What is Mindfulness?
The founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as:
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
Each part of this sentence can then be broken down and elaborated. Paying attention: we see that our attention is a bit like a flashlight beam, illuminating this and that as it moves around. How well do we hold it still when we try to focus it in a particular way by taking a moment to just pause and breathe? Does it settle down where we place it on purpose, on the sensations of breathing in the present moment, or does it move all over the place? Chances are, it's all over the place. Buddhists call this "monkey-mind" and I prefer to think of it as a little puppy - cute maybe, but pretty all over the place and not very well behaved.
This is where the last stage comes in. Can we observe that puppy-mind or "monkey-mind" non-judgmentally? Can we be kind when the puppy bites our thumb or pees on the carpet? Or anger arises or loneliness settles in? We are habituated as judging-beings, and there's nothing wrong with the idea of "developing good judgment," but it can get out of hand. When we don't acknowledge our anger or sadness it's a way of neglecting ourselves the way a not-so-great owner might neglect a puppy. When we pile on anger at ourselves or other kinds of harsh judgment, we're like the owner who is really harsh on the poor little puppy who just doesn't know any better.
If we can change our approach to ourselves, our puppy-mind, we can instead work on training it to "just sit" on the breath. This takes patience. We have years of habituation (some more than others) toward jumping from one thing to another in constant succession. But, like training a puppy, if we use rewards rather than punishment - little smiles when the mind rests on the breath for a few moments - we end up with a much happier, healthier being in the end. In this way we change our human-being from a judging-being to a happy-being.
What are the benefits?
Mindfulness programs for kids have been developed to start as young as kindergarten. One Boston father has created "Boston Buddha" - teaching mindfulness to K-grade 5 students in the Milton Mass., School District. An NBC news story in 2015 chronicled San Francisco schools that were "transformed by the power of meditation." Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, a more focused, one-on-one form of mindfulness training has been shown to help improve attention and reduce behavior problems and anxiety in kids with high anxiety.
Read this blog post on three ways meditation is being taught to young people.
Mindfulness has been found to reduce depression and loneliness. A UCLA study found that seniors who took an eight-week meditation program significantly decreased rates of self-reported loneliness. They report, furthermore, that "Feeling lonely has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, depression and even premature death." So the ripple-effects of the mindfulness are likely to spread into other areas of life. In fact, one other study traced a direct link between mindfulness and improved mood in seniors who added the practice to their lives. If the bottom line is your main interest, it's also worth pointing out that mindfulness was found to reduce healthcare costs over a 5-year period by approximately 25%.
And everyone in between:
Some meditators have reported improved attention spans, more creativity and better overall health. Although we cannot guarantee these results for every participant, we can offer personal guidance for each student to help them with their personal mindfulness goals.