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Wednesday, April 21, 2021
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Mind yourself

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Reading Time: 5 minutesMindfulness has spawned a global industry of evening courses, books and apps, and it is used by all kinds of people from corporate executives and nurses to sportsmen and primary school children.

But what is mindfulness? Actress Goldie Hawn does a pretty good job of explaining it in her YouTube film promoting MindUP, the educational version of mindfulness. She explains it as a way of quieting the mind, in a bid to reduce stress and increase optimism.

Sounds like meditation? Psychologist Janneke Nefs from Happy Kids, an organisation that teaches mindfulness to children, explains, “A central part of mindfulness is meditation, but meditation is a broader term, being part of many other traditions and practices… Students of mindfulness will also be taught to understand their thoughts and emotions.”

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Brain training

Beacon Hill School (BHS), part of the English Schools Foundation, adopted the MindUP programme in 2012. Vice Principal Rachael Dewhurst explains why they made space in the timetable for mindful thinking. “The world we live in is demanding. At BHS we recognise this and feel strongly that our students need to be taught explicitly how to be resilient; for some children resilience is not innate.  Therefore, we adopted the MindUP programme to enhance our existing Personal, Social and Emotional curriculum.”

Teacher Andrew Greene describes what happens in the classroom. “There are a number of guided lessons on the parts of the brain that help us make decisions. We discover how to use our brains and how we can have a positive attitude. We do a breathing exercise three times a day to calm our bodies and brains. Students explore how taking time to listen, smell, or touch more carefully makes the prefrontal cortex (PFC) better at its job of problem solving. They learn that the amygdala, which causes the flight or fight response in us, often misjudges the danger of the situation, causing us to hurt others or freeze up when it isn’t helpful. We actually use these big, complex words with the students and incorporate them into daily life to grow their understanding of how mindfulness can help us. For example, we might introduce a lesson by asking students to ‘get your PFCs ready for some hard thinking’, or asking them what part of the brain a child is using when he or she is reacting too quickly or thoughtlessly.”

Greene continues, “If you were to walk into one of our classrooms, you might see students sitting cross-legged on the floor while listening to a chime with their eyes closed. Or you might see them carefully eating a Malteser then describing the different textures and tastes they experience as it changes. Overall, we use MindUP to help students become calmer, more focused, and positive about school and home life.”

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 Proof of the pudding

The philosophy is sound, but does it work? Greene thinks it does. He says, “Just last week, a girl called me over and said, ‘Mr Greene, my heart was beating really fast and I did the breathing right here in my chair and it slowed down!’ So they get it.”

Breathing exercises and eating Maltesers sounds like my kind of lesson, but the techniques don’t end there. Eight-year-old James explains: “This week our teacher made noises under her desk and we had to guess what the noises were and then link them to a memory. It was fun.” These short activities are what Goldie Hawn refers to as brain breaks.

So are parents noticing a difference? Year One teacher Jane Trotter says, “I received a note from a parent saying that she was very impressed at how much her daughter had learnt since starting school and that yesterday she came home and told mummy all about her hippocampus!”

Greene agrees that there have been positive effects. “Any time you can get a five year old to happily talk about school, something good must be happening. For the most part, the children really enjoy it. A number of parents have mentioned their sons or daughters talking about the different parts of the brain or how to do the breathing. I often forget to do the
post-playground breathing practice and there are always three or four students who are desperate to remind me. You will always have one or two children who haven’t bought in to the idea, just like adults. We can’t know how hard they are actually trying to clear their thoughts and focus on their breathing, but hopefully they will come along in time.”

 A phenomenon is born

Mindfulness is nothing new. Forty years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn from the Medical Centre at the University of Massachusetts took up the subject for research. He looked into the benefits of Buddhist meditation, simplified the practice and made mindfulness secular. The list of academic papers researching the topic continues to grow. In 2011, researchers from Oxford University, led by Professor Mark Williams, found that a mindful practice can change the structure of the brain, discovering that the brain can repair itself in ways that weren’t thought possible before.

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Nefs explains how it works: “Everyone realises that they have thoughts, opinions, judgments, doubts, etc but people never question ‘the stories of the thinking mind’ for one second. They over-identify themselves with their thoughts, thinking, ‘my thoughts tell me this, so it must be true’. Mindfulness teaches you to look at your thoughts with a little distance. When you do this, you will realise how busy your mind is, but that you don’t have to follow all your thoughts. This brings more freedom of choice and will help you to see things a little lighter.”

But a word of warning to those looking for a quick fix from stress, or instant happiness. As Nefs explains, practising mindfulness requires a bit of commitment. “My own mindfulness teacher always says mindfulness is a performing art. You have to practise it regularly in your daily life. Making some time to stop and focus on yourself is not something we are used to and we easily let our busy lives take over. So, making time to practise, or parents making time to support their children’s practise, is a challenge. On the other hand, practising a little bit every day is enough. The practice can be challenging but you don’t need to spend a long time doing it.

If you are sold on the idea of trying mindfulness, there are plenty of courses you can sign up for, but in our technology-rich era the most likely route in for beginners is via YouTube or an app. Nefs has experience of two apps. She explains, “The first is Headspace, which offers mindfulness exercises and online courses for adults. Headspace has very informative short films that explain what mindfulness is about, and you can download a free beginner’s course with 10 sessions. The other app is Sitting Still. Designed for teenagers, it has several guided (voice led) and unguided meditations to listen to. After each meditation you get the option to write a note or answer a question, a nice extra that gives you more insight into your practice.”

It seems like there is a quiet revolution going on with individuals taking charge of their mental health and happiness. People are beginning to value their own minds. A quick online search can get you access to these helpful apps, or head to one of Hong Kong’s quieter beaches – there is no price tag attached to clear thinking.

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