Mindfulness has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, as follows:
“…the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” (Kabat-Zinn 2003, p. 144)
In other words, it is focusing on what is happening now, not what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. It also emphasises being non-judgemental or removing any emotion from your experience. I have found that this removal of emotion is one of the greatest benefits of such practices.
Mindfulness comes in many forms: from simply incorporating awareness into everyday activities such as sitting at a stop light or walking to the corner store, to formal meditation and training programs. These practices, with their roots in Buddhism, originally were used in the field of medicine but can now be seen in the fields of psychology, healthcare, neuroscience, business, the military and last but not least, education. Over the past couple of decades, there has been a growing body of research which demonstrates that mindfulness can improve health and well-being in adults. By extension, mindfulness has great advantages for children as well. Reducing stress and anxiety as well as enhancing immune system function are just some of the benefits (Meiklejohn, Phillips, Freedman, et al., p. 1).
There are many reasons why an individual would use mindfulness. As a singer, I find that mindfulness is particularly effective at dealing with performance anxiety or “stage fright.” Emotions, to a certain extent, enhance a performance. However, too much emotion will cause my working memory to, well, stop working. The worst part of this is that the more my memory fails, the more my emotional state is heightened causing further memory failure. This downward spiral can happen very quickly, to the point where I will have no recollection of my lyrics despite having spent weeks preparing for the performance. By taking a few minutes prior to going on stage to close my eyes and focus on my breathing, I interrupt the emotional spiral and am able to perform my best.
Through these experiences, I have come to appreciate the power of mindfulness. Whether it is in my own running around day-to-day life, my performances, or in the classroom, taking a moment of calm to reset one’s mind is a wonderful gift for myself and those around me.
This experience is not unlike what a student may find when they are about to write a test. As such, this is where I will often use mindfulness. Just prior to having my students begin writing, I have them close their eyes and focus on their breathing or the tone of a bell. This allows them just enough time to focus on the “now”, and not worry about the test. The intent of this activity is to calm the emotions thus allowing the working memory to function again, giving the students access to the knowledge that they have studied so hard to gain.
The other instance in which I have used mindfulness in is to reduce the level of energy in a library class prior to story time. This has been a training exercise of sorts for Kindergarten through Grade 2, aimed at getting them to focus and regulate their behaviour. The way it works is that I ring a bell that would resonate for 20 or 30 seconds. During that time the students close their eyes and focus on the sound of the bell and nothing else. When they can no longer hear it, they indicate this by raising their hand. This allows me to see who is focusing on the bell and who is distracted by other sounds. After completing a few rounds of this exercise, not only have students practiced focussing, being still and quiet, but they have calmed down enough to be ready to listen to the day’s story.