January 21, 2011

Mind your own mind.

Teaching and learning mindfulness and wisdom in the classroom.

I have a sign on the wall of my classroom that says, “En este salón, todos son maestros y todos son estudiantes.” In this room, everyone is a teacher and everyone is a student. I became a full-time school teacher in 2006, after a brief career in advertising and marketing. I’ been a devoted yoga instructor for five years at that point, so when I started teaching school, I  knew that I wanted to incorporate yoga and meditation in my classroom from day one.

I knew then and know (much more deeply) now from my own practice how beneficial practicing mindfulness is. Mindfulness benefits children, teenagers, adults; everyone can enjoy the rewards of developing greater awareness/consciousness: reduced stress and increased happiness.  This practice is essential for students and teachers in our rapidly changing, 21st century, learning-centered, global education environment.

Mindful learners of all ages must pay attention to details,

both externally in our surroundings and internally in how  experiences are processed. Mindfulness is based on the present and the continuous creation of new ways of thinking about oneself, others and situations. It is simply focusing on what is happening in the present moment instead of constantly being drawn into the past or future by the habits of the mind. With a mindful mindset, there is an awareness that equality does not mean sameness and different does not mean deviant.

Mindfulness is not all kittens and rainbows.

Being open and experiencing the present moment fully puts us in an uncertain position. Mindfulness is a conditional view of the world (i.e. this could be the way it is) versus mindlessness, which is an absolute and unconditional way of viewing the world (i.e. this is THE way it is, a la Sarah Palin). It’s much more comfortable and habitual to rely on generalities, stereotypes and assumptions. To place blame. To oversimplify or unnecessarily complicate things. It’s easy to become mindless. Also known as Fundamentalism,

mindlessness is based on the past and is defined by a rigid reliance on old ways of thinking.

By giving information in a mindless way, such as rote memorization of facts, educators encourage the mindless use of said information. (Thornton and McEntee, 251-257) As any good teacher knows, “Conventional assessments … do not meet the cognitive demands of the world today. Active and engaged citizens must be creatively flexible, responding to rapid changes in the environment, able to think critically about what they are told in the media” (Sternberg, 20-26). As in, NOT multiple choice, standardized tests.

Instead of waiting for laws to change and the nature of assessment to evolve, we can begin the process of teaching mindfulness today.

By modeling, practicing, discussing and persisting at mindfulness, students and teachers will be more calm, clear, inspired and insightful thinkers and learners. Mindfulness comes naturally to many young children but, sadly, is a forgotten skill for many teens and adults. Happily, with practice and discipline, mindfulness will become second nature.

Practicing mindfulness facilitates the ability of being aware of being aware.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that simply turning our attention inwards and concentrating fully on the breath cultivates calmness in the mind and body. According to him, seven minutes a day is enough. This simple method will improve clarity of mind, and encourage a more positive and creative attitude. Starting with just one or two minutes gradually adding a minute each week aids mental endurance and attention span.

Breathing deeply and slowly naturally calms us, connects us, moves energy around our physical bodies. The simplest mindfulness practice is just listening to the breath. Of course, you will get distracted by thoughts, sometimes an endless parade of thoughts, all about the past or the future. Mindfulness is simply, deliberately paying attention to the act of paying attention. Metacognition.

Mindfulness is non-sectarian.

Teaching mindfulness does not have to involve teaching Buddhism. Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, says, “We should not become attached to some particular wisdom, such as that which was taught by the Buddha. Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking.”

My third grade students and I would sit on the carpet first thing every morning and practice a few yoga stretches and then sit silently (some more silently than others) in meditation. We started with 30 seconds and worked up to three minutes. And that was in a public school in Texas!

Here in Guatemala, I teach creative writing to high school freshmen. Early this year, I introduced meditation during a lesson on haiku. It was supposed to be a one-time thing, but so many of them asked if we could practice every week that I, of course, agreed. Seeing them progress in meditation, concentration and creativity is my most gratifying experience as a teacher. I am truly touched by the sentiments these young teenagers are expressing in their writing. Here are a few examples:

●    Peace is something we all wish for, unfortunately our country Guatemala is very dangerous and it is hard to feel like we live in peace. But when you meditate you feel like it is actually possible, you feel good and you live peacefully from inside.

●    If you think that meditating only takes your time away and you have better things to do, well you should really try because probably most of you are stressed out and need time for your own.

●    The effects this procedure had on me were exceptional; I had a more relaxing day, my daily worries were not bothering me as they always did. They were still there but they had a less stressful effect on me.

●    How many decisions do we make daily? How many problems do we encounter daily? That’s why it’s so healthy to process things at the end of the day. Just take a few moments pondering about your day and it won’t only bring you a smile about the happy moments but it will remind you of the hard ones and how well you managed them, making you proud of yourself. A person that is proud of themselves and has the ability to analyze his life from a different perspective with an open mind is emotionally healthy.

So… how can we create and support learning environments that trust students to use their time well and to experiment and learn consequences for themselves?

We must model mindfulness. We must understand the value of mindfulness and the consequences of mindlessness. Mindlessness is a learned behavior. Mindfulness is a daily, lifelong practice.

{Please visit Yoga Freedom to read the complete essay and bibliography.}

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