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Teach Mindfulness, Invite Happiness

Erin Sharaf

Creator and founder of Mindfulness + Magic, mindfulness based consulting, workshops, mentoring, speaking
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photo of a young boy sitting with eyes closed

By objective measures, our young people are more anxious, more depressed, and have more psychopathology in general than students did a few decades ago. This has important implications for educators, school administrators, and society at large. What if our traditional school systems are unwittingly contributing to the problem -- and what if a relatively simple practice could help?

Sense of Failure

As we are all well aware, the current educational system is narrowing its definition of what defines student success. It's almost all cognitive knowing, as evidenced by standardized testing. The pros and cons of that system have been widely debated, so I won't rehash them here. However, a side effect of this system is decreased flexibility in how we define success, and we are leaving many students with internal beliefs that they are failures.

A young person could be a prodigy in one or more areas (kinesthetic, inter-personal, musical, ecological), yet still grow up thinking that he or she is a failure based on messaging given by the schools. As some students' light dims and self-doubt grows, there's a good chance that they won't grow into their full brilliance and power. This is a tragic outcome that's a loss for all of us -- yet it's also an avoidable outcome.

How Mindfulness Can Help

Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to present-moment experience and doing so with kindness and curiosity. It is not cognitive but sensory, and so taps into and strengthens different but vitally important parts of the brain that have been neglected by traditional education. One crucial attribute of mindfulness is that it is practiced without judgment. Many of our students are so hard on themselves and their internal critic is so loud that just a few moments of being given permission to not judge can bring huge relief to body and mind. I have seen it bring students to tears.

A triangle with Thoughts at the top, Emotions and Sensations at the bottom, and Mindful Awareness in the middle

Just a few weeks ago, I was introducing the practice to some graduate students in a highly competitive health sciences program. Presumably they were all successes in the conventional system. I started by explaining the triangle of awareness to them -- how thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations all affect each other. I then led them through a guided contemplation to illustrate the point. They were invited to imagine a stressful situation and notice how they were feeling in their body, what emotions they were experiencing, and what thoughts they were having. By noticing the thoughts as the final step in the process, students can identify them as just thoughts they're having and not truths that must be believed, especially if these thoughts are causing unpleasant physical sensations and negative emotions.

We then did a five-minute mindful breathing exercise. The students closed their eyes and were invited to let the sensation of breathing command their full attention. When they noticed their attention wandering, they were allowed to notice where it went, but were encouraged to gently and kindly escort their awareness back to the breath.

During the discussion after the practice, one young woman was in tears. She had noticed her thoughts telling her that she was probably breathing wrong and wasn't good at it. This led to tightness in her chest, her heart racing, and a feeling of anxiety. In those few minutes, she recognized how her thoughts have been contributing to her anxiety all these years and also causing discomfort in her body. The ridiculousness of not being good at breathing revealed to her in stark clarity how insidious and unfair her inner critic was. She was excited to have made this connection and to have new tools for working with it.

Honoring True Genius

I think this anecdote illustrates what is going on for many of our students. Sadly, many of them never make the connection between mind and body, and just keep sinking into those self-defeating thoughts as they worry about how they will measure up on the next standardized test. These thoughts are contributing to the rise in mental illness and inhibiting students from reaching their full human potential.

There is now ample evidence that mindfulness practice enhances positive emotions (PDF). Imagine the possibilities if we offered this to young people with developing brains! What if we helped all students make this simple connection and gave them the tools to strengthen their own inner knowing? What if we gave them permission to honor their true genius, even if we can't measure it on a standardized test? What if we practiced full disclosure and acknowledged that there are many different kinds of intelligence, and that some cannot be measured by conventional means? What if schools gave equal time and emphasis to cultivating things like kindness and compassion?

It might just change everything.

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Erin Sharaf

Creator and founder of Mindfulness + Magic, mindfulness based consulting, workshops, mentoring, speaking

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Len Moskowitz's picture

If the photo accompanying this article is accurate, mindfulness education will face much opposition from parents groups, community groups and administrations.


Because all the kids are sitting crosslegged like the Buddhists and Yoga practitioners, and their hands are in Hindu/yoga mudras (formal, religiously-meaningful hand positions).

