The Benefits of Mindfulness

(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.)

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“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…

 

 

Getting lost on the farm

Okay so I have been really slack and this happened a while ago now, but here it is for posterity.

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Today I was lucky enough to be a part of a wonderful TPL experience, both as a presenter and participant. First of all a big fist pump (thanks @benpaddlejones for getting me onto that term) to Grant Ward and Justine Abell for organising this epic event, another one to @pryorcommitment for bringing up the concept, and @neilfara for revving me up for the event.

Having gotten lost in Barnesley on the way there I got to see a bit of countryside and lucky just made it in time for Roger Pryor’s opening remarks. I too saw the super moon the night before and reflected on what it must have been like ages ago to be out under the stars witnessing such an event, so he connected with me right away. I had read on his blog his idea of ‘planning school’ vs school planning and I believe that his tight-loose-tight model is an important one for anyone engaging in redefining school.

I have been lucky enough to witness this model in action when I visited @neilfara and Project REAL last year, and watching Neil present enthusiastically on the work his faculty has done and the results they have achieved was a good motivator for people like me who are working at the end of change. Neil is passion personified.

I was also fortunate to see two presenters Cory Macdonald and @BeauBerman talk about the fascinating work they are doing at Callaghan College Waratah with Educ8. If you have seen what they are up check out their blog here.

@benpaddlejones ‘ pecha kucha I became intrigued with his innovative approach to Professional Learning for Teachers and will definitely seek out more information. I also saw Ben’s Game-based learning session and walked away feeling excited…so much so I went back last session for a quick go on the Xbox kinect which was fun to say the least. Using my body to navigate was a bit like minority report. When my boys get a bit bigger I am purchasing one for sure!

Beginning on the Evolutionary Path

Today marks the beginning of my evolutionary journey as a teacher. It was my first foray into incorporating PBL and elements of Neil Fara’s Project REAL approach. I have moved my desks into groups around the wall to facilitate a meeting space in the centre of the room, a “campfire” see Bianca Hewes‘ use of metaphorical spaces, and gave my year 7 humanities class their first PBL project.

Nothing went to plan. What was the plan? They would relish the freedom (and responsibility) being offered to them, a chance to have a voice in their education. I was hoping they would be excited by the project, by my inclusion of music into the classroom, by being able to decide their own groups and subtopics, by…by doing something student-centred. My spiel to them to explain why I am taking this approach is that as future citizens they will need to be able to understand, communicate, collaborate and connect. My aim with this approach is to have them develop these skills while producing a worthwhile product for a real audience.

The Project’s Driving Question: What is the legacy of the Ancient Greeks?

Observations: getting into groups was far harder than I imagined. What I thought would take minutes took MANY minutes. There were fights over who should or shouldn’t be in a group, why they didn’t want this or that student. Then came choosing topics: choice was determined by who had their group ready first. Two groups were fighting over doing myths/literature, with names being written and rubbed off the board several times until a compromise was reached. Two other groups were fighting over Art, so we broke it down into sculpture and pottery.

What was most interesting about this was that an activity I expected to take little time (getting into groups and choosing a topic) actually took most of the period. From a teacher’s perspective this was frustrating but I enjoyed seeing them wrestle with these social issues and working out compromises. There was a lot of social learning, that we don’t assess, going on – and that was the satisfying bit. What’s more, they were actively involved, not passively being told what to do.

In other words, it was messy! Therein lies the risk and the freedom. Real learning should be messy. Next lesson we discuss the look of the final product, the audience and when to “ship”.