- Inclusivity and wellbeing
What is mindfulness?
The term mindfulness refers to a state of awareness. This is arrived at by paying conscious attention to the present moment and observing it without judgment, with curiosity and compassion.
It is often confused with meditation, but really they’re not the same thing at all. Meditating and focusing on the breath is just one of the ways we can consciously pay attention and become more aware of ourselves and the present moment.
You might be conscious that mindfulness has grown enormously in popularity over the last decade. As with anything trendy, it can be easy to build preconceptions and dismiss it before trying it yourself. So let’s break it down together and start with the basics.
Why is mindfulness important?
Have you ever been driving somewhere in the car and noticed that you’ve arrived at your destination without really noticing the journey at all? All your thoughts on the way were elsewhere.
This is called being on automatic pilot. It’s a symptom of our mind and body’s brilliant way of turning our everyday processes into a routine. It means we don’t need to think about it every time we need our body to move, speak or function.
Just as the scenery can pass us by on a journey, so too can our thoughts and reactions to the things happening around us. They happen in our minds and bodies without us noticing. Our conscious mind is focused on something in the future, the past, or in our imaginations instead.
Being on automatic pilot is often very helpful. But it also comes with a significant downside. Without us even realizing, negative thought cycles can build up under the surface. They can make us feel stressed and anxious.
When this happens our minds conclude that there is a threat and sounds the fight or flight alarm. This stress negatively affects our memories, ability to process new information, and ability to learn.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness helps us catch these habitual thought cycles in their tracks, allowing us to consciously notice negative thoughts. Rather than panicking, we become aware of how we are feeling – and why. We can therefore shift our relationship with our thoughts and emotions so that they don’t seem so challenging anymore.
In a school setting, this can help students regulate the stress surrounding exam pressure. Students can also learn to sit more comfortably with the impermanent emotions of adolescence, which seemed all-consuming and everlasting at the time.
What can our students learn from mindfulness?
Over the past decade, neuroscientific research has discovered that our brains are immensely malleable. Every interaction we have in our day-to-day lives builds connections that affect how our brains and thoughts function. Just like building muscle through exercise, our brain forms new matter in the areas we use most.
In short, we can either continue to cement the habits we’ve already formed or build brain matter in areas that encourage healthier, more positive functioning.
Studies have demonstrated in many contexts that the brains of those who regularly practice mindfulness use different pathways to those who don’t: pathways which allow self-regulation of adrenaline and the stress responses and make it easier to experience external events without the accompanying narrative of critical thought.
Even ten minutes of practicing mindful awareness a day has been demonstrated to strengthen these healthier pathways in the brain. Mindfulness has also been shown to improve concentration and focus, resilience, emotional regulation and sleep quality in children, teens and adults alike.
How can we begin to practice mindfulness?
We start by learning to focus attention on a physical anchor. This may be focusing on the body, the breath, or even using the senses to observe sounds, sights, tastes, touch etc. in our external environment. We then build the length of time we can focus, and grow accustomed to the mind wandering and returning to the point of focus.
Then we learn to be curious about what we notice in the present moment and that we can observe without judging or forming an opinion.
In time, it can be possible to learn to observe our relationship with the thoughts that come in and out of our minds. We can then find ways to accept difficult feelings and allow them to pass over without panicking or instinctively reacting.