My first experience of ‘mindfulness’ was as a fourth grade student. The school I attended offered Yoga as one of its sport options. I don’t remember anything about it other than the meditation at the end. Our teacher would take us through a progressive muscle relaxation exercise, followed by a visualisation which usually involved us imagining our bodies filling slowly with light, and becoming weightless, floating above the floor.
Learning this relaxation technique had a profound effect on me.I was an anxious child who often wrestled with strong emotions throughout the day and terrors at night. I used these relaxation techniques whenever I couldn’t sleep. It empowered me by enabling me to calm my fears, to be at peace, to experience moments of tranquility.
As an adult, I continue to meditate, practice Yoga and engage in other mindful activities. When I neglect this, my quality of life decreases, I lose that sense of inner peace and am easily overwhelmed.
And so, as a teacher, I have always included mindfulness in my classroom program. Sometimes it has been as little as a five minute relaxation exercise after lunch, at other times it has been a 40 minute yoga session as part of our sport offering, and I frequently embed it in our art activities.
I do it to offer my students a way of finding their own path to tranquility, should they need one. It’s to demonstrate a useful process that might help them, as it helped me, to find relief from the strong emotions which sometimes overwhelm them.
This article in The Huffington Post expresses a number of concerns about teaching mindfulness. Including:
- that it is taught in order to increase ‘”normalized” behavior, fewer emotional outbursts, teaching children to accept the frustration and hardships they endure, instead of taking a critical approach to understanding them.’
- that ‘several schools are standardizing this approach to well-being and several mindfulness curriculums are indeed measuring and evaluating your child’s ability to remain “zen”.’
- ‘The emphasis on sublimating strong emotions such as anger could send unintended messages about not speaking up in the face of injustice, which has serious ramifications for dissuading children’s later participation in social activism.’
If schools are indeed teaching mindfulness in order to promote compliant behaviour or to sublimate emotions I would share the authors’ concerns. And certainly, the idea of standardizing and measuring mindfulness seems not only impossible, as such a thing cannot be quantified, but to utterly miss the point of the practice.
However, my own understanding of mindfulness is that it has nothing to do with either compliance or sublimating emotions. Practicing mindfulness does not deny emotions. Instead it helps us not to be controlled by them. It lowers the cortisol levels in the blood that are generated by stress and trigger a fight or flight response. As we practise, we develop a greater capacity to respond rather than react to situations.
The author of the Huffington Post article worries that teaching mindfulness ‘may encourage children to become peaceful and passive in their acceptance of hardships, rather than questioning, or holding an oppositional stance to inequities of social class, race, or gender.’
Instead, I believe it increases the ability of children (and adults) to respond to setbacks and injustices in a calm and effective manner.