– Why do people even need mindfulness? – I asked one evening
– To live here and now, not dwell on the past or plan the future.
– But why?
– What do you mean? – Marta was outraged – Because if you are constantly living in the past or the future, you miss out on what’s going on. Your life slips through your fingers.
It took me a long time to convince Marta to tell me about mindfulness, because she claims it’s something you do, not something you talk about. I’d watched her for years, practising both with her own sons and her students. I started off as a sceptic, like probably many of you, reading this article. Isn’t it just a crazy fad? Why would we even bother to dedicate our time and attention? So I set my mind on finding out what mindfulness was all about.
– Mindfulness is about conscious focus on what’s going on with us at any given time, and about learning to put a pause between „I feel and experience” and „I do” – Marta explained patiently – We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and it is important to learn to take decisions only when we have gained some perspective. It is important take time to realise that we feel e.g. fear, whose manifestation is a lump in the stomach. This allows us to react more consciously. How many times have you seen children come home from school and say the test did not go well? They had studied, were prepared, and boom, there they are with a red curtain in front of their eyes and an empty mind with one thought only: I’ll fail. It is crucial to learn to overcome such a state of mind.
There is a spot in our brain called the amygdala. It lights up when we experience strong emotions like stress, and completely blocks the functions of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for, among others, the brain’s working memory, making decisions and planning.
– And if we just cut the amygdala out? – I say dreamily – Nobody would feel nervous or blocked anymore.
– Hold your horses, – Marta laughs – it has a lot of useful functions! Thanks to the amygdala our ancestors knew to run when a bear appeared, and you hit the brakes when someone jumps right in front of your car. Evolution hasn’t changed it, because the brain needs it to protect us.
Nothing to be done then, we have to accept the amygdala as a part of our lives. But it’s good to learn to control it. If you know how to use mindfulness techniques, the amygdala rests, and the cortex is back in the game. Scientific research shows that long term mindfulness practice changes the physical structure of the brain; the cortex – like a muscle trained with dumbbells- gets thicker.
Kids nowadays, unfortunately from the youngest years, are overstimulated. Tablets, mobile phones, aggressive cartoons are a part of their everyday life. We, the adults, more and more often reach out for the slow philosophy in life, food, travel – so let’s help the kids implement it, too! At home and at school, let’s focus on deep processing, visual thinking, breath and introspection. It is beneficial, because it is exactly what our brain likes. But the little people have to learn it from someone.
Have you noticed that kids have issues with waiting? With silence? That without instant gratification, they get frustrated and nervous? Mindfulness can change that.
Ok, but what does it mean in practice? Where to start? As always, the method of small steps works best. What you can try doing even today is involving the child in the following simple game: sit down, close our eyes and listen for a few moments to the sounds surrounding you. Maybe there’s a hamster running on the wheel, a washing machine whirling in the bathroom, or a neighbour pounding meat for chops with a mallet? Maybe we can make out the distant hum of the street, or the clicks of the keyboard older siblings are using to post on social media? Let’s see who can make out more sounds!
And maybe eating a piece of chocolate can be turned into a mindful moment? Stop to smell it, hear the sound it makes when you break it off, notice how it melts between your fingers. Finally, it’s time to put a piece on your tongue. Inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose to release deeper flavours. Make it a feast for all the senses, and first and foremost, make it fun!
You can also ask kids to say what three nice things happened to them today. The psychology is simple here: good memories make you feel better, and consequently function better. Unfortunately, our brain is like Teflon for good things and bur for the bad ones – mindfulness tries to reverse that.
What you need to keep in mind is that mindfulness with kids should always be about having fun. Don’t try to oversell deeper philosophies, but try to show them how to enjoy life, savour moments, which will never come back, how to avoid the rat race in every aspect of their life. But beware. Children have cheater radars. If you don’t believe slowing down is good, if you don’t try to inhale deeper, if you don’t let go of another urgent issue – children will not believe you are giving them something valuable. This is a journey you can only take together.
Marta Wojtkowska-Radzicka is the author of Facebook page Myślorysy, she works in sketchnoting, visual thinking and mindfulness courses for children. For years she worked as a teacher of English.