Just back from a delightful trip to Barcelona and Berlin, I have been thinking a lot about how we, Americans handle the stresses of all we do, especially compared to Europeans. Everyday stress has been a concern of mine for years; proof is in the books and articles I have written on such topics such as The Superwoman Syndrome and how people can lead better and balanced lives. These days my attention is on teenagers and sometimes their moms and dads.
Too much stress!
In my college admissions work, I work with high school students from every imaginable socio-economic, religious and racial background. Some are super-students; others are normal, average, good, but not great, students, and quite a few have learning issues that complicate their academic performances. Unfortunately, what many have in common is a crazy lifestyle that involves overwhelming pressure to succeed academically and in extracurricular activities. What most lack is a way to "come down," feel calm and relax from the everyday pressure of being a college-bound high school student.
Are you kidding? Mindfulness meditation?
About a year ago, I began looking for a way to refresh and regenerate my own body and mind, hoping to find something I could pass along to my students. I conferred with my Danish cousin, Hanne Vedsted-Hansen, an air traffic controller at Copenhagen International Airport, and one of the smartest women I know. Surprising to me, Hanne become very involved with mindfulness meditation. She described how remarkably beneficial it was in helping her relax, sleep better and just feel good. More importantly, it helped her deal with a long-standing chronic pain issue.
Just in case you don't know, Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction, defines mindfulness as "Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally." When you are taught mindfulness, you learn to sit or lay down in a quiet, peaceful setting, while paying attention to the rhythm of your breathing. As you slowly breathe in and out, you focus on being in the present, relaxed and open to whatever is going on in your mind and with your body. You are encouraged to feel compassionate toward yourself and others.
In a PBS blog on the subject, Dr. Michael Baime explains,
Trying to understand mindfulness by its definition is like trying to understand what it is like to fall in love by reading a textbook. You might get a general idea, but you'd be missing out on the best part of what it actually feels like.
The most effective way of understanding Mindfulness is to take a class and begin doing it.
Even though there are few people I trust more than Hanne, I was very skeptical about the idea of mindfulness. As you might be thinking right now, I couldn't help saying to myself, "Oh, sure. Breathing is going to make a big difference in my life. Meditation is for yogis, hippies and other far-out people, not me." Yet, any number of practical, grounded people I know were singing its praises. After awhile I decided to give it a try and signed up for an 8-week course at the University of California, San Diego's (UCSD) Center for Mindfulness.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, IT WORKS
I was shocked by the outcome of my Mindfulness instruction within a couple of weeks. When I practiced it, I slept better, could quickly move from feeling fatigued to feeling energetic and found myself enjoying a sense of calm, even happiness. My husband noticed and began saying, "Marjorie, you've changed. What's going on here?"
Some pretty impressive places are studying Mindfulness these days, including 1) Oxford Mindfulness Center, Oxford University, Centre for Compassion, 2) The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, and 3) the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. They're developing a body of evidence that Mindfulness is a useful adjunct to treating assorted physical and emotional symptoms, as well as deal with the pressures of life. Reviews and analyses of such research are available on the American Mindfulness Research Association's (AMRA) website.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
The more I thought about it, the more I began to see how useful Mindfulness might be for students and also their parents. In all parts of the country, there are 8-week group programs, one day and weekend retreats, university-sponsored seminars, online courses, and guided audio and video recordings. Some forward-looking public and private schools are starting to offer after-school Mindfulness programs to their students. The focus ranges from Mindful eating, to handling attention issues, to decreasing stress and anxiety, to dealing with difficult emotions, to learning how to chill out, to getting the most out of certain sports.
If you are interested in looking into a Mindfulness experience, you can go to AMRA for a list of Centers. For education and mental health professionals, as well as parents, "Bridging the Hearts & Minds of Youth Conference" offered by UCSD School of Medicine and Center for Mindfulness every March is a weekend full of information and advice about Mindfulness as it relates to children and teens.
BOOKS ON MINDFULNESS
In case you're interested, some of the better books I have read on the subject are:
Child's Mind, Christopher Willard, Parallax Press
Self-Compassion, Kristin Neff, Ph.D., William Morrow
The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder and More Compassionate, Susan Kaiser Greenland, Atria Books
The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness Skills to Help you Deal with Stress, Gina Biegel, New Harbinger Publications
BIG SURPRISE. COLLEGES WITH MEDITATION SPACES
You might be surprised by the number of colleges that have already accepted Mindfulness and meditation as an important part of their campus life. Evidence of this is a long list of colleges that offer mediation spaces on their campuses, including the following:
Carnegie Mellon University
University of California, Berkeley
University of Kansas
University of Michigan
University of Minnesota
University of the Pacific
University of Redlands
University of San Francisco
University of Wisconsin
So if you are a student, parent, educator or counselor looking for a simple, inexpensive, ultimately flexible way of better coping with the challenges of life, Mindfulness might just be the answer.
And if you have any Mindfulness experiences that you would like to share with readers, please leave a comment, tell your story.