This article was published in the March/April 2013 edition of the BCT’s Small Talk magazine.
By Katy Kefferpütz
Everyone’s talking about it, and more and more people are practising it. Actress Goldie Hawn has written a book about it, US Congressman Tim Ryan promotes it as ‘a simple practice… to reduce stress, improve performance and recapture the American spirit’ (1), and it has made its way onto the cover of Time magazine. It is used in hospitals, prisons and law firms, by elite athletes and mental health professionals, and is currently experiencing a surge in popularity among those working with children and young people. The term has even made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary. But what exactly is mindfulness, and can it really help our children?
What is mindfulness?
According to Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, most people ‘are forgetful. They are caught in the past, or in the future. They are not there in the present moment, living their lives deeply.’(2) This is something that all of us will be able to identify with: ever found yourself in front of an open cupboard and had to retrace your steps in order to remember what you needed to get from there, or finished your shower and realised that you are not sure whether you washed your hair?
The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness, which Thich Nhat Hanh defines as being ‘truly there in the present moment, mind and body together.’ Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, claims that by cultivating this capacity through meditation, we can be ‘much healthier physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And much happier. Even our thinking becomes clearer, and we are less plagued by storms in the mind. (3) This is backed up by a range of scientific studies which show that regular meditation can help practitioners deal with stress and chronic pain and improve concentration. (4)
Mindfulness works for children and teenagers…
While most research on mindfulness training has been carried out on adults, there is a growing body of research which shows that it can have a similarly beneficial effect on children and teenagers. In 2008, for example, the US organisation Mindful Schools, with the University of California, conducted a study on mindfulness and children, with 915 participants (68 per cent of whom were English language learners). Four hours of mindfulness training was given to one group over a six-week period, while the control group carried on with their regular classes. The results showed that the treatment group experienced significant improvements in behaviour – especially in paying attention and social compliance – compared to the control group. (5)
Anecdotal evidence from practitioners also points towards the beneficial effects of mindfulness techniques. According to the book Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh, whose Plum Village community in south-west France is well known for its work with young people, mindfulness practice for children helps to ‘relieve stress, increase concentration, nourish gratitude and confidence, deal with difficult emotions, touch our interconnection with nature and improve communication. Psychotherapist Gina Biegel, who works mainly with teenagers, notes that ‘unlike many of the other interventions I was using from other traditional psychotherapies, I saw that mindfulness techniques and interventions dramatically and quickly improved teens’ quality of life. They reduced stress and gave teens strength from within to solve their problems, which often led to a shift away from “poor me” or judgemental thinking. I’ve now been systematically teaching these techniques for more than seven years’ (6)
…and parents too!
But mindfulness doesn’t only hold huge potential benefits for the children and teenagers in the family; parents and carers who develop their own practice can benefit greatly too. As a practitioner of meditation and the mother of a tantrum-throwing toddler, I have certainly found this to be true. When I meditate regularly (not always easy when, as is often the case when you’re looking after small children, your day starts before 6am and ‘me time’ means housework and/or sleep), I notice that I am far better equipped to deal with the everyday demands of home life with a small child. Not only am I less likely to react impatiently or feel overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan, I am also more willing to ‘let go’ and enjoy the funny little moments that fill the day – Eljas grinning at me through a sticky white yoghurt beard and wiggling to the songs on the radio, when he stands at the kitchen door and throws his arms into the air to be picked up, the way he holds on to a strand of my hair when I carry him…
Find out more
If you’d like to know more about mindfulness and meditation adapted to children and teenagers – including a range of practice ideas – you might find the following books useful: Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children and A Handful of Quiet: Happiness in Four Pebbles by Thich Nhat Hanh; Susan Kaiser Greenland’s The Mindful Child; Mindful Monkey, Happy Panda by Lauren Alderfer; The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens and the CD Mindfulness for Teens by psychotherapist Gina Biegel. For Dutch and French speakers, the book and CD Stilzitten als een kikker (Calme et attentif comme une grenouille) by Dutch therapist and trainer Eline Snel – aimed at 4 to 12 year olds – have gone down a storm in the Netherlands, not least for the author’s ability to bring mindful silence to a room of hyperactive children in four minutes flat! Psychologist and qualified MBSR instructor Dr Gwénola Herbette also leads mindfulness workshops for 8 to 12 year olds in various locations in Belgium – see www.pleine-conscience.be for more details.
Those interested in exploring the particular benefits of mindfulness for the parents/carers of children of various ages may be interested in the small but growing range of literature on the subject, including Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and wife Myla, Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children by Sarah Napthali, Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood by Zen priest Karen Maezen Miller and 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving our children – and ourselves – the skills to reduce stress and anxiety for healthier, happier lives by Goldie Hawn. There is also a book specifically targeting mothers-to-be: The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy: Meditation, Yoga, and Journaling for Expectant Mothers, edited by writer and meditation teacher Susan Piver.
While many of these books are informed by a Buddhist approach, the experiences described within are universal and the practices are non-religious. If you are interested in learning more about meditation and are able to put aside a couple of hours a week to do so, nothing beats learning from an expert, however. There are many Buddhist centres of a variety of denominations throughout Belgium which offer introductions to meditation and are very welcoming to people of all faiths and none. Centres in Brussels include the Kannon Dojo in Ixelles (Japanese Zen), Zen Sangha Brussels in St Josse (Japanese Zen), Kagyu Samye Dzong in St Gilles (Tibetan) and the Dhamma Group Brussels near Montgomery (Burmese Vipassana).
Mindfulness for beginners –the ‘raisin meditation’: a practice idea suitable for everyone
This easy exercise is the first meditation practised by participants in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme, and involves the mindful appreciation of an object in the environment. The text below can be read aloud in a slow, calm voice. Each person should be given three raisins or other small food such as popcorn.
‘Bring your attention to the raisin, observing it carefully as if you had never seen one before. Pick up one raisin and feel its texture between your fingers and notice its colours. Be aware of any thoughts you might be having about the raisin. Note any thoughts or feelings of liking or disliking raisins if they come up while you are looking at it. Then lift the raisin to your nose and smell it for a while and finally, with awareness, bring it to your lips, being aware of the arm moving the hand to position it correctly and of your mouth salivating as the mind and body anticipate eating. Take the raisin into your mouth and chew it slowly, experiencing the actual taste of the raisin. Hold it in your mouth. When you feel ready to swallow, watch the impulse to swallow as it comes up, so that even that is experienced consciously. When you are ready, pick up the second raisin and repeat this process, with a new raisin, as if it is now the first raisin you have ever seen.’ (Excerpt from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, p. 27)
For more information on mindfulness practices for adult beginners, see www.mindful.org/mindfulness-practice/mindfulness-the-basics.
More ideas for children and teenagers can be found at www.mindfuleducation.org/mindfulnessforchildren.pdf and http://www.stressedteens.com/teens/activities/
1. Ryan, Tim (2012) A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit
3. Kabat-Zinn, Jon (2005) Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, p. 7.
4. One such study was carried out by neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). See http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/meditation-0505.html for more details.
5. National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioural Medicine, 26 November 2012 – http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/the-power-of-mindfulness-meditation-helping-children-change/
6. Biegel, Gina (2011) ‘Sea Change’ in Shambhala Sun, The Second Annual Guide to Mindful Living, July 2011, pp. 50-3.