In a previous column, we considered the poetic form of haiku and noted the calm but penetrating vision that characterizes the “haiku spirit.” “Calm, penetrating vision” could well be a description of the psychological flow that characterizes the Montessori child at work. It is also a mind/body state that people can learn to create for themselves even when the conditions are not otherwise right for flow to arise.
One of the self-calming tools I have sometimes given children is the practice of “mindful walking.” This method has historical roots in the contemplative traditions of Asia, but it is in no way esoteric and is easily understood by children.
As in sitting meditation, mindful walking employs deep, relaxed breathing to calm the mind and focus the attention, but unlike sitting, it links the breath to movement. This makes it especially accessible to children.
Walking is usually a means to an end, a way of getting where we want to go. In mindful walking, we walk just to walk. That is, it is the experience of calm, relaxed walking itself that is the focus, not the destination or calculations about which path to take.
In its simplest form (and it has no complicated forms), mindful walking involves starting from a relaxed standing posture. One takes up the thread of the breath and begins to follow it – breathing in, breathing out. Then, when one is ready, stepping slowly with the left foot, one breathes in. Stepping with the right foot, one breathes out. Left, in; right, out. And so it goes.
The pace is set by the length of the breath. As one walks in this way, as attention is directed to the synchronized action of breath and steps, the breathing becomes slower and deeper and the pace slows down, as well.
I have found it most natural to introduce mindful walking to a few children at a time instead of to large groups. Once it is understood, large groups can practice it together. It is quite a beautiful and inspiring sight to see a large number of children walking mindfully through the places where they normally run and shout and play.
Mindful walking has been a great help to some children with whom I’ve worked. I will share the story of one such wonderful child, whom I will call Hans. I can hear Hans now; he’s making quite a commotion over by my assistant’s work space.
It Doesn’t Make Sense!
Hans is upset because he can’t understand a math problem he’s trying to do. It involves dividing a fraction by a fraction. He hasn’t actually had the lesson on how to do that kind of problem, but that never stops this boy from trying. Usually he can figure math out for himself. He’s crying and raising his voice and repeating himself over and over to my assistant, who is trying to calm him. She is quite skillful and can usually help him get a grip on himself, but he’s not responding to the usual approaches this time.
Hans easily gets into mental loops, carried away by thoughts he can’t stop. I can see that he’s in a mental loop now, and it will be very hard for him to get out of it without help. All his carrying on has naturally attracted the attention of other children, and one boy makes a wry face. Hans kicks at him and yells for him to stop. I come over to be near Hans.
“Hans, you are very upset. I would like to hear how you think about this kind of math problem, and I would like to show you how I think about it, but first you will need to be calm.”
“I can’t calm down, because it doesn’t make sense! I don’t know how I could get the wrong answer when I’m just doing the logical thing! Everyone says it’s the wrong answer! How can something be divided and get bigger? That can’t make any sense! It should get smaller!”
“Hans, what can you do to calm yourself? Would a walk outside help? Get some fresh air away from all these people?”
He agrees to go outside, but once out, he walks around in a tight circle complaining loudly about things not making sense. I join him outside and lead him gently out to the playground, with him obsessing loudly the whole way.
“It doesn’t make sense! You can’t divide something and get something bigger! It doesn’t make any sense! I don’t know why anybody ever made that up! I can’t stop thinking about it, and it doesn’t make any sense! And then Jeff did that thing where he makes a face, and I lunged at him because it was like I was already to my breaking point and I couldn’t take any more! Because you are supposed to get something smaller if you divide …”
“Hans, you’re right: it doesn’t make any sense at all based on what you already know very well, so when you are calm again, I will show you something new that will help it make sense.”
“No, I can’t! I can’t stop thinking about how it doesn’t make any sense! I can’t calm down!”
“Hans, I’d like to show you something I do to calm myself down. I call it mindful walking …”
“It won’t work! I can’t ever calm down when things are not making sense. You can’t divide and get something larger …”
“Hans, first I just pay attention to my breathing for a few breaths. Breathing in … breathing out …”
“I can’t think about that! Breathing doesn’t work! I’ve tried breathing. Breathing just makes me think about not making sense. It will just make it worse, and I’ll keep thinking about it!”
“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in … Breathing out, I know I am breathing out …
And then I step with my left foot, breathing in … and with my right foot, breathing out …”
I begin to walk slowly onto the playground. Hans follows, muttering.
“This isn’t working! This won’t work, breathing doesn’t work, I’ll just keep thinking about other things!”
“It takes a little practice, but I’m confident you can do it … left, breathing in … right, breathing out …”
Hans starts to calm down a little. He’s still agitated, but I can see that he’s at least trying to do what I do. We walk a few more steps as I talk to him, with long pauses to let things sink in.
“Breathing in … breathing out … breathing in … breathing out … And then I can begin to look around … I see all those clouds … moving across the sky … That reminds me how everything changes, all the time … even my emotions … sometimes I’m really excited, but then it changes into something else … sometimes I’m really sad or really angry, but it doesn’t last forever… I think our minds are like a big blue sky with all sorts of thoughts and feelings moving across them all the time. … I don’t even know where all those thoughts come from or what causes them … they just move on by and change into something else …”
His energy shifts tangibly as we walk. He says in an almost dreamy voice …
“Clouds move toward us and away from us.”
“Yes, always moving, always changing.”
“Emotions move toward us and away from us. … Emotions are like the clouds … and thoughts are like the rain.”
“Oh, I like that! Emotions are like the clouds and thoughts are like the rain.”
“Or some other kind of precipitation – it could be snow or hail or sleet.”
“Ah! I see! Some thoughts are cold and crystalline; some are foggy and amorphous; some are hot and searing like the sun in summertime …”
We walk a bit more, and I notice that he is saying to himself sotto voce, “In … out … in … out …”
Smiling a little now, getting it, he says, “I feel like I’m walking mindfully on the cliff of anger. One foot on and one foot off.”
“One foot on, one foot off … you’re on the edge, but you’re no longer falling off the cliff … You know, Hans, I like to come outside to walk mindfully whenever I’m feeling flooded by emotion. So, Hans, anytime you feel like walking mindfully just let me know. You can just say, “John, I’m going outside to walk mindfully,” and that will be OK with me. And … let me know when you want that math lesson.”
Later that day, we sat together on a bench watching some other children on the playground. Hans remarked, “It’s funny how different thoughts feel different. Some feel shady and cool. That’s how my thoughts feel right now. It’s pleasant.”
Later that week, with the help of Dr. Montessori’s ingenious divided skittles, we made sense of division by fractions. It was very, very pleasant.