In this photo, taken in Ireland in the 1930's, my father (in the foreground) is fishing with a group of children. Each of them is attending to his or her own experience. Each is directing his or her attention in a particular way, either to the act of fishing or to preparing the bait. If these children could call up the memory of the moment when the photograph was taken, would they remember being aware of the temperature of the air, the sound of the water, or the smells of the river-bank? Would they be able to tell a story of that day?
As professor of psychiatry Daniel Siegel writes in Mindsight, integrating the different parts of the brain is what allows perceptual and emotional memory to be woven into recollections: "This uniquely human storytelling ability also depends upon the development of the highest part of the brain, the cortex." (Mindsight, p. 21)
The prefrontal cortex is the locus and source of what neuro-scientists call "The Executive Function," the ability to organize one's thoughts and focus. The practice of mindfulness activates the prefrontal cortex, developing a long list of attributes of well-being including emotional balance or regulation, bodily regulation, empathy, intuition, morality, and attuned communication with others.
In late September, I traveled to Santa Cruz where I attended a three-day training with Mindful Schools, a non-profit based in Berkeley. The founders of Mindful Schools acknowledge their debt to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the application of mindfulness in the field of medicine. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs are now used to teach pain management and alleviate stress-related symptoms across the U.S. and Canada. In MBSR and in the work of Mindful Schools, mindfulness is seen as a skill, and there is no attempt to present the historical context in which the practice of mindfulness developed. (See the end of this article for some background on mindfulness.) While some might view this approach as short-sighted or limited, since it extracts one specific teaching from the beauty and the fullness of the Buddha's wisdom, it has a practical purpose--to ensure that the introduction of this very practical skill is not obstructed by any fear or concern that schools are introducing some form of religious practice.
Mindful Schools has introduced mindfulness to more than 11,000 children in Oakland and the Bay area of California, 71% of whom attend schools in low-income neighbourhoods. There's no doubt in my mind that mindfulness is making a huge difference in the lives of these children. Their own comments and reflections are evidence enough for me, though several studies have also shown the value of introducing this practice to children. We watched two videos over the course of the weekend, in which Mindful Schools’ instructors gave a lesson.
“How have you used your mindfulness?” the Mindful Schools’ teacher asks the children. Some of them share their stories. Though the teacher is only in the classroom for fifteen minutes, this is an important part of the lesson. It reminds the children that mindfulness is a skill they can practice anywhere. Often, they describe using their mindfulness when they make a decision not to react with anger, not to hit back, but to walk away from a quarrel with a sibling or a friend. Or they use their mindfulness of the body to help them sleep at night. Maybe they use their mindfulness of gratitude to help them feel happy.
What is the value of seeing mindfulness as something that belongs to us, rather than simply a state of presence? Taking ownership of awareness can be seen as another way of reinforcing a sense of self, but I think the decision to speak of “your” mindfulness and “my” mindfulness is important. The child is being given the opportunity to claim her awareness as uniquely hers. While the world around her may feel chaotic and out of control, she has something of her very own, this skill of tuning into herself, of calling on her mindfulness to help her make good choices. The language used by Mindful Schools reinforces this sense, and in doing so empowers children.
It also builds respect and empathy. The opportunity for children to share their experience following the short practice sessions allows them to see that each of their classmates is describing what happened from their own vantage point, which will be different for every child. There may be similarities: “I heard the clock ticking.” “I heard the clock and I never knew it was so loud.” But hearing each other share what their experience of listening to sounds was, or of paying attention to the breath, not only validates their own experience, but demonstrates in an immediate way that each child’s perception is both unique and acceptable. Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention to what is happening right now, in the external environment and in the internal world of sensations, emotions, and thoughts. As soon as children understand that this skill of attending is theirs to practice and develop, they begin to apply it.
Mindful Schools has developed a series of fifteen short lessons, which take place over five or eight weeks. Each lesson is followed by five minutes of journal writing in a special journal. The journal writing offers a further opportunity for children to take ownership of their experience. By keeping track of what they observed and how they felt, they are learning to value this ability to pay attention to their own life of perception.
I look forward to doing my own research as I begin offering this curriculum in local schools in British Columbia.
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More about mindfulness: Mindfulness is one translation of the Pali word “sati” which appears in one of the key discourses of the Buddha – The Satipatthana Sutta. The title of this sutta (teaching or discourse) is often translated as the Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. More recently, scholars and Dharma teachers have come up with an alternative translation, one that highlights the dynamic quality of the word “patthana” which literally means “setting forth” or “putting forward.” Rather than supply a noun—“foundation”—which conjures up something solid and enduring, they use “abiding”, thus we get the Discourse on Mindful Abiding. In other words, being with what’s happening right now, in the mind, in the body, in the realm of emotion and thought, and being here in a way that is open, receptive and non-judgmental.