Math teacher Lawrence (Laurie) Carroll likes to solve problems, and not just the mathematical kind. When he taught at my high school in Australia during the 1980s, he and his colleague, Jim Bradley, had surfing added to our sport curriculum. This meant we could all go surfing on sport day, but not before passing a surf life saving course that made us competent in surfboard rescue, surf awareness and resuscitation. Because of his efforts, generations of ocean-loving kids are now learning these vital skills. As a nation of coastal dwellers, there’s no telling how many lives this initiative has saved.
Thirty years on, I catch up with him in the verdant Massachusetts countryside where he now lives with his wife Jessica. And he’s at it again – solving problems. This time he’s addressing the problem of over-stimulated, under-achieving, stressed out high school students, and he’s addressing the root of the problem rather than treating its symptoms. In a nutshell, he’s introducing students and teachers to the practice of meditation.
The Digital Age
I grew up pre-internet, pre-mobile phone and pre-digital. To high school students this reads ‘pre-historic.’ But there’s something to be said for spending face-to-face time with your friends or even being on your own, without feeling the urge to photograph it every few minutes with your smartphone so you can post it to Facebook, then reply to the litany of comments - or crash into a pit of despair if you don’t get any comments at all. How can you be spending quality time with the friends by your side, if you are also with your 1,500 Facebook friends and your 6,000 Twitter followers? You’re not fully present here and you’re not fully present there. With so much chatter and stimuli from our ever-present devices, it’s becoming rare for today’s kids (and many adults) to be fully present anywhere. Myself included.
The Eastern concept of meditation - sitting quietly for its own sake - was first introduced to the West way back in1893 when an Indian swami named Vivekananda was invited to the World Parliament of Religions. He said the meeting ground of all religion was the perfect silence of meditation. But it took many decades for meditation to become mainstream here. During the cultural revolution of the 1960’s high profile advocates like the Beatles helped. In the decades that followed, books were written. Centers of study were established. Meditation tools were peddled.
Benefits of Meditation
We put meditation through the rigors of medical research and found that regular practice increases immunity, restores emotional balance, and lowers blood pressure. It reduces stress, anxiety, addiction, depression, and eating disorders. It improves cognitive function, focus, memory, and critical thinking. It instills calm and increases compassion and empathy. It makes us happy. It gives us a greater sense of awareness, and therefore control of our emotions. In the mind of a meditator the thought occurs but is witnessed and fades, while for an ordinary mind, the thought occurs and instigates an emotional storm which rages on and on.
Though yogis have given this advice for thousands of years, our hard science has finally caught up: Meditation is a key resource to living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Meditation in Schools
Though meditation has become more mainstream, it has yet to take root in our education system. Considering the problems facing our students today - short-attention spans, under-performance, emotional instability, violence, eating disorders, stress and anxiety - it’s high time meditation was introduced. The greatest challenge lies in convincing the establishment of its value.
That’s where Laurie Carroll fits in, and he’s the ideal man for the job. He spent ten years as a high school teacher in the ‘80s, then took seven journeys to India for up to 6 months at a time, practicing a variety of meditation techniques. “My most intense meditation was ten days of isolation sitting for a total of 12 hours per day,” he said. “In this intense meditation, food was brought to me by friends.”
He returned to teaching in the 21st century to find students living lives of incessant online activity, with less empathy (in fact 40% less than students of the ‘80s and ‘90s according to a recent study) and short attention spans. If ever there was a time and a place for meditation, that time and place is in high schools right now.
“When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.”
Laurie’s method is simple. “Meditation is our natural state,” he said. “We are always already meditating. To see this state we must be still, relaxed, and curious, really curious. By doing this, our busy minds will seem far away, like flocks of squawking geese in the sky. The chattering is still heard but somehow it’s not who we are anymore. We are left looking at the distant chatter of the mind and a peace deeper than any understanding is felt.”
That’s all meditation is. Simple!
But simple does not mean easy. Meditating is one of the most difficult things I’ve tried to master. It requires patience (I’m too often in a rush to hurry up and meditate to be able to meditate). It requires an equanimous state of mind, free of cravings or aversions (I desperately want to attain nirvana. Now, dammit!) And it takes an attitude of not trying too hard (Obviously, that’s not something I’m not very good at). But it’s worth it.
In my experience, it helps if you have a good guide. With his relaxing, reassuring, and almost hypnotic voice, Laurie gently guides students and teachers through the practice and helps them to incorporate it into their daily lives. As research shows, with just 10 minutes a day you’ll reap enormous benefits.
The Effects of Meditation on Students
For students, this means they’ll do better at school academically and socially, and ultimately lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. But proof of the pudding is in the eating, as student experiences show.
“As the classroom atmosphere changed, individual students underwent significant transformations,” said Laurie. “An embittered and withdrawn sophomore from a broken home started to participate and make effort. His grades quickly improved. A shy African American girl, struggling with test anxiety, expressed her fears to me and to the entire class, catalyzing a conversation among us all. As a result, I shifted my testing policy. A fidgety student diagnosed with ADHD sat calmly and attentively – a model of equanimity.”
An unruly senior who was on probation for arson, lingered after meditation class to quietly confide, “This is the first thing that has ever made sense to me at school.”
One afternoon, two girls stormed into the room, swearing at each another. The class was unnerved. Laurie asked the girls to look out of the window, which they did. As he guided their attention away from each other and directed it to the wind blowing through the trees, they fell into a silent meditation along with the rest of the class. Afterwards, one of girls told him that she couldn’t even remember what they had been fighting about.
Another student approached Laurie after class to tell him he had been provoked into fighting. He remembered meditation, which helped him to relax and become aware of his choices. Instead of launching a punch, he simply walked away.
A Turning Point for Students
My lunch with Laurie was drawing to a close and I had a lot more to digest than my meal. He suggested we all take a walk to the pond. On our way I mentioned that he was a long way from the ocean. Did he miss surfing?
“He likes to run, now,” said his wife Jessica.
“Have you attempted any half marathons?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t being too cheeky. I’m 46 so Laurie has to be in his fifties.
“Yes, I run ultra-marathons,” he said in his matter-of-fact way. That means instead of the standard 26 mile marathon, Laurie runs distances of 50 miles at a time. 50 miles! He likes to run, all right.
When we reached the pond I discovered that it was, in fact, a good-sized lake. Laurie Carroll is master of the understatement. I’ve since learned he was nominated for the "Distinctive Educator of the Berkshires" Award in 2011 and presented a paper on his work at the Oxford Round Table in the UK earlier this year. I had a sense that Laurie was like the proverbial iceberg and I was just getting to know the tip.
|Laurie's "pond", Richmond, MA.|
As I looked at the pond that was really a lake, I realized that if anyone was going to incorporate meditation into our education system, Laurie in his quiet understated way, was the man to do it. After all, he’s been down this path once before, and succeeded. For the benefit of our students and future generations, I feel certain he’ll succeed again.
For more information on Laurie and his work go to www.AwakenTeenLeadership.net.