Building a Mindful Community with JG Larochette

Managing editor Stephanie Domet catches up with JG Larochette to find out how the Mindful Life Project got started and what impact it's had on thousands of lives, including his own.

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Real Mindful: Building a Mindful Community with JG Larochette

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Stephanie Domet: Hello and welcome to Real Mindful, this is where we speak mindfully about things that matter. Real Mindful is a twice monthly conversation with some of the teachers, thinkers, writers, and researchers who are engaged in the mindfulness movement. You’ll hear conversations about the science of mindfulness, the practice of mindfulness and the heart of it and we’re so glad you’re here. I’m Stephanie Domet, I’m the managing editor at Mindful magazine and Mindful.org. And this is Real Mindful. 

JG Larochette: 25 kids who maybe got still and silent for 10 seconds in the first five months of the school year dropped into practice, eyes gently closed, bodies still.

SD: That’s JG Larochette, he’s the founder and director at the Mindful Life Project. The Mindful Life Project is a nonprofit JG started almost a decade ago to help bring the transformative power of mindfulness and its tools to school kids and school communities.

The Mindful Life Project is a charitable partner of this year’s Mindful30, our annual 30-day meditation challenge that runs every September. It’s late in September now but you can still sign up to receive 30 days of mindfulness instruction straight to your inbox from some of our favorite meditation teachers, people like Sharon Salzberg, Barry Boyce, Shalini Bahl-Milne, Rashid Hughes, Sara Ivanhoe, and more. Also, your subscription to The Mindful30 helps support the Mindful Life Project and we’ll draw up a link to both Mindful30 and the Mindful Life Project in our show notes so that you can check both of them out and decide.

Now, I had the chance to catch up with JG Larochette recently to find out how the Mindful Life Project got started and what impact it’s had on thousands of lives, including his own. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Hello JG and welcome to Real Mindful.

JG: Hello, Stephanie. Thanks for having me today.

SD: JG, you found mindfulness at a particularly turbulent time in your life when you cast your mind back? What do you remember about your first or your first few meditation sessions?

JG: Oh, I got chills when you asked that question, Stephanie. Yeah, a little context, I was a classroom teacher here in Richmond, California, before that, I was a coach on the playground during recess after school with amazingly resilient young people but also systemic issues that led to our kids not having the mental and emotional support they deserved, as well as me as an educator being burned out.

So, it was a deep suffering that happened in 2011 after many years of trying to push through being the educator that I wanted my own kids to have, but also being the advocate community voice. So, it was many years of pushing, pushing, pushing, not really finding the pause, not taking care of myself. In the fall of 2011, in the depths of my anxiety and depression, I tried so many different things to try to figure out how to be healthier and how to come back to myself, right? I’d lost myself fully.

So that first mindful practice—the meditation I did that pops to mind was here at the Kaiser, which is our health care provider, they had a mindfulness course here in Richmond, which I was surprised by in the first place. I felt a sense of belonging in my own experience and a sense of true freedom from those thoughts and emotions that I thought I was supposed to avoid and neglect and really a connection to my whole humanity and a welcoming.

And then over at Spirit Rock with Jack Kornfield on a Monday night talk a couple of weeks later—these are my first two mindfulness experiences—and just being like, “Wait a second. I think I’ve been avoiding myself for a long, long time. I think I’ve abandoned myself time and time again since I was a young person to fit the layers of conditioning in the narrative that were provided.” So here this is me, and maybe I can start falling in love with a true nature. And then I went to Jack. I was like, “I want this to go to schools across the country.” And so, I remember this moment in time in December 2011 that I was like, “Hey, I think everyone deserves this practice and everyone deserves it because it’s already in us. We were born with it. Everything that happens after is where we start abandoning.”

And it was beyond transformative. I went from deep suffering to liberation within a few weeks of space. I didn’t expect that.

SD: Wow. That’s incredibly powerful and a quick transition. Your head must have been spinning in some ways.

