“Mindfulness” is a buzzword popping up everywhere from the New York Times, prestigious science and education journals, to grade school and university curriculum. Headlines offer intriguing statements like, “Mindfulness meditation may have positive effects on stress, anxiety, and reshape the brain!” If you’re curious about the bold claims of mindfulness but are not quite sure what mindfulness is, you’ve come to the right place.
Like the start of a fresh classroom unit, our first post in this mindfulness series begins at the root of Bloom’s Taxonomy: defining what mindfulness actually is. What is its goal? We’ll start in digestible terms and even try out a brief practice before introducing scientific definitions and research application in the classroom.
As we explore deeper questions in meditation and education research, see this post as a way to reground in common understanding of mindful practices.
What mindfulness is not:
One of my favorite teaching strategies is to offer learning by way of contrast. In other words, first identifying what mindfulness isn’t. Thich Nhat Hanh, world-renowned peace leader and poet, reminds us of the simple opposite of mindfulness: forgetfulness.
“Most people are forgetful; they are not really there a lot of the time. Their mind is caught in their worries, their fears, their anger, and their regrets, and they are not mindful of being there. That state of being is called forgetfulness—you are there but you are not there.”1
If you’re now laughing to yourself thinking about when you forgot where you placed your keys earlier this week, I mindfully invite you to come back to the present moment. Let’s now draw attention to what mindfulness is.
What mindfulness is:
Mindfulness, put simply, is being aware of and allowing yourself to be in the present moment. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:
“The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together. You breathe in and out mindfully, you bring your mind back to your body, and you are there. When your mind is there with your body, you are established in the present moment. Then you can recognize the many conditions of happiness that are in you and around you, and happiness just comes naturally.”1
Right now, take a moment to observe yourself where you are. You may notice yourself sitting with your chin resting on your wrist in a chair, breath long and slow. You might be standing on a subway platform scrolling through this article on a phone, breathing in and out quickly, the strap of your bag tugging at your shoulder.
Now try taking a full inhalation deep into the belly and into the chest, feeling the ribs comfortably expand. What does it feel like to inhale fully? Now exhale slowly and completely, lungs and belly hollowing comfortably. What does it feel like to exhale fully? Continue this practice of fully inhaling and fully exhaling for a few more cycles of breath. How does your body feel? Where are your thoughts focused? Allow yourself to observe your own thinking without judgment and come back to your breathing.
Perhaps just now from focusing attention on the in-breath and out-breath you feel a little different. Scan your body and mind. Perhaps you find yourself feeling less tense and a little less caught up in the future or past. The changes may be subtle or distinct.
In mindfulness, the breath often serves as a physical tool to help bring the mind and body back to the moment at hand. Breathing awareness – observing the length and sensations of your breath – is one way of practicing being mindful. Body awareness – noticing the physical position of and sensations within your body – is another way. Awareness of emotions and thinking as well as different forms of meditation such as guided visualization, insight meditation or tuning “inward,” are also forms of mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is historically rooted in Buddhist practices and Indian yoga, though evidence of mindful practices exists across cultures, religions, and even in acts of creating music, art, cooking, knitting, and exercise. As aptly suggested by Kabat-Zinn in framing mindfulness in the West, we are all inherently mindful as humans.
The scope of “mindfulness practices” is far-reaching and varied to meet the needs of children and adults, but the fundamental experience of all is similar: to practice being attentive to the present moment.
What is the goal mindfulness?
The intent of mindfulness is to relieve the natural human suffering that often occurs from maladaptive habits of which we’re unaware2. In other words, the more we do something with or without our awareness, the more connected the underlying neural pathways become, making it more automatic even if the habit doesn’t make us feel good. For example, we might unknowingly rehearse self-critical thoughts that lead to negative emotions. Mindfulness is meant to help relieve us of those patterns by building awareness and practicing change.
