Mindfulness: The Skill of Moving into the Eye of the Storm

John S. Shealy, PhD, and Jordan Dye, MSW, CSW
November 2017

This article is part of Camping Magazine’s series on inclusion, identifying and exploring both big picture and on-the-ground actionable pathways for application through participant reflection, discussion, and active engagement. Contact Niambi Jaha-Echols (njechols@gmail.com) if you would like to participate or contribute to this series.

Paul was a ruggedly handsome young man with an attractive balance of confidence, warmth, and humility. He had been with summer camps since middle school. At age 25, he was a seasoned counselor. Well liked, he had a reputation as a trustworthy, mature leader. So, when the accident happened at the river, it was difficult to consider the most common cause of such serious camp accidents, counselor immaturity. But Paul was caught in an emotional storm, one he did not see coming. His mindlessness led to a dangerous situation that could have been avoided.

It was not an unusual day at camp — nothing out of the ordinary that anyone would likely notice. A splendid, warm, sunny day with many young campers frolicking in the lake, all inside the safety rope. Being at the halfway mark of a three-week camp session, it was easy to relax — buddy system established, rules understood, “problem kids” identified and brought into the fold, and a number of trustworthy campers helping out. In this obviously safe container, how had 12-year-old Sara Jean lost her life to the most common cause of fatality at summer camp?

From the outside, Paul may have seemed a bit distracted — maybe not unusual for a counselor toward the end of week two. But inside, a storm was brewing. He had just received a long letter from Megan, his college girlfriend whom he was to marry in the fall. At breakfast, Paul was skimming her letter between gulps of soggy oatmeal and warm orange juice. He skipped to the last page where he read, “I love you. I know you love me. And you have to let me go.” Struggling to make sense of her words, he felt a wave of nausea and dizziness. He was shaken and confused.

Like a good poker player, Paul could present a calm exterior. His attachment to self-reliance prevented him from asking for support. So, he stuffed the letter in his pocket and his feelings down deep inside, took a deep breath, and stepped back into his role as a senior counselor. He promised himself not to look at the letter again until after supper when he could have some time alone.

Even by early afternoon, Paul still appeared calm and confident on the outside despite the storm of confusion, pain, and self-doubt that was beginning to rage on the inside. When Charlotte, a 16-year-old junior counselor, asked if he would take her and the five younger girls she was mentoring for a hike by the waterfall, he eagerly said yes. And when Charlotte asked to take the lead on this familiar trail, he agreed to be the “sweep,” following closely and gathering any campers who might fall behind. Without being fully conscious of it, he was desperate for a private moment with the letter. As the group paused on a rocky outcrop to enjoy the vista and rest, Paul chose a spot a few yards away, sat, and gazed mindlessly into the valley below. The girls got up and continued the hike. He watched them disappear up the hill and despite knowing better, he opened the letter and began reading. He quickly became absorbed, losing all connection with time, place, and his role as fear and confusion overshadowed his responsibility to the six girls in his charge.

Megan, a fourth-year medical student, wrote that she had discovered she had a special gift for working with children. She knew she was bright and determined enough to do well in pediatric medicine. But this path could not include living in a country cabin and raising children with Paul. She would “mother” hundreds of children, none coming through her body but all coming through her heart.

When Paul first heard Charlotte’s shouts, he turned to see her and the girls racing down the steep trail toward him. Counting faces to himself as counselors do, “Should be six. Two, four, five . . . one missing.” Within moments, Charlotte was sobbing into his chest. Instantly, he was fully focused, all thoughts of Megan vanishing. Centered and reassuring, his hands resting on Charlotte’s shoulders, he asked, “What happened?” Charlotte struggled to talk until Paul gently and deliberately took her face in both hands and met her eyes.

She calmed and in a controlled voice said, “Sara Jean fell behind. I knew you’d sweep her up so we hiked on to the top for lunch. When we came back down, she was in the river by some rocks at the crossing. I rolled her over. She had blood in her hair. She must have fallen on the river rocks. She wouldn’t come to.”

Paul, in a reassuring voice, said, “You’re all right. Take the girls back to camp. Stay on the main trail. It’s only half a mile. When you get there, ring the big bell until somebody comes. Send them to the river crossing on Falls Trail. You can do this. Go quickly now.”

At camp, Charlotte frantically rang the bell. When Jamie, an EMT, touched her arm, she stopped and said, “Sara Jean fell in at the river crossing on Falls Trail! Paul needs help!”

Jamie slipped into the shoulder straps of his first aid backpack and disappeared up the trail. A few minutes later, Jamie found Paul squatting at the river’s edge, administering CPR to Sara Jean’s body. Jamie quickly saw it was much too late to bring Sara Jean back. “She’s gone. You have to let her go, Paul.” Paul sank back, exhausted and completely lost. He was no longer in his body or his mind, but caught in a depth of confusion he’d never known.

