Do you have time today to not-do? Imagine this: you scurry into your first class just as the bell sounds, head spinning with confusion over last night’s homework, anxiety over perhaps having forgotten last night’s homework, and deep dread of the hours of tedium ahead. But today, before even introducing the lesson, your teacher instructs you to forget your work and simply sit for a while: to breathe, to tune in, to just be in that moment. This is mindfulness meditation, and it is becoming increasingly popular across the country as a means of combating stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is used to promote focus, improve physical health, and hone traits like empathy, compassion and awareness. It has been implemented in the offices of multinational corporations, written into legislation for veterans’ programs, integrated into National Football League training, adopted in medical school curricula and prescribed by doctors to their patients.
Mindfulness meditation is being introduced into classrooms across the country. This generation of students is under more pressure to achieve and is exposed to more compelling distractions than ever before. Our social dynamics have unprecedented complexity, the virtual world imposing an additional layer of interaction with very different rules. Of course, students have always had to cope with stress. Mindfulness has become a popular response to that issue due in large part to a number of recent studies affirming the power of meditation to affect positive change across the physical and emotional spectrum.
Programs and initiatives like MINDS, a nonprofit group of mindfulness teachers that serves the DC area, and .b in the UK, which developed a 12-week mindfulness curriculum, condense and modernize an ancient practice, making it accessible to all ages. The .b website defines mindfulness as “learning to direct our attention to our experience as it unfolds, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, it trains us to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.” In September, Tara Brach, a leading psychologist, meditation teacher and founder of DC’s Insight Meditation Center, spoke at a public forum on mindfulness in the classroom at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda along with Congressman Tim Ryan, author of the book A Mindful Nation. Whitman is now teaching mindfulness during class hours. I hope that other local schools will follow.
However, the brand of secular mindfulness that has been introduced into the mainstream, like programs developed for schools, has come under criticism, with some branding it as a sort of McMindfulness, lacking the depth and social awareness of the original Buddhist practice. Is it truly mindfulness, skeptics ask, if it is being employed in service of increased productivity or simple well-being, rather than the grander aims of living an aware, ethical life, and helping all sentient beings to do the same?
I would argue that mindfulness meditation in the classroom does in fact promote that greater goal. Its benefits reach far beyond those of the individual student. As Ms. Brach explains, mindfulness is not a practice, but a lifestyle – a way of being, of interacting with the world. “When each of us as individuals become more mindful, we relate to each other with a lot more empathy, a lot more compassion, and a lot more sensitivity. [And] it’s not just how we treat each other individually; there’s so much injustice in the world, between oppressed minorities, racial injustice, those who have different sexual orientations, different ethnic groups – and [mindfulness] really opens our hearts in a way that allows us to relate to others. Finally, mindfulness brings a kind of sensitivity and care to the way that we treat our greater body – the Earth.” A mindful classroom is a first step towards a mindful world.
Article by Noa Gur-Arie, MoCo Student opinions writer
Photo by myqigong