Editor’s note: This article is based on Brian Liem’s keynote, given to the New York City Department of Education.
After I was first asked to give a talk on mindfulness to the New York City Department of Education, I couldn’t remember how I was invited—was it via an email, or a text, or a Facebook message or did I get an old fashioned analog phone call?
You see, I’m not a very tech savvy person, I’m just your typical 50-year old yoga and meditation teacher, who’s been practicing for 25+ years.
But this isn’t necessarily a transcribed talk about being disconnected and overwhelmed by technology, nor is it one about relevancy and inclusiveness per se. Rather, it’s one about mindfulness in this moment, and in this moment you, like me, are in this space, let’s call it a “room.” My various yoga and meditation students and clients are out in the world having their lives. My NYU students are probably in classes. My 6-year-old first grader is coming out of recess at public school.
Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, once controversial or poorly understood, have developed into a ubiquitous world practice, which can incorporate all cultural colorations and treat every person with the same respect. It is a practice that does not aim to preach, instead creating an elemental experience of life, which each practitioner is invited to participate in. This global-yet-local, or “glocal,” practice is generous and relaxed in its perception of the world.
It invites you to make peace with life, and to trust your courage to go on living with your own interdependent strength. It is a mediator between cultures, it is a messenger of freedom and mutual understanding. It is a practice, which remains free of all ideology and dogma, viewing the world with as little prejudice as possible and acknowledging life in all its facets.
Out of the findings brought back from the journey of mindfulness, which begins with just a breath, then out of the many breaths—ever more over a lifetime of practice—a global image of enormous complexity is pieced together; a clearer, more spacious understanding of internal and external worlds and how they/we are…together. Mindfulness practice adheres to a humanism which recognizes no borders.
So let’s start first with a little quick history about mindfulness. As I understand it, it’s based in Buddhism, then incorporated or appropriated by the west in the 19th century and more recently codified into various therapies. Much of the modern movement began in the 1970s. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill, which began the application of mindfulness ideas and practices in Medicine for the treatment of a variety of conditions in both healthy and unhealthy people. MBSR and similar programs are now widely applied in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and other environments. All of this is from the world’s most trusted information source, Wikipedia.
I will say though that much of contemporary western relationship to mindfulness suggests a unifocal self-to-self relationship, versus an interdependent one. Some have called it a commodification of another culture which has been reshaped to fit a spiritual consumerism. Mindfulness is marketed as a means to reduce stress, while in a Buddhist context it is part of an all-embracing ethical program to foster “wise action, social harmony, and compassion.”
But is this a “bad” thing, with an emphasis on “good” vs “bad”? Perhaps the next stage of mindfulness is a more integrated east and west approach, I mean, why the division of either/or when you can have the connectivity of “and”? Can we bridge this gap between inner transformation and social change, and look forward to all of us working together to effectively aid a new generation of aspiring change-makers?
Top of mind for me is my kid. My love. I mean, is it really about our kids making “right” choices? Can we let go of the idea of right and wrong, good and bad, and replace those words with “helpful”? This is one of the baselines of my own work: to be of service, to be helpful.
Could it be the question is really: How can we teach kids how to discern which choices they make are the most helpful? We want our kids to be helpful, contributing members of the communities they’re a part of and not good or bad, right or wrong members of society.
Remember when you were a kid, the joy of being helpful and the self-esteem and confidence you felt in those moments? What if those seeds were cultivated? Seems that the classroom and more broadly the entire school itself has endless opportunities to cultivate the joy of being helpful. And even in an age of dwindling resources or staff constraints or other challenges, these supposed obstacles do actually increase, rather than diminish, opportunities for mindfulness education and practice.
Shortly after his birth, I believed I just intuitively knew what my kid needed to live in this world. But do I really? Do we allow ourselves to connect to our own needs which might, by the way, be very similar to those of our kids? Like being on a plane and the safety video tells you (somewhat non-intuitively) to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping those around you.
Recently I attended a curriculum meeting at my child’s school where the teachers spoke about what to expect in the upcoming year. With regard to math, for example (but almost universally applicable to all other subjects as well), we were told that the teachers are absolutely uninterested in having kids learn math facts. Or to learn reading or spelling by rote memorization.
Instead they want kids to learn strategies. Strategies for solving math problems, strategies for talking through what it means to “prove it” and strategies for spelling—not by memorization and recall, but by sounding it out, even if the answers aren’t literally correct.
Really, the difference here is mindfulness. Mindfulness distinguishes rote learning from strategic learning. And if we can help our children to be mindful of why they’re learning what they’re learning, this could be what gives them the motivation and excitement they need to get engaged, to get gritty with their thinking, and to feel safe making mistakes.
Social emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply knowledge attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.
As preschool led to pre-K, then kindergarten and now first grade, I’m acutely aware of how my son is experiencing thoughts and feelings around being at school. Sometimes we have to beg him to give us even the most quotidian updates about his school day, but usually one way or another, the feelings are eventually revealed. In subtle and not so subtle ways I’ve incorporated mindfulness techniques into his day so that he can become increasingly his own compass.
Perhaps today’s issue for him is merely a frustration with not getting first choice of playground equipment. But tomorrow’s issue could be bullying. We are already encouraging our son to communicate with us openly and honestly because we know he’ll experience times of stress and we want to have a strong parent-child bond, and it lets him release his frustrations, rather than keeping things bottled up. From belly-breathing together to yoga, to quiet time, to briefly holding hands at every meal and proudly saying “WE ARE FAMILY!”
