Meditation in a Utah School
Students are practicing meditation in the unlikeliest of places: a small public school in rural southeastern Utah, USA. Encouraged by a once-a-week meditation group, students have learned to relax, pay attention to their breath and decrease negative emotions.
How it Began
In 2005, my supervisor at the Utah State Office of Education asked me to give a presentation on “contemplative counseling” at the 2005 School Counselors’ Summer Conference in Salt Lake City. A Shambhala Buddhist since 1974, I began by writing about Buddhist theory. Then I realized that people didn’t need to hear about theory. They needed to hear about how to work with their minds. The workshop, called “Meditation as a Tool for Counselors,” was well received. Encouraged by this, I began laying the groundwork for a student meditation group in Moab, where I worked as a middle school counselor.
The Meditation Group
I led the meditation group during the 2007-2008 school year. Any middle school student could volunteer to be in the group, subject to parental approval. We met as a group in my spacious office once a week for 50 minutes.
Each Tuesday, students came in, sat down, chatted a bit and filled out a self-assessment. On a one-to-five scale, students assessed their current levels of stress, concentration and motivation, and also circled their current emotional states from a menu of 16 items, including happy, angry, relaxed, anxious, normal and “all over the place.”
Then I began to lead students in a guided meditation: “Sit up straight. Put your hands somewhere and keep them there. Don’t fold your arms. Your eyes can be open or closed. Pay attention to how your breath feels when it goes in and out. Just bring your attention back to this.” I deliberately kept meditation sessions short at first, gradually increasing the time to 20 or 25 minutes as the year progressed. Students then talked some more, and often I led another brief meditation session. Then students filled out the same self-assessment again before returning to class.
At the end of the school year, I totaled the numerical values students gave to stress, concentration and motivation. I compared the totals from before and after meditating, and found that stress levels decreased by 30%, concentration went up 21% and motivation increased by 10%!
I also added up and compared the number of times students circled each emotional state. Every positive quality or state went up, and every negative one went down. The biggest disparity occurred in the number of times students circled “relaxed”—43 before meditating and 119 after!
I was totally shocked by the numbers; I wasn’t expecting such categorically positive results. Even more surprising, though, were the intangibles: parents were supportive and encouraging, invariably allowing their children to participate in this group. Students were not only able to meditate (I wasn’t sure they could slow down enough to sit still), but they took to it like ducks to water. The students kept coming back, week after week; the meditation group wasn’t just another quickly-discarded fad.
The most surprising aspect of all, however, was the change in the behavior of students before and after meditating. As if by magic, these middle school students discovered decorum. There was none of the typical middle school teasing. Students were actually listening to one another. They were acting like human beings!
The group was an educational experience for me. I began to feel I’d been selling students short. I hadn’t been seeing their humanity simply because I hadn’t given them the opportunity to touch into the moment, to be their fully human selves.
All photos by author