JG: I mean, I think that the thing that comes up is that it was already spinning right when it happened. What happened was that as an educator, as a human being, as someone that wanted to always be of service to others. I was eight years old when I started seeing injustices in schools here in Berkeley, California, or when I was in Indigenous places with my family across the Americas, or beyond in inner city parts of the community I’ve been in. So one of the things that happened for me was that I wanted to be of service but I also truly felt like this human being that I am doesn’t deserve the same thing I’m trying to give others. So that wanting to make everyone else’s life more enjoyable and empowering, I wasn’t fulfilling for myself.

As an athlete, I can say that sport was my first mindfulness practice growing up. Then I became this educator and sports was still there, but it was more had kind of overwhelmed and not so much connected to the body. Stillness for me became my true sanctuary. So, I think both pieces; the head spinning, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t functioning, I was trying to show up to school still without any idea of who I was anymore, and just trying to be of service without anything left in my being. So, you know, it’s that deep suffering that allowed the crack to open for me and realize that what I’ve been looking for externally was already internal.

SD: Right. And then you’re able to step into this space and step into that pause and kind of tap into your own wisdom and truly figure out how to serve the people you want to serve.

JG: One hundred percent. I mean, I keep on feeling so humbled. We serve fourteen thousand kids in direct service work with our organization in schools, with coaches that are mindfulness based, social and emotional learning, folks across the Bay Area and beyond now. And I keep on saying the real reason this worked was first and foremost for me, I was able to nurture an experience with my emotions, my thoughts, and my lived experience. It was compassionate versus critical. It was about welcoming this inner experience as it is, without thinking that because of anxiety rising or fear rising, I’m weak or less then.

And then when you translate that to young people abroad, to my third graders—only a few weeks after I took those two classes, I brought it to my third graders that boys and girls and said, “I don’t know if you want to try this out, but I really found a sense of well-being that I’ve been really looking for.” And I was transparent with them. I told them that I was overwhelmed, that I was having anxiety and that I needed to figure things out. And they were beyond compassionate, but they’re also concerned, right? They’re like, wait a second, you are not the cool, fun guy we had in first and second grade that we were supposed to have in third grade. And I said, I’m not right now because I’m not, believe me.

So, I brought it to my third graders a couple of weeks after I learned it just to say I’m going on this journey, do you want to go on the journey with me? And Stephanie, that moment will forever be etched in my whole mind, body, and spirit because 25 kids who maybe got still and silent for 10 seconds in the first five months of the school year dropped into practice; eyes gently closed, bodies still and I guided breath awareness and sound awareness with very little background, except that this had changed my life in two weeks. And that room will forever be in my heart because every kid’s eyes were closed, every kid kept on going. They were supposed to stop after two minutes, I rang the bell and was like, it’s time to open your eyes and not one kid opened their eyes. It was seven minutes later when they finally were looking around and I asked, tell me what happened? Every kid said something about every kid that was the most peaceful; I felt I was the calmest. I felt like I was floating. I was like in the clouds. I was like, wait a second, so you also resonated with this practice? So, for the next five months they were the co-founders of the work. So, in our classroom we created an organization that now serves tens of thousands of people, but it’s based on our young people’s innate nature.

SD: What convinced you that your students would benefit from mindfulness? You know, you have this kind of two-week turnaround. For yourself, what was it in you that saw right away that this is something I should bring to these kids?

JG: It’s a great question. I think that first and foremost, to be fully transparent, I had a three-year-old and a son on the way and I started really reflecting on what mindfulness had done for me in the short amount of time. Obviously, the scientific side of letting that stress response lower, let the cortisol adrenaline drop; all those physiological sides but it was like, what was it around my own experience that was human?

It was really like, I’m reconnecting with that powerful, great, and authentic self that I think every kid is when they’re born. And when we have trauma, we have stress and we have systemic issues, social injustices, violence, whatever it might be and that innate beautiful, authentic nature that we’re born with gets covered up. And I’ve seen that. And that’s what was so hard for me. I’d have primary trauma. I had secondary trauma. I was watching my young people in the family suffer at the injustice of society and the systemic issues we deal with on a daily basis. And that’s what burned me out. So, it’s like, wait, they just need to keep tapping in. They already know it. We’re trying to send them all this curriculum, all these different things, but like they are who they need to be. But we don’t want them to abandon themselves because of their environment.

