When I used to hear the word “mindfulness”, I would immediately think of two things: flower power hippie types, and Instagram fitness gurus promoting their health fad of the week.
But mindfulness has recently become increasingly mainstream, making its way into the daily lives of celebrities, sports people, office workers, and more surprisingly, school children.
Many of these people likely practice a form of meditation based on MBSR (Mindful Based Stress Reduction), a programme created by professor Jon Kabat–Zinn in 1979. After studying Buddhist teachings, the professor found there was a natural way to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and pain. He adapted the techniques he learnt, removing the religious connections and bringing it west.
The mindfulness techniques of the MBSR method are about bringing attention to our surroundings and focusing on our thoughts and feelings in the moment, through a variation of breathing exercises and sensory techniques; the most common of these is known as the body scan. This is where we close our eyes, and mentally scan ourselves from head to toe, trying to feel sensations from each part of our body on the way.
There are now many variations of mindfulness, most of which have been condensed; bite sized, to be as convenient as possible, a form that has been dubbed “Mcmeditation.” One of the most successful versions of this I found through a Podcast on meditation by Rich Roll: ultra endurance athlete, and health guru. He was interviewing Andy Puddicombe, former Buddhist monk and part founder of smartphone app, Headspace. The two were discussing Andy’s journey through meditation, and the health benefits it can provide: reduction of anxiety, depression, blood pressure and troubled sleep. Andy explained that Headspace, with its exercises starting at one minute long, was an ideal way for someone new to meditation to incorporate it into their daily routine. And it is nice to switch off, to listen to what’s going on in the world around us. Especially when we think how every free moment we have now is spent visually inhaling information and blue light, giving our minds little respite. Children stand to benefit most, as it is rare for youth to be without a cellphone, laptop, or electronic connection of some sort. Those of us over 25 may remember a childhood outdoors, but this is becoming less and less common.
So, mindfulness has a huge following of people that believe in it, but scientifically does it work?
JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association), published a report in 2014 of research conducted on 3,500 adults, on the effects of mindfulness when it comes to psychological stress. The report stated that mindfulness was as effective in reducing stress as exercise, muscle relaxation, or cognitive behavioural therapy.
In 2010, CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in Toronto wrote that when it comes to warding off a depression relapse, mindfulness is as effective as medication, and that brain scan studies in adults have shown that regular practice can bring about positive changes in regions of the brain associated with memory and stress.
More recently in 2017, JAMA published the results of a two-year clinical trial on “mindfulness based stress reduction vs. cognitive behavioural therapy, or usual care, for chronic lower back pain.”
After two years, the participants treated with cognitive behavioural therapy showed greater improvement in function over those in standard care. Those who were treated with mindfulness based stress reduction did not differ significantly from usual care or C.B.T at 2 years, but did show 30% more improvement from baseline than usual care.
At the very least, mindfulness can be considered positive for our wellbeing, especially since one of its core attributes is to reduce stress, and stress is a lot worse for us than we realise. Chronic stress in particular has been known to raise catecholamine and Suppressor T cells that lower the efficiency of the immune system and make our bodies prone to inflammation and less able to fight off infections. Some studies are considering stress a major factor in autoimmune disease, which means that those who grow up in poverty, violence, or with a lack of good nutrition are more at risk. This is a serious issue here in New Zealand, where we are considered the worst in the developed world when it comes to child trauma.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are also some claims of mindfulness leading to harmful results, such as increased anxiety, psychosis, and the triggering of traumatic memories, and this is tough for scientists to verify because of the differences in technique and the mental well being of the practising individual. Mindfulness is currently a field that is largely unregulated, which makes it ill defined and hard to measure. This lack of concrete knowledge can be worrying for parents, given mindfulness programmes are gaining momentum in schools. A further concern is that often mindfulness can be viewed as a religious practice.
Across the world in countries where mindfulness in schools is prominent, there has been significant backlash. In the U.S.A, Canada and New Zealand, schools have been inundated with complaints about their children practicing what could be considered Buddhist techniques.