So as adults, in this strange and still beautiful time, I feel it’s essential for us, and next generations, to nurture our own need for motivation and excitement, so as to get engaged, to get gritty with our thinking, and to feel safe making mistakes. These are the types of seeds that are truly necessary to grow and learn.
Which brings me to a question of how mindfulness can be integrated alongside other practices. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether mindfulness practice can coexist with practices like yoga, tai chi, and chi gong. I must say one of my earliest teachers was a die hard, “when you’re chopping wood you’re chopping wood, and when you’re carrying water, you’re carrying water.” But when I heard this I saw the interdependence of the wood and water versus the separateness: wood comes from trees which need water to grow and so on. So back to the earlier idea of relationship. It’s the “and” instead of the “either or or.”
Those who come to my yoga and meditation classes at NYU’s Center for Global Academic and Spiritual Life—MindfulNYU, for short—are mostly undergrads. Age-wise, and life-experience-wise, they’re in that middle place between say my son’s age and full adulthood like ourselves.
As an aside, none of my NYU students have ever told me how much they’ve missed grade school or high school. They also have never told me about their first job out of college, since, by definition, it hasn’t happened yet. Since they’re in the middle, they seem to be caught in a kind of gap.
Some students come to me and say they’re glad they’re learning mindfulness practices now to help them as they grow up into the real world, while others say they’re glad to practice so they can deal better with the places they’ve come from, while still others are glad to meditate to be in the moment and create separation between the last place they’ve been and the next place they’ll be.
My NYU students who are pre-meds are not pre-meds as in pre-meditation candidates. And they’re not majoring in yoga, either, as there is no yoga major. They’re getting degrees in fields X, Y, or Z, and many just want to “just stay sane” while at school. I hope they integrate mindfulness techniques into their respective careers and futures! It’s all so different from when I graduated college nearly 30 years ago.
Speaking of which, I’ve got no plans for surgery, but if ever needed in the future, I sure hope the surgeon who works on me is mindful! One of my pre-med NYU students said he felt it was essential to be mindful of the patients he’ll see one day. That he appreciated how in my teachings he thought I really tried to see who was in the room, instead of just each student as another generic person. To him it isn’t enough to understand the physical anatomy of a patient’s body, but to understand the inner workings of a person, and how they are interdependent.
In each of our own varied roles, there is most definitely a benefit that mindfulness can bring as individuals, to colleagues, and (circling back to interdependence) to everyone whose lives each of you touch, both directly and indirectly, every single day.
I’d be so relieved to know that world leaders practiced meditation and yoga….I am not mentioning any names! Yoga, by the way, means relationship, or union. So yes, someone can be practicing mindfulness while eating a meal, while strolling down a city sidewalk, while walking a dog, even while talking on their smartphone with a Frappuccino in the other hand, in the rain. Mindfulness while at work? Of course; most definitely!
We have such a short amount of time on this planet. My young son doesn’t have much sense of “past”—only recently has he begun to differentiate the past using phrases like “last winter” or “a few days ago,” instead of always referring to it as a general “yesterday”: Until recently he’d say, yesterday we went snow tubing, yesterday was spring, yesterday I was a baby.
Conversely, his sense of tomorrow is, at most, a reference to the upcoming weekend. He’s not thinking “promotion,” “pension,” or “retirement.” Remember those days when you were a kindergartner, when a ten-minute recess was an eternity? You could run out to the playground, organize and play a game with friends, visit the restroom AND get a drink of water.
Our minds can leave the present moment and wander very very far into the future, whereas my son’s view of the future is more akin to wondering if he’ll get to watch the latest episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood tonight, and which books will we get to read before bedtime?
As adults, we’ve lived longer and we have more to refer to. So much of our thoughts are about the past or the future, both of which take us out of the present moment. I mean, we literally shorten our lives by not being here now. So what can we do?
One of my adult students, who teaches photography in higher ed, says when she asks her students to be mindful, she’s not just asking them to be mindful in their own lives but also to cultivate respect for their photographic subjects. So instead of exploiting their subjects by feeling entitled to take pictures of whatever and whomever they want, they can compassionately and empathetically relate.
Can we, here in this room, respectfully incorporate mindfulness and move it out in a generous way? Can we have the “and” of the now versus the either/or of our pasts and futures. When I think of the times that I’ve been stressed, anxious, angry, depressed, or resentful–yes, a yoga and meditation teacher can indeed experience these things—my antidote to these feelings is to find space, usually figuratively, sometimes physically, too.
A basic Buddhist teaching is that the opposite of suffering is space. Mindfulness, should actually be called mind-emptiness. Aren’t our minds already full? Mindful almost feels like an overstuffed me turkey: “mine-full.” “Mind-empty” suggests space in your empty cup to learn and grow, space to be generous, space in the now. Take a moment to breath and perhaps you’ll be able to see what is on your mind. If you deconstruct that last bit, “on your mind” it’s like extra, unnecessary frosting—couldn’t all the décor be kindly and gently pushed aside to reveal the cake?
One positive thought has tremendous power. It can interrupt the momentum of a hell realm. It is said, “how you are in traffic is how you are in life.” With more practice, there’s more ease and less being caught up in neurosis. We have a chance of a lifetime when the bottom falls out. Wide open possibilities present themselves. Change can occur if you’re not resisting.
One of my teachers asked: “If you want something to change for the future, what are you doing now to make that happen? If you’re not doing anything about it, your future is already happening. Tomorrow will come whether you plan for it or not. How do you want it to work out for you?” And, with some inspiration from yoga, or, “union,” I ask again and with a slightly different nuance, how do you want it to work out for you all?