My last post mentioned the emergence of mindfulness as one strategy to promote greater intentionality. Let’s take a closer look at mindfulness.
What we are talking about is in essence the discipline of focusing one’s attention on the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment. We’ll look more at what this means in a moment.
The practice of mindfulness emerged out of the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Harvard School of Medicine instructor who, through his exposure to Buddhism, began around 1980 to apply principles of meditation to the work of helping patients reduce stress. His “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” techniques gained widespread popularity in the 1990’s when Kabat-Zinn published a book on his work and was featured on Bill Moyers’ PBS program Healing and the Mind.
(As an interesting human interest note, Kabat-Zinn is the son-in-law of the groundbreaking historian Howard Zinn, with whom many readers are familiar!)
Another surge in the popularity of mindfulness came in the past decade as scientific findings began piling up that show positive results of this practice in a variety of settings. For example, a study at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington taught preschool aged children relaxation exercises and yoga poses. The outcome was that the participants in the study showed an increase in happiness, awareness, ability to focus, and gratitude compared with a control group. And these results were achieved in just two weeks! The professor leading this study, Simone Nguyen, said “What’s amazing is that this brief exposure appears to be so powerful.”
So how does mindfulness work? It is important to note that it has been differentiated from Buddhism as much as possible, in part as a way to focus the practice on its actual physiological and behavioral results. But it looks a lot like meditation: Close your eyes. Breathe steady, even breaths. Relax. Become aware of your body, tuning into any points of stress or tension. Begin to identify thoughts as they arise, and welcome and accept all that is happening within you. It’s really as simple as taking time to accept what is happening in the present moment.
As a result of findings like those in North Carolina, mindfulness is being incorporated into schools across the USA with positive results, in California, Maryland, Ohio, Arizona, and many other places. Some initiatives are providing mindfulness training for teachers to help them be more effective in helping students reach higher levels of attention, compassion, and awareness.
As a measure of its current media visibility, the current edition of Time magazine (cover dated 10/3/2016) has an article about mindfulness in the classroom. This article follows the implementation of a pilot program in mindfulness in Louisville, Kentucky, where 26 schools are applying the techniques. I recommend that article, though unfortunately the online version of it is only accessible to Time subscribers.
When one takes the time to deliberately increase their level of consciousness, many things become possible. Greater self control is one. Increased compassion is another. Ability to make healthier choices, patience, capacity to forgive, better emotional resilience – all these for the very cost of a few minutes of sitting and relaxing! Available nearly anywhere! For free! Why wouldn’t any educator or human service professional want to achieve these important gains?
Of course, there are naysayers. From what I’ve read, the primary objections come from those who don’t want to mix religion and education, and they see the Buddhist origins of mindfulness as a problem. Others claim that, in isolating mindfulness from its spiritual roots it is becoming a panacea to help increase superficial contentment without addressing root issues of cultural and individual pathologies, like greed and ecological degradation.
But I suspect that mindfulness, the practice of being in the now, is its own force for change. Taking the time to increase one’s awareness can only create pathways for healing and social change. That’s what I believe anyway, as one who enjoys the benefits of mindfulness and wants to help save the world. What do you think?