Mind over matter10:00, 28th October 2016
Ellie Verkerk explains how mindfulness practices are essential in promoting an effective learning environment and positive development – mentally, emotionally and physically
Over recent years, the term ‘mindfulness’ has become a fashionable word. If you search on the internet, you’ll discover an overwhelming number of websites, practitioners and organisations that are dedicated to helping you achieve this heightened state of being, which has its roots in thousands of years of Buddhist culture and is associated with numerous emotional, mental and physical health benefits. In the late 1970’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn created a structured eight-week course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction to help treat patients with chronic pain, combining it with Hatha Yoga. Professor of psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and leader of the UK’s largest study on the impact of mindfulness in schools, MYRIAD, Mark Williams calls it ‘a direct knowing of what is going on inside and outside ourselves,’ and unlike meditation, mindfulness encourages us to ‘achieve non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts, feelings and sensations.’ With so many reports of declining levels of mental and emotional health, clearly society is being called to act collaboratively, and to establish strategies to improve our holistic wellness. The charity MIND reports that every year one in ten people aged 5–16 will be clinically diagnosed with mental health disorders, and the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will become the number one cause of disease burden by 2030. A project funded by the Wellcome Trust states that 75% of mental disorders begin before the age of 24, and 50% begin by the age of 15. Unfortunately, however, funding for the NHS trusts mental health services have fallen dramatically, with significant cuts to child and adolescent mental health service budgets.
Why, as teachers, should we be concerned with this? What level of responsibility should we take? Can we effectively help to reduce the level of mental and emotional difficulties our students face? If we decide to introduce mindfulness practice to our classrooms, what difference could we make to our students’ performance and quality of life more generally? Do we really have the resources, time, energy and requisite expertise to include mindfulness on the curriculum? Conversely, given its increasing acceptance and adoption, including by the Duchess of Cambridge, our government, health service and military, can we afford not to place it formally on our curricula?
In November 2012 Professor Katherine Weare produced a report looking at the outcomes affected by this moment-to moment awareness approach. In the report, entitled ‘Developing Mindfulness in Children and Young People’, she states that brain imaging conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University proves that mindfulness reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling. It enhances learning and memory, and reduces stress and anxiety. Children and young people often become increasingly focused and able to approach situations from a fresh perspective, thinking in more innovative ways. Mindfulness practice helps them to use existing knowledge more effectively, to improve their working memory, as well as enhance planning, problem solving and reasoning skills. When asked, 97% of students at the Middlesex School in Massachusetts agreed that they would recommend their mindfulness course to others.
In a society that is constantly looking for the next best thing, you could be forgiven for thinking that mindfulness has been sold to us as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for our problems. It is important to note here that mindfulness is intended to be included as a support, and not as a replacement for other types of therapy or medicine. As Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe states in his TED Talk, ‘All It Takes is 10 Mindful Minutes’. We are lost in thought 47% of the time, by incorporating mindful practice for just 10 minutes a day, you can improve your life. The scientific research is there to prove it. That’s a powerful selling point – but is that all it takes? I would like to invite you to take a few moments to sit calmly and focus on your
… where it is
Afterwards, take some time to reflect. Has your breath slowed? Do you feel heavier? Lighter? Has your mind calmed, or has it gone haywire? If this is new to you, the likelihood is that your headspace has gone into overdrive. This is a perfectly normal reaction. The chances of achieving real mindfulness on the first practice attempt – even in the first week or two – is slim, so be patient!
Now imagine that your thoughts are vehicles on the road. As you meditate, you become aware of a car in the distance. As it moves and appears in front of you, acknowledge it. Observe it for a moment, disconnect, and allow it to drive on. If that doesn’t work, count your in-breaths up to ten. Once your mind has settled, set the intention back to acknowledging the thoughts, but not to settle upon, or interact with them for any length of time. You may need to try this a few times. How has your awareness and mood changed?
Claire Kelly, from the Mindfulness in Schools Project, which also runs courses for teachers, believes that mindfulness training ‘should be made available to every child. It makes complete sense to incorporate it into school life and beyond, [and teaches us] crucial tools to deal with the pressures of life. It’s empowering, and once they know how to do it they can draw on it whenever they need to.’
Meleni Aldrige, managing director of Bite the Sun says, ‘managing my work/ life balance is a key priority for me, and 30 years of mindfulness practice makes it much easier to keep grounded and in tune with myself and the world around me. When faced with the bombardment of daily life, I do my best to fit in quality ‘me’ time. I maintain periods of complete silence and prioritise a healthy diet and adequate sleep. I’m nowhere near perfect – it is a constant work in progress!’
Still your mind
I am very fortunate to work with the Read Dance and Theatre College in Reading, which supports both their staff and students using mindfulness and holistic wellness protocols, and encourages us all to engage in both personal and professional development. Co-founder Jamie Read believes that ‘you can have the most talented and technically sound student, but if he or she comes to a training with his or her head full of distractions, there will be no benefit.’ He goes on to say that ‘those who succeed are those with the most positive and driven outlook, and mindfulness very much feeds into this. Clearing the mind of baggage, negativity and preconception is a superb way to start rehearsals.’
Charlie Clay, a former student, struggled with her mental health while at college: ‘Mental health was affecting my training, so I started opening up to my tutors and peers about how I was feeling. From day one at Read College, we were encouraged to leave our personal lives outside of the classroom, taking on a ‘person/product’ style attitude. This mentality helped sometimes, but on particularly low days this wasn’t always possible. Feeling supported by both my peers and teachers was key for me in being able to continue my training. My tutors made sure I knew I was supported. If ever I needed some time during class to step outside, that was okay. There was no judgement and they let me take control of my wellbeing.’
In July 2016, Annemarie Lewis Thomas, principal of the Musical Theatre Academy launched the #time4change Mental Health Charter. She is encouraging colleges to sign up so we can work collaboratively to encourage people to discuss issues of mental health and wellbeing, so they can access high quality help and support when it is necessary.
The charter outlines actions we can take in order to make mental health and wellbeing a priority, and to improve outcomes for those who experience mental health difficulties. Cassidy Janson, who is currently playing Carole King in London’s West End, places great importance on combining nutritional, physical and emotional health. ‘I do core work every day and I love slow, deep stretching exercises. When I’m off sugar and eat plenty of the right fats, my mood and hormones naturally regulate. It’s magic,’ she says. ‘Mentally, keeping my closest and positive friends around me keeps me connected and balanced.’
‘Engage in mindfulness practice — and life,’ says Dr Robert Verkerk, founder, executive and scientific director of the Alliance for Natural Health International. ‘Making time to still your mind, through mindfulness practice or meditation, is one of the best ways to allow your mind to handle stress and work out what’s actually important. This will enable you to set goals for yourself, to appeal to your higher needs, and to do things that inspire you and that you feel are of relevance or importance to your local community — or the world.’