Participants in this first stage of the MPower program are youth workers, who leave their busy and stressful jobs in the middle of the day every other Thursday to engage in a battle on a different front: traffic. Trapped in sweltering cars, they fight gridlocked Springfield traffic only to find a lack of decent parking. Many of them are forced to circle the block, like sharks around a stranded boat, waiting for a parking spot to open up. And despite the traffic, the parking, the towering piles lurking in their inboxes, crises with youth, and office tensions, we ask them to take two hours out the middle of their day to do “nothing.”
The MPower meetings are held in the cool inner recesses of the Old First Church in Springfield. It’s a huge, colonial style, white clapboard landmark that few people have actually entered. In the church’s library, there are cushions dotting the floor like brightly colored islands. Dan Edwards, the Center’s Youth Program director, tells the participants that silent practices may be helpful for the youth they work with, but in this first stage of the program, we will teach them mindfulness practices to “secure their own oxygen mask first.” The group raises a collective eyebrow. We proceed to introductions.
One of the participants works at a residential mental health clinic that houses over 200 young people. She reports that they often have to restrain violent students, at least ten times a week. Last week, she was kicked in the eye. When I ask her what her reaction was after the outburst, she replies nonchalantly: she left, took a half-an-hour break, smoked a cigarette, and came back. She is considering going back to school to finish her degree, in order to gain more skills and leave this job.
Another participant works at one of the area’s only social justice organizations. She is trying to bail the organization out of its latest financial crisis. At the same time, she is looking for another position because she is weary of operating in “crisis mode” all of the time.
Many of the participants have similar stories. I start to worry about whether we’ll be able to meet their needs. We lead a few basic mindfulness practices: sitting meditation, deep listening, and 45 minutes of yoga. We discuss the day a little bit, and then it’s over. I’m astonished to witness the difference in people. The participants report feeling more open, present, and relaxed. Most throw over their shoulder a passing, “I’ll see you next time.” And they look different, softer, more receptive, somehow.
I realized that I’ve grown into a “processing” snob. I couldn’t see the benefit of anything less than two hours of intensive, exhaustive conversations. In the planning stages I had bickered with Dan, who’s been working for years, facilitating programs like this. Didn’t we need to discuss issues more? You know, have difficult and deep conversations about their work and their own goals, plans, spiritual histories?
But Dan said, relax Billye, that will come later; these people are stressed out, they talk about problems all day long. What they need is to practice, and we need to listen. We are trying to balance imparting skills with letting the program grow and expand according to the needs of the participants. What they are saying right now is that they need silence, which speaks for itself.
(later stages of the MPower Program involve teaching methods of incorporating practices into work with youth; a retreat; and a regional conference. More details will be available on the Youth program web site.)