Madame Kinney Answers Your Mindfulness Questions

Olivia Ballet and Maisie Zipfel

Stress is a part of human life, but during a pandemic, it is only natural that those levels of stress increase. The coronavirus pandemic has changed every aspect of our lives and the negative mental effects will have a long-lasting impact. A representative study of Americans shows that 55% more people reported higher stress levels in May compared to their stress levels in March. That being said, it is scientifically proven that the practice of mindfulness and meditation can help lower stress levels, along with a string of other mental and physical illnesses. Mindfulness is a specific technique originating from Buddhist traditions. This practice was quite common in the East long before it started to become popularized in the Western Hemisphere. Mindfulness is a way of thinking, behaving, and perceiving one’s own emotions. The purpose of this technique is to notice present thoughts, feelings, and other internal sensations without judgment. In the past few decades, public interest in meditative practices has skyrocketed. This can most likely be attributed to the increased attention meditation has been getting from a scientific standpoint. Whether one suffers from diagnosed depression or simply struggles with everyday stress levels, mindfulness can be of benefit. Developing a specific mindfulness practice or routine has been scientifically proven to provide a large spectrum of positive benefits for the mind, body, and soul. It benefits those with a large variety of physical and mental conditions, including psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological functioning can be greatly improved due to regular mindfulness instruction, which in turn reduces the negative effects of stress and trauma-associated symptoms. With these benefits in mind, many JBS teachers have begun to incorporate mindfulness practices into their daily teachings. A teacher who strongly believes in the benefits of mindfulness and incorporates these practices often to aid their students is Madame Kinney. We interviewed Madame Kinney on what mindfulness means to her, how it can aid in throughout finals, and why she chooses to teach mindfulness in her classes, particularly in tenth-grade Diversity Seminar.

Q: How would you define mindfulness?

A: Mindfulness, at its core, is about anchoring us to the present moment. It sounds simple, but it is really profound. In any given moment, our minds and our emotions are often bouncing around– thinking about, remembering, imagining, emotionally responding to, or stressing about events from the past or imagined/predicted situations that have yet to come. This is totally human, but is largely unproductive from a moment-to-moment perspective. It is really important to reflect on the past and to plan for the future, but we cannot spend all day doing that or we never actually live and experience daily life in the present moment.

Q: How do you feel that the practice of mindfulness can help students, knowing that many are stressed and preparing for their finals?

A: So how does this relate to finals? While you are studying or actually taking a final exam, it is not helpful to be worried about things that have already happened, (the test you took the day before, an argument you had with a friend last week, the weird dream you had last night) nor is it helpful to be anxious about a future you can’t possibly predict (what happens if you fail, how that conversation you have to have with someone is going to be so awful, what is winter break going to be like during the pandemic). The only thing you can actually control is right here in front of you: the test on the desk. And if you are worried about the past or anxious about the future, less of your mental energy is being properly allocated to the test, project, or assignment in front of you. It would be easy to say, ‘just focus!,’ but our minds wander naturally and mindfulness trains us to be able to return to the present moment over and over again.

Q: Are there any other benefits of mindfulness that are important to you or that you would like to shed light on?

A: The other benefit of mindfulness is that it actually helps you confront discomfort that is real and present, and can help you disarm it when appropriate.  Mindfulness not only anchors your mind to the present moment, but also to your emotional and physical self. By clearing out the past and the present, you can tune in to what you are really feeling in the moment. By simply naming an uncomfortable physical or emotional sensation, you are much more able to face it and disarm it, if possible. Here’s an example: Let’s say you choose to close your eyes for a few moments right before taking a final exam. You take a few slow deep breaths, you quiet the busyness of your mind, and you focus on how the breath is entering and exiting your body. Then you notice your stomach feels a little queasy and your chest feels a little tight. You notice that. You say to yourself “My stomach feels a little queasy and I notice my chest feels a little tight. That must be how stress feels to me today.” By simply acknowledging those feelings, they have less power. You are able to acknowledge them and move on to the test. In some cases, you might be able to calm them just by noticing them and breathing. Even if you can’t change them at all, noticing these discomforts usually disarms them in a way. The most overwhelming feelings in life are those we can’t identify or explain, so by simply identifying the physical sensations of stress, you should be able to focus more on the test at hand.

Q: We are both in your 10th grade Diversity Seminar, and our class practices mindfulness quite often. Why do you choose to teach mindfulness and what benefits do you see from it?

A: I choose to teach mindfulness to students in the 10th grade seminar for a number of reasons, in addition to all of those I’ve outlined above. First, it is just one of many self care tools I can provide for students. Whether it is the accumulated trauma of being in a marginalized body in our society, the stress of having to code switch many times throughout the day, the challenge of navigating teenage relationships, or the pressure to do well academically in a rigorous environment during a pandemic, I know that every one of my students has multiple stressors in their life and is in need of ways to cope with difficult emotions. Mindfulness is just one more tool they can add to their toolkit of accessible and healthy self care options. Additionally, the seminar is largely about developing empathy and the skills to listen to the experiences of others. Without first tuning into ourselves, examining the thoughts, emotions, and feelings that are clouding our minds in any given moment, and taking care of our own needs, we can’t possibly show up empathetically for others. So mindfulness helps us do that. Finally, mindfulness can help us interrupt our unconscious biases. When we properly sift out the past and imagined future, we are left with a truer, more objective observation of the situation at hand. Rather than relying on stereotypes and reacting immediately to a situation, we are actually able to look honestly at the person or situation in front of us, take a breath, and respond according to our values and the data we have, rather than our biases.

Q: Any last thoughts on the importance and application of mindfulness, perhaps in everyday life?

A: The reasons I’ve outlined above actually apply to everyday life, not just for students going through finals. Studies show that one of the biggest indicators of happiness is the degree to which we are tuned into our daily activities. It doesn’t actually matter what we are doing, but if we are actually focused on doing it, we are much happier. Additionally, we spend so much time focusing our energy both on the external world and on the virtual world that mindfulness helps us return to our bodies. We forget our bodies so often during the day and it is so helpful to ground ourselves in the actual physical experience of being alive and moving through our days.