Why Mindfulness should be taught and practiced in our schools
All over Belize are people who live in emotional pain, irritation, anger, jealousy, unresolved conflicts, and stress. For whatever reason, we all experience these emotions and disharmony from time to time; some far more than others.
The problem is that when a person suffers from these miseries, he or she spreads them around to others they come in contact with, including family members, co-workers, students, teachers, managers, supervisors and even friends. When someone is miserable, the negative energy that he or she radiates through the surroundings causes tension that affects others. The more these negative emotions are suppressed the more there is tension, stress and misery that sometimes erupt into outbursts of fury and violence.
The expression of these emotions through harsh talk, lack of kindness, jealousy, anger, hatred, apathy, violence and destructive social behavior are often manifestations of a person’s fear, unresolved pain and reflexive habit-patterns of their mind.
Every emotion has its corresponding physical body sensation. For example, when a person is excited, jealous or angry, the breath is short and fast and the hormones of the body changes its balance. Over time, the accumulation of negative emotions damage one’s own physical and emotional health through stress related diseases and psychological illnesses.
When a person is calm and collected, the breath slows down, the corresponding hormones produce a sense of well-being, and the mind sees more clearly to make better decisions. Even an unborn child is affected by the emotional state of the mother – whether positive or negative.
This is not to say that there are those who are always perfectly happy either. However, those who have found the way to maintain a balanced mind, experience deep peace and are not easily flustered by the ups and downs of life. Deep down, everyone seeks to live in peace and harmony with self and others. After all, humans as social beings, have to live together in society and deal with each other.
On a daily basis, many students experience all sorts of negative emotions directed at them in their homes, or even from some teachers and peers at school. Consequently, this affects their school work, their interactions with their teachers and other students as well as the general school environment. Because they are disturbed by these conditions going on in their lives, they are unable to apply themselves effectively with the focus needed for learning. Left unchecked from year to year, the impact of all this on their lives and future is a devastating recycling of the same conditions that they inherit.
The sad fact is that while many negative emotions increasingly fester unresolved beneath the iceberg of human relations in our society, there seem very little that institutions are doing to heal the pain and strongly nurture positive emotions. Traditional support systems, such as parents, grandparents and extended families have increasingly become too busy, often stressed by life’s challenges, and emotionally unavailable or disconnected by their own unresolved issues. Schools tend to ignore these and continue with a focus on completing a curriculum of academic subjects, despite the surrounding challenges in the social environment and their implications to the future physical and emotional well-being of society.
More than ever, schools need to teach our students (future parents, managers, leaders, citizens, etc.) how to find peace within and nurture the habits needed to promote kindness, empathy, patience, self-control and other positive qualities that are necessary for harmonious living and a happier society.
Without such deliberate intervention, many, even those who become educated can remain vastly ignorant. For clarification, ignorance is not merely the absence of knowledge. Ignorance can co-exist even with a vast accumulation of itemized facts. Ignorance is really a fundamental darkness of mind which becomes evident through persistent expressions of enmity, hatred, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness and greed, self-destructive habits, apathy and insensitivity that blocks clear understanding. Education is supposed to bring light to eliminate that darkness.
How then do we learn to live peacefully with each other? How do we learn to cultivate peace?
In the early 1980s, when I was a teacher of Religious Studies at Claver College (now Toledo Community College) in Punta Gorda, a Jesuit priest, Fr. Tenant Wright, introduced me to a simple, but profound millennium-old practice that is hardly known or utilized in our society, but which could make a radical difference in the life of an individual and society as a whole. This practice is called mindfulness – a very simple form of meditation in which a person purposely focuses attention on the present moment through each breath while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
Immediately after, I began teaching mindfulness meditation to my high school students, starting with the class that teachers tended to brand as troublemakers. The practice took only about ten minutes at the beginning of each class. I asked students to sit quietly and focus on their natural breathing while, in awareness, they allow their thoughts to come and go without judgment but to return their focus on each breath. In later sessions the practice turned the focus on sensations on each part of the body as one experiences deep stillness and quiet.
Within a semester, those who tended to be restless and agitated became calmer; classroom disciplinary problems were reduced to almost nil; student participation increased; the learning atmosphere was more relaxing and optimistic; and, there was more kindness and respect in their relations with one another.
An increasing number of schools in the U.S., Canada, and other countries where mindfulness is practiced, are reporting significant positive results. Students tended to be more focused. Hours of lost teaching time due to behavioral problems decreased dramatically. Being mindful also helped them to become fully engaged in what they are doing, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events.
In our society that stresses too much on externalities, materialism, and endless cycle of “busy-ness” and distractions, one hardly makes the time to explore within – to get in touch with what is deepest within us. Taking a few minutes – at least 15 to 20 minutes – for mindfulness exercises at work can profoundly improve productivity, creativity and perceptiveness, and result in harmonious relations with others.
Mindfulness results in great benefits for self, one’s relation to others and the overall human relations in the broader society. On a whole people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to stress themselves in worries about the future or harbor regrets over the past. With less effort they could accomplish more. They have increased self-awareness, stronger emotional intelligence, greater mental clarity, focus and determination. In this world that is increasingly turbulent, these benefits are vitally important to anyone who aspires to be a truly great leader.
It is why those who know the secrets of mindfulness have tapped into it and show a profound difference in what they do. Master entrepreneur, original hip-hop mogul, and New York Times bestselling author Russell Simmons recently shared in his book, Success Through Stillness, that mindfulness is the most fundamental key to success and a powerful tool to access one’s potential.
Part of this practice of finding peace and wisdom is recognized by such great masters as Buddha since ancient times and Jesus (remember he often quietly meditated in the desert) who stated that, “the Kingdom of God is within you”, and the 13th century sage Rumi who counseled:
“There is a life force within your soul, seek that life
There is a gem in the mountain of your body, seek that more
O traveler, if you are in search of that
Don’t look outside, look inside yourself…”
As part of the professional development training program for teachers and managers, the Ministry of Education ought to consider securing the services of mindfulness trainers to train teachers in nurturing this among their students. Such initiatives are a giant step towards transforming our society where people relate to each other with deeper respect, compassion, and goodwill. You too should practice mindfulness. When the mind is transformed, all is transformed.