It seems that it is a fairly consistent trend that when we sit down with Ryan Redman and Noah Koski for our weekly mindfulness practice with the Flourish Foundation, we find an amazing array of crossovers. Whether they are talking about concepts that connect with the academic content of our class or a social lesson we are working on with the kids, the ‘practice’ always provides some overlap and some time for additional reflection and consideration.
This week was no different, and equally as connective and joyful. Ryan began talking about how we have gyms all over town dedicated to physical health but so little dedicated to mental health. In his recent readings and understandings, he was saying that if kids can learn to ‘decenter’, it can be one vital skill that can point them on the road to positive mental health. There is evidence that it can help people prevent depressive incidents and slow down and reduce anxiety. Decentering is effectively a mindfulness practice where you begin to remove yourself as the center of your narrative, and begin to simply label your thinking as ‘thinking’. As Psychology Today notes, “Instead of (creating) a reality of “I can’t do anything right,” one learns that they had a thought “I can’t do anything right.” Being aware this thought is only a thought, and not the whole of reality, can be freeing. This practice, Ryan lets us know, would be a wonderful gift for each of us- even if we could do it just once. However, if we could make it happen regularly, it could provide years of benefit to each of us. He asked us to explore what that felt like and if it seemed true.
In class, the seniors are in the middle of a six week unit where they have chosen issues we are exploring as a class. They have chosen the war on drugs and positive mental health, among others. I was just discussing with the seniors a connection between these two topics. The day before Ryan’s comments on decentering, I was discussing how my recent reading list included a set of books that talked about addiction and healing. Those books included suggesting it might be helpful to consider addiction a ‘learning disorder’ rather than a disease. It is a learning disorder that often starts in adolescence as a failure to cope with the difficult emotions and realities that face them. The addictions can take many forms- alcohol, drugs, cell phones, vaping- but they are all attempts at solving inner problems. They are all systems that give us short-term dopamine ‘rewards’ that we learn to rely on in difficult moments, and then form habit loops around those behaviors. Mindfulness, in this look at addiction, can help us decenter, observe the habit loop, and create opportunities for other behaviors.
So, in a matter of a few days, the students were thinking about drugs and their effect on our brains, considering how we may get addicted, thinking about what habits in our daily lives might be giving us dopamine rewards, and then learning from Ryan and Noah some hands-on strategies to pay attention to their minds in a way that could benefit them and prevent negative habit loops. These unplanned, serendipitous connections happen too consistently to be ignored between the Flourish curriculum and the Sage curriculum.
Ryan asked as part of the class, ‘What if part of a school’s curriculum was teaching us how to be mentally healthy?’. I was proud to feel that, in that moment, we were working together to do just that for our kids. It is vital work, and thrilling to think about what selves students may construct as they grow forward. I am grateful to be part of it.