How 343 teenagers in an auditorium sort of terrified me…… and then truly helped me

The past few years, I’ve gained more expertise in mindfulness.  I teach the Mindful Schools curriculum to my students and I recently completed the year-long program with their organization.

Because these experiences and learnings have been so powerful for me, I’ve been moved to share my knowledge with educators in my district.  So, I’ve been doing a fair amount of professional development and really enjoy and feel comfortable doing this.  I’ve taught small classes of 10 people or fewer and I’ve done others of about 50.

Last year, I got asked to speak to a group of high school students about mindfulness.  It was for the Southeast Minnesota Student Government Conference.  They have a speaker every year, and the student leaders were interested in the topic of mindfulness.  I immediately said yes, because I love this age group and really believe that mindfulness can be helpful to them.  I also thought it would be an amazing opportunity to stretch myself a bit and speak to a different audience.

I invited the four student leaders of the conference to come over and give me some input on what they would most like to hear in the presentation.  They came over one afternoon to the Newcomer Center, and I gave them a menu of options.  They had very strong ideas about what they wanted and didn’t want.  They wanted to do a mindfulness experience/practice for sure.  They wanted time to debrief and talk to their peers about concepts I was teaching.  They did not want statistics or research on mindfulness.  Teenagers are so refreshing, because they don’t really have qualms about telling you what they think.

It was a great conversation and we wrapped up talking about the content and started to talk logistics.  They told me my presentation would be in the school’s auditorium.  Hmmm, I thought, maybe this is bigger than I imagined.  I don’t know why but I hadn’t really thought much about how many students this might involve.

So, I asked nonchalantly, “About how many students do you expect at the conference?”

“Somewhere between 3 and 400, probably closer to 400.”  (It ended up being 343, for the record.)

I tried to keep my face from twitching, and said coolly, “Wow, that’s great, yeah no problem. Yeah, this is going to be really great.  I’m so excited!”

To be honest, I started having a little freak out.  Or maybe a major freak-out if I’m being honest.  That’s a big group!  These are all smart, high achieving kids; maybe they’ll think this is stupid!  What have I gotten myself into?!   Was there still a way to get out of this?!

I forgot to practice mindfulness and didn’t do any slow, deep breathing in that moment.  Or really do much of anything to help myself.  Instead, I went home and freaked out to my family.

My teenage daughter said, “OOOO, that IS scary.  Don’t do it, Mom!”

My son in college had succinct advice, “Just don’t read your slides.  That’s so incredibly annoying and boring.”

My husband, who always seems to have more confidence in me than I have in myself, was enthusiastic, “That’s great!  You’ll be awesome!  Of course, you can do it.”

I mulled it over.  I finally remembered to practice some mindfulness a good thing to do when you’re having strong emotions such as fear.

Ultimately, I decided to go through with it.  I had said yes and made a commitment to the kids and the only reason I would be backing out was because I was afraid.  Not a good reason.  So, I shifted my mindset and started to look at it as an opportunity, an incredible opportunity to share something that has made such a positive difference in my life that I know has the potential to help so many.

I planned carefully for this 45-minute presentation.  My Mindful Schools mentor, Sarah Rudell Beach, Brilliant Mindfulness kindly helped me build a framework for the talk and gave me lots of wonderful ideas and positive support.  I practiced with some colleagues.  I perfected my slides.  I took deep breaths.

I was definitely nervous the day of the presentation. There was a Dr. Seuss theme for the conference so lots of the students were dressed up as characters.  The atmosphere was high energy, excitement, and fun everywhere.

My talk was really well-received.  I showed them a few funny videos.  I made the case for mindfulness as a way to cope with the stress of today’s world and to help them in their roles as student leaders.  I told them I could see that they were already doing great things in the world and would continue to do so, but to be able to live up to their full potential, they would need to take care of themselves, and mindfulness could be a great tool in their toolbox.  I led them in a few mindfulness practices.  They debriefed with partners after each one, and I went into the audience and joined conversations.  It landed well, and I felt so happy (and relieved).

Now, time for questions.  Because of the set-up and the large group, asking a question meant coming up on stage and speaking into the microphone in front of everyone (343, remember?).  There was some silence and hesitation at first.  I used my teacher wait-time skills and soon a young man bounded up to the stage and asked me a question.  And, once he bravely got the ball rolling, there was soon a line of students waiting to ask questions.

A young woman stepped up to the mic; she was dressed as Thing 1 or Thing 2.  She was funky and cool-looking.  She looked straight at me and said in a big voice, “Your aura is amazing!  There’s something so real and authentic about you. Thanks so much for teaching us about mindfulness.”

Now, I have a skeptical side, and normally somebody commenting on my “aura” would make me roll my eyes while imagining crystal balls or something.  But because this young woman seemed so genuine, I really took her words in and felt honored by the compliment.