Much of today’s neuroscience and psychology research seeks to relieve the same symptoms of human suffering – anxiety, depression, indecision, stress, lack of focus, and memory loss. Mindfulness has therefore been adapted for scientific study as possible treatment for wellbeing in children and adults. Growing data is promising, allowing mindful practice to begin making its way into more schools than ever before.
Overview of Mindfulness Research
Researchers in mindfulness have adapted research-friendly definitions from Eastern practice. Ellen Langer, social psychologist and founding mindfulness researcher at Harvard University, defines mindfulness as “a process that cultivates sensitivity to subtle variations in context and perspective about the observed subject rather than relying on entrenched categorizations from the past.”3 The operating definition used by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine, student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and originator of the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”4
The last four decades have featured numerous neurological and psychological studies that support mindfulness practices in adult populations. In healthy adults, mindfulness meditation has been associated with increased attention and reduction of stress.5 In physically, mentally, and emotionally-demanding professions like teaching, such practices like breath awareness and meditation may help teachers sustain their own well-being as leaders in the classroom.
More inquiry is under way on the benefits of mindful practice for adolescents and children. One pilot study of note by Karen Bluth and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of the BREATHE mindfulness program as compared to a substance-abuse control program in ethnically diverse, including at-risk adolescents. Students in the mindfulness program showed more reduction in symptoms of depression and stress as compared to students in the control group.6 Such results suggest that mindfulness may support adolescents in psychological wellbeing, making more room for academic and social success.
More studies in mindfulness are emerging in elementary and early childhood settings as well. Lisa Flook and colleagues recently found that second and third graders who were less self-regulated showed more improvement in executive functioning after participating in an 8-week long mindful awareness program (MAP) as compared with those in the control group.7 Flook since teamed with Richard Davidson, known for his brain meditation research with monks, to develop a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum (KC) to evaluate prosocial and self-regulatory behaviors in preschool children. The mindful kindness group showed greater gains in socio-emotional development and social competence as measured on report card grades by the teacher as compared to the control group, which demonstrated more selfish behaviors over time.8 Such findings suggest that mindfulness practice may developmentally appropriate not only for adults and adolescents, but for young children as well.
The present challenge in evaluating mindfulness research in academic settings is that most existing studies rely on teacher or parent observation of change in young students. As unbiased as we like to be as caregivers, our perceptions may be unintentionally skewed. Bias may also exist in adolescent reports of their own wellbeing.
With initial promise of mindfulness in children and young adults, however, more rigorous inquiry will likely involve magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional imagining to observe structural and functional changes in the brain. Given the jam-packed days we already face as teachers, corroborating or clarifying results from brain research could help inform time and type of mindful practice that is both reasonable and still beneficial for academic settings.
The journey of mindfulness in Western science and education may be just beginning, but its roots are deep and its practices simple. As research starts to stabilize in a crisper understanding and evaluation of mindfulness, implementation in the classroom will become clearer. For now, let’s mindfully navigate the bumps together and trust in its unfolding.
References & Further Reading
- Hanh, T. N. (2010). Thich Nhat Hanh on the Practice of Mindfulness. [Web Article]
- Vago, D. R. (2014). Mapping modalities of self-awareness in mindfulness practice: a potential mechanism for clarifying habits of mind. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307: 28–42. [Paper].
- Langer, E., Cohen, M., & Djikic, M. (2012). Mindfulness as a Psychological Attractor: The Effect on Children.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(5), 1114-1122. [Paper]
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future.Clinical Psychology-Science And Practice, 10(2), 144-156. [Paper]
- Lazar, S. W., Bush, G. L., Gollub, R., Fricchione, G., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. NeuroReport,11(7), 1581-1585. [Paper]
- Bluth, K., Campo, R. A., Pruteanu-Malinici, S., Reams, A., Mullarkey, M., & Broderick, P. C. (2015). A school-based mindfulness pilot study for ethnically diverse at-risk adolescents. Advance online publication. [Paper]
- Flook, L., et al. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. [Paper]
- Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based kindness curriculum. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 44-51. [Paper]