So that was kind of like I should try it out with them, see what happens. And truly, I didn’t expect it to be what it ended up being. I mean, now they just graduated. Those kids now graduate high school this last summer. And just thinking through kind of like that journey that they went on with me and how important it was for each of us at that time and how important that it wasn’t at a time where mindfulness was cool; especially because it was getting colonized in a lot of ways with the Lululemon and that kind of stigma is for white elite, rich people versus this is for people of color and this is thousands of years old. And there’s ways we can frame it so it’s inclusive, sort of every human being beyond any gender, race, creed, language. This is us as humans.

SD: Yeah. That’s so exciting. Just the intrinsic-ness of it and the opportunity; I mean, I often think I look at the young people in my life and I think, how can I even tell you all the things that it can take you decades to come back to yourself. To peel back all those layers of conditioning and perceived ideas and inner critic and all of that stuff. And when I look at a kid, I just think, Oh, you don’t have any of that on you yet. And like, how can we best equip you to resist that stuff and keep it from accruing to you? And so, mindfulness is one of those tools, right?

JG: One hundred percent. I think that’s a great piece that you’re saying because as much as mindfulness for youth is super important because it’s tapping an innate piece that they haven’t abandoned yet or are abandoning but don’t need to; the adults often are the reason we abandon ourselves as young people. It could be messages from the media. It could be messages from adults at schools. It can be from family members where you’re not good enough or you should be this.

SD: Why aren’t you more like your sister?

JG: Exactly. Exactly, the comparison. Oh, you got anger problems, right? I always say that, especially in the work that we do, one of the most powerful things is that emotions and thoughts aren’t who we are; they’re just experiences that are coming and going. But when you label, and I saw this in schools, was like a five-year old that’s all of a sudden already famous for being the troublemaker or the kid who no one wants to have in their class. And that was the piece that really harmed my experience; watching adults with trauma or adults with stress and how reactive we can be to a little five-year-old or six-year-old or mind you, a middle or high schooler. And those symptoms that we’re reacting to are not being uncovered at the root cause and specifically as adults.

What I did in my classroom for nine years was build a sense of belonging and I made every kid know not your grades, not your behaviors; none of that is going to change the way I approach this relationship. It’s unconditional care. And if we build that relationship, what happens? Trust, safety, empowerment. And I saw it happen in my class but what I didn’t do is I didn’t do that for myself.

And that’s why I believe that mindfulness, beyond as we know it, can be a global transformation tool at a scale that we haven’t seen yet. But I think in education it’s key because our education system really forces that stress response and this conditioning of, you have to be this as a school staff member, you have to be this as a student.

I couldn’t read until third grade very well and I became a third-grade teacher. I always told that to my kids; We all have different needs. We all learn at different times, and we all have skills that are amazing in different ways. But in our education system right now it has become more and more about the tester and for teaching a test taker to learn, not a person is curious about the world or curious about themselves.

So, I think that the combination of the root problems we have with what we can do from a place of mindfulness, compassion, and daily practice of community; this is relational practice. And I think everyone thinks, Oh, it’s great for you individually. Well, no, Mindfulness is great individually only because it also makes us healthier as a community. It’s relational, so it’s not an individual thing. Nothing in life is right.

SD: So, what did you see in the community of your classroom when you introduced this mindfulness to your students? What kinds of changes did you start to observe?

JG: First, it goes back to me, right? So, because I had anxiety and because I had depression symptoms and I was in this experience of avoidance of it; my capacity to fully present was not there for them. So, for those four or five months in the fall where I was in turmoil, they were reflecting a couple of things: They were reflecting me not being mentally and emotionally present, physically I was kind of on most days, but also reflecting that their world was also that. So, if you have shootings in the neighborhood or you have family challenges, maybe there’s no sanctuary for ourselves to be present with who we are and take refuge in that.

