David Lambon says that 'Private schools have rushed to embrace mindfulness as a way to help pupils cope with the growing pressures of academia: from getting top grades to being bullied. There is evidence the practice boosts the brain and it helps teenagers embrace self-control and resist peer pressure.' He says, 'Mindfulness has its place and young people do have a lot of stress these days. They need to be very resilient.
'But we need to give our children a framework, a compass for life, something they have with them their entire life which helps them not to cope only with the pressures of being a teenager but that gives them a faith that will be deeply rooted and will last them through their entire lives.'
He says on Mindfulness, 'It doesn’t really ask them to find their true personality or to have core values that will guide them through all the problems they will face in their lifetime. They might face a separation, disappointment in their working lives and they need something that they can go back to.
'We need to give children not just coping strategies but values that they can rely on no matter what life throws at them. We need to give them something that forms their character as opposed to how they cope with the situation.
'Gospel values will be with you for every situation in life whereas mindfulness is only when you have a difficulty as a teenager. Life isn’t just about being a teenager.'
Needless to say, I feel that he doesn't understand what Mindfulness is - not that I am suggesting that values or having a faith aren't also useful in guiding our lives. Mindfulness is not about teaching values, but much more to do with self-knowledge and understanding oneself.
It is true that the course that I teach in Year 4 and Year 6 both only last for one term, and the practice of Mindfulness is exactly that - a practice. If the children don't practise it then it probably won't have a huge effect on their lives.
But there are so many elements of benefit; there is the practice of Mindfulness itself, where the children experience peace and stillness, which is not such a common occurrence in today's world. We know that the opposite, a very busy, racing mind, and an inability to be still can lead to anxiety and stress and in serious cases, to mental illness so this practice is a definite strategy to a healthy mind. One of the parents of a nursery child told me this week that she had meditated for a short time with her child one morning, and that the child's teacher, not knowing this, had remarked on how much calmer and more focused he had been for the whole of that day.
Then there is the teaching that accompanies the practices. These are not 'just for teenagers' as this head says, but are strategies and practices for life. In fact I have recently trained in a course to prepare to teach Mindfulness to adults, if any parents are interested!
To mention just a few of the useful elements; we can stand back from what is going on in our minds and treat our thoughts as 'thought buses'. This means that if we can observe, for instance, a negative thought about ourselves, we don't have to go with it or believe it. This is freeing, because we can be very self-critical as children and adults, and this is not useful. Reflection on a character trait that we want to improve is different from destructive criticism which saps your self-confidence.
During the course we show the children that if you think a particular thought over and over again, it is more likely to reoccur in your thoughts because we create new neural pathways in our brains; we can change our brains through the thoughts we think. Scientists have shown that the hippocampus in a taxi-driver is larger than those of non taxi-drivers - by having to learn the 'knowledge' or routes through London they have grown that part of the brain, which is responsible for memory, showing that if we use a particular part of the brain over and over again, we change it physically.
So ideally you don't want to allow your mind to play the same negative thought repetitively because it will act like a groove in a record (if there are any parents who remember records!) and it may have an effect on the way that you see yourself and on the way that you behave.
I see this as a direct negation to this head's comment that Mindfulness doesn't help you to find your true personality. Mindfulness helps you to truly be yourself by showing you how not to go with the ideas and thoughts that you hold about yourself, which are invariably untrue. So you discover who you really are by not getting attached to false ideas of who you think you are. We teach the children to 'stand at the bus-stop' but not to get on the bus. So they are not trying to get rid of thoughts, but giving themselves the space to watch them and therefore they have a choice as to whether to believe them.
The other thing that our minds tend to do is to take a few facts and fill in the missing areas to create a story, without having all the true facts - we jump to a false conclusion. We then regurgitate these thoughts and they can dominate our thinking, when they can be based on something entirely false, which has been created by our imagination rather than on an accurate picture of events. This can affect our lives, because we could for example end a relationship because of something that we have part imagined and then turned it into something far more significant by playing with it in our minds. We can create our own reality, and see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there.
There is so much more - Mindfulness is incredibly useful in helping us to live a calm and emotionally balanced life. It does clearly help with stress, it helps to make one more resilient, it helps one's concentration and ability to focus....and there are many more benefits too numerous for this article.
But at St. Helen's, we do of course teach the values as well. We do it through our assemblies and RE lessons, and this feeds into our Philosophy for Children (P4C) sessions, which now all the teachers are qualified to teach. We choose a value each week or fortnight which is presented in assembly, and that value is displayed around the school. The children are given a stimulus in P4C which will be something relevant to that value, and the children will then choose a deep question and vote for their favourite question, which is then discussed in a collaborative way, rather than debated upon. This gives them skills in listening to each other, empathy in understanding the opinions of others, and deep thinking about many different values.
So our children are receiving a thorough education in values, values which are Christian but are also shared with many other faiths, as well as benefitting from teaching in Mindfulness. I feel that the Head of Ampleforth should look again at Mindfulness and not dismiss it as just a coping strategy for teenagers. He has missed the fact that although it is secular in the form that we teach it, it is based on ancient wisdom. The ability to be truly still must be at the heart of many faiths and it is certainly true of Christianity, which is the faith to which he is alluding.
Our value this week should have been 'Friendship' but I changed it to 'Goodwill' as we have had several nativities this week, it is Christmas and we will have a Carol Service incorporating the words from the gospels on Friday. These words may be ancient but they have so much practical value, as do all the values. A combination of Mindfulness for learning to know oneself, and values for teaching one how to treat others are an ideal basis for our children to go forward with confidence and resilience to face whatever life may hold for them.
So as the Angel Gabriel said, ' Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all Men.'
Have a wonderful holiday, with plenty of peace and rest to recharge your energies as well as enjoying the fun and festivities....and perhaps have some moments of mindfulness to help to fully appreciate the magical time of Christmas.
Some say that ever, 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
Hamlet - William Shakespeare
“There's more, much more, to Christmas
Than candlelight and cheer;
It's the spirit of sweet friendship
That brightens all year.
It's thoughtfulness and kindness,
It's hope reborn again,
For peace, for understanding,
And for goodwill to men!”