Next person up, a young man, and here comes the big question, “What made you personally start practicing mindfulness and meditation?”  My heart jumped a bit.   I took a breath and looked around the audience at these amazing and open young people.  I glanced back at the young woman who had just complimented me for being authentic.

Should I give a stock and safe answer about life and teaching being stressful and mindfulness being helpful to me in dealing with this stress?  That is a real answer, but the deeper answer, the truer answer, is that one of the biggest reasons I got into mindfulness was because I was looking for another tool to help me deal with my long-term depression.

Self-disclosure was something I had given some recent and thoughtful consideration to. 

At that point, when doing presentations, I would talk in generalities and cover how long I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation, what my practice looks like daily, my training with Mindful Schools, the MS curriculum I teach to my students.  I talk about how I feel it’s helped me be more present to my daily life and how it’s improved my relationships with students.  

One of the pieces of feedback I had recently received from more than one person was the wish that I would have talked even more about my personal journey with mindfulness.  

I was aware that I was omitting some big parts of my story- namely that my mindfulness practice has helped me deal with long-term depression.

So far, I hadn’t made that a part of my presentation because it just didn’t feel right yet.  I guess I was afraid.  Maybe afraid of judgment, because stigma still exists.  And, yet…. I know that I am profoundly affected, moved, inspired when others share powerful examples of how mindfulness has helped them with big challenges.  

I had brought this question to our Mindful Schools office hours last year.    I asked the question on one of our virtual calls and it became the focus of the conversation for a while.  Most people said it would be courageous and useful to share and that I should do it when I felt comfortable and that I would know when the right time was.  One woman commented that being vulnerable usually leads to connection, and we all need more of that in our world.  

Our teacher, Alan, asked me why I would want to make it part of my story.

Well, I think it might help people.   I know when people share things it helps me.  I feel less alone.  Less stigma.  I feel connected.

 We ended that conversation, and I felt that it was an issue I would sit with and reflect on.  I felt sure that I would likely talk about it more someday.  I sort of imagined talking about it in one of my smaller classes.   One of Alan’s last comments was that if and when I decided to share, “It might feel right AND scary.”  How true he was. 

So, back to the auditorium and the question in front of me.  So, who knew that this would be the right time?  In my prep for this talk, I had not even considered talking about my own depression.  But, there’s something about kids and teens- they’re so open- they have the power to disarm you and crack your heart open.

And, so in that moment, in front of 343 teenagers, the words came tumbling out.

“I have struggled with depression since my college years and I still cope with it.   So, do a lot of people.  Maybe some of you do.  Practicing mindfulness and meditation have really helped me.  It doesn’t cure the depression, but it’s allowed me to have a different relationship with it.  To not be swallowed up by it and to have some compassion for myself about it. Through mindfulness I have learned that depression doesn’t have to be my identity.  It’s one part of me, but it doesn’t define me.”

I took care to follow up this comment and stress that I have done and still do lots of other things to take care of my depression:  therapy, medication under a doctor’s care, staying connected to loved ones, reaching out when I need extra help, etc.

I saw a lot of head nods.  No one seemed traumatized or even very affected by my disclosure.  But this was a big moment for me.

We moved on, and I answered more questions, like, “Why aren’t we all learning this in school?  Can you teach this in our school?”  Finally, we had to cut the questions off because we were over time.

And, I thought, if I even helped one young person with my honesty about my depression, then it was worth it.

I ended the talk by pointing out that mindfulness is something that is accessible to them at any moment. The breath and the mind are powerful tools.  Mindfulness is empowering.   It’s a way for us all to recognize strong feelings and not be completely  ruled by them. It’s an anchor when life is stormy.   It’s like a secret little superpower in our pockets.

My last slide was, “You are the architect of your own life.”

I thanked them for their kind and generous attention.  They gave me a standing ovation-very generous, sweet, and humbling.    I’ve never gotten a standing ovation from 300+ people, much less 343 high achieving teenagers in Dr. Seuss costumes I’ve got to admit, it felt great.

I never would have thought that the right moment to talk about my depression would have been in this setting.  My teacher, Alan, was spot on- “When the time comes, it might feel right and scary.”

On another note, this impressive group of young people were so open to talking about and trying mindfulness. There was such a strong connection and that’s why I am so motivated to bring this practice to as many youth as possible. Not only are they open and ready for this information, they are HUNGRY for it.

And, now more than ever with skyrocketing rates of stress, depression, and anxiety among our country’s young people, mindfulness needs to be taught explicitly and made accessible.

It’s not a silver bullet, a magic pill, or a cure-all.

But it can be one incredibly powerful tool in a healthy life.

I recently watched this video, which is posted on the Mindful Schools website.  These young people talk movingly, eloquently, and bravely about how mindfulness has helped them with their struggles with depression.

“Into Light”- 4 Teens Use Mindfulness to Battle Depression

Give it a watch.

And, thanks for reading.

 

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