When I say the word mindfulness to a group of educators and ask what the word signifies, I get several definitions. The term is ancient and, not surprisingly, has taken on many definitions over time. This is a paradox of language: As a word becomes popular, its original meaning can become vague. Although the movement of mindfulness into mainstream secular society is relatively recent, we already see some instances where its meaning has become blurred. That's why I'll begin this introduction to mindfulness for teachers and their students by describing what I mean when I talk about mindful awareness.
The root of the word mindfulness (called sati in Pali, the language of the original mindfulness texts) is memory or recollection. In classical Buddhist training, mindfulness is used as a tool to investigate inner and outer life experiences. Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendszki describes the classical view of mindfulness:
"[M]indfulness derives from a root meaning memory or recollection and refers to the cultivation of a certain presence of mind that remembers to attend with persistent clarity to the objects of present experience. Like meditation in general, it involves placing attention deliberately upon an object and sustaining it over time, but unlike one-pointedness and absorption [meditation], mindfulness tends to open to a broader range of phenomena rather than restricting the focus to a singular object. Like a ﬂoodlight rather than a spotlight, mindfulness illuminates a more ﬂuid phenomenological ﬁeld of ever-changing experience rather than isolating a particular object for intensive scrutiny. This alternative mode of observation is necessary because mindfulness practice is more about investigating a process than about examining an object."
With this classical view in mind, the secular mindfulness approach we teach is not a narrow one that offers techniques for every "difficult" situation, but rather a process-oriented approach through which educators learn a way of being with youth that strengthens and supports how they communicate and teach. By investigating inner-and-outer life experiences with mindfulness, educators and their students refine attention while developing social skills and greater social/emotional awareness that strengthens the attachment relationships between children, teens and their teachers. It's not uncommon for educators and youth to describe mindfulness as transformative. This inner-transformation hinges upon how well we communicate key universal concepts to newcomers. Articulating key universal concepts simply and accessibly is the first step. The second, equally important step is to create opportunities for youth and educators to experience a visceral understanding of those key concepts and provide a framework within which they can contextualize them.
The framework Inner Kids uses is the ABCs of Attention, Balance & Compassion through which we simply articulate more than twenty-five key universal concepts. These key universal concepts are derivative of wisdom traditions, modern science, psychology, and educational pedagogy and are common to one or more of these fields. As a mindfulness-based program we pay close attention to universal concepts drawn from Buddhist training that can be taught in a secular way. These key concepts are not only universal but also comprehensive. They've already been translated into well-established secular adult programs (most notably Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn) and the secular programs for adults have been the subject of extensive peer-reviewed, scientific research studies for decades.
The process of investigation known as mindfulness is experiential learning at its best and can be taught to youth through a series of games and activities that provide students (and their teachers) opportunities to understand key universal concepts. By singing songs, playing games and participating in mindful awareness activities a framework will emerge naturally within which students can better understand and contextualize life experiences that feel "more or less mindful" to them. We couch this framework within the language of seven strategies (or life-skills) that help students manage life's ups and downs. These strategies are stopping, focusing, choosing, quieting, seeing, caring and connecting, and each of them relates to one or more of the ABCs of Attention, Balance & Compassion. We introduce our strategies in a circle, with focusing in the center because it is at the heart of classical introspective training and a prerequisite to utilizing the other six strategies effectively. Here's how the seven strategies emerge through the investigation of inner and outer experience with mindfulness.
It becomes easier for students to stop when they have a heightened awareness of sense impressions (I'm feeling anxious, I'm feeling upset, I'm feeling out of control) that cues them to pause and reflect before speaking or acting. As students slow down, breathe and focus, their minds tend to quiet and a space opens up in their moment-to-moment experience that allows them to see what's happening in and around them more clearly and make wiser choices. Through this process students become more attuned to their inner and outer worlds, and as a result they notice how everything and everyone is connected and changing. As they begin to recognize these connections and patterns, other qualities like caring and connecting naturally emerge.
Given that educators have a heavy workload, it's important that mindfulness doesn't become yet another "add-on" to an already overloaded classroom routine. Mindfulness-based activities can be easily 'dropped-in' to what educators are already doing and are well-suited to circle time, a morning meeting and/or classroom transitions. Mindfulness-based songs, stories, and activities needn't be dreary, sedentary and quiet. They can be fun and stimulating as they introduce the strategies and key universal concepts that support the ABCs of Attention, Balance & Compassion and give students and educators an opportunity to practice them together.
Before sharing mindfulness with your students you'll want to learn about it yourself. A good place to begin is with Congressman Tim Ryan's new book A Mindful Nation. Born and raised in Ohio, and representing constituents deep in the middle of America, Congressman Ryan is an unusual guy. Those of us who advocate for research to investigate the effect of mindfulness-based social and emotional learning programs in public education have found a friend in Congressman Ryan and owe him a debt of gratitude. In his book he explores the science that supports mindfulness and offers dynamic, real-world examples of secular mindfulness in schools, the military, and the workplace. You can learn more in Daniel Burke's Huffington Post blog post or, if you live near Santa Monica, California, you can hear Congressman Ryan speak this Monday night at the Broad Theater. Monday night's public talk will benefit the meditation center InsightLA, one of several organizations that offer mindfulness training in Los Angeles. Another local center of note is the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at UCLA, where my co-presenter at this year's California Association of Independent Schools Southern Regional Conference, Diana Winston, is Director of Mindfulness Education. For those who don't live near Los Angeles, MARC offers online beginning mindfulness courses as well.
NOTE: To learn more about Congressman Ryan, and his book The Mindful Nation, see "Inspiring a Mindful Nation: A Interview with Congressman Tim Ryan," posted by Elisha Goldstein in the Healthy Living Section.