It would be a challenging road back for Paul. He would be transformed by the experience.

Description of Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be described as bringing conscious, nonjudgmental awareness to what is happening to us and within us in the present moment. By being both aware of and nonreactive to what is happening, the internal dialogue that often leads to fear, agitation, stress, distraction, and often harmful habits is interrupted. We’ve pressed our internal “pause button” and we can now reflect on options and their likely outcomes. No longer on autopilot, we have stepped into the eye of the storm of our minds and bodies where reactive patterns eventually lose their hold.

In 20 years of teaching mindfulness programs, we’ve heard many comments on the positive impact of mindfulness practice. Common remarks point to how mindfulness led to someone experiencing less stress, being less emotionally reactive, and developing more satisfying relationships. Others comment on how their lifestyle has shifted in a healthy direction since learning to be mindful of the choices they make and the impact these choices have on mood, energy level, and overall wellness.

We find encouragement for our work from these kinds of comments. We see that a few weeks of intensive mindfulness training can have lasting benefit. From time to time, a parent who has begun meditating shares that their young child has encouraged them to practice in the midst of a very stressful situation. “Mom, wouldn’t this be a good time to meditate?” And as mindfulness has become more popular in grade schools, we hear more stories of children bringing mindfulness home to their families.

Our favorite stories, though, are those in which someone became deliberately mindful to stay within the eye of an internal emotional storm, a storm that would have overwhelmed them before. In some cases, we hear that this internal shift also helped others survive, or thrive, in the midst of a storm. These stories illustrate that mindfulness can be learned and taken on as a daily practice that shifts our way of being, which extends to those around us. Mindfulness becomes contagious.

Today neurobiological research demonstrates that mindfulness training impacts the actual form and function of the brain — especially the developing brain of a child or teenager.

Mindfulness is proving to be transformative to people’s lives, helping build awareness about themselves and the world around them. They’re able to loosen the grip of unskillful behaviors, while nurturing those that benefit themselves, and others. Imagine for a moment, what would it be like to get this solid foundation of (mindfulness) practice as a teenager? To learn a different way of engaging with their families, communities, and life? (Siegel, 2013).

Kristen Race and Sylvie Pique provide an excellent presentation of how mindfulness can have positive impacts on a camper’s experience and their life after camp in ACA’s January 2015 edition of Camping Magazine (Race and Pique, 2015). They apply Dr. Siegel’s research findings to camp programing:

When you practice mindfulness, formally and informally, you learn to pay attention to the present moment with all of your senses. When you practice mindfulness daily you rewire the brain to become happier, healthier, and more functional. In the controlled environment of a camp you have the unique opportunity to create lifelong habits to generate this positive restructuring of the brain and, in doing so, create a more positive camp experience.

There are camps whose very foundation is mindfulness training upon which other camp activities are built (Dowson, 2016). Other camps give mindfulness training a key role when planning activities, while some are intentional in bringing a mindful orientation to programing. Workshops for training camp staff to effectively share mindfulness are offered by ACA as well as other organizations (Fee, 2017). A growing number of books provide guidance and age-appropriate exercises for teaching mindfulness to young campers as well (Greenland, 2016).

Bringing Mindfulness to Camp

It’s encouraging to see so many hands engaged in building the framework for bringing mindfulness into the lives of campers and perhaps through them to their families. Doing research for this article led me (John) to consider how my life may have unfolded differently if, as an emerging teenager, I had received some basic mindfulness training at the Boy Scout camps I attended. My teen and early adult years may not have centered on a host of high-risk behaviors, poor school performance, and fights with friends and family. And maybe, with academic confidence, I would have entered college at age 18 rather than 30. Some mindfulness in my life tool kit may have led me along a more intentional and productive life path. It may have also helped some of my Boy Scout camp buddies lead a more healthy, productive, and rewarding life.

When we reflect upon bringing mindfulness to the camp experience, we are reminded of research that points to the importance of a teacher’s “embodiment” of mindfulness in their daily life. As with the flight attendant’s instruction to “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.” To be most effective in teaching mindfulness, we must cultivate these skills and integrate them into our daily lives and overall lifestyles.

Researchers report that a teacher who embodies mindfulness is much more effective in sharing it than a teacher who has an intellectual understanding but little experience (McCown, Reibel, & Micozzi, 2010). While such research results may impress adults, they likely will not impress an average child or teen. In an article on a teen camp offered by Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, a teen camper sums it up nicely:

When adults lead with words but not by example, it’s less effective. You see them as authority figures instructing instead of living their own lives. The great thing about the mindfulness teachers I’ve had during my retreats is that they’re always learning, developing their minds. I’m inspired to follow that example (Dowson, 2016).

