Book Review: Montessori and Mindfulness

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

TRINIDAD – Susan Stephenson has written four other books on various aspects of Montessori education. One, No Checkmate: Montessori Chess Lessons for age 3 to 90+ was reviewed here (Mad River Union, June 29, 2016) Her new book, Montessori and Mindfulness, is the most personal of the bunch.

It follows her life story of pursuing enlightenment, music, art, Buddhism and Montessori principles while traveling to seventy countries. It’s a journey that has taken her from a “lightning” sidewalk experience in India to visiting nomadic herders’ huts in Mongolia, from Asia to South America and back.

Stephenson was asked to give a presentation at the 2017 Association Montessori Internationale Congress in Prague. She spent three months preparing her presentation and then three more months turning it into this charming and insightful book.

It’s a good read for anyone who wants to be more aware in daily life or who is interested in any kind of education, Montessori, or self-growth.

Montessori has been around for more than a hundred years but its message can be summarized as respect for children. Students in Montessori schools are given room to learn at a pace that works for them. Order and harmony are key and the example of everything in its place works for even the youngest child. There’s a happiness and satisfaction in even the smallest task completed with care.

In our hectic and stress-filled world, these principles are a good reminder for adult readers as well.

Stephenson weaves this aspect of her life into her other pursuits of art, music, and religion. Mindfulness is her term for doing each daily task or activity with intention and care, even, one could say, with love.

Whether it is carrying in firewood, as her granddaughter does in the cover painting, writing a book, or just walking, Stephenson writes of the need to slow down and focus.

“A few months ago I was walking on a trail not far from our home in Northern California. It was a beautiful day. Suddenly I realized that I was wasting this experience because all I was thinking about was what I had to do when I got home, and what I could have done better the day before and who knows what else. My gaze was down, focused on the path in front of me and my brain was in charge of the day.

“For some reason just then I decided to mindfully walk as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh teaches. I thought to myself as I slowed down and paid attention to what I was doing. ‘Now I am placing my left foot. Now I am placing my right foot.’ Each step made me more aware of where I was, what day it was, what I was doing.

“Almost instantly I heard sounds of birds and the wind in the trees that I had not been aware of just a few seconds earlier. I could smell the dampness of the moss of the forest...”  (pp 89-90.)

Stephenson continues the chapter with references to Einstein’s daily walks and the nonchalance with which villagers in Bhutan walk for three to four hours just to visit friends.

Walking is an important part of her mindfulness path as well as part of Montessori educational practices for children. “Walking the line” is an activity that even small children do in Montessori classrooms, not as punishment or a test but as a peaceful centering activity.

“Work” is another way of speaking of Montessori learning, a word that lends dignity and importance to each activity. A photograph in the book shows a very young child in a field of flowers, leaning on a little wagon.

“In this picture the child has pushed his wagon quite a long way through a field of mustard flowers. Occasionally he sat down, reached for a flower, examined the color and the texture, sat for a few moments thinking, and then pulled himself up and continued walking. This was his work and no one offered unnecessary help, nor did they interrupt.” (p 161.)

This is a thoughtful and inspiring book, one that speaks in the author’s authentic voice. It started as a speech, after all. It’s not perfect, with some repetition, words missing from sentences that give pause to a careful reader, and quite a number of typos. After I reminded myself that it had been a presentation, I was able to give myself up to hearing the author’s voice and ultimate sincerity. It would be a great gift to anyone and it is a gift that Stephenson has shared her interesting life with us.

The book is available at All Under Heaven in Arcata and through Michael Olaf, the shop profiled here (Mad River Union, Dec. 13, 2017) and on Amazon.

Stephenson said many of her books are sold as ebooks to India.



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