Serial cancer survivor Mike Christenberry said you can change your physiology in just three breaths.
“Things become a little calmer — a little more still,” he said after guiding me through three deep and deliberate breaths at his Body & MindwoRX studio in Edwards. “We’re all sentient beings — every being with a heartbeat — because we have senses, but our senses aren’t working if we’re sensing something in the past or anticipating the future.”
Christenberry is the founder of The Attention Project, a voluntary effort of a series of mindfulness workshops that have been incorporated into kindergarten through fifth grade classes at Edwards Elementary for the past four years.
“The Attention Project is a non-religious, non-spiritual, three-session program containing memory challenges, group participation, interpersonal respect exercises, guidelines for better communication and inner awareness practices designed to increase calm and creativity, as well as reduce reactive impulses,” he explained.
Kathleen Borgerson, a first grade teacher at Edwards Elementary, has been teaching at the school for six years. She said in the last four years, the project has provided skills that are new to children.
“Mike’s approach is really different,” she said. “I was surprised to see him training kids on how to pay attention to details, rather than just telling them to do it. He helps them practice the actual skill, and I think he does a really great job.”
The intention of attention
His own practices have contributed to Christenberry’s well-being and ultimately, his survival.
“Since 1981, I have had various cancers in my body,” he said. “Part of the reason is now being understood as an aspect of a genetic weakness — kind of an open door.
“I have realized that my mind is so much more powerful,” he continued, “and it’s the adjunct for all the times that a doctor isn’t working on me. But I know it’s powerful enough to make me think bad thoughts, feel insecure, have emotional and physiological stress going on; and if it’s powerful enough to do that, it’s powerful enough to do the opposite.”
He said that every diagnosis and proceeded remission elicits him to consciously maintain a state of rehabilitation.
“My blood pressure hasn’t gone up, my heart rate is about 50 and my respiratory rate is about eight breaths a minute — not 15,” he said. “So, physiologically, I am always in a kind of rest and repair mode, and that’s been very, very helpful for me.”
Christenberry said his children were his inspiration for starting The Attention Project. He recalled how the kids remarked on his changes of improved communication and compassion after he began teaching mindfulness.
“When they saw that, I think they thought ‘Well, if it worked for Dad, it should be able to work for a young kid,” he said.
He explained how kids are attracted more and more to things that are “unreal” — video games, text messages, advertising, etc. He said this is a complete disconnect from our humanness — from our sentient-ness — and that new generations are losing the ability to communicate.
Hundreds of students have completed the training, and he said it is conducted one grade at a time, once a week for three weeks. Fourth and fifth grades have sessions up to 35 minutes, and less time is taken with the younger grades, taking into account age-appropriate attention spans.
Christenberry said permission slips are sent home for parental approval. The program’s activities include memory games, interpersonal communication, calming breath work and stretching.
“We do stretches, because I tell the kids they are going to be sitting for a few minutes and not doing anything, and that their muscles have a lot of energy in them,” he said. “And that our lungs need some exercise too because our breathing is going to slow down, so we do some breathing exercises.”
Pay the attention forward
The work allows students to create pathways for improving on their weaknesses and building on their strengths, allowing them to discover deeper aspects of themselves, Christenberry said. Absolute creativity comes from a blank slate mind, he said.
“It’s a very organic process, which is why I am having a hard time boxing it up and handing it to a school district and saying ‘try this.’ I feel very personally responsible for it, and I think that’s good,” he said.
Christenberry said both the students and the faculty benefit from third party facilitation because the project leader makes it clear that he or she is not grading students. He explained how this allows students to express themselves more authentically and honestly.
“Teachers find benefit in this because it allows them to glimpse at trust and communication barriers that they may not have been fully aware of,” he said. “Students reap the reward of free expression and self-maturing.”
He said the program is designed and implemented so that the teachers can continue the exercises and the students can continue the practices well into adulthood.
“I want the instructors to feel like I am handing them something incredibly precious,” Christenberry said. “Because the teachers who have experienced it at Edwards Elementary, and even the principal, know how important it is and know how it has transformed kids’ lives.”
Borgerson said the tools he has brought to her classroom are ones that she can continue to implement on a day-to-day basis.
“My kids are six and seven years old, so they are still really wiggly,” she explained. “Mike had them sit at their tables and learn how to listen. It just shows how important it is to focus on paying attention and that it is a skill we can practice and get better at — just like learning to read.”
She said she would recommend the program to other teachers, and that it is something that is good to do at the beginning of the year. Borgerson said she would like to bring Christenberry back in for a tune-up session.
“I think the way you would see the most improvement is if the teachers practice implementing the skills,” she said. “Mike is not only giving the kids skills, but also giving the teachers skills, and that is what is going to make an overall huge impact.”