STAUNTON, Va. -- The Stuart Hall auditorium was silent Tuesday afternoon as nearly 200 students gazed at a moving geometric shape projected on a screen, breathing in as it expanded and out as it collapsed.
After a few moments, the Rev. Connor Gwin broke the silence with a light ding of a singing bowl.
He explained that he had planned on using that day's chapel to discuss All Saints Day but changed course after he realized they'd reached a stressful point in the semester. For the next 30 minutes, Gwin talked the group through a three-point strategy for stress management -- notice the storm, ride the wave, find an anchor.
The session was a typical afternoon in chapel under Gwin's tenure at Stuart Hall. The chaplain has made mindfulness a priority in his work with students from preschool through 12th grade and hopes to create a culture of calm at the high-achieving, 175-year-old Episcopal private school.
"The whole game is to increase the space between stimulus and response," Gwin said. "So for teenagers, where that gap is minuscule, if I can build in one breath ... then I think I've been successful. I'm under no illusions that the entire student body is going to be floating around ... and chanting through lunch."
Professor and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." Mindfulness practices have become increasingly popular in schools in recent years, as young people report high levels of stress and studies suggest mindfulness practice may benefit student attentiveness and behavior and relieve anxiety.
The chaplain said he started his own meditation practice about 10 years ago, when his father died while Gwin was in seminary. Gwin found that his usual coping mechanisms weren't bringing him peace.
"I needed some kind of deep connection, but church wasn't working, saying prayers wasn't working -- I was just so wrapped in grief," he said. "So I (thought), 'Can I just sit silently?' ... and that got the ball rolling."
Once Gwin learned about meditation, he said he wondered whether adolescence might have felt less turbulent if he'd had those tools as a teen. That sparked an interest in teaching mindfulness to teens when he worked with youth ministries, and he made the mindset a priority when he became chaplain at Stuart Hall two years ago.
"It's what I call an achievement-free zone. No one's going to win at chapel. It doesn't go on your resume. It's not part of your grades at the end of the semester," he said. "What I like to say is that it's a place to make sure that your head is where your feet are."