If school based wellbeing has a fashion, then this season’s choice is most certainly ‘the mindfulness program’. After all, isn’t mindfulness at the cutting edge of positive education? This may be true, but the more cynical among us may be forgiven for wondering if mindfulness is simply another passing trend on the wellbeing calendar. Moreover, even if we believe in the benefits of being mindful, how do we know that the mindfulness program being delivered in our school, is actually achieving its goal?
The fundamental rational for teaching mindfulness certainly makes intuitive sense in our increasingly overscheduled and busy world. Levels of screen time for kids are at an all time high with a recent article in the UK Daily Telegraph citing excessive screen time as a cause of unhappiness in British children. In addition, the distinction between night and day has become increasingly blurred for young people who now have constant access to social media and all-night entertainment. Add in pressure to gain high grades and ‘impression manage’, and it is no wonder that we are all feeling over-scheduled and over-whelmed. Now-a-days I rarely meet anyone (young or old) who is not ‘really busy.’
Many of the modern mindfulness programs that have become popular in our schools and colleges are based on age-old Buddhist meditation practices. These practices are designed to still busy minds and help practitioners become more aware of the immediate world around them. Indeed, experienced meditators often report feeling like greater participants in their own lives, and more content. The great philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell summed this concept up most eloquently when he suggested that ‘People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive…’ (Joseph Campbell. The Power of Myth). It makes sense that regular mindful meditation has been significantly linked to improved wellbeing.
Simple mindful meditation practices often ask the participants to engage their wandering minds with a focus on their breath, by taking gentle exercise or by repeating a simple phrase. Other meditations encourage shared compassion and humanity with a focus on loving others. Arguably the most vital lesson that any enthusiastic student can learn is that meditation is an active practice and not a theoretical subject. Overloaded students may initially find it hard not to use meditation as an opportunity to ruminate. People benefit from mindful meditation because they practice it regularly, not because they learn about being mindful.
Other mindfulness strategies encourage students to engage more fully with their immediate environment. For example, students maybe encouraged to fully savor a chocolate or focus on the look and feel of everyday objects. These techniques gently bring people away from ongoing inner distractions and involve them in the richness of present time. Such strategies can indeed be useful but, teachers need to stay aware of the natural mindfulness that develops through play and creativity in children. It is a sad sign of our over structured education system, when children are told to stop engaging in play so that a good intentioned teacher can teach them to be more mindful…Or as in the case of my youngest daughter, when they are told to stop mindfully enjoying their lunch and practice smelling their sandwich…something my six-year-old found slightly irritating… and more than a bit of a puzzle.
Mindfulness practice can certainly offer a means of readdressing balance in the modern world of overwhelm. However, just as with any program or practice, it is important that mindfulness programs are delivered with care and caution. It is also vital that we remember that a mindfulness program is no substitute for a mindful life.
Dr Helen Street is an education consultant, cofounder and chair of The Positive Schools Initiative. Details about the Australian Positive Schools 2016 conference series are available online at www.positiveschools.com.au