Getting Started with Mindfulness

Where does someone who is motivated to bring mindfulness to his or her camp turn to actually experience and begin to embody mindfulness for him or herself? Mindfulness training programs are popular, and we may have direct access to one or more programs right in our communities. Yoga studios and meditation centers are good places to explore, and a quick Google search will lead to others. Research suggests it takes at least two months for a new habit to become stable for most of us. The support of a trustworthy group sharing in the journey has been shown to be helpful to learn and stabilize a mindfulness practice, meaning regular sitting meditation, Hatha yoga, Qigong, and similar practices. And, of course, an instructor or teacher who deeply embodies mindfulness is an essential component.

The following list presents several options. We can pick what resonates most strongly with us. Having a friend along can be supportive though it’s not necessary.

  • Consider an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program that leads participants through a variety of mindfulness skill-building practices. Participants can share struggles and successes within a supportive group, and the program often leads to having a daily mindfulness practice.
  • Attend a three-day, five-day, or longer mindfulness meditation retreat. Even a weekend in silence can be transformative, as it allows the noise level in our minds to drop and offers a glimpse of inner stillness and peace that is difficult to experience within the current framework of our normal lives.
  • Join a local mindfulness meditation group, ideally one that meets weekly or bi-weekly. These offer regular support that is effective in bringing mindfulness into everyday life — helping us to embody mindfulness.
  • The Internet offers an amazing number of options for beginning mindfulness practice as well as for stabilizing it over time.
    • Free eight-week MBSR home study programs can be worked through alone or with a friend or two (https://palousemindfulness.com/).
    • Free “Mindfulness Starter Kits” are available. These are a collection of guided meditations, articles, and videos (bemindful.org/freedownloads.htm).
    • The smartphone app HeadSpace is a wonderful way of “making the problem part of the solution,” using an attachment to our phones to engage in a rewarding mindfulness program. Works great with children and youth (headspace.com).
    • The phone app Insight Timer offers a sense of sangha (spiritual community) by offering a variety of virtual sitting groups. It’s neat to meditate with a few thousand of our closest friends (https://insighttimer.com/).
    • The internet offers many options for online, audio, or DVD mindfulness courses that meet individual preferences and personalities.
    • YouTube has thousands of guided meditations and instructive talks to explore (search for breathing meditation or body scan).
    • For mindful movement, Qigong or Gentle Yoga are possible search terms. You’ll be amazed by the variety of rich options available.
  • Check out local libraries, bookstores, or online booksellers for numerous book, audio recording, and DVD options.

What became of Paul? He was launched into a deeper engagement with life. Sara’s death ignited a passion in him to make the most of his gifts. He directed his life energy toward developing skilled, mature camp counselors. He knew a key part of his path would be training counselors to move into the eye of whatever storm was coming their way before they became lost in it. Attending a mindfulness class one evening, he experienced an inner peace and clarity he’d never known. Paul knew he had discovered a skill by which he could teach others to be more alert and fully present, and to reach out to others whenever they needed support.

Note: This story and all of the characters in it are fictional. Any similarity to a real situation is purely coincidental.

Photo courtesy of photographer Mike Erskine, Algonquin Park, Canada, on Unsplash.

References

Dowson, V. (2016, December). A deep dive into mindfulness. Mindful Magazine. Retrieved from http://archive.mindful.org/default.aspx?lid=148021#

Fee, S. (2017). Practicing and teaching mindfulness. American Camp Association Webinar. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/staff-professionals/events-professional-development/events/aca-webinar-practicing-teaching-mindfulness

Greenland, S.K. (2016). Mindful games: Sharing mindfulness and meditation with children, teens, and families. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

McCown, D., Reibel, D.K., & Micozzi, M.S. (2010). Teaching mindfulness: A practical guide for clinicians and educators. New York, NY: Springer.

Morey, J. (2014, December 7). Inward bound mindfulness education. Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. Retrieved from https://presentmomentmindfulness.com/2014/12/07/episode-035-jessica-more...

Race, K., & Pique, S. (2015, January). Stress at camp? No, never . . . three mindful practices to create kinder, happier, healthier campers and counselors. Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps
.org/resource-library/articles/stress-camp-no-never-three-mindful-practices-create-kinder-happier-healthier-campers-counselors

Siegel, D. (2014, April 14). Dan Siegel, M.D. — Discussing the Science of Mindfulness. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=yqUNtLbwoj4

Stahl, B., Meleo-Meyer, F., & Koerbel, L. (2014) A mindfulness-based stress reduction workbook for anxiety. Christopher Germer citation. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

John Shealy, PhD, and Jordan Dye, MSW, CSW, are a married couple living in Louisville, Kentucky. With over 45 years of combined experience in practicing and teaching mindfulness, they offer a variety of mindfulness training programs for organizations, groups, individuals, and couples. In his clinical practice, John specializes in integral psychotherapy and life coaching and intimate relationship counseling. To learn more, visit BeMindful.org or contact John at John@BeMindful.org or Jordan at JordanDyeMSW@gmail.com.