So I think the biggest thing that happened was they saw me and they saw me grounded my identity of who I am and who I want to be, and they reflected that pretty quickly. Then we started practicing and it was just like this whole pathway, I would say, of just an open infinite field of possibilities. We said, “All right, what does a classroom, a school, and what does education really need to look like for your needs to be met?” And then mindfulness gave us all that capacity to see, like you said, and unravel those layers to say, “Oh, we need mindfulness in the morning, we need compassionate afternoons, we need transitions to be mindful sits because it can be stressful from going from math to reading or after recess when we’ve had troubles in the playground; we need these, but we also need ways to let out emotions in healthy ways.”

And so, we started practicing mindfulness and were like, yes, that’s the GPS system to live this internal experience and a skillful, loving, compassionate way but now how do we also release some of these traumas, sufferings, and stress? And so, it was expressive arts, it was yoga movement, it was performing arts. So, we started to create these modalities because mindfulness gave us that clarity of what we wanted to create as a class but even bigger than that as the society they did. They told me at the end of the next four months of piloting like we love you as a teacher, but you’ve got to get out of this classroom and teach mindfulness and do this program around our community. And that’s kind of what happened.

SD: These third graders gave you that mandate.

JG: Just eight- or nine-year-olds. They’re like, you remember that fifth grader that was at the neighboring school that broke into our class and stole our laptops? We should have mindfulness there for them because they’re not the problem, they just have a lot of stress. They probably have a lot of things happening and they probably didn’t want to do that. So, it was very, very much about ownership of like, hey, what do we do to change not just our lives in that classroom at elementary room 118, but what does it mean in South Richmond? What does it mean in our neighboring streets? Was it mean for our rivals? They didn’t have any reason to be like, that school should have mindfulness because they’re experienced like those are rival schools. We don’t want to be around them, right?

More than this practice, mindfulness was owned. And I would say that’s kind of the long winded answer; a deep ownership of the practice, a deep engagement and relevance, a continuation of knowing that this is a path that they can explore on their own at home on the part and also authenticity; like they were just in it.

SD:  Now, how long had you been teaching at this point?

JG: Yes, I started out as a Playworks coach, which was a nonprofit based out of Berkley, but now a national nonprofit where we organize recess games, run the PE program, because last schools cut the PE program and the arts, so we run PE programs and after school programs. I did that for two years in Oakland and then Richmond at the school and then five miles from where I was born and raised, I saw the systemic problems and the systemic inequities at a level that was traumatizing and overwhelming.

I saw my kids on the playground really shift with a culture of inclusion and empowerment and I thought, well, what would you do for the classroom learning experience? Because they didn’t want to go back to class. And I was like, let me be a teacher. So that was from 2004 to 2012; eight years of teaching, third, fourth and fifth grade in the community, and also trying to be an advocate, a rallier for the families and advocate to make sure our schools are equitable.

SD: So, you already knew—I mean little kids are awesome; I teach little kids too. I teach them creative writing; lots of nine-year-olds. And I mean, they’re just incredible; they’re dialed in. They know they know what time it is. They don’t have so many of the hang ups that my adult students have, for instance. So, you already knew the kind of like power and potential of eight- and nine-year-olds but when they were really getting it and really talking about those fifth graders who broke in; they weren’t saying they need to be grounded or they need to go to detention, they were saying they need this transformative practice too. Did that kind of blow your mind?

JG: I mean, first it did. But then, like, one of the things that we embed, and I think is so important that gave me the space to see that my suffering wasn’t me, was the science of stress and trauma; how it affects our behaviors, how that shows up in our lives. And so, they were able to see that they were all up in their amygdala. They had flipped their lids, like their prefrontal cortex was not working if they went and broke into a classroom as a 10- or 11-year-old. They said that that isn’t what they really wanted to do. And so, when the police found the laptop right and asked me, I went to the students, I said, “What do you think? What should we do here?” And they said right away, do not press charges. Like they deserve to get the support; this is probably because adults in their lives are not well.

