You are the Instrument: Teaching Mindfulness and Personal Practice

This post is adapted from the book Teaching Mindfulness to Empower Adolescents by Matthew Brensilver, JoAnna Hardy, and Oren Jay Sofer (W. W. Norton, March 2020).

Life is often intense, but in this moment, it can be overwhelming. As educators, parents, indeed as humans, we find ourselves in a grueling and extended period of instability and challenge. Coronavirus, economic hardship, political strife and the transition to online learning are all unfolding in a context of a national grieving and reckoning with the country’s racial history. For many, it feels like the tectonic plates of our lives are shifting and we are not sure where to find our balance.

Given this context, our leadership role as educators becomes even more important. Our capacity to act as a keel in the lives of our students is vital. How can we serve this function and how might mindfulness help?

Maya Angelou famously quipped, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We invite you to pause and consider: Who were the teachers or mentors who had the greatest positive impact in your life? Who inspired you? What was it about them that left that mark?

We’re willing to bet it was less what they taught and more how you felt in their presence.

Mindfulness practice is the cultivation of a curious, clear and balanced awareness. It’s about learning to live life from a baseline of steady and responsive awareness, rather than accumulating information or esoteric knowledge about contemplative practice. The question is, what impact does the development of direct, openhearted awareness have on one’s teaching and facilitation skills?

What we’ve seen in countless educators is that the embodiment of mindfulness confers benefits on both teachers and students. The cultivation of awareness not only provides an essential foundation for sharing mindfulness-based interventions, but is an invaluable asset for teaching in general, no matter the topic or student population.

Teaching mindfulness depends on our own understanding of the practice, as well as on our ability to embody that practice in the flow of our teaching. The personal practice of mindfulness supports a well-regulated, whole-hearted presence. That presence allows a teacher to develop relationships of genuine connection with students. An authentic relationship, in turn, forms the foundation of effective curriculum delivery. This is especially important in this moment, when our own internal resources are taxed.

Finding our Way

Educators come to the work of teaching young people and adolescents through many different doors. You may have known a mentor who had a particularly strong impact on you during your own adolescence and long to serve and give back in a similar way. Or, conversely, you may have lacked key input from adults at that crucial juncture in your life and struggled to find your way; many adolescents are contending with overwhelming emotions, doubt, depression, or anxiety. You may feel a strong affinity for that age in life and take great pleasure in connecting during this formative period of development.

However we end up in the room, teaching is hard work. There can be a range of structural challenges: scrambling to transition to online learning, large class sizes, lack of administrative support or leadership, high stress, and, in some circumstances, even a measure of social isolation. In addition, we bump up against the complexity of the young human beings as well as the limitations of our own capacity for patience, empathy, or compassion.

With the obstacles of this educational moment, as well as the unique challenges of teaching adolescents, it’s easy to lose sight of the one of the most important parts of teaching—our relationships with the kids. A significant amount of learning occurs through relationships.

Mindfulness can be understood as the bedrock of healthy relationship-building. Before we say anything, it is our ability to be here in a relaxed and balanced way that creates the conditions for connection, learning, and meaningful exchange. Although some have criticized online learning for its impersonality, we have found that opportunities to foster true intimacy and connection exist. Fostering this sense of connection requires the relaxed, warm presence that mindfulness cultivates.

The skills of teaching mindfulness go beyond the ordinary requirements for subject-matter competence. Mindfulness practice is different from purely academic subjects in that it’s not simply about transmitting information. The development of a teacher’s own mindful awareness has a direct impact on their ability to facilitate others’ learning of the practice. It’s like trying to teach someone to swim when you’ve never been in the water. You need direct experience with mindfulness to teach it—and your embodied expression of mindfulness transmits a confidence in the path of practice.

Effectively sharing mindfulness with teenagers is a unique competence that depends on distinct skill sets. It requires developing facility in a range of overlapping areas: an understanding of mindfulness meditation; proficiency in teaching and explaining subtle concepts in clear and accessible ways; and a flexible, relaxed, and authentic capacity to connect with adolescents.

When done well, teaching mindfulness to teens can be incredibly joyful. The teacher capitalizes on salient developmental characteristics of teens—identity formation, heightened awareness of meaning, sensitivity to group norms, skepticism regarding authority—in order to more effectively transmit the practice. By establishing the relevance of mindfulness for key developmental challenges, and by highlighting innate strengths and qualities in teens, the teacher can connect with adolescents in an authentic and deeply meaningful way. At this inflection point in our nation’s history, our care and stability are especially necessary.

Matthew Brensilver, PhD, teaches meditation at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and UCLA. JoAnna Hardy teaches meditation to young people, offers retreats nationally, and works to build multicultural community with a focus on social and racial justice. Oren Jay Sofer, a meditation teacher, author, and communication trainer, leads retreats and workshops nationally.

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