Mindfulness – An overview of Practice

written by Mark Hayter

Mindfulness contributes to a holistic approach to teaching and learning within the classroom environment. A holistic approach to education includes the use of our bodies, our minds and our intelligence. Mindfulness allows for the learners to integrate each of these into their learning experience. Within the school environment, the training of the bodies within the sporting environment is beneficial to cognitive function. Our intelligence is increased as we learn new knowledge and integrate ourselves into cultural events, celebrating our diversity in team effort within the school context. Skills that are required to be taught at each phase of education are developed through the variety of tasks that are set. In order to fully benefit from the educational process, mindfulness contributes to some benefits for learning, these include the ability to focus concentration, recognising and managing emotional responses, making better decisions and empathising in our relationships with others involved in the learning process.

Mindfulness is often associated with meditation, however, in the school environment, we will define mindfulness as paying attention to our experience in a way that allows us to respond rather than react. It is a quality of inner stillness that is always available, even when our life or our circumstances feel out of our control and are chaotic. A definition for learners would be that mindfulness is paying attention to your life, here and now, with kindness and curiosity.

Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, which can be defined as being on autopilot or merely going through the motions. In order to step out of autopilot, we need to become aware first of all of our body (the body door) and focus our attention or awareness on the sensations we feel in particular learning events. The thoughts door means that we will make a deliberate decision to relate differently to our thinking and emotions. The third element is the door of skilful action, by opening this door we open the possibilities of taking some considered and conscious action that will benefit our learning. The final door is to choose to continue with mindful practice outside of the classroom environment.

In our practice of mindfulness, it is critical to realise that the ability to concentrate (pay attention) is a natural human capacity! However, the quality of the attention is more important than the object of the attention. Mindfulness can be applied to anything, whether it be an experience, a sensation in the body, an emotional experience, thoughts, sights or sounds. Human beings have the unique capacity to be aware of our internal and external worlds. Therefore we can attend to the breath, the body, thoughts, tastes, smells, sights, sounds, emotions, impulses and actions. Ultimately, successful mindfulness is about our well-being and the well-being of those around us.

The goal of mindfulness is not to get rid of thoughts. Thoughts are part of the human experience, as thinking humans, we cannot silence or control all thought. However, we can be gentle with ourselves when we are not comfortable with our thoughts. The practice of mindfulness can, therefore, be defined as one of nonviolence concerning ourselves, our habits, our thoughts, our feelings and our bodies. Training the mind is different than fighting the mind. When we train the mind, we practice kindness to ourselves.

Thoughts are thoughts, thoughts are not the world. Essentially there are two forms of thought: mental images (if we close our eyes images can be apparent but often vague and fleeting) and mental talk (our inner dialogue which at times can be loud and obvious and at other times subtle and soft). Often when trying to focus our attention, we end up mind wandering where our attention wanders into planning, memory, worry or daydreams. Mindful wandering may help us with planning (the ability to simulate the future is important and adaptive), some creative solutions (no obvious plan, simply allowing attention to Rome.) Finally, mind wandering may address boredom by providing some modest entertainment.

Mindful behaviours help to create a space and replace impulsive reactions with thoughtful responses. The benefits of mindfulness include:

  • Cognitive outcomes: including better focus and concentration as well as increased executive function (body regulation, self-awareness, emotional regulation, and fear modulation).
  • Social-emotional skills: improved self-regulation as well as compassionate attitudes and behaviours.
  • Well-being: research has shown that mindfulness can support anxiety, depression and a reduction in stress.