So, it blew my mind, but also didn’t because I think we talked about this right; our inner our inner strength as humans is we might be wired for survival in the brain, but we’re wired for love in the heart. And that’s what young people show, right? That magic of being, like you said. And unfortunately, we’ve got to do better as a society, as societies, because they usually are abandoning that too soon because of all the chaos around them. But that was kind of the opening of like, oh, let’s work with the kids who need the most support in schools in our Rise Up program, which was created by the students. We pull kids out of their class for forty-five minutes, twice a week, teaching mindfulness, expressive arts movement and performing arts in order to engage that person and really owning it and then being able to engage in healthy ways with the rest of school. So that was our flagship program, and it was mixed up with students who are struggling with behaviors due to trauma and kids who are thriving socially and academically, because oftentimes those two populations are told they shouldn’t be around each other, either explicitly or implicitly.

So, I was like, OK, what do we do? And I remember students saying, “When I sit quietly in class while other kids are misbehaving, they get all the attention.” So, I was like, well, what do we do to change that? Well, we should create groups with both sides to build compassionate communities. So that was our first program.

And then quickly, a few months after that and in three schools, it is like did you see how stressed-out teachers are? Did you see how kids that don’t have mindfulness are maybe engaging in healthy ways to those other students that are coming back from groups? And then it was our second program Mindful Community that we created because of that; where every kid on a school campus once a week, with their teacher in the room, gets on Mindful space emotional learning from us, teaching and coaching it. So, I think that’s kind of like the pathway of community change was really innate because they already knew the answers.

SD: And was it as readily accepted by the larger school community? It sounds like the kids were on board, easy like a slam dunk. But what about the larger school community: the administrators, the parents and all that?

JG: So, parents were one hundred percent behind. I remember that I didn’t expect it, but I was like, wow, like parents are engaging. I think I built trust and relationships with parents so that was there. The school districts are a different story.

I actually—in 2012, May 2012, my students and myself decided this has to go beyond the four walls of this classroom. I went to the school districts that don’t pay me anything else, keep me as a teacher salary and I’ll be a mindfulness instructor for a few schools in our community that most need it. That was a quick no. And that was like I was being forced to start a nonprofit. I guess. I don’t know anything about business. I don’t know anything about organizational development. I don’t have any funding like, what’s happening? But that was kind of the push that helped the Mindful Life project; the students’ voices, my family support and my own innate knowing, deep knowing that this had to happen. And now that we have forty-five staff serving so many students, it’s kind of wild to think back to. Like, I was just a teacher and all I wanted to do is get the same salary, which was very low here in California, especially in our district; it paid very low compared to other districts across California. But it didn’t work out and I guess that was a blessing too.

SD: Yeah, it worked out in this much larger way. And so like, how do you teach mindfulness to kids; like what’s the gold standard for that? I assume in the beginning you were just doing like a basic version of what you’d been taught.

JG: Totally. Originally, in the first couple of months, I was taking these classes I’ve been taking and making them appropriate, right? Really trying to get them to engage, bring the relevance to them because if it isn’t relevant, it’s like, why are we doing this? And, you know, as an educator, if you don’t know the why, why are you even saying it is an adult? And then that connection of ownership. And so that was a beginning.

Then I was lucky with Mindful Schools, which was just down the road. Megan Cowan and Christina Costello, both took me on and said, “Hey, we hear that you’re doing this, we hear you need support.” I asked them for a job. And they were like, “Well, unfortunately, we’re moving towards this trainer-to-trainer model and, also, your district said no to us. So we got a no, and you got a no.” But they were able to really support me and understand that I could do some things. I could use some of their curriculum, originally. So, for the first six months, we were using a little Mindful Schools curriculum, and we were using some of our curriculum to try and navigate student voices. And that’s really what happened for the next year. We started getting students feedback, we looked at age appropriateness, we looked at culturally relevant pedagogy, right? How do we make sure that our young people are connecting with these lessons in the way that’s beyond just the lesson?

So, now over the last eight years after that, we are just continually evolving our three main curriculums. So, we have a TK through second grade curriculum called the Brain House; which basically has literally a poster and lessons that go with an upstairs brain (which would be our prefrontal cortex), Breathing Bruno, Listening Leslie, name it Nyree, Body Scans Sammy (represented by the stuffed animals). Of course, very much TK through second grade. And then downstairs friends are: Angry Rex, Sad Selene, Nervous Naseer and they get to know that they both belong. And they get their mindful sits with their upstairs friends, and they start creating kind of the way to live it; both in a stillness but then outside of our experience.

