It’s no secret that adolescence can feel both wildly exhilarating and crushingly overwhelming. Ask any teen in Dexter, Chelsea, Grass Lake, Stockbridge, or Manchester about the struggles their peer group experiences most, and you’ll likely hear accounts of stress, anxiety, depression, and emotional strain.
Mindfulness meditation can be a powerful tool for navigating these intense challenges. And while the word “meditation” might make you think of things like burning incense or chanting, the truth is none of those things define mindfulness. Mindfulness is actually a mental skill that’s rooted in neuroscience, and anyone can learn it. Best of all, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that it supports greater happiness and health—at any age.
What is it? In its simplest sense, mindfulness means paying compassionate attention to the present moment, without judging it. This skill gives our brains a muchneeded break from competing demands, and it can interrupt unhelpful thought patterns. Think of it as mental hygiene—a way to hack into the mental habits that teens (and the rest of us!) often struggle with, things like: chronic worry, regrets about the past, ruminations about the future, and the dizzying cycle of self-critical thoughts.
How do I do it? Mindfulness meditation is a little like skateboarding or playing an instrument—it might feel totally unnatural or even difficult at first. And since our culture tends to reinforce multi-tasking, extreme productivity, and quick shifts in focus, it’ll take a little practice to learn how to focus patiently and compassionately on one thing at a time.
If you’re a teen (or even if you’re not a teen but are curious about trying some mindfulness techniques), experiment with these five ways of leveraging the power of mindfulness:
1 Make friends with the breath.
Your breath is one of the best and simplest tools for building mindfulness. Whether you’re facing a tough test at school, a conflict with a friend, or just sitting on your couch at home, here’s a calming, grounding practice that only takes about a minute: close your eyes, breathe normally, and find the place in your body where you notice your breath the most—maybe it’s your nose, your throat, your chest, or your belly. (There’s no wrong answer here, so wherever your breath feels the most prominent, that’s the “right” place!) Observe that spot for five or six cycles of inhaling and exhaling. Notice how the sensations change, and observe any differences between one breath and the next. Don’t worry about deepening or controlling your breathing or doing anything fancy. Two words: breathe and observe. If your mind wanders to something else (and it will!) that’s okay—let the thoughts come and go and just keep gently coming back to the sensations of breathing.
2 Climb out of the river.
When you’re feeling especially caught up in an intense emotion or thought pattern, try this: instead of fighting against the rushing river of thoughts or getting swept away by the current, close your eyes and imagine yourself climbing up onto the bank of that rushing river. In your mind’s eye, watch the flow of thoughts as they float past. See if you can curiously, compassionately, label each thought: is it a judging by Jeanette Brooks Certified Yoga & Meditation Instructor Coordinator of Mindful Dexter 17 thought? A planning thought? An anxious thought? A regret? Resist the urge to judge any of the thoughts that float by—the key is to just observe without evaluating.
3 Drop in.
In some of the workshops we’ve done at the Chelsea and Dexter Wellness Centers, we teach a practice called “dropping in” because it’s an easy way to drop into the present moment, using your physical senses as a kind of compass. You can do it in as little as 30 seconds, depending on which of your five senses you choose to focus on. Start by resting your vision on one thing, large or small. Notice its color, its shape, and any shadows it creates. Be curious, and resist the urge to judge what you see as pleasant or unpleasant—just give your mind time and space to observe.
When you’re ready, shift your attention to something your fingertips are touching: maybe a pen or pencil, or the fabric of your clothes on your lap. Notice sensations of temperature and texture. Next, move your awareness to what you hear: the noises around you, or sounds from outside of the room you’re in, or even the sound of your own breath. Listen curiously and try to observe without judging. Next, shift to your sense of smell. Again, try to avoid evaluating your experience as pleasant or unpleasant. And if there’s no smell that registers, that’s okay—just observe the fact that the smell is neutral. Finally, move your awareness to your sense of taste: maybe you notice an aftertaste of something you ate recently, or maybe just a neutral taste in your mouth. When you’re finished, take one deep breath to end the practice.
Even the most well-intentioned among us sometimes struggle to develop mindfulness skills on our own. Practicing with others can be a great support.
Mindful Dexter: This is a FREE opportunity to practice mindfulness meditation in a multi-age setting, and youth are welcome! Sessions are 60 minutes and include guided meditation, a short period of silent meditation, and informal idea-sharing on a mindfulness topic. Learn more at the Mindful Dexter Facebook page.