What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a concept rooted in Buddhism, and has been around for about 2000 years. The concept as we know it today was brought to the West by Jon Kabat-Zinn–a professor who studied meditation with Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he adapted Buddhist techniques to create a stress reduction and relaxation program. This program was later renamed ‘Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction’ within a more scientific and secular context.
According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness means paying attention, non-judgmentally, to the unfolding experience of the moment. Although mindfulness is a noun, I think it is a verb in disguise. Why? Because mindfulness means being actively present and aware; you are observing, noticing and feeling what is going on inside of you and around you. All you have to do is pay attention to the right here, right now. It means that you are not thinking about what you did this morning or 30 minutes ago, neither are you thinking about what you should be doing, nor what is on your to-do list or what you will do next. It is about accepting the present experience, as it is. Whatever you are feeling is neither good nor bad; it just is.
“It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.”
– Sylvia Boorstein (author of It’s Easier Than You Think)
Why practise mindfulness?
“Living 24 hours with mindfulness is more worthwhile than living 100 years without it.”
– The Buddha
Mindfulness helps us to be fully in the present moment, and not to dwell on the past or worry about the future – the past is gone, and the future does not exist yet. Everything takes place in the present moment – that is all there is. This awareness allows us to become more present in our own lives. By practicing mindfulness, we learn how to respond to things instead of reacting to them.
Benefits for wellbeing:
Makes you fully present and engaged in your activities.
Helps you find peace and happiness.
Enables you savour every moment.
Helps you be less preoccupied.
Deepens the connection with yourself.
Changes thought patterns and how you approach life.
Supports you in feeling more satisfied and fulfilled.
Benefits for mental health:
Reduces anxiety and stress.
Improves emotional intelligence and mental clarity.
Relieves panic attacks.
Can be effective in treating PTSD.
Lessens substance abuse.
Benefits for physical health:
Lowers blood pressure.
Can assist in the treatment of heart disease.
Eases gastro-intestinal distress.
Diminishes chronic pain.
Helps with sleeplessness.
Practising Noticing – What are you experiencing right now?
1. Sit in a comfortable position in a space where you will not be disturbed for the next five minutes.
2. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
3. Tune into yourself. Notice what’s going on with you right now. Be open to this for a few moments.
4. What are you smelling?
5. What are you touching? What texture is it?
6. What are you hearing?
7. What are you seeing? Can you spot little details?
8. What are you tasting?
9. What thoughts are coming up in your mind?
10. What emotions are you feeling?
11. What sensations are arising in your body? Tingling, tensions, blocks, warmth?
12. What have you learned or discovered about yourself by doing this exercise?
You do not need to sit in the lotus position for hours to experience the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.
Practising mindful breathing (breath awareness, focusing on your breath) is an excellent way of taking a quick and rejuvenating break. Simply close your eyes, lengthen your spine, and take long deep breaths through the nose. Focusing on this breathing action, its natural rhythm and its sound can make a huge difference to your day in just a few seconds.
Here's a three-minute breathing space mini meditation for you.
First minute: CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF. Close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths through the nose. Notice how you feel. What sensations are you experiencing? Heat, tingling, tension? What thoughts are arising? Simply acknowledge them and let them go. Do not delve into them.
Second minute: FOCUS ON YOUR BREATH. Feel your belly rising and falling, feel your rib cage expanding. Observe the natural flow of your breath. Listen to its sound. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breath.
Third minute: RETURN TO YOURSELF. Similar to the first minute but this time, every breath you take deepens your awareness of your body and mind. Notice how much calmer you are. Notice how you have detached from stress and worries.
Take one final deep breath and decide to maintain this peaceful and calm state for the rest of your day.
Mindfulness meditation in the classroom
When I was teaching yoga and mindfulness as an elective, I used a Tibetan singing bowl to practise mindful listening. I asked students to close their eyes, then I would ring the bowl and ask them to put their hand up when they could no longer hear it. Afterwards, with our eyes closed, we would focus on the sounds around us, in the classroom and outside. It helped them focus at the beginning of the class and listen more actively during the session.