And then we have an upper grade curriculum for third through fifth grade, which is then getting deeper, more relational practice because until you’re eight years old; the world revolves around you. When you’re eight years old, you start noticing that your being is also intertwined in others. And we have that curriculum that’s a deep, kind of relational and stillness practice. And then there’s a middle school curriculum.

And we never stop; our curriculum is ever evolving. We never think we’re going to be done with it because lived experiences change. Like right now, in a pandemic, we can’t just use the exact same lessons. We had to adapt and change our lessons and meet the relevant point of our lives. And that’s, for us, is why mindfulness is so key; we can come in with the lessons. But what’s really important, as mindfulness practitioners and coaches for young people, is that we really use what’s actually there. Which can be sounds, it could be emotions, it can be thoughts, and it can be toxicity of the school culture or something that happened in the neighborhood. So how do we connect these practices in a way that young people are going to use it? And it’s been amazing to watch how they bring it home to their families, how after or after school we see kids in their mindful sits because they were trying to resolve conflict together. So, the ownness—

SD: What do you mean? They are organizing themselves into little mindfulness moments?

JG: Most definitely.

SD: Oh, come on. Tell me about that.

JG: I mean from five years old, it’s amazing. I mean, we’ve had it from all ages. I can think of one time, that was recent before the pandemic because we’re just going back to in-person person learning here in California, but there was a conflict on the playground by six-year-olds; three kids who’d been getting into quite a bit of challenging situations on the playground, had a conflict and the teacher saw them down the way, but they didn’t see her. And next thing she saw was them talking about something and then sitting on the playground structure. And when she came a little closer, she saw that their eyes were closed and she was like, are they doing a mindful sit right now? And that’s exactly what happened. They talked it out; the teacher didn’t engage at all and just stayed back. And next thing she knew the relationships were so much better moving forward. And they were three kids that were having a lot of toxicity and they kept on practicing. And so, we’d talk to them in our small group work, we’d talk to them in the whole class; we show that is the change. And we see that pretty often.

And we have another kid in another school that was like creating a mindfulness club at the garden of the school during lunch [saying], “If you have any issues I have some nice mindful sits for you,” this is a fourth grader. “And I even have some beautiful nature to share with you.” So, it’s cute.

And this is in a community where there is violence on a daily basis; where usually outdoors can be unsafe, at least in the feeling. And they just constantly have this mindless love. Kids will come in when they want to, they’re having challenges and they join you, putting a rock or two in their hands that feel grounded. And this is all like a lot of what we do is just be conduits for young people to really own it and kind of share the path. And so, our programs are always about that.

SD: Yeah. What do you make of that? Of the way they take it on and make it their own in that way?

JG: First and foremost, that is who we are authentically, right? That we are social beings, that we care about each other, that kids are connected to compassion and empathy, that they can get hardened because maybe the compassion, empathy hasn’t been shined on them. But when they get it shined on them and given the skill sets and community of practice, they’ll flourish. And I would say the second part of it is adults getting out of the way. I think that’s key for us in education. We often try to solve the problems for our young people or as a parent, I try to solve the problems for my kids. I can offer guidance. I can be inviting of what I think about it. But at the end of the day they’re going to be the ones that choose the path and we can just offer the different paths. And that’s what we’re all about.

I have a story, one more story of a kid who is getting suspended from school every day when he was on the playground. This is September…September…quite a few years back when we started the organization. And what I kept on telling the kids when I was teaching and my teammates was like, “Hey, we want you to have the power to choose. We want you to choose your response, not automatically react.” And mindfulness allows us both the physiological side of creating that space and time, the reduction, of course, that often makes us react and other stress hormones. But it also provides us that stillness space that we can choose how we engage or don’t engage. And this kid was fighting often because of very little reasons; A kid took a ball from me, the kid looked at me funny. Things that triggered a stress response into going to fight-flight-freeze and obviously was fight. First thing you do is throw punches. So, the principal’s like, “I don’t know what to do. Can you support?” And he was in our Rise Up group; It had only been a month or two since we started that school in a small group work. And so, I go out to the playground and I see him get the ball taken out of his hands, from the side; If I was a referee, maybe not a foul but he goes and he’s ready to punch the kid and clenches his fist.

