This past Friday night, Jon Kabat-Zinn came to speak at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. The event was a benefit for Mindful Schools, an organization seeking to integrate mindfulness education into schools. Although the Oakland-based Mindful Schools has only been around since 2007, its positive results thus far are impressive. What’s particularly cool is that a large percentage of their work has been with schools in low-income areas. Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reducation (MBSR), was an ideal speaker and his own experience and research with teaching mindfulness techniques as a means to help with coping with anxiety, stress, pain, and other life challenges.
One of the first things Jon did was take the audience through a brief guided meditation. “We’re all born with the ability to be mindful to a certain degree,” he said. “It’s a matter of exercising the muscle of getting grounded in the present moment”. He pointed out that mindfulness really should be thought of as a verb: it’s all about intentionality. An essential part of living our lives as if they really mattered is how we live our lives. Are we present for each moment or are we somewhere else? A big part of the process is learning that we are not our thoughts. We are not our pain. It seems counter-intuitive, but when we hold pain in our awareness we can decrease its effect, whereas if we avoid it, we create an aversion to it which can cause more pain.
Jon asked the question of what we took away most from our education. What teachers can impart most is their passion and love–this is what can make any subject compelling. Kids tend to want to learn (whether they know it or not), so let’s not kill this love of learning. He brought up the point that you can teach mindfulness without ever using the word “mindfulness”. Get creative with ways that you can present mindfulness education in a way that kids will respond to. He reminded us that it’s hard to teach anything in a meaningful way if we aren’t practicing it ourselves. By cultivating a kinder, gentler relationship to ourselves, we can be attentive for each child as they are.
Numerous research studies continue to find positive effects of mindfulness in reducing stress, depression, anxiety, as well as other benefits. There’s a forthcoming paper by J. John Meikle on incorporating mindfulness in K-5 education that maps out the science behind why it might be important to integrate mindfulness into the curriculum.However, Jon points out that the practice of being present in our daily life would still be beneficial even if there wasn’t neuroscience behind it to back up the positive effects people have experienced.
Other efforts to integrate mindfulness into daily life are underway. Jon mentions the upcoming Wisdom 2.0 Conference (which I’ve attended in previous years and written about) that seeks to find a peaceful coexistence between mindfulness and technology. Chade-Meng Tan of Google has a forthcoming book on the subject, Search Inside Yourself, based on his program at Google to help with employee personal growth and emotional well-being. Even Congressman Tim Ryan has a book, A Mindful Nation coming out (“The real place that needs mindfulness is Congress”, Jon declared).
But mindfulness isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems. “You’re the same person you always were, only now you’re just more aware of it”, Jon joked. “You realize how mindless you are. The caveat is mindfulness itself is only the hardest work in the world”. Yet it is through this mindfulness that you can find new connections and creativity because you’re able to put aside distractions and keep your awareness on what’s going on moment to moment.
Perhaps the most powerful moment for me was during the Q & A session where a teacher in a rough area of Oakland posed a poignant question, “How can we teach children to be mindful when they are very often facing a turbulent family situation or the barrel of a gun on the way home? How can we ask them to be present in often tumultuous situations?” Jon commended this teacher and related that, “Mindfulness asks that we unroll the welcome mat and welcome in all that is. But this isn’t a selective welcome mat. We don’t get to decide what we welcome in; we have to take all of what is. The best thing we can offer kids is to stay grounded in what each child needs and then be that for them as much as you can.” It was this last story that truly brought home for me the importance of mindfulness for all of us.
This poem of Rumi’s comes to mind and seems fitting to Jon’s inspiring talk:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~
( from The Essential Rumi)