When the stay-at-home order was issued, the Mindful Teacher Foundation (MTF) wanted to help. They looked at the long list of restrictions and realized that one thing they could do was offer online mindfulness sessions to their 130 alumni who had participated in their Mindful Teacher, Mindful Kids program. They wanted to support educators, but they had not offered online sessions previously. MTF had questions: would anyone attend? Would it work?
They created “A Mindful Moment Online” and people attended. Jason Scott, MTF Board President, knew that mindfulness practice reduces stress; the research has confirmed that, but they noticed something else. Meghan Kirkpatrick, Director of Development at MTF, said, “I’ll admit, I was shocked during the first couple of sessions to see people being open, vulnerable, real, present.”
As they saw powerful connections being made during their first couple of sessions, they decided to offer the sessions to the general public. Also, Kirkpatrick pointed out that because of the stay-at-home order, parents had to assume the role of teacher. As the number of participants grew, would these connections continue?
The first time they opened an online session to the public, there were people on the Zoom call saying hello and noting that they hadn’t seen one another in years. People reconnected during a time of social distancing. It was a good sign. One hundred people have expressed interest in attending the online sessions. MTF currently averages around 25 participants per session. Beginning June 2nd, MTF doubled the number of sessions they offered per week and they will continue to assess need and interest to create future programming.
The online session I attended on Thursday, May 28th was appropriate for anyone who is brand new to the practice of mindfulness. Although, as Scott noted, mindfulness is more of a household word today than it was in 2012 when they began working to form the non-profit. Scott also pointed out that mindfulness isn’t something you ever stop learning, so graduates of Mindful Teacher, Mindful Kids may continue to benefit from guided meditations and reflection.
Karen Retzer and Mia Donovan led the session. We were first asked to enter one word into the chat that described how we felt in that moment. There were a variety of responses: interrupted, overwhelmed, excited, eager. It seemed that the most common response was “distracted.” This act of noticing is essential. The instructors explained that mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a particular way, in the moment, and without judgment.
Everyone turned off their cameras during the meditation. This provided privacy and made sure that no one had to worry if they were doing it “right.” The first meditation was about noticing sensations in the body. The second meditation asked us to focus on our breath, the temperature and friction.
A time of inquiry and reflection followed the meditations. Attendees shared their experiences and revelations. It seemed to me that many who shared were surprised by the emotions that surfaced. The meditations were short and it seemed as if many, if not all, of the people participating had meditated before. Yet, this short silent reflection brought up fear and anxiety.
Suzanne Loechl, an Instructor at MTF, said, “Thirty minutes is not a lot of time but it can change the trajectory of your day. Taking a break can help you. A pause can seriously change how you approach the day. It’s a small investment of time.”
For me during the entire session, I was noticing how aware I was of the time we are in. If there was not a pandemic, MTF would likely have continued offering their programs in person and never ventured into meditations over Zoom, and never would have dealt with internet connectivity issues. But the research says this practice helps deal with stress and those affiliated with MTF saw the stress building throughout the C-U community. This was their offering.
Kirkpatrick said, “What I love so much about Champaign-Urbana is what we are lacking right now. You go out to the library and see people you know and you ask how they are, how their kids are, that’s what is hard about COVID. We are in it and we are all apart. Now watching what is happening with the protests is just amplifying the stress and the desire to connect and feel some sort of togetherness and support. Going onto a mindful moment and seeing a familiar friendly face and waving at them through Zoom, it is a lovely way to know that others are doing what I am doing in the same moment.”
It is in this time when it is difficult to make plans that MTF’s sessions draw us back to the present. They offer a starting point, a way to begin, take in what is happening, and then respond. They plan to offer their Mindful Teacher, Mindful Kids program in the fall and adjust the format as needed. They also want to nurture the community they are building online. Loechl said: “Once all of this is over, there will be an in person gathering to meditate together. Community online will move to in person.” No definitive plans yet, but there is a sense that this moment will lead them to new places.
The mindful moment sessions are free and open to the public due to the generosity of MTF donors. No experience with mindfulness is required and long-time practitioners are also encouraged to attend. Go to the Mindful Teacher Foundation website to register to attend a session.
Photo from The Mindful Teacher Foundation Facebook page.