Mastering mindfulness

By Beth Roulston 2019-06-03 21:30:05

Helping children to live consciously

The term ‘mindfulness’ has become quite a popular topic recently, and perhaps that is because more and more people are becoming savvier at maintaining their mental and physical health. My initial assumption of mindfulness was that is simply a way to manage or even dissipate negative emotions like stress or sadness, and images of people meditating definitely filled my mind’s eye. However, upon further investigation I discovered I could not have been more wrong.

What is mindfulness?

According to Lorna Jutton, a mindfulness coach here in Shanghai, the practice of being mindful is about paying attention to the present moment with intention (on purpose) and doing this without judgment.

Where does it come from?

The roots of mindfulness can be found in the teachings of Buddha dating back 2,500 years. In the late 1970’s it was then popularised by a medical professor, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who combined his own experience of meditation and his scientific background to then found the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. MBSR is now available in over 200 hospitals, clinics and universities worldwide.

According to research, mindfulness meditation changes the cognitive structure of our brain in areas that improve attention (cortical thickness), memory and learning (hippocampus), and planning and decision making (prefrontal cortex). Studies into mindfulness in learning environments, such as schools, have shown that regular practice improves cognitive per formance, thus helping students to become more engaged, and more positive learners.

As someone who is very self-critical, and on occasion self-deprecating, I know I am guilty of being my own worst judge and according to Lorna I am not alone in this. As adults we constantly hide behind a façade of ‘I’m so happy, oh isn’t my life just wonderful’, due to pressure both in our daily lives and our professional roles. We have learned to repress and cover up our emotions, and conditioned to handle them later. Although, I think we can all agree that when we repress our emotions they tend to creep up on us when we least expect them, or want them! This can lead to developing coping mechanisms like food or alcohol, having emotional breakdowns, arguing unnecessarily with loved ones and more.

Through working with many children and parents, Lorna expresses that, often, parents ask her about how mindfulness will help their children get rid of stress and anxiety. She goes on to say that actually mindfulness isn’t about guiding anyone to get rid of their emotions, it’s about learning to feel them, accept them, and just to be in the moment. This statement left me feeling stunned! Why wouldn’t you want to rid yourself of negative feelings?

But as Lorna says, all emotions are important, and they are completely natural. They should not be ignored. “I used to look at others and wonder why are they so happy and yet I feel sad? What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I be happy?” Through a journey of self-discovery, study, and understanding the benefits to being more mindful, Lorna says she began to wake up and accept however she was feeling. “One morning I remember getting up and feeling sad. I had no idea why, but I said to myself I feel sad today, and that’s okay!” Once you embrace how you are feeling and take hold of it, you will realise that your emotions will change, and you don’t need to overanalyse the reason why they are there. What is important is to understand that no one is happy all the time, and you don’t need to be happy all the time, you simply need to pay attention to how you feel and be in the moment.

So, how does mindfulness come into all of this, and why is it important?

Practicing mindfulness enables you to live in the present and not in the past, future or even an alternate reality. So, what happens when we don’t live in the present? We end up ignoring the subtleties of things going on around us, whether through today’s technology, or even just by constantly living inside our heads. As adults, we have learned to ignore feelings our bodies’ try to communicate with us, such as pain in our shoulders from being sat for too long and tensing up due to stress, or our bodies feeling uncomfortable/ overweight. In fact, there are even studies to suggest that not eating consciously is partly responsible as to why we are becoming increasingly obese.

According to Lorna, being mindful isn’t just about your emotions but also your body, and when we begin to become more mindful there is a tendency to discover that there are a lot of things we have been ignoring. If we look at children, however, they are a lot more in touch with their bodies compared to that of adults. We may have a better understanding as to

why we have certain physical feelings, but children don't. What they do have though, is the benefit of not yet being conditioned to ignore how their bod­ies are feeling. What's more, is that children also tend to have a higher sensitivity to sensory inputs.

Have you ever noticed that when there is loud background noise in a room, children can some­times start acting out of character? This can be because the sensory input is too intense. The best example I can think of is when a friend of mine took his daughter shopping. They were in the supermarket which, as usual, had an array of dif­ferent noises coming from different sources. For example, the banging of items against shelves, trolleys being packed, voices coming over the intercom, and countless conversations. He ex­pressed that one moment she was fine, the next moment she started screaming that she wanted to go home. What he later discovered was that the noise was simply making her feel uncomfortable. Children are also equally sensitive to smell, taste, and touch. Therefore, to help them process all these sensory inputs, mindfulness can help them to focus and process the incoming information.

How can we live more mindfully?

As you’re going about your day, try to take note of your surroundings and be more in tune with things happening around you. Try removing your headphones, put away your phone, and look at the people around you. Try taking some time in a morning to sit down, and consciously eat your breakfast. Taste every bite and think consciously

about the textures and flavours you're eating; this is a great activity to help your kids too.

Lorna advises you to dedicate just five minutes out of your day to turn your mind’s eye inwards, and focus on your body. Start with your head and ask yourself: how does it feel? Does it feel strained, uncomfortable, painful, or good? Repeat this analysis for your eyes, your ears, your nose, your throat, your neck and so on. Once you have reached your feet, you may realise that there are feelings that have been overlooked.

A particularly clever technique Lorna uses with chil­dren is called ‘Breathing Buddies’. She guides the children to lie down with their favourite soft toy rest­ing on their stomach, and helps them to focus on the up and down movement of their breath. The use of a familiar object helps them to feel safe, and brings them to a calm state of mind whereby they will begin to connect more consciously with their body.

Mindfulness is an incredible tool for our health and wellbeing, but as Lorna points out it isn’t a way to ‘fix’ a problem. However, with practice and patience we can be more in touch with our bodies, minds, and our surroundings, and if we create this habit we are also helping our children to do this too. What is important to understand is that no emotion is right or wrong. What is vital is that we develop awareness of our emo­tions and find a balance, and being more mindful can help you and your children to achieve both.


Lorna Jutton

A qualified and experienced British primary education teacher that completed a 10 day meditation retreat (vipassana) as part of her own mindfulness development.