“One of the most moving experiences I’ve had in my work was after an exercise on empathy,” says Sam Himelstein, former Executive Director and Research Director of Mind Body Awareness Project (MBA), an organization that brings mindfulness and emotional intelligence–based services to incarcerated and at-risk youth. “After the exercise, one of the young men, a gang member, came up to me and told me that he could start to see another young man in the group—a member of a rival gang—as a human being too. These two would kill each other on the streets if they saw each other. For him to say that, for him to even think that, is incredibly profound.”
This kind of transformation is what MBA is all about. Himelstein himself discovered the power of mindfulness meditation after being locked up in juvenile hall as a young man. Determined to offer these transformative tools to other young people in similar situations, he worked with a team of meditation teachers, formerly incarcerated people and youth advocates to develop curricula. MBA offers a number of opportunities for youth to benefit from mindfulness principles and practices. At the heart of MBA’s work is its comprehensive curriculum—including the class on “empathy” mentioned above—offered in detention centers, detention camps and alternative high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. MBA initiatives also include trainings for staff of other youth facilities (to improve their capacity to teach mindfulness) and long-term research to study MBA’s own effectiveness.
They struggle to stay out of the system when going to juvenile hall is all too common.
MBA brings the power of mindfulness to kids who really need it. Mostly from under-resourced, lower socio-economic communities—where finishing high school, much less going to college, is not likely—they come from families with histories of drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, crime and trauma. They struggle to stay out of the system when going to juvenile hall is all too common.
“Incarceration among youth in the United States is a serious problem,” says Himelstein, “and rehabilitation services for youth are not consistent. The current state of services depends on the facility that houses the youth; youth may be offered a variety of mental health and vocational programming, or none at all.” In California, the annual cost per youth is about $119,000 at the county level and $199,700 at the state level. And recidivism rates are not good. Over 80% of youth released from state facilities during fiscal year 2004–2005 were rearrested within three years.1
MBA’s programs fill a unique niche in the collection of services available to high-risk kids. “While education and vocational skills are much needed for all of these youth, most of them struggle with emotional and behavioral issues, and some with trauma,” explains Himelstein. “Getting to the core of these issues through compassionate dialogue, mindfulness skills and authentic connection between our facilitators and our youth is key to addressing everything else.”
What makes MBA’s work unique is not just the training itself, but the staff, which consists of skilled instructors passionate about connecting with and delivering mindfulness training to this particular population. They come from diverse backgrounds, some with personal experience in the juvenile justice system. Himelstein himself was incarcerated seven times during his middle school years and partly credits mindfulness meditation for helping him turn his life around from a path of destruction.
MBA doesn’t just teach mindfulness, it is mindfulness in action.
Staff relate to the youth in accord with mindfulness principles so that the organization itself is a profound model of transformation. And for many of the kids it serves, it’s MBA’s unique approach to relationships that provides the foundations needed for change.
Mindfulness for High-Risk Youth
What is mindfulness and how can it help high-risk youth? Originally a meditative spiritual practice associated with Buddhism, mindfulness in contemporary American culture has come to include a vast array of techniques that build present-moment awareness and support personal freedom and autonomy. Practices include formal sitting meditation, walking or movement meditation, breathwork and body scans (during which one focuses one’s attention systematically throughout the body). Research has been growing in recent decades at a variety of major universities and medical centers, and it shows that mindfulness practices improve many aspects of physical and mental health, including: improving immune function, memory and learning, and reducing stress and depression.2
Research has been growing in recent decades at a variety of major universities and medical centers, and it shows that mindfulness practices improve many aspects of physical and mental health.
The power of mindfulness largely lies in the development of a watchful and detached awareness that releases an individual from repetitive, unconscious psychological and behavioral habits. This sense of freedom is often missing in the lives of the youth served by MBA, many of whom have “very high reactivity and impulsivity and little awareness of inner emotional states,” says Himelstein. “Mindfulness is about responding to experience rather than reacting to it,” he explains. “As the faculty of mindfulness increases, so does the ability to autonomously choose. With this increased ability to choose comes increased personal power.”
MBA has gone to great lengths to make traditional mindfulness approaches—like sitting meditation or even yoga—accessible to the youth it serves. “These youth are open to mindfulness,” explains Himelstein, “but you really need to translate the practices into their language and their terms. You must take account of their culture and youth culture, and subcultural aspects of language and ways of being.” This includes adjustments to both content and process. “For example, when we teach formal sitting meditation, we tend to shorten time for meditation and add time for discussion about how the practice can be helpful to them,” says Himelstein. “Also, we offer therapeutic-based groups, where kids can ask questions and be heard. We have to make the principles and practices of mindfulness much more contextualized for them, so they understand how it can help.”
To create an effective curriculum, MBA staff and researchers went right to the source to find out what could really help. Youth were asked to identify their ten key struggles in life, which were then cross-referenced with information from leaders in the field of mindfulness and with top reasons for youth recidivism. Given that there has been increased interest and attention given to the practices of mindfulness over the past several years, MBA is revisiting this process in order to revise and update the curriculum.
These are the top 10 issues for incarcerated and high-risk youth from research by Mind Body Awareness Project3
2.Death, Loss and Grief
3.Guilt and Regret
4.Gangs and Loyalty Codes
5.Relationships and Sex
6.Conflict, Anger and Fighting
8.Despair and Hopelessness
9.Money, Jobs and School
MBA’s research arm continually monitors the program’s impact. Three research studies conducted by Himelstein have shown that the program is effective at reducing impulsiveness and stress, and improving self-regulation.4 Self-regulation is especially important for these youth, who are so often embedded in lives of chaos and violence. The curriculum emphasizes responding versus reacting in any given situation.
