care of the little things.
The keynote speaker at the conference, Dave Mochel (you can watch his recent Ted talk), made a very important point: “The more we focus on our conditions to determine the quality of our lives, the more we struggle.” My mind immediately went to our students. As we know, conditions weigh heavily on teenagers. Often, the thought of changing a condition is akin to the proverbial “grass being greener”: a change in condition can seem better, simply because it is different and simply because it is a choice. This is a powerful feeling for kids, especially as they go through adolescence and look to assert their independence.
As adults, of course, we know that different and better are not synonymous. What Dave got me thinking about was that maybe conditions weigh heavily on teenagers precisely because they often do not feel like they have control. That, in turn, got me thinking about how to get the teenagers to focus on the things they can control. The world is not perfect, and there will be bad days…so we need to teach our kids how to deal with it. To create successful adults, we need to help them realize the power of being mindful of their conditions–being aware of what is around them–and then doing the work within those conditions that will lead to meaningful growth. In short, we need them to understand that the choice is not necessarily about their conditions, but about what to do within the conditions that are presented to them.
I left the conference with those thoughts swirling in my mind, and as it turned out, I was quickly met with another opportunity for reflection. The son of one of my good friends is a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks, and so I was interested to learn that the Seahawks employ a mindfulness coach. A life in the NFL is one of discomfort: mentally, physically, and emotionally. What the Seahawks started experimenting with a few years ago, however, is how to get players to be in the moment and perform despite all of that discomfort. For them, it is not about blocking out distractions; it is about being fully aware of their surroundings, accepting them, and operating at a high level within that realm. Needless to say, the Seahawks’ success in recent years speaks for itself.
The stress of life in the NFL is, of course, a bit different than the stress of life as a high school student, but the reality is that the stress for both groups of people is only made more difficult when they focus too much on trying to control their conditions and not enough on working productively within those conditions. As adults, we know that the most successful people are those who identify the needs of their group or team and work to address those needs. That is the recipe for professional success, and that is what we want to give our kids.
As such, for a high school student, the message from teachers and parents needs to be on helping them gain awareness of their surroundings, stressors, etc., and controlling what they can control. There is a Jewish proverb which states, “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.” Our kids all have the ability to be aware of and accept their situation, and so it is our job as parents and educators to help them “broaden their shoulders” and build the skills to put that ability into practice. That comes from accepting conditions and focusing on the productive steps that will serve them well in the long run: if we help them learn how take care of the little things, the big things will take care of themselves.