Knowing the mind

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Meditation can help children develop self-awareness and become more resilient and balanced

The development of self-awareness through meditation involves developing the two inter-related faculties of mindfulness and compassion. Based on long-established meditative techniques, this article explores the underpinnings of these faculties, followed by discussion of their development and application with students who have learning and communication difficulties, particularly autistic spectrum disorders.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness may be defined as a process of resting the mind in its natural state, open to and naturally aware of thoughts, emotions and sensations as they occur. It is also a way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to thoughts and emotions as they arise (Kabat-Zinn, 2004). Mindfulness therefore allows us to become aware of and relate to our present moment experience without becoming stuck in it. Relating to our thoughts and emotions in this way enables us to increasingly respond to situations with insight, spaciousness and perspective. Further, it is proving to be a wonderful antithesis to mindlessly reacting to our experiences in ways that often support ruminative thinking and associated conditions like anxiety and depression.

Practitioners also report that mindfulness allows a shift from a “doing” to a “being” mode of existence, incumbent with all the qualities of a calmer mind, improved clarity, and a greater sense of confidence, openness and joy. Of course, the backdrop to all of this is that most of us are addicted to distraction, easily pulled from one thing to another, and usually have very unsettled, reactive minds.

Donald with students at Pontville School.Developing the faculty of mindfulness involves two interrelated aspects. The first aspect is acceptance toward ourselves in being able to be with and relate to our present moment experience, whatever that might be. A metaphor often used for this is to consider the mind as a guesthouse to passing thoughts, emotions and moods, and, with openness and curiosity, we welcome whatever presents itself “as it is” without engaging or pushing away the content. The second aspect of mindfulness involves the techniques we use in order to settle the mind and return our attention time and again to present moment experience. These techniques, often referred to as calm-abiding techniques, typically involve using neutral supports such as the breath, sound, and the body itself in providing a reference point for holding, returning and developing our attention.

The literature provides a compelling case for engaging mindfulness practices in terms of physical, emotional and mental benefits. Evidence of these benefits are much less developed in the case of children, but programmes such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children (MBCT-C) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) for children are making impressive headway. Little research has also been done concerning children with special needs but there is some evidence to suggest mindfulness practices have a positive effect on measures to do with attention and wellbeing.

Using meditation in a special school

A seven week pilot study carried out at our school, which caters for students aged five to 19 years with a range of learning and communication difficulties, used pre- and post-intervention questionnaires to evaluate the effects of meditation on calmness, concentration and mood. Results from the study showed that students perceived the most positive effects of meditation to be on concentration (40 per cent of students felt their attention had improved) and mood (over 30 per cent felt that they had become happier), while more than 25 per cent of students felt they had become less calm – this latter result may possibly be due to the “waterfall experience” with meditation, where our minds appear to be more agitated when first engaging with the practices.

The study also showed that the perception of change with respect to concentration, calmness and mood generally became less positive as you increased by age. It may be that younger children (for example, Key Stage 3 compared to Key Stages 4 and 5) are more open and receptive to new experiences, particularly before the trials and tribulations that accompany the teenage years.

Finally, and perhaps somewhat predictably, students identified a range of preferred mindfulness supports – noteworthy is the fact that many of our students gravitate towards supports that are external and tangible (such as crystals as a tactile support and candles as a visual support) in preference to supports that are more subtle and centring in nature (such as breath).

Compassion

Compassion may be defined as a basic kindness, with a deep awareness of the suffering of oneself and others, along with a wish and effort to relieve such suffering (Gilbert, 2009). More simply, compassion may be defined as trying to be helpful, to benefit others and to improve matters.

As with mindfulness practices, there is a growing body of evidence that underscores the importance of compassion, including self-compassion, in promoting balance, happiness and wellbeing. Training the faculty of compassion is being shown to create feelings of peacefulness, calmness and connectedness, and an ability to face the many challenges that come our way. Research by Germer (2009) and Neff (2011) shows that self-compassion is related to life satisfaction, emotional intelligence and connectedness, and “inversely related to self-criticism, depression, anxiety, rumination, thought suppression, and perfectionism.” Self-compassion may also be an effective target for teens suffering from negative self views.

Linking mindfulness with compassion practices is recognised as being a powerful tool in enabling individuals to develop self-awareness and move towards emotional maturity and balance. In her work, Neff (2011) defines self-compassion in terms of three interrelated components: mindfulness, self-kindness, and connection with common humanity, all vital aspects in counteracting the “unholy trinity” of over-identification, self-judgement and isolation, respectively. This approach has also been echoed by Greenland (2010) in the development of the Inner Kids Programme. She refers to the “new ABCs of learning: attention, balance and compassion”, contending that “by learning attention skills and compassion, children are introduced to tools that could help them to live in a balanced way.”

