Below is an interview with Mel Friedel, a Lower Merion High School student who studied mindfulness for her senior project under the guidance of Roots & Wings.
Jenny: What is mindfulness in your own words?
Mindfulness is being present. It’s not staring at my phone while I’m walking down the stairs or eating a bowl of cereal. It’s being aware of my body and my surroundings. It’s being conscious of my thoughts and my being. Mindfulness isn’t sitting on a cushion and listening to your breath- it’s paying attention to yourself instead of being lost in thought. I’ve had moments of mindfulness at times when I haven’t been sitting down and meditating. I’ll notice that my mind has been gone, and I’ll take a refreshing breath and replace myself in the present. And noticing that, or recognizing myself thinking or worrying about something in the future that hasn’t happened yet-- that is my moment of mindfulness. And I can stop myself and come return to my body.
Jenny: What skills did you learn from practicing mindfulness?
I learned the skill of being able to focus on my breath and watch my thoughts come and go objectively. An analogy that Jenny introduced to me that I have found pretty useful is that your attention is like a flashlight, and during the day it's constantly moving around and shining light on all the different thoughts bouncing around in your head, but during meditation, the goal is to control the flashlight of your attention, and notice one thing at a time, without getting too caught up in it. When a thought enters your mind, notice it. Shine the flashlight on it, observe it and acknowledge it, but don't get sucked into it and don't start telling a story about it in your head. Just let it pass by and then recenter the flashlight on blank space and do the same for whatever next thought pops up. I also came to realize that mindfulness is not a hobby or an activity really; it's a state of being. You can practice being mindful anywhere and anytime because all you need is your mind, body, and breath, which are with you always.
"Mindfulness is not a hobby or an activity really; it's a state of being."
Jenny: What are some things you noticed about yourself when you started practicing?
Mel: I noticed that I slept better after meditating and had longer nights of sleep, with a deeper sleep. I don’t toss and turn at night as much when I’m trying to fall asleep. The practice that had the most effect on that aspect was the body scan practice. I’ve found that I’ve gotten so relaxed from that practice that I have almost even falling asleep during it, as opposed to the concentration practice or lovingkindness practice. Approaching my thoughts and myself with an objective view and a non-judgmental way has also had a big effect on my every day life. I find that when I’m about to make a snap judgement about someone, I stop myself and realize that I might have more in common with them than I think, and I don’t know enough about them to be forming an opinion about them. I’ve also noticed that Im more inclined to reach out and be kinder to the people around me, and be more patient and caring around my family.
"Everyone always needs to be doing something these days."
Jenny: What was difficult about learning to be mindful?
Mel: The main obstacle I encountered was frustration from getting distracted, even though thoughts (which are distractions when meditating) are natural and normal. I find myself getting mad at myself for having so many thoughts and losing focus, but I learned over time not to blame myself and not to shame myself for having thoughts. The mind is used to thinking and it's hard to just stop and have it be clear. It's impossible! This frustration then caused restlessness, which caused even more frustration because I wanted to move but also knew I should be staying still and balanced. I think this cycle was inevitable but will get easier to deal with over time.
One notable moment I experienced was when I was at my first open meditation sitting at the Contemplative Arts Center in Bryn Mawr. It was a silent sitting for 45 minutes, and up to then I had only been doing practices of 5 to 15 minutes at a time, which were guided since I was using Jenny's album of guided meditations. It was a huge difference to be sitting still for 45 minutes in silence, especially now how far into the practice because there wasn't a clock in there and my phone was off and away) I had the sudden realization that I felt stuck in there and trapped. I started to panic in my head. I couldn't leave without interrupting everyone else's practice and looking rude and impolite, and there was no way I could stay and sit there in silence for any longer! I was getting more and more restless by the second. Then I had a change of heart, and I remember this moment clearly. Instead of the feeling of being trapped being a negative thing, it became positive and motivational. I no longer felt like "I'm trapped in here how do i get out??|!" but it I thought "I'm trapped in here-- might as well make the most of it and meditate for as long as i can!" So I took a few deep breaths, and did just that. And the feeling of being trapped felt ever so comforting.
Jenny: What benefits might come if more teens practiced mindfulness?
Mel: I think teens would be more focused in school and less anxious about social situations if they practiced mindfulness, because they wouldn’t feel so constantly distracted. They would be able to put away their cell phones while they walk through the halls and not feel withdrawal from action or social media whenever they’re not doing anything. Everyone always needs to be doing something these days. I’ve noticed in myself that when I had a twitter, any spare moment when I was waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting for my food to come out at a restaurant, I would just scroll through my twitter feed, and when I deleted that, and became more mindful of my surroundings and became more calm as a person, I didn’t feel so antsy and restless in those moments when I wasn’t doing anything, and I became okay with just being there.
"I'm happy with being alone with myself, doing nothing, and breathing."
Jenny: Overall what have you learned from this experience?
Mel: I learned that I'm actually more mindful than I think, and that I always will have room to keep improving my practice. There were several moments throughout these 3 weeks when I wasn't even practicing, but I would notice when my mind had been lost in thought. And those were my moments of mindfulness. My moments when I decided to focus on one task at a time or to put away my phone and just enjoy doing nothing for a moment. Or to really pay attention instead of texting or checking snapchat stories at all times. I learned that I don't need to be constantly connected to social media or to be constantly doing something or in contact with someone. I'm happy with being alone with myself, doing nothing, and breathing.
Since my essential question was very general, it gave me room to explore really how practicing mindfulness, even for such short a time period, but really immersing myself into it, could affect me. It was nice to go into it without a concrete goal or expectation so I could be open to what results came. I learned that this practice and this skill that I'm still acquiring can actually greatly influence my life, my being, and my outlook. Even after just 3 weeks I've noticed that I'm more aware of my body and my thoughts, my surroundings and my emotions. I feel calmer after meditation, even if I experience moments of restlessness and frustration during it. And as a whole, I feel a little more in touch with myself. I of course still have moments of anger and feel overwhelmed and stressed, but I now notice that I'm noticing those feelings and those moments. Even if I get caught up in them, I'm noticing that I get caught up in them! Which is me really experiencing what it is to have a mindful moment.