We live in an extremely busy world. We move through many of our days with a focus on the next task at hand, trying to catch up, but there always seems more to do. It’s not just about work; family responsibilities can add a hectic sense to our lives and at times can overwhelm. Getting the children ready for school, driving them to soccer practice, helping them with their homework, getting them ready for bed — it can seem like a never-ending whirlwind of activity. Add to this the “demands” of the technology that surrounds us, which not only creates more “noise” in our minds but also gives us the feeling that we must respond ever more quickly to messages and requests.
2nd Grader practicing mindfulness in the Peace Corner at Oneness-Family School.
When do we rest? When can we just stop? When can we relax and feel a sense of accomplishment? The answer is so simple that it may well escape us: anytime. It is really up to us. We have a choice to pause at any time and just breathe. We can stop the endless treadmill for a few moments and just BE. We just have to tell ourselves it is ok. We just need to give ourselves permission, and not feel guilty or worried that we’re wasting time.
There is now ample research to show that this kind of “pause practice” will make us more productive. Slowing down and stopping occasionally will help us be more patient, enable us keep things in our life in perspective, and remind us of what is truly important. If we feel stressed, just think of how our children must feel. Thankfully there is a growing movement to teach children mind/body practices to help them manage in today’s crazy world, practices to help them gain a sense of control over their lives, keep their emotions in balance, build inner resiliency, increase their ability to focus, and learn empathy.
At the Oneness-Family School, we are using some of these mind-body programs, including Goldie Hawn’s Mind Up Program. Other resources for mind/body programs include the Mindful Schools Program, and the Inner Resilience Program, developed by Linda Lantieri and others, which she details in her new book Building Emotional Intelligence.
One of the best articles on this subject appeared recently in salon.com named “Why Kids Need Solitude”. According to the article, approximately 75 percent of New York City freshmen at community colleges last year needed remedial math, reading, or writing courses. According to another study, only one in four 2010 high school graduates who took the ACT exam were prepared for college level English, math, reading, and science. In her book The Republic of Noise, author Diana Senechal argues that one reason for these alarming figures is the students’ lack of solitude: the ability to think and reflect independently on a given topic. She says we have become a nation glued to smartphones and computer screens, checking email and Twitter feeds in an apparent need to stay constantly in the loop. Senechal does not advocate total disengagement from technology; but that we think more slowly and give ourselves more time for reflection.
Middle School student reading outside at Oneness-Family School.
Another recent article in the Washington Post cites research showing how mindfulness / meditation can affect brain growth. The study, published last month in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, tracked 16 people who took a course on mindfulness-based stress reduction and practiced for about 30 minutes a day. After eight weeks, MRI scans showed significant gray matter density growth in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, empathy and compassion, sense of self and emotional regulation. In addition, the researchers referred to an earlier study that found a decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain that affects fear and stress, which correlated with a change in self-reported stress levels.
The data and studies have dramatic implications for education. It is becoming increasingly clear that practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can bring nothing but positive results for students – not just in “affective” areas of development, such as compassion and empathy, but also in those directly impacting learning, such as memory and concentration. Pausing each day to take a few breaths and to focus our mind on the here and now is beneficial, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physiologically.
Here are a few practices that you can try individually, or better yet, as a family.
Pausing to be in the NOW:
Make a commitment to take time each day for a few minutes of mindfulness: simply being present to your own thoughts and feelings and taking a few deep breaths before re-entering the routine of the day. Do not try to “clear your mind of thoughts.” Just be present to yourself. Bring your full awareness to what is happening NOW. Pay attention to what feelings and thoughts arise but don’t get carried away by the feelings or thoughts. Notice how your mind has the tendency to oscillate between thinking about the past and thinking about the future. Gently bring your focus back to the present. Paying attention to your breathing can be extremely helpful in reorienting yourself in the present moment. Try to establish a consistent time for your practice each day; make this a permanent part of your life. Share your experience with others in your family who may be practicing this mindfulness activity.
Family Reflection Time:
Spend 30 minutes at least once a week in personal reflection time when everyone in the family is reading, writing, drawing or just sitting in a quiet, reflective atmosphere, perhaps with quiet music in the background or in silence. Turn off all electronic devices and place your mobile phones out of reach to prevent the temptation of checking for messages. Try to feel the flow of quiet energy from within yourself and throughout the house. This is an opportunity to “be” with life as it is and to take a break from the endless noise and business of the day-to-day world. As time allows, spend 5 minutes sharing what the experience was like and how it feels to be without our technological devices for even a short period of time. What happens in our brains, in our bodies and in our awareness? Eventually, you can increase the length of your family reflection times.