After 20 students assumed a meditative position with feet flat on the floor, backs straight, and eyes closed or gazes averted, Stan Eisenstein began preparing them to absorb meditation and mindfulness teachings during a recent class.
"Get a sense of yourself, here in this room," he instructed the group. "Bring your awareness right here, right now.
"You've been running around school all day. Feel yourself sitting in your chair, and get a little bit of a sense of your mood and feelings right this minute. Bring awareness to your breath. Feel the rising and falling of your chest, the air coming in and out of your nostrils."
Eisenstein next asked the students to think of statements about being kind to oneself, such as, "I deserve to feel safe from inner and outer harm" and "I deserve to know peace."
"Any other phrases that work for you, send them to yourself now," he said.
After that exercise, the teacher asked who in the class has trouble saying positive things to themselves, and half of the students raised their hands.
Junior Sara Suhrcke said, "When I'm in a more negative state of mind, it's harder to get that focus on breathing and on my feet," a technique the students have learned to help themselves feel grounded.
"It's OK to feel bad; emotions come and go," the instructor replied. "Allowing a bad mood is saying, 'This is just where I am right now.' There's an old saying: 'What we resist, persists.' "
Next he read a set of four facts, one at a time, and asked what each one meant and how subsequent facts altered the ones before them.
"Every thought is a seed of fact surrounded by a whole shell of interpretation," Eisenstein said. "When we run into trouble is when we believe [those thoughts] and we think we know what's going on."
Junior Charles Regnante said that after he has a negative thought and then reconsiders its validity, as the class was taught to do, "for one second I feel really bad, and then the next second I have a good feeling."
"You turned around the belief," Eisenstein said. "Asking 'Where would I be without that thought?' puts cracks in that belief."
After leading more discussion on similar topics, the instructor began to prepare students to wind down. He directed them resume a meditative position, turn their attention to their breathing and think of their thoughts as clouds — sometimes they're light and fluffy, and sometimes they're dark and stormy, yet we can watch them "float across the landscape of our minds."
"We generate 10,000 thoughts every single day, and most go totally unnoticed," Eisenstein said. "We tend to believe our thoughts, but we need to recognize that we don't necessarily have to do that. We can have more control."
After class, junior Joanna Ye called the class "really refreshing" and said she had "learned a lot of little tricks to cope with everyday pressures."
Two students have discovered applications for the strategies that extend beyond dealing with academic stress. Sophomore Anya Vaughn, who participates in a number of music classes and activities, said she is applying her newfound skills to playing the trumpet. Jessie Link, a senior volleyball player, said she's "a pretty stressed person" but now finds she's calmer when it comes to pregame jitters.
Lucas Dittman said he's been "extremely stressed out" so far during his senior year as he prepares to attend Lehigh University this fall. He uses mindfulness skills a lot before studying or doing homework and finds that he is "reinvigorated."
Eisenstein said later that not every student will immediately get every piece of what's he's teaching them about mindfulness.
"We have to train ourselves. … It doesn't come naturally," he said. "But the more you do it, the easier it gets."