Ray Chwartkowski, a Vancouver dad, has formed a petition directed at the Quebec minister of education, saying that mandatory mindfulness practice in schools is unlawful. His argument is that legislated meditation is not lawful in Canada and that there are no known long-term case studies that prove the safety of children practicing mindfulness meditation.
With these variant viewpoints in mind, I wanted to learn more about how the activity has been received in New Zealand. I interviewed Grant Rix, Director of Training and Programmes at the Mindfulness Education Group, and creator of the Pause, Breathe, Smile programme, which is an evidence based mindfulness programme taught in over 200 hundred schools nationwide.
Some parents are worried their children are taking part in a religious activity, is the meditation you practice religious in any way?
No, Pause, Breathe, Smile is not a religious programme. It was developed by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and was peer-reviewed during its development by experts in education, psychology and mental health, and with cultural advice provided by the kaumatua of the Mental Health Foundation. It is a fully secular mindfulness programme.
What differences have you experienced in the attitudes of the children after they have practiced meditation?
Our research (led by AUT and Auckland University) shows increased calm, focus and attention, enhanced self-awareness, improved conflict resolution skills and statistically significant increases in wellbeing. Feedback directly from children shows that they are using the strategies learned to better regulate their emotions during times of stress, to help them sleep at night and to help focus on their school work
Have you ever experienced a negative reaction from a child practicing meditation?
No. Some kids may tune out and not engage fully, but that is the nature of learning any subject. The feedback we hear is positive and our research results back that up.
I think we also need to acknowledge that the term mindfulness has become a huge catchall term and we need to make sure we don’t fall into the trap of comparing apples with oranges. In schools, we are teaching kids mindfulness-based strategies that are delivered in bite-sized chunks to help give them an increased range of options for responding to the normal stresses of everyday life and to see the positive benefits of being present for the good as well. As well as the experiential elements of Pause, Breathe, Smile, we are teaching wellbeing science, neuroplasticity, curiosity and kindness.
Essentially this is all about effective attention regulation (with kindness), which is important to both the learning process and for wellbeing. In fact, attention regulation is our number one executive function—if we can’t effectively regulate attention all our other executive functions, such as problem solving, creativity and emotion regulation are offline. As an example, think of those times when your attention becomes hijacked by a troubling train of thought, and you start to feel anxious. Sometimes this happens at 3 in the morning when we are, objectively speaking, in the most stress free environment you could imagine—a soft pillow, a good mattress and warm blankets! Yet, there our attention goes on that train of troubling thoughts. When that happens, our emotions fall in line like a wagon pulled by the train of attention and we experience all manner of anxieties. Until we learn to regulate our attention properly (again with kindness, which walks hand in hand with good mindfulness practice), then it is very hard to get off that train and move out of the red-zone of stress and worry, back into the green-zone where mind and body are balanced in the moment.
Are there any teachers who are not willing to take part in the sessions?
Up to this point we have been working mostly with the ‘coalition of the willing.’ Now we are working more with whole schools, so it is inevitable that there will be some sceptics and fence sitters. Usually, once we have trained them and they see the results in their classroom, they are either converted, or at least more open to the opportunities presented.
You practice meditation; do you find it has changed the way you respond to stress?
Yes, as a young man I suffered a lot from social anxiety to the point where it was debilitating. I isolated myself in an attempt to avoid the pain of social situations. Mindfulness training has had an enormously positive impact for me personally in helping to transform that anxiety (which is a ‘curiosity crusher’ and hence why it is valuable to teach in schools).
Do you see meditation becoming a part of school curriculum in the future?
I have some reservations. The moment you force schools to do anything, the risk is a loss of quality. There has to be some intrinsic motivation for schools and teachers to see that mindfulness is both personally and professionally beneficial for them and their students. So let’s take it mindfully by expanding the reach of well-structured and researched programmes like Pause, Breathe, Smile, and continue the research.