Meet Sunny Wight, Founder and Executive Director of Mindfulness First

Interviewed by AJ Urquidi

Critical thinking and consideration of all possibilities is the foundation for healthy self-understanding and greater general understanding in my life.

note from susan

I met Sunny Wight in the summer of 2016 when we roomed together at an Omega Institute think tank on mindfulness in education. I was immediately touched by her heart, sensitivity, and sense of humor, and later, I was knocked out by what she had accomplished with her Phoenix organization in a brief period of time. I’m delighted to shout out about Sunny and her noteworthy organization in this profile!  

sunny wight, founder and executive director of mindfulness first

Before October 2013, Mindfulness First Founder and Executive Director Sunny Wight felt that a crucial component of child development was absent from the curriculum of central Arizona elementary schools: the concept of mindful awareness and social-emotional learning. Luckily, that month was the turning point — by the end of the year, the nonprofit Mindfulness First had kicked off its campaign of shifting the area’s educational standards toward an approach that favors the “whole child,” shaping kids to be more well-rounded, emotionally mature, and self-aware. Almost four years later, by the summer of 2017, Mindfulness First has achieved far-reaching, well-documented success in the Balsz school district of Phoenix, and this is just the beginning of a promising future, not only for the organization but also for students across Arizona.

This nonprofit’s existence can be traced to one defining period — an intensely visceral experience with stress and recovery that inspired Sunny Wight to lay down the foundations for Mindfulness First. Born in England and a resident of the United States since the 1990s, Sunny did not expect her personal path to veer towards the founding of a successful nonprofit in the American Southwest. After studying Media and Communications, starting a family, and beginning a career in marketing and public relations, she was stricken with physical symptoms of the stress that had been building up inside of her. Sunny came across some mindfulness techniques that contributed to the return of her good health, and which also taught her how to understand herself. Wondering why she hadn’t been shown these strategies while growing up, and concerned that her own children might miss out as well, Sunny began to develop what would become Mindfulness First … and the rest is history. Graciously, Sunny shared with us some stimulating thoughts on her experiences and observations.

Your much-publicized, compelling story of using mindfulness to overcome a stress-induced breakdown and reshape your own life, and now your organization’s goal of bringing the possibilities of mindfulness to as many people as possible, is truly inspiring. How did you discover mindfulness, and what are some specific techniques you used to change the way you live?

It’s kind of you to say so. I’ve told the story of how I recovered from stress-induced illnesses many times because I think everyone can relate to it on some level; I use my own story as a foundational conversation to help other people feel comfortable talking about their own stress and mental health, with a hope that it will help them discover ways to understand and care for themselves. I believe passionately that learning “how to be human” is the missing piece in everyone’s education. The heartbreaking statistics surrounding suicide and addiction are just a couple of areas that are representative of our need for self-understanding. So many of us are looking to change the way our body and mind feel because we don’t understand how and why we feel the way that we do. However, we can learn to understand ourselves, and just like Math and English, this should be a foundational, mandatory subject for all children. So I’m always looking to stimulate conversation around this and also effect change through Mindfulness First.

What worked for me? When I was unwell and looking for answers, I searched online for help with stress and repeatedly came across the book Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn, This book was the door to learning about my own senses, thoughts, emotions, and impulses and discovering how to understand and regulate them. Specifically learning how to stop and rest was a big steppingstone for me, and when I spent time quietly slowing my breathing and noticing my body, I was also resting. Rest was key to my recovery and has been key to my continued health. Growing up, I was taught by society that spending time resting or focusing on myself was somehow selfish; however, through active noticing of my body and mind, I’ve learned that this isn’t true. For me, resting, taking time for myself, and for contemplation are vital parts of staying healthy and sane. When I use the word contemplation, I’m not referring to meditation; I’m just talking about noticing my own inner workings or, simply, reflecting. I have used meditation at times during my recovery, but it’s not a tool I currently use.

Your Scottsdale-based nonprofit, Mindfulness First, describes its goal as expanding “educational standards in Arizona to include programming that supports and promotes positive mental health and well-being.” What are some steps the organization has taken so far toward reaching this goal?

Mindfulness First is working to become a resource provider and support system for Arizona in addressing positive mental health and well-being in schools. We plan to help create educational standards to ensure that Arizona nurtures the “whole child” in every school, and by this, I mean that as well as addressing the academic needs of children, we also address the social and emotional needs of children.

So far, we have created an elementary curriculum that has been successfully piloted in various schools and implemented schoolwide at Crockett Elementary School in Phoenix, in America’s 5th most economically segregated school district — Balsz. That curriculum has been recorded and is available online at the school also. Our next steps are to create upper-school curriculums and a comprehensive teacher-training program for Arizona teachers. 

Once Mindfulness First had been established, what kind of challenges did you face in developing programming and having it instituted? What has the feedback been like in the schools?

The only real challenge we have is funding. Building a sustainable nonprofit is hard work, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate that so many people have given their time to build our organization. We have had no problem finding schools to work in and receive great feedback for our work. But we are based in Arizona, and sadly, funding for education is a low priority for those who lead the state.

That being said, we have created some incredible relationships with organizations like Intel, Aetna Foundation, Whiteman Foundation, and Vitalyst.

Do you have a story (or two) you could share that demonstrate the positive impact Mindfulness First has had on individual children or adult learners?

At Crockett Elementary School, where we have been supporting their prioritization of the social and emotional well-being of their students and staff, we have seen an incredible shift. This school is the elementary institution for the local homeless shelter — UMOM — and also has a large population of Somali refugees; as a result, Crockett’s students are familiar with trauma and difficulty. After one year of bringing Mindfulness-Based Social-Emotional Learning to the campus, the school had cut their suspensions in half. At the end of two years, Crockett has the lowest suspension rate for the entire district, whilst having one of the most challenged populations.

