By Bill Meyer
When we begin to rethink the connection between the natural world and the connection to the self, we have the potential to truly heal the planet. Meditation offers a path back to the embodied self and a potential path forward into healing our relationship with the planet.
About ten years ago, one of my students heard about my interest in meditation. He invited me to join a group of his classmates in a weekly practice. This group began to grow almost instantly and a decade later I joke that we are the oldest high school meditation club in America (that might not be true, but it gives the group a little more credibility). Over those years I’ve had the chance to lead countless meditations with student groups, sports teams, assemblies, and even parents. Sharing meditation and deepening a connection with the present moment has been one of my greatest rewards as a teacher. It also has become the inspiration for three books I wrote, including one coming out this fall titled Healing Breath.
My journey into the world of meditation began almost thirty years ago as my younger self, guided by the wise hand of my older uncle, was introduced to a Zen Buddhist monk in Detroit. While I only remember a few of the words shared during that first encounter, I’ll never forget the feeling. With a very deliberate movement of his hand he filled our cups with tea and between our questions the silence spread like an endless ocean as he reflected on the full breadth of what we were asking. This individual seemed to emanate an energy of peace and compassion that I’d never before experienced in my young life. I was instantly hooked! From that moment on I began a daily practice of meditation that I have kept now for three decades.
It is interesting because I have always felt that my meditation practice not only helped me with simple things like sleeping better and regulating my emotions, but it also strengthened my intuition and made me a better teacher. I had no idea how something I kept very private and separate from my professional life would eventually change my pedagogical practice and connection with students. Now as an instructional coach, I can look back and see clearly that meditation affected me as a teacher offering a plasticity in my pedagogical thinking that allowed me to better meet the needs of my students and a reserve of patience for both myself and my classes that proved invaluable.
Today so many young people I sit with in meditation seem to be struggling with anxiety about the future, and not just their own, but also the planet’s. To me, the two are deeply connected. When we lose our awareness of our breath and the present moment, we also lose our connection to the earth. In Healing Breath I wanted to offer students, kids, and parents a simple and yet vivid meditation that would deepen that connection. The book is a guided meditation that can be both read as a story and used to facilitate deep reflection and peace within the reader. Below is a short excerpt.
For a moment find your breath.
Notice the length.
Is it short, or is it long?
Notice the depth.
Is it deep, or is it shallow?
Notice your effort.
Are you holding your breath, or are you letting it go?
For a few moments see if you can just watch your breath.
Now imagine that your breath is like the waves of the ocean.
As you breathe in, a wave rolls up to the shore.
As you breathe out, it returns to the sea.
When you are ready, follow your breath all the way down to your toes.
Feel the warmth of the sun on your face and the cool breeze on your skin.
Pick up a pebble or a shell, and throw it as far as you can into the water.
Watch the ripple spreading outward in every direction.
Imagine that you are at the edge of that ripple.
Now take another Big Breath.
With each breath, imagine you are traveling farther and wider…
Don’t get dizzy!
Imagine yourself gliding over the waves of the ocean, past the islands dotting its surface.
Imagine yourself floating past coral reefs, skimming over tidal pools, and flying above white sandy beaches...
As the journey continues, the reader travels through forests and jungles and eventually to the highest peaks of the Himalayas. From there the meditation invites them to connect with all the people on the planet, leading them back across the earth and into the depths of a canyon. There within the earth, they are invited to just breathe and connect with a profound sense of silence and stillness within themselves.
While many have touted the benefits often associated with meditation including stress reduction, improved focus, and increased productivity, it is just as important to acknowledge the active environmental activism it often inspires. I don’t think it is a coincidence that more and more students ask to meditate outside, or when given the opportunity to engage in a community action project, they choose one tied to the environment. There is a conscious and unconscious pull of the natural world. These three Rs represent a new understanding of self and the planet that inspire students to both new heights as well as deep reflection.
Remember - Remember to get outside and embrace the natural world, feel the earth beneath your feet (maybe even take off your shoes), and pay witness to the sky above.
Reflect - Experiencing the natural world is in itself a meditation. Allowing yourself and your students to see this space as a powerful tool for gaining perspective. Let times in nature be a moment away from the distraction and distortion that has come to define our modern lives.
Reconnect - Lastly, in connecting once again to the natural world we undoubtedly reconnect to ourselves and our community. The planet is a mirror of our relationship with ourselves. In reconnecting with its beauty, its fragility, and its wonder, we can deepen our connection to all of the complexity that makes up the human experience.
This past year I had the incredible joy of connecting virtually with Sunam again, that same monk I’d met decades before in Detroit. Although this time he shared that same sense of peace and wellbeing not just with me, but also a group of my students. It was a surreal moment that brought so many aspects of my own journey full circle, and one that spoke of the interconnected nature of all moments. He reminded all of us that while we might not be able to slow the pace of the globe as it rushes back to its consumption and production, we can try to foster greater moments of stillness and space in our lives and classrooms.
I hope in the months ahead that you have a chance to find stillness as well, maybe at the start of your day, during a free period, or even with your students in class. I hope Healing Breath might offer that space with many young readers and be a source of inspiration into the practice of meditation. Lastly, I also hope that it helps foster a deeper connection with ourselves and inevitably a healing of our relationship with the planet. Below I thought I’d leave with you with just a few final thoughts for teaching during this challenging time.
Five Tips for Educating Mindfully in a Pandemic
While the pandemic offered many challenges both professionally and personally, it has also offered opportunities and lessons for us to take forward as educators. Less can sometimes be more as we deepen student engagement with the content and strengthen their connection with one another. I’d encourage you to drop into that deeper and slower pace, even if only for a moment. You can never go too deep, but you can go too fast.
This is both for our students and ourselves. Many of our students have lost or incurred gaps in their instruction over the last year and a half. It is not to say that we need to lower our expectations for their learning, but rather learn to better engage them where they are by leveraging the common human experience of uncertainty that we have all shared during this time. Lean into your humanness, your vulnerability and your honesty in leading students forward in their growth and development.
Create Space Emotionally
Think about placing students, not content at the center of your classroom. It is easy to run the class in service of the content, but content coverage should never replace the opportunity for meaningful connections and conversations. Over time they might forget some of the material from the class, but they will never forget the respect you show them, the sincerity of your interest in their success, and most of all your willingness to see them for who they are.
Enjoy the year when you can. Few people can actually say that they changed a life in the course of their work, but as educators we have the opportunity to impact dozens and dozens of lives each year. Find space to laugh, to tell stories, and to enjoy the journey. Over the school year you will spend more time with these students than some of your closest friends and family. A crazy thought, but one that speaks deeply to the significance of our work.
William Meyer holds a Ph.D. from NYU in Educational Leadership. His research focuses on the ways in which teachers can work to better engage in the inner lives of their students. He holds a Masters degree from Harvard and an undergraduate degree from Dartmouth. He is also the author of five books including "Three Breaths and Begin: A guide to meditation in the classroom", "Big Breath: A guided meditation for kids", and now "Healing Breath: A guided meditation through nature for kids". He has taught in a public school setting for over 15 years and has led meditations both in and out of the school building for the last 10 years. If you are interested in his work, writing, or meditations, he can be reached through his website: www.billpmeyer.com.