Try ‘The Mindful Minute’. Have students close their eyes and sit straight with both feet on the floor. Ask them to bring their focus to their breathing. Then bring their attention to their belly rising and falling, or to the air coming in and going out of the nostrils. This is a great place to start developing breath awareness. As they become familiar with this exercise, you can easily increase the time to two, three and five minutes.
To increase their breath awareness, ask them to inhale on the count of four and exhale on the count of six. You would do the counting out loud so that they can fully focus on their breathing. Start with one minute and allow a pause in silence afterwards for the students to observe the effects of the practice on their body and mind, before opening their eyes and resuming the activity.
‘The Mindful Minute’ sets a great and relaxed atmosphere at the start of a class. It can also be used in between activities, when you need students to re-focus. I regularly used this exercise during Form time to set a relaxed and mindful headspace at the beginning of the day.
Body Scan Relaxation
Those of you who teach 75-minute classes, especially the last period of the day, could lead your students into a body scan for complete relaxation. Some students may not wish to participate and that is okay – we shouldn’t force them. Others will take more time to get on board, and some will love it straight away.
Here is a suggested script. Feel free to tweak it to make it your own.
1. Have the students sit with their backs straight, hands resting on their thighs – or have them lie down, palms facing up along the torso. I prefer having them all lying on the floor, as they could fall asleep during the relaxation and fall from their chairs.
2. Ask them to close their eyes. Take three deep breaths and allow your body to become heavy into the floor.
3. With each breath, imagine the air going to different parts of the body, observing the sensations in your body. Starting at the feet then going up through the ankles, calves, thighs, belly, chest, lower back, middle back, upper back, the shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, wrists, palms and fingers, then the neck, the jaw, the tongue, the cheeks, they eyelids, the forehead and the crown of the head.
4. Once the whole body is scanned, allow at least two to three minutes of silence during which the students can completely relax.
5. Ask them to wiggle their fingers and toes. Bring the awareness back to their body, to the room and the sounds around them. Open the eyes and reach the arms over head for a nice big body stretch to re-awaken the body.
6. Questions for inquiry: Does your body feel different? Where did you feel tension? Which part of your body most needed to relax?
7. Explain to them that when they feel upset or annoyed, they can come back to this mindful strategy to assess where in their body they are feeling tightness. The idea is that they will start recognising the difference between sensations in their natural state and in their angry state. When they feel the ‘angry sensations’ arising in their body, they can choose to respond positively and mindfully.
Why not blend mindfulness with art and poetry by writing an acrostic to support the students in reflecting on their practice? As an example, this poem was written by Year 8 students who partook in the mindfulness elective class I led:
M Maintain yourself in peace
I Ignore bad vibes
N Nothing can stop you
D Do what you want
F Focus on your breath and your own things
U Until you feel free
L Life is better when you smile
N Never stop dreaming
E Experience yourself
S Say what you feel
S Show the emotion
I would like to share this funny quote with you and congratulate you for taking the first steps on your mindfulness journey and bringing it to the classroom:
“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realisation that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering mad-house on wheels barrelling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only difference is that you have confronted the situation, they have not”.
– Henepola Gunaratana
Recommended meditation apps
Kabat-Zinn J., Wherever you go, There you are, London, Piatkus, 1994.
Goldstein J., Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, Sounds True, 2013.
Davis Daphne, Hayes Jeffrey, “What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research”, American Psychological Association Journal, Vol 48, No. 2 (2011). 198 –208. Accessed March 7, 2017 https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/pst-48-2-198.pdf
Flaxmann Greg, Flook Lisa, “Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research”, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://marc.ucla.edu/workfiles/pdfs/MARC-mindfulness-research-summary.pdf
Corliss Julie, “Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety, mental stress”. Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. January 8, 2014. Accessed March 7, 2017. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-meditation-may-ease-anxiety-mental-stress-201401086967