LEMONADE STAND

I was walking back from the farmers’ market, on a recent Saturday, when I came upon a front-yard lemonade stand and its four young proprietors. Their refined sales approach caused me to pause in admiration: they let the tall, cool glasses and low, low price of 25 cents speak for themselves.

Only after I’d paused did one of the girls ask politely if I’d like some. “I don’t drink sweet things,” I said, but not wanting to disappoint them, “I’ll donate the 25 cents.” I dropped a quarter into their jar. As I turned to walk away, a wee lad of three or four piped up, “I like your blue eyes!”

He was looking at my green sunglasses: green lenses, green frames. I didn’t seize the opportunity to explain that statistically boys are more likely to be color-blind than girls; I did, however, proceed to argue with him about the nature of reality.

“My eyes aren’t blue!” I exclaimed, pushing up my glasses for him to see. “They’re green and brown! I like your blue eyes, though!” “My eyes aren’t blue!” he retorted winningly, all evidence to the contrary.

Did a satisfying conclusion exist for this friendly dispute? Standing there with four kids looking at me, I realized that I had betrayed the principles of mindfulness as espoused by Susan Kaiser Greenland. In her book The Mindful Child, she suggests a classroom exercise in which children take turns pairing off to tell each other how their eyes look, as opposed to what color they are, in acknowledgment both of individual perception and of the possibility of change. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have asked the boy, “Oh, do my eyes look blue to you?” and had an exchange that didn’t negate his very dear opening remark. Facts may (or may not) be facts, but regardless, they don’t necessarily need to come first.

“Possibility” has been a key component in the work of Dr. Ellen Langer, which I was excited to discover early this summer; her books represent decades of inspired and inspiring research. In The Power of Mindful Learning, she describes experiments in which material to be learned is presented conditionally—in essence, “This is one way it could be” vs. the more common “This is how it is”—with positive results.

In one study, free piano lessons were offered to participants randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was asked to memorize through repetition, as is typical, while members of the second group were encouraged to vary their style as much as possible while doing preliminary fingering exercises, and to pay attention to the influence of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Each group was given the same specific lesson, and the piano playing was taped and rated by two experienced observers (presumably not privy to the grouping, although that’s not explicitly stated in the summary). The mindful players were seen as demonstrating greater competence and creativity—and also enjoyed the activity more.

In the first chapter alone, a number of other examples echo that theme: that more exceptional performances, as well as greater satisfaction, arise from the invitation to engage mindfully, which Dr. Langer describes in slightly different terms than the definition popularized by Jon Kabat Zinn. She identifies three traits of mindful learning as “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Having recently begun The Power of Mindful Learning at the time of my walk, its insights flashed through my mind as I was ruing my poor conversational choices, and I realized I could at least plant a different seed of possibility, before moving on. “Now you can decide,” I said, “whether you want to just keep that quarter as a bonus, or donate a free cup of lemonade to the next person who walks past.” Maybe they gave some thought to that; maybe it will stay with them.

 

A seed is, itself, a possibility. A small, good thing.

 

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The Mindful Child (2010) by Susan Kaiser Greenland, from Atria Paperback, New York.

The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen J. Langer, from Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. Quoted with permission from the author, from p. 4 of this edition.

 

6 thoughts on “LEMONADE STAND

  1. That’s quite interesting about the piano study — I’ve noticed a similar divide myself, both as someone who plays the piano, and as a parent whose kids take music lessons. In my own case, when I’m concentrating on technical accuracy, the emotional connection to the music gets attenuated; whereas if I’m playing “once more with feeling,” the result isn’t as clean.

    With the kids, I’ve sometimes suggested they imagine a story to go along with the music they are practicing, and I”ve noticed the expression and engagement with the music becomes stronger.

