Exploring Mindfulness in Steven Universe with “Mindful Education”

A recent episode of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe entitled “Mindful Education” and its wonderful song “Here Comes a Thought” has moved me to blog again after a long hiatus. Hello again Internet, I hope you’ve been well.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is a very polarizing show — some of my friends simply don’t get the appeal, while others, like me, simply can’t get enough of it. There is no other show that explores the coming of age, the bonds of love, and journey of self-discovery so effectively, and in such a unique and beautifully animated style. It’s sweet and funny. The characters have plenty of depth (and you can tell the actors behind them really put their all into their performances), and even the villains draw sympathy in their motives. It’s a fantasy show for children and adults alike, with lots of heart.

We’re entering spoiler territory, so if you have not seen the episode “Mindful Education” (with sequences guest animated by Takafumi Hori) you may want to wait to read this post. Of course, if you’ve never seen Steven Universe or are simply curious, this song stands very well on its own as a lesson in mindfulness.

For the uninitiated, Steven is half human and half “crystal gem,” which gives him the ability to fuse into one being with his completely human friend Connie, forming Stevonnie. Stevonnie is being mentored in combat when they panic due to a stream of negative thoughts related to Connie having erroneously attacked a classmate in self-defense. This causes their fusion to become unstable, and they then get a lesson in mindfulness from Garnet, herself a fusion of two crystal gems, Ruby and Sapphire.

Having myself become aware of the concept of mindfulness some years back and having found its lessons tremendously useful in dealing with anxiety, I was absolutely thrilled to see the topic touched upon in such a beautiful way in a children’s cartoon. The vocals by Estelle (Garnet) and AJ Michalka (Stevonnie) are gorgeous, and the message is portrayed so well visually.

Before the song starts, Garnet advises Stevonnie: “To find balance, you must understand your feelings. To understand your feelings, you must see them clearly without running from them.” She then has Stevonnie close their eyes, breathe, and listen to the waves, and let them fade away. Then the magic happens — watch and listen below:

See what I mean? Beautiful. We’ll go through the lyrics in a second, but the animation, using the butterflies as a visual metaphor for thoughts that flutter in and out of your mind, holding them, observing them and then letting them go was a stroke of genius.

Some of you may be wondering what mindfulness actually means. Well, it depends on who you ask. People who practice mindfulness often meditate (and we see Garnet and Stevonnie settle in to a meditation position in the song), however you don’t need to meditate to be mindful. To me being mindful simply means being able to step back and be aware of your thoughts in the moment, observing them, and letting them go — before they ever get a chance to spiral out of control.

An easy way to visualize mindfulness is though a simple exercise for children: you can demonstrate a flurry of emotion by shaking up a bottle of water with some glitter, and recognize how unclear and chaotic the water becomes. Once you leave it to settle down, however, the glitter rests at the bottom and you can see right through once again. That’s why meditation encourages you to be still and observe your own breath, so you can experience calm and be truly in the moment.

The important thing to realize about mindfulness is that it’s a learned skill, and like any skill it takes practice. I don’t claim to be an expert, just a Steven Universe fanboy who loves with Rebecca Sugar and her team are doing.

What’s really interesting about this exploration of mindfulness on the show, however, is that those involved in the song, Garnet and Stevonnie, are both fusions — effectively two people in one. In this sense, the song is not just about experiencing individual mindfulness, but also about being mindful in a relationship and the bonds of love and trust, which is reflected in the song’s first line: “Take a moment to think of just \ Flexibility, love and trust.”

Flexibility in this context suggests to me being able to listen mindfully and be adaptable to change, which is often the cause of anxiety and runaway thoughts. This is true in respect to one’s own thoughts, but even more so in a relationship where one partner needs to truly listen to the other in order to understand each others’ needs. Trust is also important in a world where we’re unsure of other people’s motives — mindfulness teachings also suggest that one not judge people or situations. Things simply are what they are in the moment, and every moment is unique.

Connie is upset with herself for hurting her classmate, but even more worried about how Steven will feel about her actions, reflected in the next part of the song: “Here comes a thought that might alarm you \ What someone said and how it harmed you \ Something you did that failed to be charming \ Things that you said are suddenly swarming.” She’s letting thoughts get out of control, and suddenly the horrible thought that she is being judged and that she is a horrible person is becoming her reality, and that she might lose her friend because of it:

“And, oh, you’re losing sight, you’re losing touch \ All these little things seem to matter so much \ That they confuse you \ That I might lose you.”

The solution is, of course, in the song’s chorus:

“Take a moment, remind yourself
To take a moment and find yourself
Take a moment and ask yourself
If this is how we fall apart
But it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not, but it’s not
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay
You’ve got nothing, got nothing, got nothing, got nothing to fear
I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

The key is to take a moment. When we realize we’re getting upset, it’s important to take a step back and look inside to ask ourselves what is really bothering us in that moment. Often we’re so far removed from the situation, it can seem silly that it’s still affecting us. “Little things” as mentioned in the song, mixed up social cues to use the example of someone with social anxiety, so often get blown out of proportion in our own minds to the point where they cause anxiety and grief. Even when we actually do something wrong, like Connie did in attacking her classmate, trying to push those thoughts away or hide them from others in the fear of being judged only make them more powerful.

In the song we see Connie’s fear materialize as a large butterfly in which she plays the incident out over and over in her head. The important thing to realize is that, while we of course need to take responsibility for our actions, thoughts are simply that — just thoughts. Opinions in the moment. Rather than let thoughts grow and dominate our psyche, mindfulness teaches that you can observe them, recognize their significance in that moment, and then simply, like the butterflies, let them go. With a clearer head, we can then make smarter decisions about how to handle life situations and make amends.

Whether as an individual or a couple, negativity and small mistakes can often lead us to think the worst, that life, or a relationship, will fall apart. When we stop and take that moment, however, we often realize how silly those thoughts were, and remember our confidence and the love of our friends, family or significant others. “It’s okay, you’ve got nothing to fear, I’m here” is a reminder that when we’re honest with ourselves and those around us, things tend to turn out for the best.

If you’re interested in further information on mindfulness, I highly recommend the books and / or audio meditation tracks of Jon Kabat-Zinn. His lessons are easy to understand, and blend traditional Eastern wisdom with modern science.

If you want to support Steven Universe and ensure it goes on for as long as Rebecca Sugar feels that it needs to, be sure to purchase the episodes on iTunes, or consider picking up a copy of “The Answer,” a picture book for all ages based on the Steven Universe episode of the same name.