What I have learned from Superman, Sandra Bullock and Friends education
Perhaps you have seen the Academy Award-winning movie “Gravity,” in which a world-class scientist struggles with her humanity and spirituality in the face of extremely adverse conditions. While few of us will ever experience complete weightlessness in space or be faced with the possibility of being pelted by extra-atmospheric detritus and smashed into oblivion, we do appear to live in a world where things happen to and around us at a much faster and hectic pace than ever before. When I think of this, I also consider the coping mechanisms with which we have been endowed to assist us in navigating these increasingly (real or perceived) difficult-to-manage situations.
In my youth, each edition of the grainy old Superman comics included a reference to the “Fortress of Solitude.” Typically portrayed in light and borne out of crystals sent from his home planet of Krypton, this person of near invincibility needed to go somewhere to clear his head, walk in silence and contemplate life and his role in the world. The progenitors of Superman must have been channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote: “What lies before us and what lies behind us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” To cultivate an inner life, even Superman needed a Fortress of Solitude.
Every movement has its breakthrough moment when it no longer has to defend its message. Mindful awareness education has arrived at that moment. The cover of the Feb. 3 edition of Time magazine shows a young lady front and center, with hair gently blown back and her eyes closed, appearance relaxed and at peace. The headline reads “The Mindful Revolution: The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multi-tasking culture,” and the article that followed was titled “The Art of Being Mindful: Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently.”
Frankly, I am a bit surprised this appears to be viewed as a revolution of sorts. Perhaps it is with the current culture, but the educational philosophy in our school community embraces and exercises taking quiet, contemplative, indeed mindful timeouts from “the stuff” each day brings. The article references how important this “balance” is to better processing and thinking, indeed, to formulating much better outcomes for individuals and society. It happens to be in line with the model we practice every day at Cambridge Friends School.
In the 18th century, British Quaker educator John Fothergill wrote that a goal of Friends education was “to habituate children, from their early infancy, to silence and attention.” Each Tuesday, the school community (faculty, staff and students) gathers for Meeting for Worship. Meeting is a regular practice in developing the habit of silence, attention and reflection. Viewed through the lens of mindfulness practice, Meeting is a regular opportunity to practice centering and focusing attention with an alert and relaxed mind.
At Cambridge Friends School, we have long realized the fundamental role that social and emotional well-being play in the attainment of academic outcomes. Learning to channel attention to productive tasks, to sustain motivation when work becomes demanding and to handle the frustrations of sharing, learning and communicating with peers are skills that depend on the ability to understand and manage emotions. These are competencies that children and adolescents at Cambridge Friends School learn alongside more traditionally academic ones.
We know that to teach children to excel academically in school, we need to teach them to be still when necessary, pay attention, stay on task, regulate and make good choices. We cannot simply tell children to be calm and focused; we need to teach them how to do so. Studies of mindfulness programs in schools have demonstrated that they are a particularly effective means to reach these goals.
We are most fortunate that tonight, Cambridge Friends School will host an evening with leading experts on bringing mindfulness practices to children and families, in school and at home. Featured panelists will include Fiona Jensen, director of Calmer Choice, a nonprofit dedicating to bringing mindfulness to dozens of schools on the Cape; Christopher Willard, clinical child psychologist and author; and Irene McHenry, psychologist, author and executive director of the Friends Council on Education.
Consider the substance of being mindful, of being intentional about the cadence of our days. We believe this is a science and an art. And a science cannot be mastered, nor an art brought into full beauty or recognition, unless it is practiced well. Even Superman needed a walkabout in a special place at a special time to sort things out, to be more present and reflective regarding the world within and his place in the world around him.
The seminar on mindfulness is from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Cambridge Friends School is at 5 Cadbury Road, North Cambridge.
Peter Sommer is head of school at Cambridge Friends School.