by Steve Purdum on March 23
I don’t believe that Doc Green, the founder of Camp Mishawaka, had “mindfulness” in his mind when he and the 12 founding campers set up Camp, established the daily schedule, and devised the program, but it’s clear to me today that promoting being present is one of the greatest enduring legacies of Camp Mishawaka. Today we see mindfulness taught in schools- and almost everywhere- as a solution for people (young and old) to navigate a world of constant distraction, diversion, and division. What if the answer to promoting a mindfulness practice for children lies in a traditional summer camp experience?
Webster defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” From the minute a camper debarks the bus, a sensory experience awaits. There’s a lot to be aware of: the smells of a fully feathered hardwood forest, the sounds of the birds, the trill of a loon, the different accents (and languages) of fellow campers. Even the mosquitoes hone one’s self awareness! What’s missing today, for kids, just as it was in 1910, is a powerful in-hand supercomputer whose tones, beeps, and alerts sole mission often seems to make us less aware- especially of ourselves and surroundings.
The second definition Webster offers might be considered a bit more “new age,” but in fact it’s as old as the lake and trees that encircle Camp Mishawaka- even older! Campers do “focus their awareness on the present moment”-as the definition includes- even before anyone invites them to do so. In some ways, a homesick camper, or a child who misses home, is focused on the present moment as much as anyone can possibly be, even if that awareness propels a desire to get beamed home! The second definition goes on to include, “calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” I suggest that the “acknowledging “ doesn’t always have to be “calm” to achieve the desired effect. A raucous campfire sing-along can distill feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, and one’s legs need not even be crossed. A camper does not even need to be seeking mindfulness as an objective. At Camp it finds you.
Camp exists outside of time, even though timing drives our day. Few campers wear watches, and the day is regulated by a series of bells, bugles, and daylight that set a routine that is in natural sync with the surroundings. It’s easy to lose track of what day it is, get “lost” in an activity, or become aware of a new, thrilling sensation. I think of a sailor making a mooring in a brisk wind, an expert solo canoeist on a paddle, or a budding horse whisperer guiding their horse down a trail. Each of these activities require that one be present and aware. And yes, each contains some risk that focuses attention on just that moment in time. It’s not the past, nor the future. It’s a textbook example of being present.
Finally, Webster defines mindfulness as “a therapeutic technique.” I think this is what kids mean when they tell us they “find their best selves” at Camp. I think it’s also why alumni speak of their time at Mishawaka with such nostalgia. Theodore “Cap” Cavins, who owned and directed Mishawaka from 1941 to 1975, speaking of his first summer at Camp described it as, “The place I’ve missed all my life, but didn’t know it.” The founders of Mishawaka may not have had mindfulness in their strategic plan, but their strategy for devising a program that is just as relevant and youth–serving today as it was over a century ago was sage. It’s a lineage we who make this our life’s work are happy to be a part of.