By Brennan Barnard
The light on my office phone blinks a burning red. In addition to my work as director of College Counseling at the Derryfield School an independent college preparatory day school in southern New Hampshire, I am a volunteer firefighter. As an emergency responder I am no stranger to the red distress beacon flashing in front of me, and as I lift the receiver, the pleasant automated woman informs me that I have ten new messages. Despite the lack of risk to life or property, I begin to get the sense that a fire is kindling. One by one I listen to panicked messages about testing, course selection and resume building. Ironically, I have been out of the office at a mindfulness in education conference at the Omega Institute in New York and therefore not available to dowse the growing angst about the college process.
It is August and athletics are kicking into full gear. Unconscionably, store flyers have been advertising back to school sales since the beginning of July, but until now, most students have maintained their distance from the reality of the waning days of summer. With the school year imminent — or in many districts, already here — the collective blood pressure for seniors and their parents is rising, expected to crescendo in late October. On August 1st, the Common Application for the 2015-2016 admission cycle went live and for many what once was a joyful exploration of college and future has become an overwhelming, anxiety ridden race against time. This is not a phenomenon unique to my school in suburban New Hampshire. My colleagues from independent and public schools throughout the country corroborate this trend.
It is unclear exactly what fuels this hysteria and ignites a sense of panic among students. Media hype, peer culture, parental pressure, and sinking admit rates (at a handful of the most selective colleges) surely share the blame for this atmosphere of unease. We must ask ourselves as educators and parents how to best combat this anguish. How do we keep students healthy? High-profile accounts of suicide on college campuses along with other growing mental health concerns point to a need to tune into the sparks of emotion and anxiety before they rage into a fire.
In high school, we see students becoming preoccupied with college acceptance earlier and earlier and trying to prematurely specialize athletically, academically and “extra-curricularly” to the extent that they are robbed of their teenage years. In our college counseling offices, we do promote early, proactive and thoughtful planning for the future. We encourage our students to aim high, but to focus on fit with a healthy dose of introspection, self-awareness and growth. When the college search becomes more an exercise of positioning and packaging and less about fit and fulfillment, then we are only fanning the flames.
How do we as educators and parents model perspective and balance and fit in the admission process? As a start, read Frank Bruni’s “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” It is a thoughtful and well-evidenced argument for maintaining equilibrium (and low blood pressure) when it comes to the college search.
When you are done reading Bruni’s book, I suggest another approach to the college admissions frenzy. You guessed it: mindfulness. Now admit it, when you read that word, you pictured a religious guru sitting high on a mountain in a robe, with legs crossed and incense burning. At least this is the picture my seniors painted for me when I solicited their feedback. It is likely that when one considers mindfulness the image is not of today’s teenager, sitting in a classroom with her hat on backwards wearing a Taylor Swift t-shirt.
What exactly is mindfulness? Simply, it is an intentional focus on bringing awareness to one’s immediate experience, including thoughts, emotions and senses. This can be done through breathing exercises, body scans and guided visualization/meditation, among other techniques. The truth is, no matter who one is or how one practices this secular form of self-awareness, it has been proven to decrease stress, depression and anxiety while improving academic performance, social relationships and healthy decision-making. We are living in an increasingly connected world where devices and other technological stimuli compete for our time and attention. It is now possible for virtually everything to be done faster and more efficiently. This progress has many benefits, but as Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “there is more to life than increasing in speed.” It seems that often the one thing we fail to be connected to is ourselves.
Just ask Dan Siegel, one of the keynote speakers at Omega’s Mindfulness in Education Conference, a gathering of leaders at the cutting edge of research, education and practice in this growing field. Mr. Siegel is a psychiatry professor at UCLA and director of both the Mindful Awareness Research Center and the Mindsight Institute. He is also the author of “Brainstorm” and “Mindsight,” among many other thought-provoking books. This brilliant father, therapist and educator is as comfortable exploring quantum physics as he is discussing thoughtful parenting. He has lectured for diverse audiences, from the pope and the Dalai Lama to kings and Google employees. Siegel’s work on Interpersonal Neural Biology explores the powerful ways in which mindfulness promotes integration and brain connectivity, which contribute to resilience and wellbeing. Heightened awareness and self-consciousness helps to regulate the flow of information to our brains and manage our reactions to stress and other external pressures.
Still not convinced? Then ask hip-hop artist, JusTme who works with the Mindful Life Project, teaching mindfulness to students in underserved school districts and communities in California. Using rap/hip-hop and lyrical composition, he helps young people embrace mindfulness as a way of navigating uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and pressures. Among others, his song, “Don’t Flip Your Lid,” is an engaging exploration of how our brains can get the best of us and it reminds us to breathe deep and stay tuned in to our minds and bodies. Along with the Mindful Schools organization, the Mindful Life Project provides a growing body of evidence that these practices lead to healthier, calmer, more integrated students who perform better academically and have fewer emotional concerns.
This sense of calm and balance is my hope for high school seniors and their parents as they approach the fall and the college application process. It can be a time of great joy, personal growth and interpersonal connection. By using tools of mindful awareness, one is better equipped to weather the highs and lows, the deadlines, the testing and the perceived enormity of this development stage. Before the flames spread, they will have the tools to extinguish the flare-ups. As educators, we also have a lot to learn and benefit from mindfulness in our daily lives and work with young people. Back in my office, I hang up the receiver, faced with many calls to return, emails to answer and details to attend to. The good news is the red emergency light has stopped throbbing on my phone. I take a deep breath, check in with myself, smile and move on. My lid is in tact and my extinguisher is ready.