(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
I joined the Jade Room for morning meditation on the last day of school before summer vacation.
The Jade Room is a classroom of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at Cambridge Montessori School. Three years ago, a former Jade room teacher responded to a particularly “spirited” (educator code for “rambunctious”) class by instituting daily morning meditation sessions. The class starts the school year by sitting for 30 seconds, and work their way up to a full three minutes by the end of the school year.
The attendance taker turned off the lights, and we arranged ourselves on the floor in a circle. Mary, the Jade Room teacher, asked everyone to sit in a comfortable upright position. Our first intention for the day was to close our eyes and keep them closed. Mary rang a chime and instructed us to check in with each zone in the body for relaxation and stillness. As Mary took us through a body scan, my phone buzzed in my pocket, and I prayed to Buddha that my neighbors couldn’t hear it. I broke my first intention, peeking to make sure the sound went unnoticed. (The coast was clear.)
The second intention of the day was to breathe deeply with the goal of centering ourselves. Mary struck the chime again, and instructed us to go through breath cycles at our own pace. I noticed a few voices outside in the hallway, but inside, the classroom was quiet. After two minutes, Mary rang the chime a third time, indicating that 30 seconds remained. Then she closed the round by ringing the chime three times in succession, asking us to inhale and then exhale deeply.
“When you’re ready, bring your awareness back to our classroom,” she said. The lights were turned on, and then Mary mentioned that I had some questions for the group and handed the class over to me.
I began by explaining a little bit about my personal history with practice. Then I fired away. “So,” I said, “You guys have been doing this for the whole year. Do you think it has helped you in any way?”
The class was quiet at first. Then a brave fourth grader raised his hand. “If we have too much energy it helps calm me down and get us ready for the day.”
A sixth grade boy piped up: “It also helps us concentrate on what we need to do and helps our mindset become more about our work instead of about talking to our friends.”
“I see,” I said. “Do you know where meditation came from?”
“It came from monks and Buddhism and other religions that believe in peace and peacefulness,” answered a boy who grew up in a Tibetan Buddhist household.
This answer seemed comprehensive enough for all. It was followed by crickets.
“OK,” I said. “Listen, you guys can be completely honest in answering these questions. There is no right or wrong answer. If you think it is a complete waste of time you can say so.” And the floodgates opened.
“Sometimes I think it’s a complete waste of time, and I want to get on with the day, but many times it helps me calm myself,” said a fifth grader.
Another fifth grader: “Sometimes I come in over-energized and it helps.”
A sixth grader: “It helps if I have actual energy, but if I come in tired it makes me want to go to sleep.”
A sixth grader: “I don’t think it works in here because people breathe too loudly.”
A fifth grader: “If I had a bad morning, if I didn’t sleep enough, it helps bring me down.”
A fourth grader: “I do feel like it’s a little bit of a waste of time. We could do it individually if we needed to.”
A fifth grader: “I just like closing my eyes and taking deep breaths. Sometimes it does help me get ready for the day.”
A sixth grader: “We learned when studying the respiratory system that exhaling takes longer than inhaling.”
Another sixth grader: “If you hurt your finger or any part of your body, not making faces and taking deep breaths helps calm your mind set.”
“Do you guys think you will keep meditating after you leave the Jade Room?” I asked.
“I do martial arts and before we start we do meditation or deep breathing.”
“Probably not nearly as regularly. Maybe sometimes.”
“Maybe before big events, like gymnastics.”
“If I’m completely nervous or stressed out about something.”
“Before I have to take a test.”
“Hmm,” I said. “So it sounds like something you might be able to use when you need to. All right, last question: what is . . . enlightenment?”
“It’s when you’ve understood what life is and you have a sense of how everything is gonna be and you attain enlightenment by having that wisdom,” said the Tibetan Buddhist.
Once again, this answer was comprehensive enough for all.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, thanks guys.”
I left the room and began to reflect on our morning meditation session. When I started teaching at Cambridge Montessori School nine years ago, most of the kids in the Jade Room were crawling. At that time, meditating in a classroom might have seemed like a fringe idea employed by a few rogue teachers. Now, as mindfulness becomes increasingly mainstream, the idea isn’t so wild. Taking time each day to be practice being in the moment is now more familiar for my students than it is foreign.
And I found sitting with the Jade Room was a refreshing break from my own practice, the 30-minute rounds that I often take too seriously. It was a reminder that practice can come in a variety of containers, and can be accessible to all ages. Unless, of course, people are breathing too loudly.
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