Mindfulness is something that I am practising on my own. I really got involved into relaxation techniques during my internship in a rehabilitation center. There, techniques of mindfulness and exercises like progressive muscle relaxation by Jacobsen (PMR, 1932) were used to help patients relax and become aware of their own body and mind without judging what they felt.
I instructed the patients to imagine a place full of joy, where they can always go when they need to. Other tasks involved dream journeys and “walks of the five senses”. All these different tasks require attention and relaxation.
A meta-analysis conducted by Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, and Walach (2004) comprised ten controlled studies with 771 participants. It demonstrated that mindfulness interventions are very effective with medium to high effect sizes (d=.54). 27 other observational studies also highlighted the effectiveness of mindfulness techniques.
The Chinese characters for mindfulness are separately translated heart, mind and now. To start with one has to accept physiological sensations associated with emotions. Thereafter meta-awareness can be practiced which helps becoming aware of a situation and avoiding to judge the feelings, but rather embrace them openly (Kong, 2010). Mindfulness is helpful in the therapy of PTSD patients by assisting them to accept and tolerate their emotions so that they can integrate their traumatic experience into their biography. Mindfulness means thus the ability to respect one´s emotions.
Siegel (2007, 2009) indicates that the human cortex consists of six layers. He divides these layers referring to layer 1 and 3 as “top-down” and to layer 4 and 6 as “bottom-up”. Thereafter the first two layers process information comparing it with declarative knowledge that has been accumulated through former continuous experience. According to Siegel, Layer 4 and 6 play a crucial part in awareness of sensory input of current experiences. Mindfulness intends to strengthen the “bottom-up” layers and to shape awareness by the flow of information in these layers. When this shift of processing information can be carried out, the affected person experiences the world with “fresh eyes” (Siegel, 2007). This is due to the fact that one is less biased through former experiences that influence our perception and learning.
Mindfulness leads to fine-tuning of neural connections in the brain. By developing new neural pathways in layer 4 and 6 creativity can be enhanced, because a new profound way of perceiving the world is experienced. Thus the ordinary can become something special and outstanding that cannot be put into words. Diana Winston stated in her TED-Talk that especially in very young children who still go to kindergarten one can notice that they live in the moment and show curiosity, interest and presence in the moment. These aspects define mindfulness and lead to vitality. The children are embodied and connected with the world but education and life experiences makes them lose this connection by perceiving the world with an experiential bias and the mind shifting from the past to the future causing stress.
Studies indicate that a consistent practice of mindfulness with just five minutes per day lead to new neural linkages and finally to emotional, educational and creative benefits. When thinking of mindfulness practices activities like yoga, tai chi and meditation come to our mind.
How can we include mindfulness in the teaching practices in school?
The most widely used practice in the classroom setting is to focus the attention on the breath while sitting. Other possibilities is the aforementioned “walk to the five senses” experiencing the outside world by focusing awareness on their senses, but also emotions and thoughts (Bochun, 2011). Mindfulness can also be used in biology classes when exploring the woods. All curriculum areas can profit from the enriching quality of mindfulness. It is especially beneficial though in the arts. The goal of these practices is to develop a “sense of mutual respect and cooperation” (Bochun, 2011) to cope with stressful situations and benefit from an increased creativity.
In Canadian schools mindfulness activities are already being implemented. After ringing a bell the classroom becomes quiet and the students attentively listen to the chime before following awareness of their own breathing, but also being aware of the sounds around them. The state of mindfulness can be increased by closing the eyes (Vidyarthi et al., 2012). After five minutes the chime is sounded again and the activity ends.
At other times the students are asked to increase awareness by concentrating on the inner voice before engaging in an art project. This is an example for an exercise that represents personal inquiry and openness which enhances creativity. Achieving a state of calmness promotes receptiveness to ideas and deeper learning and engagement with surroundings and the tasks at hand by not being distracted.
In Vancouver many teachers are trained to teach mindfulness techniques and awareness in the Hawn Foundation curriculum MindUp which is part of a social emotional learning (SEL) program. Self-regulation through a breathing technique and self-awareness applying the five senses are the main aspects addressing mindfulness. But also other methods which improve self-efficacy are being taught: positive psychology, SEL, optimism training etc. These tenets are based on scientific research and suggest that the methods contribute to bio-chemical and neural changes through neural plasticity. This program has proven to enrich learning and to lead to higher academic achievements, in particular within the arts (Schonert-Reichl et al., 1996). What keeps us from implementing this program in our schools?
Bochun, P. (BA, MA, RCC) http://www.canadianteachermagazine.com/pdf/CTM-NovDec11-mindfulness.pdf
Kong, B. S. (2011). Mindfulness: A way of cultivating deep respect for emotions. The Humanistic Psychologist, 2, 27-32
Rothwell, N. (2006). The different facets of mindfulness. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 24, 1.
Siegel, D.J. 2010. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Hymel, S. (1996). “Promoting Social Development and Acceptance in the Elementary Classroom,” in Teaching Students with Diverse Needs: Elementary Classrooms
- 11 Ways to Be More Mindful in Your Work Relationships (intentionalworkplace.com)
- The Healing Power of Mindfulness | Mindful (bauerphysicaltherapy.wordpress.com)
- A neural basis for benefits of meditation (medicalxpress.com)
- The Mindful Heart (6seconds.org)