By Dijana Bate, Glebe Montessori School Founding Director
“I come to realize that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and stars.”
– Dogen Zenji
Regardless of religious practices or beliefs, both children and adults can benefit from elements of wisdom derived from the Buddhist philosophy and way of life. Buddhism emphasizes Dhyãna, the Sanskrit word for “meditative state,” inviting one “to see, to observe, to look.” In fact, Buddhist principles lie at the very core of the mindfulness courses taught in many of today’s classrooms. For those children who are overwhelmed, suffering from toxic stress (as opposed to healthy stress), and resorting to freeze, flight or fight response modes, mindfulness training provides essential tools for coping. Mindfulness training is about building awareness, identifying and regulating emotions, managing stress and developing connectedness and interpersonal skills.
The secularized North American version of mindfulness training can be traced back to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. A student of Buddhist teachers while studying at MIT, Dr. Kabat-Zinn adapted and westernized Buddhist concepts of mindfulness, placing them within a scientific rather than a religious context. “Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism,” he would say. In addition to mindfulness, Dr. Kabat-Zinn embraced the development of heartfulness. Mindfulness “focuses on moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, sensations and surrounding environment.” Heartfulness, so vital to our humanity, “instills the intentional nurturing of positive mind states such as kindness and compassion.”
The following components form the core of Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s Buddhist inspired mindfulness and heartfulness training:
- Attention: Strengthens our “mental muscle” for bringing focus back to where we want it, when we want it.
- Emotional Regulation: Observing our emotions allows us to recognize when they occur, to see their transient nature, and to change how we respond to them.
- Adaptability: Becoming aware of our patterns enables us to gradually change habitual behaviors wisely.
- Compassion: Awareness of our own thoughts, emotions, and senses grows our understanding of what other people are experiencing.
- Calming: Breathing and other mindfulness practices relax the body and mind, giving access to peace independent of external circumstances.
- Resilience: Seeing things objectively reduces the amount of narrative we add to the world’s natural ups and downs, giving us greater balance. (mindfulschools.org)
Heartfulness and mindfulness training, combined with meditation and breathing awareness, are beneficial for young and old on many levels, improving attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being. Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar was one of the first to conduct a study on the value of meditation and mindfulness. She and her team found that “mindfulness meditation actually changed the structure of the brain, decreasing brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress levels of stress.” (Forbes.com; 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain)
Key to Buddhism and mindfulness is living in the present moment, a challenge in our age of distractions. Young children, living in the now, are role models for this natural state of being. The Buddhist proverb, “when walking, walk; when eating, eat,” invites us to rethink our fast paced, multi-tasking orientation. Designating the time to focus on a single task, and giving it one’s full attention, until completion, is a healthier, rewarding, more productive way of accomplishing goals.
Impermanence is another important concept of Buddhism. Children thrive on consistency, and view change as being especially threatening. Yet, they should learn that “the only thing that is constant is change.” (Heraclitus) For children, nature is the best teacher for demonstrating the wisdom and beauty of change and impermanence. Bring to children’s attention the transformations in the seasons, the tides, the life cycles of plants and animals. Guide children to develop adaptability skills, so they are prepared for change and challenges, such as remaining calm and persistent in the face of difficulties, and seeking creative alternatives for plans that may not materialize.
In our society, we tend to strive for that illusive state of eternal happiness. Metaphorically speaking, as reflected in the Earth’s seasons, we need our emotional falls, winters, springs and summers. Our personal falls and winters offer creative rest, introspection, and regeneration, while our internal springs and summers reactivate and energize our creative expression. These cycles balance us and give rhythm to life. According to Buddhist teachings, we must make peace with our negative emotions, fears and insecurities; if we resist our feelings, they become much stronger. When we observe and embrace these feelings, they either dissipate or become less threatening. By encouraging children to acknowledge what they are feeling, and talk about it, we help to awaken an inner awareness that can release the power the emotion has over them. “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is to be understood.” (Marie Curie)
Practicing gratitude, forgiveness and kindness are further empowering tools that mirror Buddhist beliefs. Finally, Buddhism teaches us “not to believe in things simply because we hear it, but to investigate for ourselves.”( Kalama Sutta)
Each of these significant lessons can enlighten us and our children, giving roots to be grounded and wings to soar.