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Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children


Mindfulness in Education is an exciting practice, to be applied from the time a child joins school, to the time s/he graduates. Years of research and practice have proved it to be a potentand enduring instrument foroptimizing one ’s academic, creative and physical potential, enriching social and emotional interaction, and increasing understanding, compassion and self-awareness.  Side by side, most importantly, by diminishing stress, anxiety and hostility, it simultaneously succeeds in enhancing one’s feeling of total well-being, peace, confidence and joy.

It is increasingly being recognized as an essential educational tool, invaluable to all sections of society, Mindfulness is the foundation of the educational process, supporting all pedagogical approaches, and providing optimal conditions for learning and teaching.  It develops skills such as attention and concentration, emotional and cognitive awareness and understanding, bodily awareness and coordination and interpersonal awareness. 

The practice of Mindfulness can not only be adapted for children, but is a key element in their social and emotional well-being.

Some years ago the Principal of Welham Girls’ School in Dehra Dun, India suggested that I share some meditative exercises with her students that would help them to be less stressed at the time of their exams. I found that some simple Mindfulness exercises of calming and walking seemed to help the students to reduce their stress and anxiety. Later, in response to an invitation from the Director of the American Embassy School in Delhi, I shared a ten-week Mindfulness course with his teachers. To date, teachers in that school continue to meet once a week to reveal how these practices are working for them and how they are sharing it with their students. They claim it is the key to their well-being.

I had been visiting the community at Plum Village, France since 1989 and each summer Thich Nhat Hanh, widely regarded as the primary teacher of Mindfulness meditation in the world today, had been leading family retreats for children. This book offers some of that collective experience as well as practical exercises for teachers and parents.

Mindfulness, is the practice of becoming aware of who we are, what we are feeling, thinking, speaking and doing, what is going on inside us and around us. The more we are mindful, the more concentration and clarity we can develop on what we are doing and the greater is our depth of the understanding of a situation. Through this we gain the insight that leads to wisdom.

Mindfulness has been an integral part of the traditional education systems in India.  The emphasis has been to help each child to be aware of his or her own unique nature, to be comfortable with it and to realize his or her own awakened mind. The role of the guru or teacher is to guide that process and allow the latent potential in each child to flower. With the emphasis in education shifting from wisdom to knowledge, we have become adept as a civilization in controlling some aspects of Nature - but are often ignorant as to how to handle our own inner nature.

Recent scientific and classroom data confirms the value of what had been recognized as the basis of education in traditional wisdom cultures. Neuroscientists are proving through experiments that the brain structure is not hard-wired at birth, but has plasticity. With the right training in meditative exercises in Mindfulness and compassion, those parts of the brain that are linked to awareness and empathy can be enhanced and new neural pathways developed. Since the goal of an ideal society is to engender peaceful and happy children, and since we know that peace and happiness come from within, it is logical that we work towards attaining that goal by teaching how to attain peace and happiness from the earliest age.

In our schools, it is therefore important that side by side with the current curriculum, we are able to impart ways of developing emotional stability and social tolerance. Peace studies could be an important addition, but the focus should not be only ‘outside‘ Peace, but on ‘inner‘ Peace, a way to Touch Peace, Cultivate Peace and to Be Peace.
 
Both within and out of our homes, many pressures and tensions exist that lead to instability and it is hard to maintain one’s equanimity. It is therefore even more important that every child is made to feel comfortable in the educational system; this is in many cases their second chance. Today’s schooling, at least in India, lays more emphasis on high competitive performance, geared towards career objectives. There is little stress on social and emotional learning, and almost none on Mindfulness.

However, we can discern a slow but growing interest in Mindfulness, of late.

In October 2008, Ahimsa Trust, which is committed to promoting Mindfulness in Education (and is setting up a center for that purpose in the foothills of the Himalayas) planted a sapling to launch the ‘Mindfulness in Education’ movement in India. The inaugural initiative was a most successful four-day retreat/work shop for 550 educators from across the country at The Doon School, Dehra Dun, titled ‘Towards a Compassionate and Healthy Society,’ and led by Thich Nhat Hanh and teachers in his lineage, both monastic and lay. Through a series of lectures and questions and answers (that are transcribed in this book), Thich Nhat Hanh repeatedly emphasized the importance of a teacher cultivating a state of well- being through the practice of Mindfulness. An atmosphere of joy and peace and fellowship prevailed during the entire retreat; residents at The Doon School still comment on the almost palpable quality of ‘goodness’ that permeated the whole school. 

Thich Nhat Hanh and his co-teachers introduced practices to teachers and administrators to be used in their own lives and, based on their experience, to be shared with their students. We offered Mindfulness exercises like breath awareness, walking, eating and pebble meditations, awareness, healing and transformation of emotions, ‘beginning anew’  including  deep listening and compassionate speech  for building relationships and community,  relaxation, visualization, singing and mindful movement exercises. Some of these practices are now being used across the country by the teachers who attended the workshop.

A simple exercise, called the ‘Bell of Mindfulness’ has become very popular among the students, wherever it has been introduced. The children take turns to ring a bell before class starts. When the bell is ‘invited’ to ring, all the students and the class teachers stop what they are doing to be present and fully attentive to what is going on in that moment. They use the awareness of breath to bring their body and mind into the present moment. It allows the children to ‘stop’, to calm down and de-stress. One teacher has this bell invited by a student every 15 minutes and she feels that her class has been transformed in a very healthy way and that because of it, children vie with each other to be the ‘bell master’. The Sriram school in Delhi, has the Bell invited three times a day for the whole school and there is a perceptible calming of energy each time.  Cheryl Perkins from the American Embassy School who has been teaching for 30 years, said recently in an interview “I have never used anything in my life that had the impact that the bell had on my small children and in bringing calm to my classroom”. Some of these children and teachers have taken these practices home and impressed parents are now asking that we share these methods with their organizational executives.

At the time of the Workshop, Sister Chau Nghiem ( Sister Jewel), a nun from Plum Village, provided us with the basis for a book on ‘Sharing Mindfulness with Children’. As this hurriedly-produced document proved so popular, it was felt that a proper book should be offered. What you are holding in your hand is that effort.  Most of the practices offered at the Retreat are offered in this book. This book is intended as a manual for educators and parents, and it requires the teacher to practice before teaching, so that s/he can share from their own experience.  This book does not only provide knowledge, but more importantly is a manual for practice for the educator.  As a friend Adele Cammermer who is part of the teachers’ sangha in the American Embassy School in Delhi commented, ‘A teacher’s presence in the classroom is the unwritten curriculum’.

In the age of internet, the role of the teacher is rapidly changing from one of providing information to one of being a care provider in the widest sense. These skills – for example, learning how to be more compassionate and mindful and how to transmit that to others – cannot be learnt merely from books, but through direct experience and practice.

We see the school as a community. It includes the students, teachers, parents, administrative and support staff, and at a wider level, the community in which the school is situated. Each person in this community directly or indirectly affects others. As each person practices Mindfulness, a ripple effect occurs, influencing others and slowly as small groups of practitioners form within the school, the energy of peace and happiness, of total well-being, becomes more pervasive. A more interconnected relation starts developing even with both the natural and built environments. In that way each child can develop his or her own unique talents, whether logical, artistic or mystic in an open-hearted and joyful way.

Dharmacharya Shantum Seth

 

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