By Robyn Traill
“If you could suspend the laws of nature, what superpower would you most like to acquire?”
This is the question that opens one of the awareness-building exercises we use with our students in their teens from age 14 through to age 19. We couple it with an exercise we call “The Five Why’s.”
As with all stages of human development, teenagers are unique beings—well past caterpillar, half out of the chrysalis, not-quite-functional, wet wings, but clearly showing the general shape of the full-on adult butterfly. Teaching mindfulness to these morphing beings poses some inspiring opportunities and challenges.
They are past the stage of wanting to please parents and teachers. They won’t buy in to activities because they want to be good, prove their industriousness, or please their elders. Teenagers want to be confident and competent. They want to get those wings working, be a beautiful as they can be, and explore a new understanding of themselves with new unexplored potential. They want empowerment.
After posing the Superpowers question, the teachers use various discussion techniques involving pairs or small groups to listen to each other’s ideas and to draw out as much inquiry as possible. Ultimately everyone reports back to the larger group. The key to gaining insight is how the listeners ask, “Why?” Why do they would want that superpower? Because this exercise occurs in the context of mindfulness training, they access the feeling tone in their body and mind when they reflect on “why” and discover the needs that those feelings point to. It does take practice for students to ask the 5 Why’s. The main point is to get down to the feelings and needs underlying the visualization of having a superpower.
Taking a specific example, if the superpower is mindreading, then the first Why is Why mindreading? Because I want to know what people think about me. Then, Why do you want to know that? Because I want to know if they like me. Next, Why is that important? I want friends. Etc etc . You can see where this is headed.
In sharing with the larger group the teachers purposely converge on common patterns and themes that are consistently present. The patterns all revolve around the existence of some fundamental inadequacy, lack of confidence, fear or general discomfort. Something else, something external to the person’s existing resources is needed to feel relaxed and comfortable in their own skin. We want invisibility because we lack confidence in how we are seen by others, we want to fly because we feel constricted, we want super strength so that we cannot be threatened; access to limitless wealth reveals either our fear of lack of food, shelter, boredom, or a sense of powerlessness.
Finally the teachers propose the existence of the ultimate superpower: being able to sit still, be with oneself, to experience whatever feelings arise in our bodies and feel that we can be OK no matter what occurs around us or in our minds. The experience of unconditional trust in ourselves in any situation. At this point the exercise becomes part of the narrative for how mindfulness meditation practice is taught and how we discuss empowering teens to relate to everything that arises in their experience, from a nasty text message to the fear of crossing the dance floor to ask someone to dance.
The training in mindfulness meditation with teens can focus on accommodating the inner weather of the body, the inner landscape of subtle and not-so-subtle sensations. The hot, cold, pressure, tingling, movement, brightness, dullness arises in our body as a reflection of our thoughts and emotions. They are an expression of the dance and play of being vital, creative beings. They are neither a threat nor a promise. They are just vividness.
And best of all, this ultimate superpower is not something external to us at all. It is part of our inherent makeup.
Robyn Traill is a founder and Director of the Shambhala School, a PrePrimary to Grade 12 independent school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Robyn has taught meditation practice internationally for 28 years and has been experimenting with mindfulness practice and children since 1986.