Most of us in the UK have an idea of what an American summer camp is like: swimming, hi- jinks, Patrick Swayze in 'Dirty Dancing'. So when I was approached to teach Mindfulness in Schools Project's '.b' at a family camp in New Hampshire this August, I was intrigued. .b (which stands for 'stop, breathe and be') was developed in the UK to introduce the principles of mindfulness in school settings. How would the two experiences mix together?
On the first night, all teachers pitched their courses to the assembled group and it quickly became apparent there was an appetite for learning mindfulness - and not just from the teens.
The camp was originally founded for religious education teachers by the Northern New England School of Religious Education (NNESRE). Over the years it has morphed into an organisation with a commitment to offering a socially responsible, stimulating educational programme to participants, who range in age from teens to late 80s. As an English mindfulness teacher, teaching a UK model which owes a good deal of its existence to Jon Kabat-Zinn's original MBSR course, first taught in a Boston hospital setting in the 1970s, this felt a little like 'taking coals to Newcastle'; how would British idioms and vocabulary meet this audience; what cultural considerations did I need to be aware of?
On day one I hit a hiccup. What's American for 'torch'? 'Flashlight' apparently. My class was taught in a bright, open barn so using a torch/flashlight to demonstrate how we can direct our attention presented a challenge. I overcame this by throwing a book across the room to show how easily our attention is diverted!
The group ranged in age from 13 to 83 years, all keen to learn about mindfulness and all amused by my vocabulary; 'two nations divided by a common language', as they say.
However, mindfulness concepts deal with universal issues so, after playing with and explaining some terms, we began to look at how to train attention, adopting an attitude of curiosity and kindness to whatever is going on in our minds, dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, developing the ability to respond rather than react, and step off those 'thought buses' that carry us along.
The .b course incorporates simple practices such as a short seated body scan - 'FOFBOC' or Feet on Floor, Bum on Chair and 'Beditation' (a 15 minute body scan, specifically intended to help teenagers sleep) which we practised in our morning sessions and at later drop-in sessions.
As the week progressed the language of mindfulness seeped into the camp. Queuing for breakfast I would hear people talking about 'taking a mindful breather', before the mile long 'Winni Swimmi' - some of the swimmers practiced a breathing space to calm their nerves. It seemed that 300 people were all finding the short practices useful.
During our classes the participants shared with me how these early practices were beginning to help them: a 13 year-old keen to study and develop concentration, the 20 year-old student whose anxiety gets in the way of exam performance, the retired professor whose voluntary work in hospitals can be emotionally challenging, and the union organiser who is looking for ways to support his membership.
Learning simple techniques such as simply feeling the feet on the floor, and so switching into sensing mode rather than thinking mode when faced with difficulty, was a technique they all felt they could use. I was deeply moved to hear how this could help when faced with the racism which, despite many accomplishments, one of my class experienced almost daily.
Back in the UK now, I feel so grateful for the opportunity to deliver these techniques and lessons to a wonderful bunch of people who, in their own ways, will be taking some of their .b learning out into their own environments.
Students at Yale will be feeling their feet on the floor before opening an exam paper, the wonderful 68 year old hospital volunteer will practice a calming '7/11' breathing exercise before dealing with a distraught family, and my 13 year old friend will recognise his anxiety and get off that difficult 'thought bus' before he enters his new school in September.
As for me; I learned far more than I taught. Mindfulness has the potential to support us all, whatever our age, employment, culture or race. Although there may be cultural differences, we all face similar difficulties and issues. It seems that more than being for the ' flourishing of young minds' the .b programme can offer everyone valuable lessons.
I can't wait to continue my teaching and learning at Camp Winni next year.
Jo Bentley works with the Mindfulness in Schools Project and teaches mindfulness to both adults and students in the UK.
Mindfulness in Schools Project is a not-for-profit organisation specialising in mindfulness training for school communities - not only the pupils but the teachers, parents and others who care for them. For more information, please visit http://mindfulnessinschools.org/