One of the most interesting accounts has come from Principal Hannafin, who has noted that the trust between students and faculty has elevated since the onset of this program. Children are, unusually, requesting time to meet with the principal just to talk. This is something we didn’t foresee happening. He also reports observing higher levels of compassion and warmth amongst students; he has noticed this particularly when new students arrive from UMOM, and how existing students take it upon themselves to welcome and support those new students. 

You’ve written a handful of mindfulness-related articles for Huffington Post, as well as participating in podcasts and other ventures to put your ideas about the benefits of mindfulness out into the public sphere. How do you think platforms like these can connect to individual thinkers in the social media age, and have you gotten any interesting responses from people online?

We hear from many people who’ve discovered us online and want to find out more. Social media and the Internet, in general, have been great connectors in the Mindfulness world. Although the pool of Mindfulness teachers is growing, it’s still a fairly small field, and we’ve noticed that people find the Internet to be a rich resource for finding information, lesson ideas, and fellow teachers. When we hear from people who’ve found us online, they are generally very excited to learn more about what we do and often to learn if this is something they can do themselves.

With your expertise in mindfulness now, what advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago, in order to transform your life and manage the many stressors around you at the time?

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have and didn’t listen to any advice from anyone! I remember (about 10 years ago, in fact) my mum telling me that I needed to rest more, that I never sat down and was always working. I told her that I just didn’t have time to rest, and she said that before long I wouldn’t have any choice because I’d be in a hospital resting. I never listened, and of course, I ended up sick from stress.

In sharing what’s worked for me, one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is to not blindly believe anything we read, see, or hear. Critical thinking and consideration of all possibilities is the foundation for healthy self-understanding and greater general understanding in my life. Part of my stress has resulted from conforming to what society deems as acceptable instead of being completely true to myself. Becoming a critical thinker with mindfulness skills has allowed me to both understand and be true to myself.

What books have most inspired you throughout your life (you’ve already mentioned Kabat-Zinn’s influential book), and are there any that you have queued up to read when you get the chance?

Well, I’ve read many, many books about Mindfulness and self-help, and I will always return to Full Catastrophe Living as my most helpful book. I think Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is a beautiful, inspiring story that is very accessible for everyone. I just started reading Mary Oliver’s Upstream, and it’s simply lovely.

As an example for those following the practices of Mindfulness First, what do you personally do to ensure your well-being, emotionally and physically?

At Mindfulness First we define Mindfulness as “noticing what is happening inside and outside of your body, right now.” We teach active noticing of our senses, emotions, thoughts, and impulses, combined with stretching, movement, games, and art. In my life, active noticing is something I aim to bring to everything I’m experiencing so that I can experience it fully, so I’m always working on my attention; and while that’s a simple statement, it’s just not as easy as it sounds. However, this simply stated act creates well-being for me.

Walking into difficult feelings and learning how to have difficult conversations has also been integral to my well-being; these skills are so liberating and create stronger relationships for me. I also go to the gym to stay physically strong, and I enjoy music and art. Having good family and friends is vital for my well-being, and I’m fortunate to have both. And like all parents, my children are my greatest joy, as I have two polar-opposite children who have very distinct passions and gifts; it’s so wonderful to be part of their support system.

Is there anything else you would like to share: maybe something about your experiences, your organization, or what you see as the future of education in Arizona at the local level, and education in the country overall?

Mindfulness First feels that investing in the social and emotional well-being of people is where education begins. It’s akin to receiving your user manual so that you can effectively operate your body and mind. Because I’m a human being, I know how hopeless it can feel to be overwhelmed by, and at the mercy of, emotions, thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Growing up, like so many of us, I never knew that, once I understood them, my automated reactions could be regulated and managed. At Mindfulness First we plan to help education, in Arizona at least, to prioritize Mindfulness-Based Social-Emotional Learning and to give our children the best start possible.

At Mindfulness First we champion safety and ethics in the work that we do. Part of this is to prioritize inclusivity in our work by ensuring that self-understanding is made accessible for all people. No particular road to self-understanding has a monopoly on “Mindfulness.” The media frequently portrays Mindfulness as exclusively meditation or yoga, for example. For some people, yes, maybe this is the way they notice and understand their inner world, but Mindfulness is for all human beings and can be found using so many different avenues. At Mindfulness First we talk about the different tools that are available to us as we unfold the figurative “user manual” of Mindfulness. In Mindfulness, a foundation in basic neuroscience and biological facts concerning the stress reaction and our nervous system is combined with repeated experiences of noticing how thoughts, feelings, emotions, and impulses emerge and exhibit in our body. With this foundational knowledge, our own active noticing, attention training, and stress reduction techniques will emerge in ways that work for us personally.

Readers may be interested to know that we are creating a coaching workshop where we are going to share our experiences of opening a nonprofit, approaching schools, curriculum creation, and ethics/safety in Mindfulness in Education. We remember what it was like to be a Mindfulness teacher but not knowing how to get started with our work, so we have decided to share our experiences. We will be launching this later in the year.

Another interesting fact about Mindfulness First is that we are a Sociocratic organization. Sociocracy is a collaborative governance method that ensures everyone’s voice is heard. All team members help to build Mindfulness First and feel invested in our work; there’s no traditional power structure. Our system of working is extremely organized, well-documented, and transparent. People can find out more about sociocracy at www.sociocracyforall.org