Rachel, tell us more about Breathe and Orison
Breathe is for 16-19 year olds, and uses 12 simple activities to present a Christian response to questions of identity, forgiveness, dependence, acceptance, future and the existence of God, inviting students to consider their own thoughts, ideas and beliefs. It does this using a large floor mat in 12 segments, each of which has a practical activity; for example, Russian dolls, a tree, play dough or scales. Each segment relates to one of the 12 meditation tracks on the iPod the students are given to guide them through the session. I've been working with it since September 2009, marketing it, talking to schools and colleges about using it, running breathe sessions with students, and exploring other ways to get it "out there" so that more students in colleges and schools can experience a creative way to think about the stuff that matters.
I love the opportunities both projects provide to be in schools and colleges with young people, giving them space to consider their spirituality and explore the Christian faith and how it responds to questions of identity, globalisation, suffering and forgiveness. Seeing children and young people deepen their understanding in these areas never ceases to inspire me and encourage me to grow and develop in my faith too. I've learnt loads about God from some five-year-olds and a plasma ball!
A youth worker recently described a typical night in his youth club as the girls sitting down quietly to paint nails and the boys racing around causing chaos. Orison and breathe both sound like they need quiet and focus. Do you find that girls and boys react differently to the opportunities you provide?
Yes, girls and boys react differently to the resources. There are definitely some patterns in this, although I think other things affect it too, including the age group, the atmosphere, the time of day/week/year and how comfortable the group are with one another.
The differences become more obvious in secondary schools, particularly in years 9, 10 and 11. The girls are all worried about what the boys in the class are thinking of them, and the boys are all worried about what the other boys are thinking of them! The pressure for the girls seems to be to impress the boys, while for the boys it's not to appear "soft" or vulnerable wherever possible. Not long after we'd started Orison, I had a long conversation with Lee Jackson about it all, keen to create a resource that served boys and girls equally well. He advised that responding to spiritual resources such as breathe and Orison, involves opening up and being vulnerable. Girls will happily do this in public - it's part of the way they interact with each other. Boys, on the other hand, aren't so comfortable with this side of themselves and will be far more bothered by the people around them. The best way to engage boys in these activities is one-to-one. Sadly, this is rarely possible in school settings but we do try to break groups down into smaller groups to try and reduce the pressure.
More often than not, when we open Orison spaces up at lunchtime for pupils to return, the queue of pupils will be predominantly male. The boys come in large groups to enjoy the space to relax. I'm not sure many of them are engaging spiritually during these times, but what seems to happen at most schools is that the boys find somewhere in Orison where they feel comfortable enough to relax and they want more. The girls who come are more likely to come alone, or in twos and threes. They come because they saw something during their lesson that they wanted to take more time over, possibly away from the rest of their class. Maybe this is to do with the oft repeated fact that girls mature faster than boys - the girls recognise the significance and come back to give it more time, while the boys see it as something cool that they want more of but can't necessarily specify what that is.
There are resources that might appear more masculine or feminine, although stereotyping can be avoided with careful use of words and colours in presentations and explanations. Tim Abbott, from Sanctum, finds that gendered expectations don’t always match reality. They use mirrors to encourage pupils to consider their identity and self-worth. Initially this seems like a feminine activity. Looking in the mirror is something girls are meant to do and boys are meant to avoid. In reality, Tim says, the girls find it hard as they are often not comfortable with the way they look, while boys are able to see past that and actually consider the meaning behind the resource. He says that boys have often commented to him that they found the mirror resource particularly helpful.In general, girls need to talk to each other to process their thoughts and experiences. They become quickly comfortable with each other, opening up and talking about all sorts of things and in doing so, learning from their own and others experiences. As a result, girls settle into a session with breathe or Orison fairly quickly, but will prefer to do it with a friend or two to share the experience. As facilitators we need to be able to recognise the difference between this helpful conversation and the more distracting chatter and gossip. It's a fine line, but in many cases, stopping the conversation reduces the effectiveness of the experience for the girls.
Boys, on the other hand, find it hard to open up to each other, instead choosing to process these thoughts on their own (although I suspect, in most cases, secretly longing for someone to talk it all over with?) In a class-sized context, boys will find it hard to focus, being distracted by the worry of what the other boys in the class might be thinking if they are spotted getting into it. There are often ringleaders in these groups - a small number of key boys that all the others look to for direction. If you can engage these boys, the others will follow. Giving boys headphones and an iPod as part of the experience, as we do in breathe, allows them to shut off from the environment and the other pupils and have a truly individual experience. I think the best way I ever heard this explained is that girls communicate face to face, while boys communicate side by side while they are doing something else. These are, of course, generalisations. Some boys will talk, some girls won't. Some girls will be the "alpha female" who stops the rest of the class from engaging because they're worried what she'll say if they do.