And so, I yell his name and I said, “Come on over here.” And he looks at me and he’s like, “I’m going to beat him up.” And I’m like, “I get it. Come over here first, though.” He’s like looking at me because I’m smiling and he’s like, “I’m about to hit this kid. Why are you smiling?” So, I think that triggered a curiosity. And he comes over and I said, “What does mindfulness mean?” and he’s like, “Pay attention to the present moment without judgment.” And I’m like, “Cool, you’ve got a definition. Now what mindfulness skill have you been using?” “Oh, I’ve got a body scan, breathing…” “So where do you feel anger first in your body?” And right away he goes, “fists.” Okay, awesome. “So do you like to fight?” “Yeah, if they mess with me, I like to fight.” “No, but do you really like to fight?” “Yeah, because I got to protect myself.” “Do you like going home being suspended?” “No, it’s super boring. My mom doesn’t let me play video games.” All right. “Do you like to fight?” “Not really. I don’t like it, but I feel like I have to.” I said, “Well, I want you to choose if you punch or not. That’s all I want for you. I want you to have that choice.” And we figured it out. Like first thing to do is check your fists. Once when they’re tightening, notice a tightening. Don’t think. Just notice it. That is enough space to choose. I’m going to give you a secret code with your teacher so the teacher sees you amped up in your emotions, she’ll give you a little hand signal so you can check your fist and take a deep breath and maybe name the emotion, be with the breath for a second, use sounds; whatever you need to engage. So, he didn’t fight for six to eight weeks, which is amazing, right? And then get a call saying I come here, is going to be suspended. I run over to the playground; I drive over. I had to get over about a mile away. However, when he looks at me with the same smile that I had given him. I said, “Why did you—” and then I realized right away I was like, Sorry, what’s happening? What happened? And he’s like, “You’re going to love this; I chose to punch!”

I’m laughing now. I shouldn’t be laughing. I’m like, “OK, there must be more to the story.” He’s like, “There is. This is what happened. Three sixth graders, and I’m a fifth grader, cornered me in the corner near the portables. There were no adults. They put me on the ground, and so I’m calling for help but no one’s coming. So that’s my first choice. I chose to yell for help. No one came. Second thing I did was yelled at them to stop. They still didn’t stop. So, the third thing I did was flail my arms around, to get space, and I hit some kids on those flails and I ran to the office. But they got to the office first and told the principal that I’d hit them. I was like, “Gotcha. So, you chose it because it was your last resort, and that’s the lesson I wanted for you.” He is now 19-20 years old, he moved across to Indiana all the way from Richmond, California. But he called me up and we’re still in communication. He said, like, “Mindfulness was that practice that helped me not engage in gang life, not to engage in gun violence. And it was a rough middle school and high school experience for me.” But that’s that freedom of choice that he had been looking for and yearning for. And then he had control over his destiny.

SD: For you, as someone who’s oriented to service, what does it mean to you to hear from that 19- or 20-year-old? That message?

JG: That’s the best thing, right? There’s nothing better. And we also have about five of our staff that are former students of ours. So, we’re getting the point, you know, that it’s a cycle. And it’s just a beautiful thing for young people to be able to know that this practice was theirs. We didn’t give it to them. They had it. They just need to be tapped into and now they can use it for a career or use it for life success. So, there’s nothing better. I love the phone calls, the emails, the text messages I get from young people that were a part of the journey because they are the journey,

SD: That original third grade class, you said they’re graduating from high school now?

JG: They did. They just graduated, yeah.

SD: What can you tell me about them now?

