Stories from the Field are small moments about how mindfulness impacts the students I work with (and in return, how they impact me), in hopes of capturing what it means to learn and use mindfulness. This story comes from a STEM high school in Portland, Maine:
Yesterday, I handed out Rumi's poem The Guest House to the small portion of my class that made it back the first day after break. This poem, written by the 13th century Persian poet, is a classic that has been passed around in meditation and yoga circles for centuries. It has been one of my personal favorites since I encountered it during my yoga teacher training. I think of it in my darker moments. It reminds me of the possibility of embracing all the intensity, of sitting down with it and listening carefully, so that I may glean wisdom from the pain.
I have shared this with hundreds of adults in my life through yoga classes, mindfulness classes, and personal exchanges. Usually adults admire its profundity and wisdom.
My students, never ones to passively internalize what I offer, had a different response. We started by reading the poem aloud. I asked the students to write down what they thought the author meant, and if they agreed or disagreed with the message at the bottom. After a few minutes of writing, I asked them to share out loud.
"Clearly this author is romanticizing negative emotions, or has never felt them himself," one student began.
"Yeah, I mean, maybe this is a good poem for people who are generally happy, but you can't just invite it all in."
"Has this person even ever been depressed?"
So...not moved to a higher plane of understanding through this great 13th century Persian's words then?
What I was so struck by, what made my heartache for them, was not their words, but the known pain that was welling up just behind those words. My students were not speaking abstractly. They were speaking from their own personal experiences. They were terrified of their own pain and darker emotions. They weren't just in disagreement, they were mad at him for even suggesting they should sit with them, welcome them, entertain them.
"We shouldn't be pandering to these emotions," one girl asserted.
The words of Rumi have always spoken so clearly to me that I wasn't sure what to do when they were shot from the sky and sent to a fiery death. I know I myself struggle to be with the full spectrum of emotions, but I have also always thought that I am working towards a place where I can more fully be with them. I wanted to know more.
So I left them with two questions:
1. Why might someone believe that we should be with our emotions and see them as "guides from beyond"? What benefit could there be to sitting with emotions?
2. If not this, if not, "welcoming and entertaining them all," then what?
We came back together the next day with a full class and these reflection questions clearing the way. I wasn't sure where we were going to land, but I knew we had to dig back in because I wanted students to have more time to explore that idea and to deepen my understanding of their perspective.
After rereading the poem, I had students reflect in their journals, discuss in groups of three, then rejoin the whole class for a complete discussion. This time, greater nuance came through. One student discussed how pushing emotions away isn't going to help, but sometimes when you have an "inappropriate" emotional response to an event, you should try getting into the other person's shoes instead of entertaining that emotion. Another talked about how emotions are an essential part of processing, and she can't actually choose whether or not they occur, so the poem didn't seem to make sense. A few thought you should accept whatever comes, because you can't actually fight it, like it or not.
I still find the initial response of those few students, from the first reading, so telling. We are incredibly resistant to our negative emotions, and even the idea that we should have to be with them can be triggering. It is counterintuitive to imagine that actually sinking in and being with an emotion can be the way to make it dissipate. But the monster in the closet grows larger and uglier until we finally work up the nerve to crack open the door and peer inside. Only then can we see reality.