“It’s very easy for these kids to say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’ and ‘I don’t want to do it in the future,’” says Himelstein. “But the hard part is for them to be in the moment. The hard part is when the fire is burning, water is boiling—how do they deal with it? To be aware and present when they are getting angrier and angrier and want to lash out and hurt someone—this takes training, mental training.
“We use a lot of metaphors in class that help the practices make sense,” he continues. “Most of these guys understand working out physically. So, we say mindfulness is like doing push-ups for the mind. They understand that it takes time to build this mindfulness muscle. They understand that they are learning to regulate themselves in the moment, and that this is key to not getting in a fight, or not messing up when they are on the outside, and not getting into trouble.
“I can tell you a story from a young man who completed one of our courses. After a class, one of the unit staff at juvenile hall was egging him on and basically verbally abusing him. But this kid just stood there. He wanted to curse him out, he wanted to physically assault him; but he knew that would lead to a new charge. His words to me were something like, ‘I just remembered mindfulness and meditation. I took about three or four breaths, and I made a solid decision to walk back to my room and not get in trouble.’”
Awareness in the present moment increases one’s capacity to make conscious, thoughtful choices, and it expands one’s sense of what is possible. This surge of freedom and possibility is an answer to the hopelessness and entrapment that so many of these youth feel. You can hear this sense of expansion as a girl from an MBA class in a California juvenile hall describes how it feels to look inward and get to know herself better:
The class helps me stay focused on my body and my soul, and when I get frustrated I can take a deep breath … I love getting in contact with me on the inside. I always seem to find something new about me in class … Just having a place where you can be with you and just you is always great.
And you can hear it in the words of a 17-year-old young man expressing hope for the future:
I reminisce about the past when I was running the streets.
When I had a shovel in my hand diggin’ my own grave and always on a creep.
Belonged in the home for the sick ‘cause the devil was calling.
Well that was me, and that’s what I was,
When the devil takes control of you that’s what he does.
Makes evil look good in all sort of wayz,
But all that B.S. are my evil old wayz.
Now it’s time to change!
Different name, different game.
Mindfulness Tailored for Youth
MBA has worked hard to channel its research about the needs of high-risk youth into a curriculum that will really help. The result is a 10-module course with classes on self-awareness, interpersonal relationships, impulse control and emotional intelligence, among others. Each module includes four components to ensure youth can really integrate what they learn into their lives, including didactic training, experiential activities, group process and a formal meditation practice. When asked for an example of how these four components work together, Himelstein described the “empathy” module:
“The didactic component of the empathy module includes teaching about what empathy is. We use this time to define empathy and present about how empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. And then there would be a discussion component so people could ask questions.
“In the case of empathy, the experiential activity is called ‘Stand If.’ Staff will read off statements, and if they are true for you, you stand up. For example, staff would say, ‘Stand if you have ever been judged for the color of your skin.’ And those in the group with that experience would stand up for a moment and then sit down. The facilitator then would move on—‘Stand if you’ve ever had your life threatened … Stand if you’ve ever felt completely alone in the world,’ etc.
“What this exercise does is help individuals see how many other people have gone through similar experiences,” explains Himelstein. “After the exercise, we have at least 15 minutes of group process during which we might discuss how this exercise made the youth feel. We might ask if they were surprised by how many people have lost a family member to violence. We might ask what it was like to feel that other people have had the same experiences as you. A traditional mindfulness meditation would follow but we would add on a piece specifically to help build empathy, such as a guided meditation in which one is asked to send compassion to someone who is going through a hard time.”
Relationships as Mindfulness
Perhaps unlike other organizations delivering similar services to this population, MBA has a core emphasis on developing authentic relationships with the youth they serve. When staff members express love and care for the youth while modeling mindfulness, the youth can more easily receive the teachings.
“We are offering the youth a chance to lower their defenses, but that is only possible when the youth see us do the same thing. We communicate through our actions that we are willing to accept ourselves—with honesty and openness—and also accept who they are.”
Jennie Powe Runde,
MBA’s Clinical Services Director
“Our goal here is to connect,”says Himelstein. “We connect human being to human being. We say, ‘We can present opportunities to learn and you can do what you want with them.’ And this builds trust. When they trust you, they can learn from you. Going in that way, you join with them and align with them, and they will give it a fair try.
“These kids are living incredibly difficult, challenging lives with so few resources,” he continues. “It’s not our place to come in and say, ‘This is how you can change.’ We can’t go to these kids with a sense of authority. If we came in saying ‘We can change you,’ we would be trying to control them; it would be a farce. And it would not be mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is about being aware and letting go of what’s outside your control. It acknowledges that we cannot control the outer world. So our approach says to them: ‘I trust you to be responsible and make decisions.’ Our stance perpetuates a deep respect for adolescents that they never get. We’re giving them an emotionally and relationally corrective experience.”
Perhaps even more than the classes on mindfulness, it is this offering of genuine relationship that helps the kids most. With lives so often devoid of care, concern and deep human connectedness, this missing piece assuredly has profound impacts.
“Love and compassion are at the core of what we do,” Himelstein says. “We get a fair number of people who want to work with us. They’ve had some meditation experience and they want to help—they want to do something good. But we turn a lot of people away. We never hire a facilitator who doesn’t really want to serve youth. This work is really about connecting to youth and feeling compassion for them. Everyone who works at MBA has a strong love for the youth we serve. This is the basis of our work. Everything else builds out from that.”