(This was an article I created for our school newsletter that explores a favourite topic of mine – meditation. I’ve reproduced it here because I’ve not written anything for a while since I started at my awesome new school, Cooks Hill Campus. I promise to blog about the wonderful things the students are doing as soon as Exhibition week is over.)
“Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment in full awareness” Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR Pioneer
In this edition I want to discuss the benefits of the practice of Mindfulness meditation, a tool which has transformed my life over many years. But first I’d like to explore the reasons why I think it is a beneficial practice that should be (and can be) learned by everyone, especially teenagers.
1) Our brains are over-loaded & addicted
In our “always-on” world, we are constantly bombarded with input from a variety of sources. As technology has transformed our working and domestic lives, our ability to slow down and process this sublime experience called “life” has also been affected. In my own life (and you may have had a similar experience) time-saving technology has let me get more done but what has become increasingly aware to me is that as my engagement with technology has grown, so has my need to seek “down time” where my brain can rest and process the average of 34 gigabytes of input we receive each day. Aran Levasseur, in his blog post on The Importance of Teaching Mindfulness, takes this further and explores the link between our consumption of media and neurological changes in the brain:
“Our colossal consuming habits are not only crowding out essential neurological downtime, but they’re creating a chemical addiction that has interest in little else. When we consume media — from watching TV to surfing the Net, and from playing videogames to using social media — we’re triggering the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine creates a “high,” and we are wired to do what it takes to maintain this elevated state. When the dopamine levels decrease, we begin to look for diversions that will restore the high.”
Have you noticed how people now tend to spend their spare moments intently gazing at their phones (sometimes while walking or driving!)? Now you know why: they’re addicted. We’ve become habituated to seeking a flood of stimuli, with no time for relaxed contemplation of our lives, which leads me to my next reason…
2) The need to develop creative self-awareness to deal with stress
When our habitual patterns of media consumption leave us little time for self-reflection, there’s little chance for us to develop a greater awareness of ourselves, other people around us, and the world in which we live. It’s my belief that this lack of metacognitive and emotional awareness is one of the reasons for the prevalence of stress and mental illness such as depression in our society today.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness practice has allowed me to better deal with life and the stresses that come ‘part and parcel’ with living. While my practice has never been consistent, the time that I have spent cultivating mindfulness has certainly paid off in greater levels of self-awareness and resilience. As Martine Batchelor, in her book Meditation for Life, puts it:
You will become aware of certain negative patterns: anger, jealousy, jumping to conclusions, feeling negative about yourself. With meditative awareness, it is possible to understand negative patterns and so have the motivation to work with them creatively… It is easy to get lost in thoughts and emotions. We are inclined to make up stories about ourselves, other people and situations, which are not always accurate. These stories are built up over time from an accumulation of our fears, memories, expectations and ideals, and also from what is said and expected of us by family and society. Caught up in the storyline you are spinning in your head, you become unaware of your body and your surroundings.
I believe that it’s this ability to become more mindful, more objectively observant of your habitual thoughts and feelings that makes mindfulness meditation such a powerful tool for life. Levasseur says that in recent times “researchers have found that more than 40 percent of our actions are based on habits, not conscious decisions. Unconscious habits and assumptions aren’t destiny, but if we don’t bring them into focus then the force of these habits will continue to chart our course.” Sitting quietly in mindful awareness, consciously withdrawn from the flood of external stimuli, we can recognise the twists and backflips our “monkey minds” love to make. By practising not getting caught up in those thoughts we don’t subject ourselves to unnecessary suffering and are able to carry that awareness into our day, making us better able to react to life as it happens.
This is why I also believe that mindfulness practice can have a beneficial effect on teenagers and why I have encouraged my students to be open to the practice. School should be about educating the whole child, and giving them the tools to deal with life is just as important as literacy and numeracy. Mindfulness practice is easy to learn, but takes a lot of discipline to do well. Health organisations have realised the benefits of meditation in helping young adults to develop resilience and have produced a free mobile app called Smiling Mind to guide teens in the practice. If your child has an Android or iDevice then I can highly recommend this app. Until next time…