A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I found ourselves wandering around a real bookstore, the kind with actual books in it, reminding ourselves what print on paper actually looks like. It’s not that neither of us no longer read paper books, we still do. (The local library is about 50 steps from our front door.) But we’re almost at the point now where we have more books stored on our Kindles than we do in the two floor to ceiling bookshelves we have in our living room. Which is a good and not so good thing all at once, like most things electronic these days.
Anyway, we turned a corner and found ourselves in the philosophy/meditation/self help section of the store. A full row of shelves on either side of us, probably close to a thousand books on how to navigate the world and maintain some sense of sanity in the process. And after about 30 seconds of just walking and scanning some titles, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s incredible how many books and words have been written that probably can be summed up in three words: ‘Be here now.'”
That is the secret to life, in case you haven’t noticed. Be here now. Because everything else is just vaporware. There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment, and how we choose to act in this moment is central to the quality of our lives.
Obviously, this is not easy. We humans have been struggling with this “be here now” stuff for thousands of years. We spend a lot of our waking hours reliving the past or fearing the future instead of just being fully present in the current moment. (Ok, so that’s my struggle, at least.) We waste a lot of our mental energy on things that are outside of our control, or creating false narratives that we have no real basis for believing.
The modern world accentuates this. FOMO by its very nature means that we want to be somewhere other than where we are, experiencing something that we’re not currently experiencing. And now that we know what everyone else is experiencing…
But, is FOMO the new normal? Is attention becoming a lost skill? And if so, how do we help ourselves and our students maintain the skill to “be here now?”
Some starting points for thinking about this. First, I believe every child pretty much lives in the moment during the first years of their lives. I see this every day with a houseful of kids that live across the street. They play with ferocity, and they are totally immersed in what’s in front of them. So, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we come into the world with the ability to stay in the moment. As always, the question we need to unpack are what are the conditions that surround the skill, that nurture and develop it? And from a schooling standpoint, what are the conditions that we create that may work against it?
Recently, we’ve seen lots of schools introduce the practice of mindfulness in varying ways. A few years ago when I was getting ready to speak to an gymnasium full of high-energy middle school students outside of Las Vegas, a gong suddenly sounded over the loudspeaker and within just a few seconds, the 400 or so kids sitting in front of me fell into silence. And they stayed in stillness for a couple of minutes before the gong sounded again and they picked up their conversations. It was actually kind of shocking, in a good way.
Yet, I’m not at all convinced that practicing mindfulness is the answer. Gary Stager sent me this link a few weeks ago to an interview with the author of a new book titled McMindfulness, which, as that word suggests, is a criticism of the whole mindfulness movement. This compelling quote ought to give you the gist of the critique:
Nothing has been overturned or transformed as the result of mindfulness. And nothing will be. Mindfulness is complicit with the smooth functioning of capitalism and its institutions, and that is because mindfulness is extremely conservative. How else can we explain why it has been so warmly received by governments, corporations, and educational institutions? Mindfulness tells us the problem is our minds rather than with these institutions and how they function. So, of course, they love it.
In other words, instead of putting our attention towards helping kids find stillness, maybe we should be putting it toward ameliorating all of the ways in which the institution of school makes it hard to “be here now.” I mean, when your whole day is driven by the clock, or when you’re forced to “learn” things that are of no real interest to you, it becomes really difficult to stay in the moment, right? To “be here now” is to be enveloped by flow, to be engaged in the moment in a deep level. We might spend more time interrogating how the systems work against that rather than trying to “fix” the way kids deal with it.
Granted, these questions and challenges have roots in institutions and narratives that are much larger than what happens in schools. But if we’re the ones who are going to help kids stay sane in a world where distractions and uncertainty only seem to be growing, then maybe we should start with how we might be contributing to the problem.