I spent the last week of March in South Dakota at Todd County Middle School within the Rosebud Native American Reservation. Slack-Librium got booked to teach a week’s worth of slackline & mindfulness programming during gym classes & after-school. The experience was nothing short of incredible, from it’s inception all the way through to it’s execution. We got connected with the school through a friend that we met last summer in Berea, Kentucky (shoutout to Playthink Flow Arts Festival!). A few months later, emails started to be exchanged, and before we knew it we were renting a cargo van & embarking on the 20 hour journey from Asheville to Rosebud.
This was my first time visiting a Native American Reservation, & being introduced and immersed into their culture is an experience that I could write about for a long time, but with this post I want to focus in on just one simple interaction that became the standout highlight of my trip. This interaction was only one small part of our 9-day expedition, but for me, it encompassed the spirit of the entire trip…
Towards the end of one class period, as most students were slacklining with their friends, I noticed one student standing off to the side – arms crossed & unengaged. While I would love for everyone to participate and enjoy slacklining, the reality is that there will always be at least a few students who don’t want to… and I don’t view it as my job to make them do it. At the end of the day, my main message to the students is that they are in control of what they choose to focus on in each moment. They can choose to focus on slacklining, or they can choose to focus on something else. I make it a point not to force students to do anything – because ultimately I can’t. I can provide opportunities & I can encourage them to participate, but they are the ones who will need to choose to be engaged. Knowing that I couldn’t force this student into participation, I approached him with the intention of encouraging him to try slacklining at least once before the end of class.
My initial impression of this student was that he thought he was “too cool” to participate. I had never met or talked with this student before, but just by observing his body language I created a vision in my mind of who I thought he was and how he would respond to me. To be completely honest, I thought he would shut me down & remain off to the side. It would have been easy for me to simply ignore him, and focus on the students who were participating. I’m so glad that I made the effort to talk to him, because it turns out that my initial impression of this student was completely wrong.
I approached him and asked if he had tried slacklining yet. He looked at me but didn’t respond. “Will you give it a try just one time? You don’t get the opportunity to slackline every day,” I said. He responded, “I’m not feeling very good today.” I saw that response as an opening – he was willing to engage with me on at least a basic level. “That’s ok, I understand. Do you mind if I talk to you for a few minutes,” I asked him. He nodded his head, allowing me to continue speaking with him. The next few minutes were an experience of pure vulnerability between myself & this student. I walked him through one of the mindfulness activities that I was sharing with the classes, and he listened to me.
“We start with a glass of water, filled to the middle of the glass, and I’m sure you’ve heard the question before – is the glass half full or half empty? The answer is, it depends on your perspective. Well, I’ve got a different question for you. How heavy is the glass? The answer to that is that it doesn’t matter – it’s a trick question. What matters is how long you hold the glass for. Whether the glass weighs 5 oz or 15 oz, if you hold it for one minute you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. If you hold the glass for one hour, though, regardless of how much it weighs, your arm is going to hurt. And if you hold the glass for 24 hours, your arm will literally be paralyzed – even if it only weighs one ounce.”
“In this story, the glass represents your mind, and the water represents negative emotions & feelings. Throughout our lives, we’re all going to feel negative emotions, and at times our “glass” will be filled to the brim. That’s normal, and it’s a good thing to feel these emotions. What we need to watch out for is how long we choose to hold onto them. If you hold onto your negative emotions for a few minutes or an hour you’ll be alright, but if you spend all day focusing on them you’ll end up in a pretty bad mood. Sometimes you need to remember to dump the glass out and start fresh.”
As I finished telling this story, I saw a single tear drop from this student’s eye. I knew that he was listening to me, and I knew that this had some sort of effect on him. I finished up the “lesson,” by telling him about mantras. Mantra is a sanskrit term that can be translated as “Mind Protector.” The idea behind mantras is to silently repeat a word or phrase in your mind & focus all of your attention onto that word or phrase. If you are focusing your attention on your mantra, then you can’t be focusing on anything else – including negative emotions. If you focus on your mantra, you can “protect your mind.” After I finished, I thanked the student for hearing me out and told him I was going to grab a drink from the water fountain. When I came back I asked him one more time – “Do you want to hop on a slackline now?” To my surprise – he said yes.
I walked with him over to a slackline and gave him some basic tips. On his first try he took a pretty big fall. I was nervous that he wouldn’t rebound from that, but he got back up and gave it a few more tries. Ultimately, he decided that he didn’t really want to keep trying, but I was beyond appreciative that he gave it a chance in the first place. I spent the rest of the gym class talking to this student – about life, video games, school, future career plans. He completely opened up, visibly shifted into a good mood, and was excited about the things we were talking about. I gave him all of my attention for the rest of the class – our conversation became his mantra – shifting his attention away from being in a bad mood and towards something more positive. This may not have been your typical mantra practice, but it had the same effect. This student regained control of their ability to direct their attention, and shifted their focus away from something negative and towards something positive.This experience, to me, shows the true value of mindfulness education, and of what we are trying to instill with Slack-Librium. I don’t need a research study to show me the clear effect that this practice had on this student. I watched it happen right before my eyes, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that opportunity.