Mr. Brown has been working at Grace since 2013. He first entered Grace as the Dean of the class of 2017 and has since transitioned to be the Director of Integrative and Co-Curricular Learning at the High School. While many know him for his mindfulness chapels, accompanied by his soothing voice that ends with the ringing of a bell, there are still those who wonder what it is exactly that Mr. Brown does for our school. His unique story extends past the walls of Grace Church and the mindful moments he has brought us.
“Mindfulness is a quality of attention,” says Mr. Brown. “It’s paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment without trying to fix it or change it.” He explains that every person has a constant thought track that most other animals don’t have. Humans are the only animals that ponder the future and the past and often aren’t connected to the present moment. This is common among students especially. Think of the last stressful test you took. Was it the test itself that spurred this anxiety? Or was it the constant stream of what if? Mindfulness is a practice of coming back to the present moment of what’s happening in the body and the space you are in currently.
Mr. Brown was at a self-described “pressure-cooker” school before he came to Grace, where he was employed as the Dean of Student Life and as a grade dean. This school had sought to shift to more balanced and sane environment, and hiring Mr. Brown was part of this effort. Mr. Brown recalls believing in this goal and feeling capable of instilling a sense of peacefulness since he participates in yoga and believes in mindfulness as a concept. What he found was that he himself could bolster his mindfulness practice. He told students during the day to “be calm!” while spending his sleepless nights responding to emails at 3am. “I wasn’t walking the walk,” he admitted.
That summer he obtained a grant to do a yoga teacher training seminar. What he found when he returned from this trip was that the methods he had been learning spoke to his students. Encouraged by this, he joined a year-long certification program that had three week-long retreats. The first retreat, he described, “would be the greatest challenge of my life.”
The retreat was silent, something Mr. Brown had never experienced before. “Those 24 hours were among the most excruciating of my life” remembers Mr. Brown. “I was jumping out of my skin. It was the first time I ever thought I have made a major mistake. This was the first time I was able to take all the daily distractions away and noticed I am uncomfortable.” Then after 24 hours, something shifted. “It felt like I was healing…it was life-changing,” he says. The focus was on him for a full, uninterrupted, 24 hours of silence. The more he thought about himself and his relationship with mindfulness, the more he realized how it was helping his students as well. “Schools wouldn’t hire a basketball teacher who has never played basketball,” he says.
In terms of how often Mr. Brown practices mindfulness, he finds what works best for him is to fold the practice into his life rather than forming a constricting routine that makes mindfulness a chore. “You don’t want it to turn into ‘I did mindfulness then. I do mindfulness when I sit at home for twenty minutes.” Although being mindful may seem easy, this ability comes with practice and awareness of what mindfulness really looks like. “You never see a person [in the media] being mindful without their legs crossed and their fingers touching and looking like they’re floating happily on a cloud.” This image of mindfulness can be really discouraging. Mr. Brown wants people to know that mindfulness is not supposed to look or feel perfect and happy because you will never grow that way. “I found that out the hard way,” he laughs.
Along with working at Grace, Mr. Brown works with the Tourettes Syndrome Foundation because he has Tourettes. Tourettes is a disease in which people experience motor and vocal tics that are best described as similar to an itch. “When you have an itch, you don’t have to scratch it, but the more you leave it, the more uncomfortable it becomes,” explains Mr. Brown. There is no cure for the syndrome, and the only remedy thus far is heavily sedating patients until they can’t feel their tics anymore, which comes at a cost. “It dulls out the nervous system and everything else, including personality.” There were no other suggested methods of coping with these tics, so Mr. Brown’s solution was to ignore his body because it felt out of his control. As he grew up, he found any sort of movement of the body to be super helpful. He was in a dance company and swam in college. He found that these total-body activities really helped to quell his tics. When he discovered the power of yoga and meditation, he knew he was onto something. Sure enough, a woman at Bowdoin University had written a paper on the effects of yoga and meditation on tics. Mr. Brown wrote to her immediately. Today he runs support groups for families of children who have Tourettes.
With kids, Mr. Brown likes to turn mindfulness into a game. He wants them to realize that before they react, they always have the option to pause. One of his favorite methods of getting kids to breath is to do a Spiderman breath. One breathes in, and then shoots their hands out, accompanied by an audible breath that mimics the sound of spraying webs. In this way, Mr. Brown is teaching us that mindfulness is a superpower–one we don’t have to wait for a spider bite to unlock. It’s been with us all along, right at our fingertips.