One lesson I've had to learn time and time again with creative spirituality resources is that once the resource is created or introduced I have to let it go. It might be that I had a "right way of using it" in my mind at the start, but other people are sure to find other ways and see other things in it. As long as these "other ways" aren't damaging the resource or spoiling the experience for others, then I've had to learn that they are not wrong, rather just not what I thought would happen. In fact, often, they are better than anything I could have planned. I think that's transferable to using these things with young people and with boys and girls. If they're not breaking the resource, distracting others around them or stopping other people from being able to use the activity later, is what they are doing wrong? Or are they getting just as much out of it by using it "differently'? We do need to recognise that boys and girls are different, and wherever possible, provide resources that suit both groups, sometimes even providing different resources. But often it's just as valid to offer a resource or experience and let the boys or girls work out their own ways of using it effectively.
Do you think we all need stillness and times of quiet, or are some people just not wired that way?
I think we definitely all need times of stillness and quiet. It's too easy to get on with all the things that feel like they need to be done and if you're anything like me, the more I feel I've got to do, the less I make time to pray, read the bible, listen to God and just generally stop. And yet the more I'm attempting to do, the more I need that. I'm quite used to multitasking and trying to get things done on the run and I think I often try to pretend that I can do this with hearing from and learning from God too. It's a nice idea, but however hard I try and convince myself otherwise, the best times are always when I make time to stop doing things, escape the noise, even stop reading facebook and twitter and just focus on God. If he is to be first in life, the one who envisions, motivates, guides everything I do then surely he deserves time when I'm giving my full attention? Having said that, I'm also a kinaesthetic learner so I listen better when I've got something to do with my hands so finding something to do within the quiet and stillness does help me focus - driving, walking, baking or cleaning something are good examples. That's not to say that I've got it all sorted and I manage to do those things and make time regularly, I'm sure I get it wrong more than I get it right.
So often, teaching around this subject includes the advice to find a regular time (usually early in the morning!!) and a specific place where we can go for "quiet times." I'm sure this is helpful practice for loads of people but it's really only part of the story. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes solitude as "more a state of heart and mind than it is a place" and Mark Yaconelli says, in Helping Teenagers To Pray, that leisure, in the spiritual sense describes "a condition of the soul." We can find a quiet place to go and sit for as long as we like but if we're not still and quiet inside it won't be what we were hoping for. Yaconelli goes on to say, "It is only when young people are given permission for 'downtime' that they are able to step away from the anxious spirits that inhabit modern life and begin to discover and inhabit the presence of God. It is in these moments of spiritual rest and leisure that the communion of the Holy Spirit is received and life with Christ becomes a sufficient reality. And it is in downtime that the false attachments of daily life are exposed, and the love of God revealed and welcomed as the source of human freedom."
There are several things which need to be 'switched off' in order for us to fully experience God through stillness and quiet - the noise, the distractions, the crowd but also the worries and burdens, the pressures of deadlines and to-do lists, the expectations that we and others have of ourselves.
Do you have any tips for encouraging activists to be still, whether they’re boys or girls?
One of the activities in breathe offers students the chance to lie still for 5 minutes and think and dream about the future. At the start of sessions it's not particularly popular - 3 floor mats aren't as visually inviting as a Mr. Potato Head or some play dough. But once the students have tried it, it soon becomes one of the most popular elements of the experience. Time and time again I've finished a session in a school or college and asked which bits they like the best, to hear them say "the one where we got to lie down because we don't get much chance to stop and just think." These pupils might not have admitted it at the beginning of the session, but what they really needed was time to stop and do nothing.
Beyond that, it's about offering them a variety of ways to be still and encouraging them to try it. Young people today often don't have the skills needed to spend time alone or to do nothing so as youth workers we have some responsibility to teach those - perhaps providing a question or two to think about, or demonstrating ways to meditate on a bible verse or passage and then challenging the young people to try it. In such an instant world, it's likely that they'll expect it to "work" the first time so there's a bit of expectation management needed there too, and encouragement to keep going even when it's hard or feels like nothing is happening. Maybe the challenge there is to try the same thing every day for a week, or a few times a week for a month. It's also important to remember that even just one minute feels like a long time when you're not used to being on your own or being quiet. Start with realistic goals and grow it from there.
24-7 prayer have some great hour-long walk throughs to help people spend a whole hour in a prayer room if they feel like they don't know what to do and I'm sure these could be adapted for young people to use on their own. Mark Yaconelli has some great ideas for things to do to help young people be quiet and still in his book, Helping Teenagers Pray.Encourage the young people to think about their own personal styles in other areas - where do they learn best or study best? Where do they feel most alive? What do they do when they've got an hour of free time? What inspires them? The answers to these questions will help them work out what their best choices might be for developing stillness and quiet. If you're working with a group, give them time to feedback on what they've tried and hear other people's ideas to try too. Most importantly, pray. Having stillness and quiet is a way of spending time with God in our busy lives and nobody wants that for us more than God. If we ask him, he'll help us. Ask him to help you find those times for yourself and then for your young people, and encourage the young people to pray for themselves, each other and you too. In today's culture, stillness and quiet is one of the hardest things to achieve and priorities and yet probably the thing that all of us need the most. In the words of Henri Nouwen, "without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life"
And now I've written all that, I need to sit and read it to myself in an attempt to try and make more space for stillness and quiet in my own life!