by Cory Muscara
“I wish I learned about this when I was younger,” a school counselor in her fifties said with a sigh. I was teaching mindfulness to a group of school leaders at Columbia’s Teachers College, and the whole class chuckled in agreement with the counselor’s sentiment. Buried in her whisper may have been deep pain, but what I saw was her soft, grateful smile.
I did learn mindfulness young and I know it was an unusual privilege. In the chaos of college, somehow this practice found me. My first mindfulness experience was lying on my dorm-room bed, inspired by the 10-minute meditation described in Jon Kabat Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living.” That practice was a pivot point in my personal and professional life, taking me into mindfulness trainings, a six-month silent meditation retreat in Burma and the year-long certification program with Mindful Schools.
I work as an outside provider in schools, and as a result, I wish I had more dedicated time with my students. They benefit far more when mindfulness is integrated throughout their school culture. So when I received a call from Columbia Teachers College to create and teach a curriculum on mindfulness for over one hundred school leaders and principals, I nearly lost my breath: “Mindfulness for school leaders? I get a full hour each day with them? Five days a week? For SIX WEEKS?“ Wow, I thought. If I can get principals on board, imagine the trickle-down effect.
Mindfulness was the first class of the participants’ nine-hour day, beginning every morning at 8 a.m. Some came in energized. Others were half-asleep. We stuck to the plan: a half hour practice, then a new topic related to mindfulness with time for discussion. I wanted them to taste the practice in many forms: sitting meditation, mindful movement, body scans.
Perhaps the most impactful practice we did was a walking meditation on the streets of Manhattan. My instructions were simple. Walk around as you normally would, but see if you can notice something new. They came back a half hour later, as excited as children. “New York City is amazing! I never knew I could be so peaceful walking in Manhattan! I can’t believe how mindless I usually am!”
There is nothing more rewarding than watching people wake up to their lives.
The group was never instructed to bring mindfulness back into their schools; the practice was always discussed in the context of leadership. However, once they tasted a daily practice for themselves, they found ways to bring it to their students.
On the last day, I heard the most rewarding comment of all: “So much of my life was spent on automatic pilot,” the participant said. “I didn’t even know who I was. And now, for the first time, I feel like I’m actually living my life. All I want to do now is bring this back to my school, so the kids don’t have to say: ‘I wish I learned about this when I was younger.’”
Cory Muscara is the founder of the Long Island Center for Mindfulness where he offers workshops, retreats, and mindfulness consulting to the Long Island and New York communities, specifically in schools. Cory will be leading the weekend retreat, Mindfulness for Educators, at Copper Beech Institute June 30 – July 2, 2017.