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By Theo Koffler
Theo Koffler is the Founder and Executive Director of Mindfulness Without Borders
Mindfulness is a way of being and thinking that grows out of paying attention, on purpose and without judgment, to what is happening in the present moment. When we are mindful, we deliberately slow down to notice what is happening inside us (our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations), and what is happening outside us, in our environment. The intention is to see things as they are, rather than as they used to be or as we wish they could be. The good news is that the development of mindfulness helps us notice our emotions without being triggered by them. It moves us from living on automatic pilot to pausing and paying deliberate attention to what is happening in the now.
Mindfulness For Teenagers
While teenagers are constantly being told to pay attention, they receive very little instruction in how to do it. The truth is that once they step outside the classroom and leave algebra and world history behind, they are faced with real challenges and daily frustrations that can't be solved with the knowledge of quadratic equations or battle dates. While the education system provides students with cognitive training, adolescents are mostly on their own to manage the emotional ups and downs that are part of their biological development.
With increasing numbers of students entering high school struggling to live happy and productive lives, the time is ripe for a type of education that serves the development of the whole person. Mindfulness and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) does just that. It is referred to as the "missing piece" in education and is a growing body of work that is being researched worldwide. For the most recent article on the subject matter, take a peek here at the research findings that emerged through the visionary leadership of the Collaborative of Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.
Many adolescents struggle with the uncertainty and transitions they face as they move into their adult lives. We know that mental health problems impact students academic and social functioning and interfere with their ability to learn. These problems when undetected can be exacerbated by the pressures of school, and so, place them at risk for more serious outcomes such as depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide. What all the above means is that there is growing recognition that a well-rounded education must involve more than academics; it must also involve learning experiences and skills related to social and emotional literacy, including the practice of mindfulness.
The Benefits of Mindfulness for the Brain
For decades, leading neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson has demonstrated that our brains are constantly growing and evolving. He coined the term neuroplasticity to describe the brain's capacity to change throughout our life. This includes the brain's ability to create new cells and form new neural networks. Dr. Davidson's research shows that mindfulness practice can change the brain and lead to a number of positive outcomes, from increased immunity and stress reduction to clearer thinking and better self-management. This is another compelling reason to introduce mindfulness in public education.
Let's explore one student's experience with mindful breathing as a tool for calibrating his present moment experience. Max is high school senior. He gets good grades, loves sports, and is even editor-in-chief of his school newspaper. By all accounts, he is a model student and his public school education has served him well. When asked how he stays afloat with all his commitments, he responded with the following story:
"Final deadline is 10 pm. One hour and 25 minutes from this moment, we will either have submitted 24 exported PDFs to our printer for processing, or we will have cancelled the January issue of our high school's student newspaper. I stand before a massive bulletin board masked by page after page of less than printable content, fully aware that every second I spend staring at those pages is one less that I can spend actually working towards a finished product. Yet I am unable to do anything about it. A minute passes and the task ahead of me starts to grow from a challenge to a monster. Something I'd be better off walking away from than diving into only to drown. Until, of course, I close my eyes, feel my feet firmly connect with the floor beneath me, and take an anchor breath. This practice in mindfulness lasts no more than two minutes, like a blink in the grand scheme of my night. The reality that welcomes me when I open my eyes, however, seems to be a world away from that which preceded it. I'm a more rational, motivated person. I'm ready to do what I have to do, and all because I practice mindfulness."
You can practice mindfulness to with a simple breathing practice.
Sit in a comfortable position, making sure the soles of your feet are connected to the ground or floor.
Rest your hands on your thighs and let your shoulders drop.
Gently close your eyes or look for a reference point somewhere on the floor where you can return your eyes when they get distracted and begin to wander around the room.
Let your spine grow tall and noble like the trunk of a tall tree.
Take a moment to notice how your body feels.
Now bring your attention to the flow of your breath. You don't need to breathe in a special way. Your body knows how to breathe. Simply notice each breath coming into the body with an in-breath, and leaving the body with an out-breath.
If you notice your mind is caught up in thoughts, concerns, emotions or body sensations, know that this is normal.
Notice what is distracting you and as kindly as you can, turn your attention back to your breath.
Allow each in-breath to be a new beginning, and each out-breath a letting go.
When you are ready, bring your attention back to the room.
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