Monday, December 09, 2019

Teaching Mindfulness

I was recently asked in a public forum if I've ever taught mindfulness to children. The question threw me. Yes, no, maybe, I don't know, can you repeat the question? 

Mindfulness is a radical Buddhist practice in which one focuses one's full attention on the present moment. This is something toward which I strive, even as I find it exceedingly difficult to achieve for more than a few minutes at a time. Yesterday, ironically, I was reading a novel in which one of the characters said something about mindfulness that sparked a train of thought that took my brain so far away from the present moment that I had to re-read several paragraphs. I find it a slippery thing to accomplish, requiring discipline, concentration, and practice. A quiet mind is a healthy thing, something valued by medical and spiritual practices from east to west.

Mindfulness as a concept has broken through into our popular culture, really taking off as a phenomenon in recent years. There are more than 100,000 books being sold on Amazon with some version of the word in the title, not to mention the proliferation of mindfulness workshops and seminars and gurus. My social media feeds are full of mindfulness memes.

As I reflected on being stumped by the mindfulness question, I had to admit that I've never attempted to teach children the practice of mindfulness. Yet I've spent my professional career surrounded by it. I see it being practiced wherever there are young children engaged in self-selected activities. A child bent over a puzzle in the midst of a noisy classroom is not just working a puzzle, she is the puzzle. Children negotiating their way through their games of princesses and super heroes are fully there in the moment, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. And the younger the children are, the more mindful they tend to be: a baby staring off into the middle distance is, in that moment, the entire universe.

Every day, if I can manage to be mindful enough to see it, I am inspired by the children's ability to be mindful. How can I pretend to teach mindfulness to the experts? We are born mindful. The challenge is to not lose it as we grow up and it seems that the best place to start is to not unlearn it in the first place. As important adults in children's lives, we too often allow our agendas, our drive to move from here to there, our unquiet minds, to override the mindfulness of children. We insert ourselves, uninvited, into their play with our ideas and concerns and scaffolding and witticisms, drawing their attention away from the present moment, often in a jarring manner. We can't teach mindfulness to the experts, but we can leave them to it. And maybe if we can manage to allow them the time and space for it, they won't grow to forget this wisdom with which they were born.

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