May 29, 2019

Last year, Brooklyn College Academy High School (BCA) on Coney Island Avenue launched one of the first Mindfulness Centers in Brooklyn. With the help of grants from parents and community organizations, this installation at the quaint Ditmas Park high school has flourished and brought peace to a stressful school year. This center is a space, unlike most collegiate “Wellness Centers” where students can go and reflect independently; there is no need to have any conversations or counseling sessions; individuals only need to, as some put it, be present.

Many hope BCA’s Mindfulness Center will inspire a widespread movement in schools and even in workplaces to implement mindfulness practices.  Studies show that mindfulness allows people to have more heightened focus and enhanced processing skills. Additionally, mindfulness has significant physiological impact; it helps with depression, anxiety, stress and even weight gain. Sources says meditation and other mindful practices facilitate better mental synthesis.

The space on the fourth floor of the school building seats about 25 students. Often, a ray of sun from the solitary window on the far wall bathes the wood floor and plush bean cushions in golden light. Potted plants with wide, silent leaves shade the entrance, where students take off their shoes and bookbags. The instructor does not allow technology in the circle of cushions, save for a screen on the wall, which may play soft music or show meditative images.

It is a space dedicated to doing restorative practice, mindfulness exercises such as meditation, reflecting or simply sitting. Most practices involve breathing, some stretching and reflection. Teachers sometimes bring their classes to the Mindfulness Center and an instructor  meets with a Mindfulness Club on Tuesday afternoons, but students are not free to come and go because of safety/supervision concerns.

I sat down with Doctor Linda Noble, who sparked creation of the center, to talk about her mindfulness journey and the implications of the new Mindfulness Center. Dr. Noble worked on Wall Street for six years and has been an adjunct professor at NYU, BMCC and Brooklyn College. She has been and an instructor at BCA for about 13 years,

Dr. Noble says she came into contact with mindfulness when she was suffering personal stress. “I understood that I really needed to take control and manage my stress and mindfulness, which to me is just sitting and being more reflective. [It] became a way for me to take better care of myself,” she said.

Self-care through mindfulness is an important part of the Mindfulness Center. Dr. Noble emphasized that this presence and self-love allows people to fill themselves with positivity so they will be better able to give positivity to others.

“When we become more mindful, we are more open to our own biases, we are better listeners, we can listen more effectively, we can speak more explicitly, we can be more respectful of opinions that might be different than the ones that we hold,” she said.

When students are working on something and run into a wall, Dr. Noble advises that mindfulness practices can help. The brain is often frazzled by thinking anxiously of the future and the “what ifs?” Mindfulness, by grounding an individual in the present, helps people work more effectively and focus.

BCA can be a playground for stressors from the workload to social issues, and mindful practices reduce these stresses by making it easier for students and teachers to work and interact with themselves and others. However, we all experience some stress, whether it is at school, home, work or the doctor, so mindfulness can help us all to focus, communicate, listen, learn, and live better.

Mindfulness also is important to education because of the important parallels between them. Learning, like mindfulness, involves developing an understanding of ourselves and of the world. On the other hand, mindfulness is a gentler, more independent way to learn than rigid classroom instruction or scouring the convoluted information on the Internet.

How exactly is mindfulness impacting Brooklyn College Academy?

It started when Dr. Noble implemented mindfulness in her classroom a few years ago. She envisaged having a physical space where people could go to for mindfulness rather than simply having meditation in the classrooms. Faced with an uncompromising budget, Dr. Noble urged her colleagues and administration that a Mindfulness Room would add to BCA’s culture. The room was launched in September of 2017 in partnership with a community organization with whom it is  no longer affiliated.

Dr. Noble’s dream for the Mindfulness Center is constantly progressing. She hopes that someday, preferably soon, all public schools and universities will have a safe space that individuals can visit to tap in and reset. She wants to see more mindfulness in schools, offices, businesses, community buildings and even apartment buildings. Dr. Noble believes that anywhere there are people interacting with each other, there ought to be a physical space for mindfulness.

“I think just like we have a science lab and we have a computer lab, we need a lab, a room, a mindfulness space in any place that is a community gathering, even in offices. My vision is that that will become normalized and that in every class, before exams, [students] have the time to breath, that they get the time to stand up and stretch,” Noble says.

The issue became more personal for her recently, when the person her son sat next to in chemistry class committed suicide. “I’ve been doing this work for a long time and quoting the statistics that students are being stressed, teachers are being stressed, and it is real close to home now,” Dr. Noble said. She went on to say that she wants to see a different, mindfulness-based assessment of teachers where instructors would be evaluated on the holistic positive culture that they cultivate in the classroom.

Many BCA students are doubtful. A sophomore who preferred to remain anonymous said that the Mindfulness Center should do more if it is to have an impact. “If we actually want to see change, in the way mindfulness helps us and reap of all its benefits, we actually have to proactively change our culture, and that won’t be easy at all. We could barely change racist culture to end segregation and slavery, how are we going to get people to accept mindfulness fully?” the student asked.

“I’ve never even been in the Mindfulness Center,” says Simi Sylvester, a junior. “I think the school administration needs to do more so that everyone can have a chance to experience it. I think if everyone was actively in it, we would have a much healthier school culture, be less stressed and just be happier.”

Other students are opposed to it, believing that mindfulness is too trivial or spiritual. Some psychologists assert that mindfulness has downsides. According to one, Dr. Utpal Dholakia, mindfulness practices may have adverse results such as depersonalization (feeling detached from one’s mental processes or body) or psychosis (loss of contact with reality) with delusions, hallucinations and disorganized speech, feelings of anxiety, an increased risk of seizures, loss of appetite and bad decision making.

“Many variations of mindfulness practice involve putting down mental baggage by separating ourselves from our thoughts, and then discarding thoughts that are seen as negative or harmful. But what if the same thing is done for positive thoughts? The world is not black and white,” he says.

In response, Dr. Noble asks what would happen if we neglect mindfulness altogether. “The idea of contemplative practice and meditation has been with us for thousands of years, and I think we just really haven’t fully embraced it in the school system. We need to remove ourselves from the idea that this is infusing religion or any one religion in our classrooms. We need to ask ourselves what happens if we don’t do this. Are we prepared to listen to another school shooting? To another classroom in lockdown? Another young life lost because we failed to act?”

Certainly, if the scholarly world is any indication, mindfulness is a spreading notion and could change society as we know it. Already, in Ditmas Park people practice mindfulness exercises on their porches, inviting neighbors and members of the community to come and participate. Some apartment buildings, businesses such as Google and colleges like UCLA have wellness or mindfulness rooms. In the end, mindfulness is knocking on the doors of our homes, schools and jobs. The question is, will we open the door and let mindfulness in?

Dr. Noble thinks we should: “With the Internet

and our culture, we’re so on together, but we’re actually disconnected, and mindfulness is a way for us to turn in so we can turn out and connect.”