The flight of the Ash Stained Dove today is that of mindfulness. It was a journey that taught me to find the Devine within myself. I learnt that meditation led to Mindfulness and what is mindfulness? On purpose, in the present moment and not judgmental. One of my first quotes on this topic of mindfulness and meditation is from Mother Teresa whom I worked with and what I learnt from her was, all that we have is the here and now.
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”
― Mother Teresa
Mindfulness training has at least five broad beneficial effects, according to Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology of the University of Cambridge’s Well-Being Institute. Specifically, mindfulness promotes:
– increased sensory awareness;
– Greater cognitive control;
– enhanced regulation of emotions;
– Acceptance of transient thoughts and feelings; and
– The capacity to regulate attention.
What I cannot understand and is above me is that the Practice of Mindfulness is not considered or even given a thought. While institutions like Harvard University offers a Doctorate in Mindfulness. Yet educationalists may have overlooked a very powerful and cheap tool that can help deliver on Curriculum objectives. Mindfulness is a ‘mode of being’ that is rooted in paying attention, non-judgementally, to the present moment, to our current conscious experience of the world. It’s a mode of being that can be taught, typically as a series of simple meditation-style exercises. Mindfulness exercises increase awareness of the contents of our minds, and provide ways to respond to our thoughts and feelings ‘skilfully’, such that they are less likely to lead to emotional distress or harmful behaviours. ‘Mindfulness could really help teachers get to the heart of the heart of education any curriculum and that and that is it tries to nurture, and I strongly believe that it could lead to a more peaceful world as it calls me to the moment, to take a deep breath find the Divine at the core of my being and their at the same time discover my brother, my sister, my neighbour and so overcome the Ego of I, me and myself.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
As you read this you may be asking the question, “What is Mindfulness?” Mindfulness is not an abstract or remote body of knowledge, like physics or history. It’s more of a practical skill, like being able to ride a bike or play the piano or going for a jog. To get a handle on what this means, you have to look at how mindfulness is actually practised.
A commonly used way to get into a mindful state is to simply sit on a chair, close your eyes, and begin to focus on your breath. As you sit still – relaxed, but alert – you direct your attention to the sensation of each inhalation and exhalation: perhaps the gentle rise and fall of your chest, or the feeling of air as it enters and leaves your nostrils.
While doing this, other thoughts will enter your mind unbidden: ‘I must pay that gas bill later’, ‘Did I come off as stupid in the meeting earlier?’ or even ‘I keep losing track of my breath and thinking about other things – I’m rubbish at this!’. In my experience I found for myself that the most immediate thoughts to overcome were anger, sexual fantasies. Anger, pride/the ego. These intrusions of thought don’t mean that you’re failing to be mindful; what matters is how you respond to these thoughts. The idea in a mindfulness session is to merely note these thoughts, without judgement, and to let them pass. You then return to focusing on the breath – and then, as further thoughts enter your mind of their own accord, you simply note them, and move on.
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
― Amit Ray, Om Chanting and Meditation
How do we get this practice into schools? Despite widespread recognition of the benefits of mindfulness training, there are a number of challenges in getting it into schools. Some parents and teachers might worry that mindfulness training is part of a broader tendency to label kids with having problems that need fixing, as in the case of medical treatments of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Yet this is not how most mindfulness practitioners see it being applied. ‘In schools it’s quite important that it’s taken out of therapeutic box and put squarely in the territory of flourishing,’ says Burnett. ‘Mindfulness is about helping young minds flourish in the broadest sense.’ Cullen agrees: ‘For some kids mindfulness may be about managing stress or anxiety, but for others it’s about how they play on the sports field, practise music, dance or drama, or maintain concentration during homework.’
Another major challenge of bringing mindfulness to schools is the dearth of teachers trained in the relevant practices. Just as teaching someone to play the piano or football requires some practical experience in these skills, so too for mindfulness. ‘You don’t have to be a Zen master, but you can’t train kids in the classroom if you don’t have your own mindfulness practice,’ says Burnett.
This suggests that there may be a place for mindfulness training in teacher training. ‘I feel very strongly that it should be part of teacher training, because apart from anything else it will benefit the trainee teachers enormously – and then they can use it in their schools,’ says Lavelle. Accumulating evidence suggests that the social and emotional competence of teachers is a key factor in establishing healthy student–teacher relationships, managing the classroom, and teaching social and emotional aspects of learning – creating what Patricia Jennings and Mark Greenberg call the ‘prosocial classroom’ (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009). Claxton agrees that mindfulness would be hugely beneficial for both teachers and students: ‘If I ruled the world I would make it mandatory – there is no downside risk, and the evidence shows these things work. ‘Why will Mindfulness be so important in education? I feel for the following reasons,
- Sensory Awareness:
Mindful practices nurture the capacity to bring our current sensory experience to the forefront of consciousness. In doing so, they create the mental space to ‘stop and smell the roses’, to be charmed by a child’s smile or moved by a dramatic sunset. ‘In Western societies, most of us, most of the time, are on autopilot, and what’s going on in our heads is mostly about the past and the future.
- Cognitive control:
Unlike some forms of meditation, the goal of mindfulness is not to clear one’s mind of all thoughts and feelings, but to anchor oneself to current sensory experiences and to allow thoughts to enter the mind freely. Just because you’re having a thought doesn’t mean you have to act on it, or even that it reflects anything about reality, or you. It’s just a thought.’
The non-judgemental, detached perspective on our thoughts and feelings encouraged by mindfulness training is another way of talking about acceptance of these thoughts and feelings. ‘That’s a huge thing,’ says Huppert. ‘You’re not beating yourself up for having this thought or that feeling. You’re learning to be kind to yourself – and it’s believed that this has knock-on effects for being kind to others, though the evidence is not yet as clear as we would like.’
- Emotional Control:
Many of our intrusive thoughts come with an emotional flavour. Often these are negative – we suddenly remember a recent argument, which makes us angry, or the time we embarrassed ourselves in front of the boss. It’s all too easy to get caught up by these intrusive emotional thoughts, and to ruminate on them at length. Again, mindfulness encourages a more decentred perspective on these feelings: they should be noted, and let pass.
- Attention Regulation
Mindfulness doesn’t demand that you clear your mind of all thoughts and feelings, but that you allow them to float by caught up in them, and return your focus of attention to whatever mindful practice you are engaged in. In other words, it provides training in how to regulate and direct, at will, your attention. In his 1890 classic The Principles of Psychology, William James celebrated the importance of this skill: ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character and will. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.’
Perhaps one of the most fascinating elements of mindfulness in the education context is the interpersonal dynamic that is almost always at play among teachers, teachers and students, and teachers and administrators. As we learn more about the social nature of our neurobiology, and the positive effects mindfulness practices have on enriching interpersonal exchanges, it is easy to see how the infusion of mindfulness tools into the educational context can improve the quality of education by enhancing the educator’s capacity to more deeply connect with students and teach at a higher level of efficacy.
“Am I crazy?” she asked. “I feel like I am sometimes.”
“Maybe,” he said, rubbing her forehead. “But don’t worry about it. You need to be a little bit crazy. Crazy is the price you pay for having an imagination. It’s your superpower. Tapping into the dream. It’s a good thing not a bad thing.”
― Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being