Was my favorite line from this poem. Slowing down. Quiet. Calm. Patience. Ease, Peace and harmony. These, to me, are the blessings of slow time.
I loved how Chris opened by connecting this poem to the breath. Without breathing, we would all immediately die – and yet we somehow so often take this basic biological function completely for granted while living. The way we breathe is intricately connected with the way we think. Rapid breathing is usually accompanied by quick, unfocused and often angry or fearful thoughts. Slow, deep breathing is associated with serenity of thought.
Fortunately, simply learning to breathe deeply, through the nose, can do wonders for one’s overall mental and physical well-being in any given moment. I remember learning in my yoga teacher training how the emotions are not stored in the mind, as we often think, but rather in the stomach. I notice how people hold in their stomachs when inhaling, and just in general in our culture, though the proper way of breathing is to expand the stomach when inhaling and let it naturally fall when exhaling. This is similar to how so many in the western world in particular hold in and repress so many emotions, whether they be negative or positive.
In my mindfulness/meditation class in juvenile hall, we have an activity that explores this. It’s called “Dropping the Water Line” and uses the metaphor of an iceberg for its expression and execution. Like in the case of Titanic, only 10% of an iceberg is visible on the surface of an ocean. 90% lurks below the surface. Like the iceberg, so much of our emotional states tend to be hidden from the outside world. For inmates, they say that it often feels like the only acceptable emotion they can express is anger. Imagine what it is like to project anger all the time! Fear, vulnerability, confusion, frustration, sadness, despair and even love and happiness are all the emotions my students identify as being hidden in the base of the iceberg.
After facilitating this iceberg exercise this week, I invited my young male students to ‘drop the water line,’ so to speak, and to feel free to express what they were going through on a deeper level. They accepted, and the stories and experiences they shared were truly touching.
One boy talked about the experience of losing his uncle to gang conflict and how sad and angry he felt that he never had a chance to say good-bye or attend his uncle’s funeral.
Another shared about the pressure and responsibility he had to shoulder in looking after his younger siblings when his mother walked out on his alcoholic father. About the pain he feels in not being in contact with them. The fear that they could follow in his footsteps and end up incarcerated as well.
Yet another boy opened up about recently discovering that one of his good friends had been shot in a gang shoot-out. How he wished he could cry about it, but, as the others attested to, the dangers of letting down one’s guard in such a place.
All these young men are in San Mateo Juvenile Hall’s long-term unit, with quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding their futures. They are all sentenced, but could, at any time, be transferred to a group home, jail-like camp or even, in the worst cases, to the horrors of adult prison.
I have, up to this point, been co-facilitating these classes with my co-teacher Sam, an amazing person who has himself been incarcerated seven times as a youth! Sam is working on his Ph.D. in psychology and now transitioning into program management for MBA Project, the organization we both teach through. He is thus training me now to become the lead instructor at San Mateo hall.
One obstacle I have occasionally faced in teaching thus far has been talking too much and too fast, in an attempt to keep the youths’ attention (and due to some performance anxiety). In leading this session and last, however, I have found that placing myself, through mindfulness and meditation practice, in ‘slow time,’ has made a world of a difference. I have, as the poem suggests doing, drawn alongside the ‘silence of stone’ and let its calmness completely claim me. I think it is this calmness that enables the youth to open up and trust me with some of their deepest, darkest experiences.
I was really honored last week when the head of the hall joined the class I led. Prior to the session, he had warned me that I couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. By its conclusion, he was ready to come back again, start meditating and offered to support us fully and unconditionally, particularly in dealing with unsupportive staff. He commented on how just closing his eyes to experience the sensation of his breath at the tip of his nostrils enabled him to enter a space of the deepest tranquility he had felt in a long time.
After last week’s class, the youth all shared how they felt much closer to each other, having listened deeply to and holding space for moments of true sharing and vulnerability. We feel closer to one another to the extent that we are willing to put down our masks, it seems. I could relate to much of the sorrow the youth shared, in terms of shouldering adult-like responsibilities as a child and having lost close relatives who I never had a chance to say good-bye to or attend the funerals of. There was equally, however, a feeling of immense joy in being able to connect with each other on a deeper level, much as we feel in coming together at the Wednesday evening meditation sessions. The illusion of isolation and aloneness dissolves and we all indeed, feel and become as one.
This pervasive joy was particularly present after we closed the session by meditating on our breath, feeling our connectedness to ourselves and one another. One boy, who has struggled with a smoking addiction, excitedly likened the experience to that of a ‘natural high!’ I couldn’t agree more.
In Yoga, there is a Sanskrit word, amrita, which translates to the sweetness of the fruits, or nectar, of sadhana (spiritual practice), which my student experienced during this class. This teaching experience was, to me, one of the joy that dwells far within slow time.
Note: You can learn more about my teaching experiences with MBA Project by reading a previous post: “The Highest Yoga.“