Mindfulness has moved in the last decade from the marginal into the mainstream. Once associated with mystical cults and alternative lifestyles, it has now moved solidly into medical and social respectability, for both clinical and general populations, backed up by large numbers of academic studies. Schools around the world are using it more than ever, in a variety of ways, including optional sessions for students and as part of assemblies.
It is important to state at the outset what mindfulness is. According to leading exponent, Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. Another definition comes from author and campaigner, Sharon Salzberg: “Mindfulness isn’t just about knowing that you’re hearing something, seeing something, or even observing that you’re having a particular feeling. It’s about doing so in a certain way – with balance and equanimity, and without judgment. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in a way that creates space for insight.”
Mindfulness can help both students and staff to become more philosophical and accepting, better able to negotiate the strains and stresses of their lives with equilibrium. The more one practices mindfulness, the greater the benefits. It has been shown to be an invaluable tool to help bolster young people’s resilience to psychological stress. It boosts concentration, depth of thought, happiness and achievement. It is the most simple and natural technique to learn – indeed, it is not really a technique at all. It is all about being yourself, making the most of yourself, and making the most of the opportunities that life presents to you. It promotes trusting relationships, healthy living and psychological and emotional security.
I first started mindfulness at the School of Meditation in London 40 years ago and found it enormously helpful in helping me to focus, give me energy and to make me happier than I might otherwise have been. When I became a teacher at Whitgift School in Croydon in the 1980s, I started introducing it to classes and ran informal sessions at subsequent schools, including Tonbridge School and Brighton College. But it was only when I became head of Wellington College in 2006 that I started introducing mindfulness and stillness more regularly. Once a week for example, the 14-year-olds would have a stillness assembly, where they would sit quietly with a guided meditation, not unlike what happens in Quaker and some other schools.
Leweston School’s Rachel Milestone introduced music lessons for staff in a bid to boost mindfulness:
My hope was that music would promote social relationships within the school and improve staff output and engagement and, therefore, ultimately, pupil outcomes. The senior management were immediately supportive, and a plan was devised whereby staff would be offered five free instrumental/singing lessons, funded through a CPD budget, with the option to sign up for regular lessons on a long-term basis at a reduced rate. Click here for the full story
When students are anxious, agitated or otherwise disturbed, it is harder for them to absorb academic subjects. Practising mindfulness helps their minds to calm down and focus on what is before them. The practice is particularly helpful at times of major tests and examinations. Students can often find that they do not perform at their best in these fraught situations, because their mind is running away with them. It is akin to thinking when one is running down a staircase quickly: the very act of thinking about what one is doing can impede the task. The more mindful one becomes, the easier it is to perform at one’s best, whatever level that might be.
Mindfulness is all about a growing sense of harmony, within oneself, with others around one, and with the environment. The more one practises mindfulness, the more aware we become of the harm that we are doing to the environment, and the greater the sense of responsibility to care not only for the planet but for the physical spaces we inhabit in universities. A sense of separation from the environment and self-centred behaviour begins to dissolve. Quite simply, the mindfulness practitioner becomes more in tune and at one with everything around them.
We will be hearing more about this at the University of Buckingham and International Positive Education Ultimate Wellbeing in Education Conference on March 21, where the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, will discuss his recent announcement regarding introducing mindfulness into schools.
Sir Anthony Seldon is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and co-author of The Positive and Mindful University.