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Russell Stannard: Mindfulness and Meditation in Education (part 2)

Stressed? Overworked? Demotivated?  Introduce mindfulness into your life in 2020

In this last article, I wrote about mindfulness and meditation. I pointed out some of the benefits of mindfulness and suggested that it is something a teacher could first learn to do for themselves before possible introducing it to their students. So in this article, I want to focus on why teachers might want to introduce mindfulness into their own lives and what benefits it might have. You might be rather surprised by some of the research findings. I will also direct you to some interesting resources and materials if you want to get started.


Mindfulness and the brain

As I mentioned in the last article, mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably. For the sake of this article, we will use the term mindfulness. At the route of our current understanding of mindfulness is brain plasticity. We now know that each time you think something you are actually creating neural pathways associated with your thoughts. So when you are stressed, you are either creating neural pathways or strengthening previous neural pathways connected to stress. So what we think, we literally become physically. The more you are stressed, the more neural pathways you are creating, it is a vicious circle.

Mindfulness training that helps us to focus on more positive thoughts or less stressful thoughts, could, over time, help build new neural pathways in our mind. Let’s take a concrete example. Let’s imagine that you are having a lot of stress at work and finding that you really do not look forward to going into work. A mindfulness programme might be based around you thinking about 4-5 reasons why you like work. This might be things like your workmates, what you learn from the job, the classes you like teaching, the satisfaction you get from seeing students do well. You are almost trying to reset your brain. Remember though that this will have a physical impact on your brain structure. If this was done over a prolonged period of time, it may lead to the negative neural pathways you have about school becoming weaker and the positive ones becoming stronger.

I am sure
you are thinking this sounds too good to be true but both the research and the
more recent neuroimaging research would suggest it is
actually the case.

The
happiest man in the world

For example, in probably the most famous neuroimaging research project, scientists took a group of people and found that by doing a programme of 8 weeks of mindfulness training based around gratitude, they could actually increase the size of the areas of the brain generally associated with happiness [2]. In other words, after just an 8-week course, there was actually a physical difference [4]. The same scientists then summarized that if this was true, then it would mean that Buddhist monks would, in theory, be the happiest people in the world as they regularly practice gratitude meditation. They invited a group of Buddhist monks into the research lab, connected up their brains and then asked the monks to think of things they were grateful for.  The Scientists were amazed to see how much the monks’ brains lit up in the areas of the brain connected with happiness. One of the scans of one of the monks was so incredible that scientists called him ‘the happiest man in the world’. His name is Matthieu Ricard and he is now world-famous [3].

 

Changing perception

 

It is important to keep in mind that mindfulness actually leads to physical changes in your brain. So the idea is to almost attack the negative thoughts you might have about something and replace them with more positive thoughts. To do this, you almost need to create another way of seeing or perceiving elements of your life.  For example, scientists took a group of cleaning ladies and asked them about their jobs. Most of them were fairly negative about what they did, pointing out that the work was hard, the job was low paid and that there were few career prospects. They were then given a short training programme where the cleaning ladies learnt about the physical benefits of their job. Apparently what they did, was equivalent to doing over an hour running or spending several hours in the gym. It was highlighted to them that this might lead to a healthier, longer life.  When interviewed about their job several months later, the cleaning ladies felt more positive, giving much higher indications of job satisfaction.  So the same job, perceived in a different way, led to completely different emotional reactions. The interesting thing to keep in mind, that these changed in their thoughts, would also have led to physical changes in their brains.   Recent research, suggests that this actually happens much quicker than we initially thought [4].

 

 

My own experience

 

About 6 years ago, I had to deal with a very stressful situation that led to me losing my job. I was pretty depressed at the time and had a very negative view of my future. I decided to sign up for a mindfulness course and underwent a programme based around building up a much more positive view of my life and a much more positive view of my future. An example of some of the things we were asked to do included:

  1. Picture in our minds the future job or situation that we wanted to be in and imagine ourselves being there and prospering. I would do this every day.
  2. Keeping a diary where each day we think about the previous day and think about all the good things that happened to us. It could be something as simple as a nice conversation in a shop, going for a run, catching up with an old friend. The idea was to focus on the good things that happened each day.
  3. Try to do one positive thing each day that we would normally think of doing but then postpone. So, for example, phoning that friend you keep meaning to call, looking up the information you have been meaning to do for ages, reading an article that you had saved in your favourites, saying something nice to one of your friends or family, watching that YouTube video that you have saved to watch. The idea is to try and do at least one thing a day ‘out of the box.’ This seemed almost ridiculous to me at first, yet actually even today it is one of the things I still do.

I was a bit embarrassed by some of these things as I tend to be very skeptical about these types of activities. However quite quickly, I felt that something was actually happening. Within a week, I found my mood changing. It wasn’t instant but I noticed more ‘good moments’ in the day. After the course, I started to read and investigate the topic even more and I introduced a whole range of changes into my life. It helped me to build a successful business, become much more focused and hard-working and a real bonus was that I started to sleep better. I now start almost every day with a combination of yoga and mindfulness.

Trying to explain how it has changed me is not easy. One thing is that I am so much more aware when negative thoughts come into my mind. I am able to notice them and drop them very quickly. I also tend to automatically spend more time thinking positive thoughts.  It has helped me to view many things in my life with a different light. It is almost as if the mindfulness exercises have developed into habits. I am definitely not 100% positive all day and things still stress me but I cannot deny that I seem to view everything just a little differently. When I had lots of work in the past, I used to get overwhelmed, whereas now it almost feels like a challenge. I seem to have the ability to only focus on what really matters at this moment. I seem to be able to put things ‘on hold’ and have learnt to worry about them, only when they are immediately important. I guess that is why I sleep so much better.

I hope this doesn’t sound too fluffy and nice. I can’t guarantee that all these changes have come about because of mindfulness training but from being a 100% skeptical, I have become a real convert. If you are stressed, overworked and feeling at a bit of a loss, it might be the solution for you. Now is the ideal time, you could make a new year’s resolution to introduce mindfulness into your life.

[1] Superb summary of many of the research papers on mindfulness and education.

http://www.mindfuleducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/IMEK-12-ARTICLE-IN-JOURNAL-MINDFULNESS-ONLINE-VERSION-1.pdf

[2] Learn about the incredible study of the happiest man in the world.

[3] Meet the happiest person in the world.

[4] If you don’t like reading about mindfulness but would prefer to listen to someone summarising the research, then this is excellent.

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