On Dayenu, mindfulness, and college admissions

On Dayenu, mindfulness, and college admissions

Esther Genuth of Bergenfield is a college guidance counselor at the Frisch School and is certified in children’s yoga and mindfulness.

Each year just as we are about to begin singing Dayenu, my family looks toward me, awaiting what has become an annual ritual. I do not know how this tradition started, but from a young age until this very day, I read the same commentary on our nation’s step-by-step exodus from Egypt to the promised land from a children’s Artscroll Haggadah. Perhaps it is because I am the oldest of seven children and craved my own personal tradition, as my younger siblings had the Mah Nishtana, but this became my own moment.

The commentary starts with a simple question: How could it have been enough for the Jewish people to be at Mount Sinai without receiving the Torah? Why even approach the holy mountain if not to receive this sacred blueprint for life? The commentary gives the analogy of walking into a perfume store; even if you do not buy anything, the aroma still delivers an all-encompassing sensory experience. Even if we had never received the Torah, the Jewish nation experienced God in a moment of holiness and connection that in itself was a worthwhile experience.

Until this year my yearly contribution to my family’s seder was merely a tradition; a joke of some sort. As a middle schooler I would read the text in a theatrical voice, emphasizing certain words for a dramatic effect. As the years passed by, my moment of public speaking often would reflect how I felt in a given year. I recall rushing through the text in a low tone the year I graduated college and entered the workforce; I was stressed out and intimidated by the wealth of knowledge and skills that I lacked as a first year human resource analyst.

Five years ago I became a mother, and since then I have viewed my commentary through a completely different lens. I recall the day I returned home from the hospital with two beautiful newborn baby girls bundled in blankets. I began to cry and laugh at the same time. Where did they come from? My life had changed in an instant. Immediately the pressure I felt to make the most of each moment was unbearable. Strangers on the streets of Manhattan would feel it their right and duty to comment “Enjoy every moment! It goes by too fast.” And I, exhausted from this sudden life change, wished I could have screamed back “I’m trying, but I simply can’t!”

I returned to work after feverishly googling articles on working parents and work/life balance. Almost all of them recommended being truly present at each point in the day. Easier said than done. I would come home and dedicate one straight hour for quality time. Nobody warned me that 6 p.m. would be the crankiest time of day and that reading books to crying toddlers simply was not realistic. This perfectionist model was not sustainable, and over the course of days, weeks, months, and years, I slowly began to let go. That is when I found the practice of mindfulness.

Nancy Siegel, a mentor of mine, defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose.” I remember first hearing this phrase and being utterly confused. How can you pay attention not on purpose? As someone who likes to plan next steps and maximize my time, my mind often feels like a compilation of to-do lists, both professional and personal. While accomplishing tasks is satisfying, it becomes exhausting to carry future plans on my shoulders. Dayenu. Enough.

With a lot of cognitive restructuring, I slowly let go of my unrealistic goals and began to think about what would happen if I paused to truly appreciate each milestone for what it was without preparing for the next one.

I started small. I began to notice brief moments; the feeling of the first warm breeze on my skin after a cold winter, my son’s uncontrollable laugh, the silence at night, the floral scent of perfume, and last of all, my breath — the greatest gift of all.

I no longer feel the need to be present all the time, but have learned to shut down wandering thoughts in certain moments by taking a deep breath and simply noticing what is around me. And it is in those brief moments that I experience immense gratitude and presence for being alive and having the ability to feel; my own mini-mindfulness, which works for me.

My practice of mindfulness also has helped me in my professional role as a college guidance counselor. The high school experience is wrought with academic pressure, the stress of emerging young adulthood, and social pressures, not to mention hormones. And to top it all off, we then add on the task of applying to college and asking students to decide their next step in life.

I recall one particular meeting with a young woman who was devastated by her SAT score. She kept repeating that she was a horrible test taker and wouldn’t get into college. After listening for a few moments I noticed the background of her phone was a beautiful drawing. I asked her more about it, and she told me she was sketching it for class. Then she showed me all of her work. I was flabbergasted. Here was a young woman who was worrying about her future, when in fact she was an artist with a true gift!

We started small, by discussing her art and the various types of intelligences, and what standardized testing in fact does not measure. Only in later weeks did we discuss possible careers and schools that would appreciate and cater to such a talented and brilliant student.

Our teenagers are emerging adults and must be reminded that happiness and self love come from within. While getting a stamp of approval from a highly selective school can feel fantastic (and is absolutely a moment of celebration), it cannot be the ultimate purpose of the process. We need to slow down adolescence and begin celebrating the moments that might not get the biggest headline but are crucial in building self esteem. We must appreciate (or survive!) the stage they are in right now; rather than the future. We must recognize that taking a driving test or trying out for an athletic team or a part in the school play takes courage, and this alone should be celebrated and acknowledged. They need to be given true responsibilities, recognizing that they absolutely will make mistakes, and they must be given the time to process failure and pain.

When our focus is only on the future we simply are not paying attention. When we rush our adolescents rather than meeting them where they are, we are not paying attention to their needs. And if we aren’t paying attention, how can we expect our students to?

In our striving always to accomplish and move on to the next stage, have we lost the appreciation of simple moments? There is beauty in the unknown and the undecided, and there is stillness and peace in simply being.

On this Passover holiday I knew what to tell my students, my own children, and myself. You are loved. You are enough.