JG: You know, it’s a beautiful thing because I just look back and I think there’s only a few that I haven’t heard from recently. But they’re all looking happy and healthy. They seem to have had a journey that was different than the classrooms I had before, to some extent, and they’re all like, really achieving their own visions, their own dreams. I just wish I could stay in touch with them more. That educator in me was like, “I just want to be around them still.” But a few of them are in our organization too.

But yeah, it’s been fun to watch just kind of how they’ve developed and will always, and I say this and when I do see him or I’m messaging with them, like they will always hold a transformative place in my life and are the biggest teachers and learners I’ve ever experienced with. And for that, I will always be grateful.

SD: I’ll ask you one last thing before I let you go. You alluded to this earlier to this return to in-person school. It’s happening where you are. It’s happening where I am. And so everywhere, lots of kids are going back into school buildings for the first time this month. And people around them are likely feeling a lot of anxiety related to that. So, I’m wondering, you know, what you would offer into that space; what you want them to know?

JG: Yeah. Thanks, Stephanie. Whoo! Yeah, we’ve been on campuses for the last few weeks; heartfulness and compassion to every single person, kid, adult. A year and a half, at least here in California where we had virtual learning, is hard; especially for young people, people who are underserved, under-resourced and have systemic oppression and inequalities and inequities in the education system.

I think we know that the foundation of a healthy individual and community is mental and emotional being. My hope and deep desire is that we, as adults and as systems and education, that we finally put that as a priority. Nothing matters more than mental emotional well-being and physical well-being than anything else. Anything after that will happen; this academic outcome, or success, or whatever it is.

So, I wish everyone the practice. I’ll say it like this; A lot of people say, well mindfulness doesn’t fit everyone, and I’m like, to me that’s like saying exercise doesn’t fit everyone, right? Like taking a walk isn’t good for everyone or you can’t walk using your upper body to move. Everyone needs some investment in our physical well-being and mental well-being. We know gratitude, mindfulness, compassion work like; that is like where we can fundamentally say exercise is to physical health as mental and emotional training is to our emotional wellbeing.

So, I think it’s a time where the stress response is strong, people are overwhelmed. Emotions—I would say that’s the most important; knowing that no emotion is wrong. Knowing that no thought is wrong and that we aren’t our thoughts and our emotions. The more we observe them, see them as they are, welcome them, care for them, bring that unconditional love and care we might have some for someone else to ourselves, the healthier we will be. And I wish that upon everyone because I was tormented by emotions and thoughts, and I thought I couldn’t have them. So, I wish everyone welcoming of those emotions.

SD: JG Larochette, it has been a pleasure to speak with you.

JG: Thank you so much for this, Stephanie.

SD: Pleasure’s all mine.

JG: Thank you for having me today. It’s such an honor.

SD: That is JG Larochette of the Mindful Life Project. If you’re thinking about getting started with mindfulness or deepening your practice, our Mindful30 provides a great framework for developing or deepening a practice and you can sign up anytime in the month of September. Do some good in your own life and for the Mindful Life Project as well.

Now, if you enjoyed this episode of Real Mindful, and I hope you did, perhaps you would consider leaving us a review. You can do that wherever you found this podcast: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, wherever you’re listening from. Now, listen, we’d love to hear from you. We’d love to know what you thought of what you heard on the podcast today or you can suggest a topic or guest for a future episode. You can drop us a line at [email protected]

And as you continue along your mindfulness journey, you might enjoy subscribing to 12 Minute Meditation. That’s our weekly podcast that offers fresh guided meditations each week to help you find your way to your practice. It turns out neuroscientific research reveals that 12 minutes of meditation a day can be enough to yield benefits like increased focus, clarity, calm and compassion. And I don’t know about you, but I could use more of all of that in my day. So, you can subscribe to 12 Minute Meditation wherever fine podcasts are found. We will be back with another episode of Real Mindful in October. Until then, don’t forget to choose your punches.

Show Notes

Find more of JG Larochette here.

Discover more about the Mindful Living Project here: Mindful Life Project

Join us in 30 days of meditation here: Sign up for the Mindful30 Meditation Challenge

And find more from Mindful on our practice podcast, 12 Minute Meditation.

Let us know what you thought by emailing [email protected].

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