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    • I’m glad and grateful that you felt moved to share that, Rob. Not only because I think “story” is important in infinite ways, and not just because I get a warm feeling when I encounter an instance of good parenting (“good” here meaning “present” and “creative”), but also because I imagine this same strategy working well in the classroom setting – adaptable, efficient, and easy to explain. Children take to stories so readily… I look forward to returning to this topic, hopefully gathering in others’ ideas – as well as any more of yours that you choose to share along the way! Regarding the study, I agree: EL’s work is so interesting.

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  2. I teach adults (mostly young adults), specifically law students in their third year who are actually representing clients. For most of them, law school is anxiety producing and the idea of helping real people is terrifying. Our process of clinical legal education stresses helping the students become aware of all of the steps they are taking, to question their own behavior and to be aware of what is going on around them in court systems and question those. So perhaps there is mindfulness in that. Not sure. I have never had the patience to practice any sort of slowing down personally, so I am a bit uncomfortable with mindfulness exercises in the classroom (I agree they are a good idea and probably produce many benefits, I’m just uncomfortable). I went to a conference earlier this year and sat in on a mindfulness in the classroom demonstration. I shared with the group that a few minutes in, I wanted to jump up and run from the room. Not sure to this day what terrified me so much about it (probably deep-seated childhood issues!) but I imagine some of my students might feel the same way. Anyway, not sure where to go with this except to say I think it is great to instill in kids the idea that quieting down in a mindful way can be incorporated into their daily lives.

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    • I so appreciate your comment, Kimberly. I can well imagine that the transition into actual client representation could cause anxiety for your third-year students; I would be petrified.

      The word “awareness” arises frequently in writing about mindfulness, at least all the texts I’ve encountered. And Ellen Langer, whom I esteem, makes a point of the importance of asking questions and considering new possibilities. Does your educational approach foster mindfulness in your students? It sounds like it might, albeit perhaps not in the strictest traditional sense, which involves a heightened awareness of one’s own inner workings, the ability to “watch one’s own thoughts.” I’m hoping to be speaking at some point with someone about mindfulness in legal practice, so stay tuned – that would be an opportunity for you to compare your experience, and I would value your response to that.

      I feel I’ve been remiss in not writing yet about “what mindfulness is,” but it feels like a big subject and one I’m still growing into. Suffice it for now to say that my own sense of what mindfulness practice “looks like” in adults is rather different than what I would practice with kids. I tend to feel that the discipline of sitting meditation is an important element for adults, foundational to other ways of practicing – and supremely rewarding; whereas with kids, playfulness, energy, and creativity can all be engaged in a variety of activities that increase awareness while calming the body through the integration of thought, feeling, and senses in a grounded experience of the present moment. A number of activities are described in Susan Kaiser Greenland’s book, and I hope to share more here. Actual meditation with kids is not only possible but also rewarding; I don’t think of it in terms of “discipline,” however, and the duration probably works best when it’s relatively brief.

      Regarding the terror you mentioned feeling in response to the mindfulness demonstration, I can share that I still often find the prospect of meditation daunting, especially if I haven’t made time for it in a while. Even when I’m clear about wanting to do it, I can find myself going out of my way to avoid it. But it has always, for me, proven worth the time and effort, and the more regularly I sit, the easier I find it. (Now when I feel reluctant, I dedicate the activity to others, usually kids I’ve worked with, some of whose troubles and needs I’m aware of, to whom I wish I could send a peaceful feeling.)

      If you ever find yourself with the desire to try it – and I sense that there’s a hint of it there! – sitting with a group can be helpful, offering a sense of accountability to show up, the energy of the others in the room, and the chance to talk through the experience afterwards, if you wish. Also, I don’t meditate with music currently, but it might relax you and help you ease into it. Lastly, although I think meditation is tremendously valuable, there are other things one can do that are less demanding but also serve a mindful purpose – for example, starting each day by writing three things one is grateful for. That has also proven powerful for me, and there is brain-science research to support it.

      This is almost a post in itself – I may have to plagiarize myself at some point! In fact, I feel certain I will; it’s often easier for me to articulate thoughts to someone else than simply to the page. Thank you again for visiting and sharing your thoughts. And three cheers for good teachers, of any subject and age group!

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