BY: Adrian Smith
When I consider how positively mindfulness affects my psyche and my overall mental wellness, I’m often left wondering why our education system doesn’t teach mind-body training in schools. Mindfulness, a term first coined by biologist Jon Kabat-Zin, is defined as the “act of paying attention to the present-moment, on purpose, with a neutral, non-judgmental attitude.”
Although I can’t say I’ve mastered the technique, consistently practicing sitting meditation has prompted me to try to understand outside perspectives, deal with annoying situations more patiently and tackle what needs to get done throughout the day with calmness and certainty. If this type of intelligence and mindfulness is able to help me at 22 when I go about my work with greater focus and calmness—what could meditation have done for me at 16? Or in elementary school? Would I have been able to pay better attention in class? Maybe I would have had healthier relationships with teachers and professors early by relating to them on a human level, the way I do now. Would I have been less stressed, panicked and anxious during exam time or while writing essays? Probably.
In his essay ‘The Divine Within,’ Aldous Huxley argues that education systems are “predominantly verbal at the expense of experiential learning.” Huxley believes that education systems fill children and students with traditional academic skills and cognitive intelligence (things like I.Q. test scores, sciences and mathematics), while ignoring the development of their non-cognitive intelligence, which is equally vital. Schools provide students with all of this external learning without ever preparing the child for life or providing them an understanding of his or her position in the world.
So why don’t schools teach mindfulness? Why can’t our education system offer meditative courses? For one, mindfulness doesn’t fall into any academic category. Educators worry about how they would teach and evaluate the practice in schools. How do you grade how mindful a child is? How do you implement meditation into a classroom curriculum? I think to solve this problem, first, our education system needs to address what goal meditation and mindfulness aims to meet. Many believe mindfulness could work within the S.E.L. movement. S.E.L. (Social and Emotional Learning) is a program that tackles a similar sort of character building, except instead of working from the inside out, like meditation does, the program works from the outside in. S.E.L. teaches students and children how to mediate conflicts, verbally express their emotions and themselves and how to improve their communication in general.
Linda Lantieri, a co-founder of S.E.L., thinks the best approach would be for education systems to combine mindfulness and S.E.L. skills, rather than treat one form of character education as a sufficient replacement for the other. Meditation and mindfulness, like the lessons educators provide in S.E.L., could be taught as behavioral tools for young children—teaching them valuable human qualities such as self-control, attentiveness and respect for their elders and peers. In the same way we teach students to keep their bodies active by implementing physical education classes into their curriculum, we could also sneak 15 minutes of meditative practice in beforehand, in hopes of whispering the importance of also keeping one’s mind active and healthy.
A second problem is the difficulty of teaching young children meditation without conflicting with people’s personal beliefs. In order to have students understand the practice of meditation, educators would need to address the traditional background from which the practice is derived. Parents may feel uncomfortable with its roots in Eastern religion, and because of that, it’s difficult to ask them to put their beliefs aside in order to allow their children to be taught something rooted deeply in another religion.
The thing is, a new religion isn’t what’s being taught here. Something we might be forgetting is that mindfulness is secular. Each and every one of us feels stress, and has overwhelming thoughts that cloud up the day. Anyone could use the awareness and level-headedness meditation offers to you. Anyone. What mindfulness teaches us is how to slow down and winnow out detrimental, excess thought while training to keep present instead of anxiously looking ahead or helplessly mulling over the past.
Immediately after I resolved to try meditation (a friend of mine had been telling me to at least give it a shot), I noticed my thoughts becoming less frantic, and my attitude gradually shifted from believing the gods were unhappy with me and were punishing me to understanding that everyone gets shit luck at times and that my best course of action was making the best of those unfavorable situations, which I felt only happened to me. Sitting meditation helped me cope with the anxiety and stress I felt as a result of the workload and uncertainty that comes with the final semester in school. It wasn’t that I was learning how to shut my anxiety off—I was beginning to understand that it’s something also existing within you, the same as any other feeling: happiness, anger, excitement, nostalgia etc.
Educators also worry that children may not be mentally mature enough to handle sitting meditation. At what age are we mature enough for mindfulness? They argue that children lack the attention span to sit down long enough to meditate, and although that may be true, sitting meditation isn’t the only form of mindfulness. Why not try more active, physical meditative practices with younger students—perhaps yoga, z azan or even tai chi? It would lend a gentle transition to the eventual sitting meditation they’d be offered down the road. Educators could also introduce children to simple concentration techniques and breathing exercises until they’re old enough to hold still for meditation.
A school in New Haven, Connecticut required yoga and meditation classes three times a week for their incoming freshmen. They conducted a study and found that after each class students had significantly reduced their cortisol levels. In California, Visitacion Valley Middle School saw suspensions reduced by 45 percent after the first year of implementing ‘Quiet Time,’ a transcendental meditation program, as well as a 98 percent climb in attendance rates. The school even recorded the highest happiness levels in San Francisco’s annual California Healthy Kids Survey. In fact, all schools in California that participated in this program had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California achievement test than schools without.
Additionally, researchers at Johns Hopkins found that just 8 weeks of meditation training was as effective as medication in treating depression, anxiety and pain. Similarly, at Harvard, scientists used neuro-imaging technology to show meditation positively affects the brain activity of people who are chronically stressed. Because these findings are now becoming hard to ignore, Oxford researchers have announced their plans to launch a large scale, 7 year, $10 million study on mindfulness education starting next year. Headstand could be a template for other mind-body education programs as they consider the logistics of their own system.
Headstand is a mindfulness education program whose mission is to “empower at risk students to combat toxic stress through yoga, mindfulness meditation and character education.” Toxic stress is classified as “severe, uncontrollable chronic adversity” that can disrupt the brain and impede academic learning. It also creates long term physical and mental health problems for young students. Headstand offers units on responsibility, gratitude, and curiosity—skills that are actually needed in any situation throughout daily life.
Congressman Tim Ryan began implementing mindfulness into his weekly staff meetings. The US military has also embraced meditation as a way to boost performance and productivity during war. Even the Seattle Seahawks are using this practice to keep their focus sharp on the field. If people in these professions can use mind-body training as a means of alleviating stress and strengthening character, can’t students find mindfulness beneficial for the same reasons? A study at Johns Hopkins revealed a quarter of American adolescents suffer from a mental disorder—either some form of stress, anxiety or depression.
With evidence suggesting stress affects students, not only in the classroom but also outside of it, shouldn’t education systems take on the responsibility of providing a method of coping for students who need it? I understand a majority of educators need more evidence on the long-term academic impact of mindfulness and as a result dismiss it as an educational tool, but if mind-body training can help in any way with reducing the pressure and stress students feel, especially at such a young age, and help make them feel more ready to seriously learn, I think it’s something we should at least consider.