Parents and community groups will object (and have objected) to the introduction of mindfulness education when they sense that a program is not rigorously secular. If it even smells slightly of religion, there will be opposition.

Mindfulness can (and should) be taught while sitting on normal chairs. There's no need for crosslegged sitting. No need for mats. No need for cushions. No need for kneeling benches.

And mindfulness doesn't need special hand positions. They can put their hands in their laps, or have them hanging by their sides, or resting on their legs.

And there's no need to use an asian Temple bell to start and end meditation periods. You can use a triangle bell or a chime. Or a simple, gentle, voice announcement: "Let's start now."

Mindfulness education can be truly secular if we make the effort.

Erin Sharaf's picture
Erin Sharaf
Creator and founder of Mindfulness + Magic, mindfulness based consulting, workshops, mentoring, speaking

Len, I agree with you. Anyone sharing this practice in schools needs to take great care to not have any religious overtones whatsoever. It can be taught in such a way as to be completely secular and this is the goal.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Thanks for the feedback, Len. You're right that kids (and adults) can practice mindfulness in any position. We've tweaked the image in response, and it should be much more position-neutral now.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Here's a quote from the Scientific American article that I thought was particularly interesting:

MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's "fight or flight" center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body's response to stress.

As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex - associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making - becomes thicker.

The "functional connectivity" between these regions - i.e. how often they are activated together - also changes. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger.

The scale of these changes correlate with the number of hours of meditation practice a person has done, says Adrienne Taren, a researcher studying mindfulness at the University of Pittsburgh.

Erin Sharaf's picture
Erin Sharaf
Creator and founder of Mindfulness + Magic, mindfulness based consulting, workshops, mentoring, speaking

Thanks, Samer, for sharing just a small bit of the scientific data showing the positive benefits of mindfulness practice for mind and body.

Becky Sherman's picture

My school uses Inner Explorer, a recorded program for students to help calm students down and focus. It works excellently. My students come from situations of trauma, tragically divided families, poverty, and lots of anger. Many have had or know of someone who has had a family member die in the streets. We call our time Mindfulness, but it is hardly a religious experience. Students are usually sitting in their desks all facing the front of the room. A bell, rain stick, or other auditory signal reminds students to either close their eyes or focus on a spot on the floor, thus limiting the visual stimulation around them. They focus on their breathing, noticing that their heart rate adjusts. Wiggly bodies suddenly quiet down and faces soften. Sometimes we are taking note of how our bodies feel. Sometimes we are doing a "body scan" and just acknowledging how various parts of our bodies feel. We journal afterward and comment calmly as a group how we felt as we took time to be calm and quiet. When done correctly, students learn how to self-soothe, how to gain self-control over the stresses and trauma they face. Teaching kids that they can do something to calm themselves down and giving them the power to practice doing so often (daily at least), children do respond better academically. When a student comes back from recess or lunch upset or triggered, empowering them with the skills to be able to calm themselves down and ready for instruction amounts to a skill that the kiddos will use throughout life. Teachers also benefit from participating with their students.....and as a school, all adults benefit. We do mindfulness as a community on Monday morning while all students are lined up in the morning with their parents waiting for the week to begin. Parents join us as we focus on becoming one family with calm bodies and minds, readying ourselves to interact peacefully and cooperatively, no matter what tensions and trauma we have experienced outside the school gates. Far more students willfully participate with their educational day when such cooperation is reinforced community wide.

Mary Jones's picture
Mary Jones
second grade teacher from michigan

If this is a change in "the past few decades", how could public schools be responsible for it? Schools thirty or forty years ago had much less room for diversity and progress was solely based on academic progress. There were no services for children who had learning disabilities, emotional impairment or anything else. And you could also get spanked. It's a pretty far stretch to even consider public schools as complicit in this.

battmoone's picture

Mindfulness sounds an awful lot like TM, which was found in the New Jersey courts to be religion in schools when it was forced upon students (Malnak v. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). I expect this practice to follow a similar suit if it is forced on students as well. You can't separate it from its religious practices because it will always be linked back to its original source, no matter how much you try to mask it.

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