Five years ago on Memorial Day I had a ‘moment’. Since then I have built a curriculum. I call it a curriculum because I don’t know what else to call it. There are actually three parts: Check IN, Movement.Breath.Kindness., and STuFfeD: Self-Care 101. I am building the first part, the Check IN, into a course on Udemy – one step at at time. This is the first step: Course Intro. It may change. I wanted to post it because of the timeliness – Memorial Day. I don’t mean to devalue the meaning of the day by suggesting it is just a way to mark time in my own story. Although I suppose that is what I am doing.
I write this Intro on Memorial Day 2017. Memorial Day can hold a superficial marking of an ending. Particularly for those who work in school systems. Five years ago on this ‘ending’ I was staying at a friend’s house in Golden, dog sitting for the holiday weekend. My belongings were in storage to be moved into an unknown ‘whereabout’ sometime in August, I had literally just ended a relationship of one and a half years via text message (albeit because I couldn’t stop crying), and as of June 1 I would be renting a ‘cabin’ (home) in Breckenridge for the next two months.
To say I was ‘escaping’ to the mountains would not have been all that misleading. Okay. I was escaping to the mountains. Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave my head in Denver. Months earlier I had sworn to begin teaching the teens I worked with real and authentic skills to support their emotional needs. The problem was I didn’t know what those skills were. I could see in each student a light, I felt their ‘truth’. I trusted this instinct wholeheartedly. I also knew that what I was so confident in knowing about them, I could not see or feel in myself. There was an unspoken irony in the multiple suicide assessments I had completed over the previous five years. What was I suggesting by way of example that they live for? Was this adulthood such bliss that they simply couldn’t possibly know what they were missing?
I recognized that if I could find the ‘skills’ that supported my own path to a better feeling life, I could teach those same skills to the students. At the time, the only real skills that seemed to support this existential angst (masked as ‘depression’, and often in the kids case showed up with its close friend ‘anxiety’) were part of a therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, better known as DBT. I reference DBT based off of my exposure to students who had been hospitalized or transferred to 72 hour holds for some level of suicidal ideation or self harm. These students tended to come back with ‘participate in a DBT group’ as part of their treatment plan. At the time I recall this being greatly disturbing because the closest DBT group was over thirty minutes away. Basically, the support system for students in need via outside resources didn’t seem like it existed aside from marijuana and other unsustainable, and often quite harmful, self soothing behaviors.
DBT had one unrecognizable skill. It was something called mindfulness. I had no idea what this was. I figured I would focus on the other skill sets that made more sense like emotion regulation (I translated this to be anxiety reduction), distress tolerance (at least I knew what each word meant – I could figure it out), and interpersonal effectiveness (okay, this must be social skills?).
I can’t remember where I found the book aptly named: Mindfulness. It might have been at a Summit County library. I must have bought it and I remember it being ‘Used’. Anyway, I know the name of the book obviously jumped out at me. It was that word. What was it? What is this mindfulness and how is it a stand alone skill that had a book written about it? The someone that wrote this book was Thich Nhat Hanh. A Vietnamese monk who I often refer to as a peace activist.
I can’t say that book held much intrigue for me that summer. It was interpreted and written at what seemed like an early grade level. Translation? Mindfulness really isn’t something you read about, it’s something you practice, something you experience. Over the course of that summer and to date, the exposure to this practice has monumentally changed how I experience ordinary, daily life. It’s something happening inside of me (and…) it’s something quite difficult to articulate with language and words.
The summer had made such an impact on my ‘inner experience’ – (I’m telling you…it’s hard to articulate with words). I knew I needed to begin teaching what I had learned. For the first time I didn’t hesitate and limit what I could share based on not having a proper license or certification. I had an introduction to Brain Gym and began with those concepts in a circle with students who were at risk of dropping out. That January I began a class at the alternative school I worked part time at. I based that class off the Top 20 Teens ‘See.Feel.Do.Get’ formula.
At this point I could shift this Intro into a tale of potentially gut busting comedic tales that come in retrospect to what was at the time great suffering and total confusion. I did not know what I was doing. I just knew I needed to do it. I can tell many stories (now seen in a humorous light) of facing brick wall after brick wall as far as assuming that I actually already had a curriculum. Not recognizing that I was on a journey of bringing many scattered pieces together.
There is one thing I can say with certainty. As I developed this curriculum, I never faced overt opposition. In the very first course I offered at the alternative school, one student suggested the concept I was exploring was linked to religion. He was adamant about being Atheist. I can’t recall how I responded. I knew I was operating from a neutral, inclusive space. I simply was. Whatever I was after was not linked to any sort of personal ideology whether it be science, philosophy, or religion. I had no attachment to a particular method or even outcome necessarily. Generally speaking, in regard to an outcome, at the time I wanted to end school shootings and death by suicide. I was a school social worker – what kept me awake at night?
As the course grew, there was always some quiet indifference and non participation by choice (I would allow the students to quietly listen to music through one ear bud, color, sketch, or write), but there was never full on resistance. I suppose I set that up. Or, I set up a time for reflection. To just…be. Which is really what mindfulness is (to allow yourself to be with what is without judgement, comparison, or criticism…you are the observer). The first time I taught a class I thought it was a semester but it was set up as a quarter class. The first day of the new quarter a student from the first class came in and sat down. I told him that the schedules changed and he had completed the course. He looked at me with some level of disdain and said, ‘What?….this was the only time I could ever relax!’ Honestly, I can’t really remember exactly what he said. You get the point.
The Check IN was built over the last five years. It is 8 steps to the I Am space. The I Am space is where creativity, inspiration, and possibility lives. This feeling is expansive (more big than small), light (in brevity and for some, literally), and flowing (as opposed to stuck). I call it I Am because of the I Am poem I read of my niece when she was in grade school. I loved her poem yet it was clear that all that really mattered was…I Am. I capitalize the A in Am because I just do. It seems right. All it means is that there is a space inside where there is no ‘and then what’. When I am just reacting to life I make choices often that seem satisfying in the moment, but then what? In the I Am space it just is.
I can’t say what this space is for you. My journey led me from the high school level to grade school. I rarely use the term mindfulness. Rather I focus on the social emotional skills of self awareness, emotional regulation or self management, and social awareness. Largely, I use the words Compassion (as violence prevention), Belonging (as suicide prevention), and Kindness (as bully prevention).
These skills or practices are personal. They are facilitated as opposed to being directly taught. I tend to call this ‘experiential’. This happens best from a state of being. The Check IN is a way to support facilitating skills to others, that work for you first. I am a huge advocate for self-care. It’s in the space of self love where we intuitively know the next step. And really, isn’t that all we ever need to take?