This isn't our first post to mention the container. About a year ago I wrote...
This isn’t our first post to mention the container. About a year ago I wrote about an experience I had with a classroom where the lack of safety, empathy, and trust in the learning space had to be addressed before we could continue with the mindfulness lessons (see Mindful of Loss with Students). When I teach the Heart-Mind Curriculum or when I mentor affiliate mindfulness teachers in schools, I talk a lot about the container. Often it turns up as an invisible barrier to our teaching by getting in the way our connection with students or making the classroom dynamics a road block to the content we want to impart. Due to its illusive nature, it can be difficult to remember to consider the container as a reason for our struggle.
While observing Heat-Mind Affiliate Teacher Lisa Allen teach mindfulness to a challenging class, I was thrilled to witness her instinctively address the container. She did so with great tact, appropriate for this young age group. I asked her to share her experience with the Heart-Mind Education community and I’m very pleased she did. — Kate Munding
It was my third school assignment teaching the Heart Mind Education curriculum. I’d taken the training twice before, knew the lessons well, and had a sense of the unit’s beautiful unfolding from pure mindfulness into the cultivation of kindness. But every eight-week assignment brings new insights that amaze me. Recently I was excited to discover something called, “The Container,” the physical and psychological space we create that values safety, trust, and empathy.
I had asked Kate Munding to observe my teaching of a first grade class that I had found challenging. Some of the students weren’t buying into what I was offering. And many of them were too distracted by those around them to give mindfulness a fair chance. After I had invited the students to close their eyes and pay attention to their breathing, I noticed some of them distracting their neighbors. Under these conditions my usual response might have been to intensify my engagement with the class through additional games, eye contact, and closer proximity. But this time I took a different approach. I asked them to open their eyes and I described what I had been seeing and feeling in their midst. I explained that I considered myself a guest teacher in their school. So we talked about how we treat guests and how important it is to help people feel safe and at ease. I explained that at that moment I was feeling uncomfortable with what was going on. I also mentioned that if they were going to have their eyes closed, they needed to commit to not poking each other, since their trust and comfort were important to me.
After class Kate explained that I was “addressing the container.” As mindfulness teachers it’s our job to create a “container” in which a culture of mindful awareness can grow and develop. Kate explained that the container is invisible until you discover it, at which point it becomes surprisingly concrete, as though you can almost touch it with your hand. It’s not that everyone is completely quiet, nor are they necessarily in a perfect cross-legged posture. Mindfulness is about the intention. A teacher can neither require this nor measure whether or not it’s happening. Nevertheless, conditions can be created in which the practice has a chance to develop. It doesn’t arise instantly. But with practice you can begin to sense when the container is in place, and so can your students.
When I returned to teach the next lesson a few days later I was ready with more strategies to strengthen the container, since both Kate and I predicted it would take time. In fact, when I arrived several students were already in their places, practicing mindful breathing with their eyes closed. No additional reinforcement was needed. The container was present.