I have heard some wonderful explanations of mindfulness. The writer and teacher Sylvia Boorstein calls it “awake attention to what is happening inside and outside so we can respond from a place of wisdom.” The Vietnamese Zen teacher and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “I like to define mindfulness as the energy that helps us to be there 100 percent. It is the energy of your true presence.” But my favorite definition comes from a fifth grader at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School in Oakland, California. 

In 2007, the school launched a pilot program that offered kids five weeks of mindfulness training from a coach who visited classrooms twice a week, leading 15-minute sessions on how to have “gentle breaths and still bodies.” The students trained their attention by focusing on their breath and noting the emotions that arose. The coach also asked them to cultivate compassion by reflecting—“taking a moment”—before lashing out at someone on the playground. “I was losing at baseball and I was about to throw a bat,” one boy told his class, according to The New York Times. “The mindfulness really helped.” 

The reporter asked another boy participating in the program to describe mindfulness. It’s “not hitting someone in the mouth,” he said. 

His answer is wise, wide, and deep. It illustrates one of the most important uses of mindfulness: helping us deal with difficult emotions. It suggests the possibility of finding the gap between a trigger event and our usual conditioned response to it, and using that pause to collect ourselves and change our response. And it demonstrates that we can learn to make better choices. 

“He doesn’t know what to do with his energy,” the student’s mother said at a parents’ meeting. He was, she explained, usually quick to strike out when he was confused or frustrated. But mindfulness training was changing that pattern. “One day after school he told me, ‘I’m taking a moment.’” 

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