Within a meditative context, the development of compassion follows quite naturally from a familiarity with and grounding in mindfulness techniques. In having settled the mind, one technique often engaged is the practice of loving-kindness (metta). In this practice, a person of care or concern is brought to mind and standard phrases repeated to oneself. These phrases, adapted to reflect age, as well as cognitive, communication and learning abilities of students involved, run something along the following lines:

May you be happy;
May you be healthy;
May you be free from danger;
May you live with ease.

With time and familiarity, these practices may be extended to more difficult others, as well as to oneself, bearing in mind that many people, including students with learning and communication difficulties, may be particularly uncomfortable with self-compassion. One of our students even remarked that this practice would be a very difficult for him as he didn’t like himself very much.

Given the potential to elicit a wide range of emotional responses, from happy and warm at one end of the spectrum, to difficult and painful at the other, we have therefore approached the introduction of compassion practices in a very considered and progressive manner. In the event that strong, conflicting emotions do arise, students are reminded that they may return to a self-identified “place of safeness”; these commonly include bringing to mind a bedroom (warm and enclosed), or a field that is spacious and open, or simply return to focusing on the breath or body. This approach provides a degree of compassionate containment until students feel comfortable with resuming kindness practices.

As with mindfulness practices, the goal is not to illicit particular feelings or experiences but to allow students to see and approach the world from a different place. In this way, the faculty of compassion is developed – a faculty that is also strengthened by engaging in compassionate action towards oneself and others.

So, while mindfulness practices allow us to become increasingly aware and accepting of our inner experience (in itself an act of self-compassion), compassion practices themselves are aimed at directly awakening our capacity to be kinder, as well as more compassionate, even-handed and connected in our dealings with ourselves and others.

Running meditation sessions

In working with students with learning and communication difficulties, a number of suggestions may be offered in delivering sessions of meditation, supporting either mindfulness or compassion aspects. These include the following:

  • establish a dedicated space for learning the techniques. Our minds are distracted enough without having to contend with a continuous stream of external distractions as well
  • while many teachers advocate students sitting in a circle to facilitate communication and sharing, our experience is for students to sit in a semi-circular arrangement in order to avoid direct eye contact which is difficult and provocative for some students
  • keep the sessions or components of the session (if for a full lesson) short and fun. Generals rules of thumb include, (a) sessions of meditation not to exceed the age of students in the group (for example ten minutes for students who are aged ten), and/or (b) meditate for only so long as the least able student is able to do so
  • ensure that materials and techniques are adapted by instructors to be age-specific and developmentally appropriate
  • if for a full lesson, try to include a mixture of mindful sitting and movement practices. Most students respond very well to gentle yoga exercises where attention rests with movement in the body. Mindful movement also serves to acknowledge the sensory world – a world inhabited by many individuals with autistic spectrum disorder
  • allow for consolidation of the practices learned either during form times or as part of home practice
  • a structure that tends to work very well for lessons is one of “play, practice and enquiry”, reflected in initiatives such as the Inner Kids Programme (Greenland, 2010). The play phase usually involves a short starter activity that allows students to transition from the doing mode of the previous lesson to the being mode of the meditation session (for example, allowing arms to rise and fall to the sound of a bell). Following the main meditative practice, the enquiry phase allows discussion with the group to assess any difficulties or concerns that students may be experiencing, as well as to assess the effectiveness of approaches and techniques being used
  • Many of the programmes being developed in mindfulness and/or compassion have a structure that runs over about eight weeks. Further, it is strongly recommended that teachers have their own practice in being able to support and guide students with meditative techniques.

Conclusion

Although more evaluative research needs to be conducted, the evidence is becoming increasingly convincing as to the benefits of engaging mindfulness and compassion practices. Underpinned by a long meditative tradition, these techniques also hold much promise for students with learning and communication difficulties, many of whom suffer from anxiety, low self-esteem and depression due to a range of external (social alienation/bullying) and internal (blame, self-criticism) factors (Atwood, 2007). Most significantly, addressing commonly reported issues of acceptance and attention are the very cornerstones of both mindfulness and compassion practices.

Further information

Donald Gordon coordinates the Self-awareness Programme at Pontville School, Ormskirk, a school catering for students from five to 19 years of age with a range of learning and communication difficulties. Donald is also undertaking an MSc in Mindfulness from the University of Aberdeen:
www.pontville.co.uk

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