Mindfulness as a practice is originally rooted in Buddhist philosophy, but its secular use has become more and more popular in our culture over the last few decades as researchers continue to discover the overwhelming benefits of mindfulness to our social, emotional and physical well-being. These benefits could have a tremendous effect on our students and can also be a very important self-care practice for us as we work to support our youth in healing from trauma and building a successful life. As we continue on into a new year, it seems appropriate to review what mindfulness is and how we can implement it in our work and in our daily lives.
According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkley, Mindfulness “means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment…[with] acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them…”* This practice, while simple, can be difficult to implement, but it is well worth the try. Research shows those who are able to practice mindfulness in their daily lives have an increase in density of grey matter in brain regions associated with memory, emotion regulation and empathy.
When we are focusing on the present moment, we are not dwelling on what might happen in the future or preoccupied with what has happened in the past, which can alleviate stress, anxiety and depression. Instead, we are mindful of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and are able to better understand our own inner world, engaging with ourselves on a much deeper level. When we learn to do this without judgment of our own thoughts and feelings, we are able to foster compassion, self-acceptance and the ability to discern between who we are as a person and what thoughts and feelings we might have. Then, as we foster compassion for ourselves, we are able to be more empathetic towards others.
This is a rather abstract concept that can be hard for many of our students to understand, but there are many different ways to help them practice mindfulness that could be accessible to them. Aside from the more familiar guided imagery and meditation practices, mindfulness can be applied to more tangible interactions with themselves and the environment, particularly in those moments where they are especially struggling, anxious or stressed. Have students pick an object from their environment to describe or draw, not focusing or judging the product, but working to describe in as much detail as possible that particular object. To help them practice mindfulness of their own interactions with the environment, have them try mindful eating, describing the food and their feelings in reference to the food. This can also be done with walking, noticing the feel of the ground under their feet, the air, the smells, the sounds and their own reactions to it. For younger students, using a stethoscope to help them focus on their heartbeat or breathing can also be a good approach.
It is also important to remember that if we are going to encourage our students to be mindful we need to work on being mindful ourselves. We are all busy and have many things demanding our attention, but a ten minute mindfulness meditation or mindfulness walk before work, and mindful eating during break or after work could be wonderful ways to start implementing it more in our own lives and practice better self-care. Our jobs can be hard and very draining. Mindfulness can help us keep a healthier balance in our own lives as we work to help our youth, decreasing stress and building on our empathy and compassion for our youth and for ourselves.