The importance of taking mindfulness into schools

By Ansley Weller

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that everything can be turned upside-down in a moment. Total transformation in a matter of hours, or even minutes, is globally possible and the only thing that distinguishes cultures, nation-states and people groups is how they respond.

Mindful response, instead of fearful reaction, is the ideal — but what is it that properly prepares us for the impossible? Spiritual practices and mindfulness exercises have existed for centuries across religious and non-religious identities. Entirely new paradigms and categories have sprung up suddenly including collaborative religion, an upgrade from “interfaith” into where works and activities are elevated above words and pageantries.

Pronoia, for instance, is another word that had to define itself as the opposite of paranoia by weathering the many anxieties of 2020 because, in a year of such tremendous difficulty, for so many, in short, it means when you believe that everything in the universe is working to help you succeed. The infinite learning loop, an awareness that we are always learning and always will be learners also takes on a new tangibility with millions of teachers, parents, and children forced to adopt distance-learning methods that turned every aspect of the home experience into a living education center.

The Psychiatric Times published research that showed in 2020 22.3% of youth ages 7 to 18 in China showed signs of clinical depression — almost double the number that had been measured before the outbreak of Covid-19 while research in Bangladesh, Italy and Spain manifested similar trends. In fact, research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  (CDC) in the United States showed mental health-related trips to the emergency room rose in 2020 compared to the same period of time in 2019 with an average increase of 27% for children ages 5 to 17. In this way, mindfulness is rapidly becoming not only a luxury for tech CEOs and movie stars with extra spare time, it is now becoming a necessary skill for survival.

To that end, those who are skilled and practiced in teaching and developing mindfulness in others — and especially with children — are becoming more and more valuable to society. Education, in whatever form it takes, should incorporate more and more of the measurable benefits of mindfulness into its classes, curriculum and conventional learning.

Happiness, health and social progress are all intended goals for school systems around the world — so what is preventing the embracing of mindfulness techniques within humanity’s institutions of learning? Ignorance is a big problem — many people don’t know the scientific and medical research that now gives evidence for the major benefits that come with mindfulness training.

Mindfulness is no longer on the fringe of quasi-science. Furthermore, individuals within the profession of education don’t feel like they have the expertise or training needed to properly educate their peers and colleagues. This is why it is imperative for courageous mindfulness teachers and leaders to rise up and engage with institutions of learning on behalf of the field of mindfulness practice.

The first part of the 21st century ushered a passing of the torch when mindfulness pioneers including Dr. Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay and Ram Dass passed on. They actively brought the empowering discoveries they made in the 1960s and 1970s to a more global audience than ever thanks to social media and the internet. They also established large enough followings to ensure that what they learned would continue to be shared through their students and others including mental health thought leaders such as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson and Michael Bernard Beckwith who have found vast appreciation and acceptance of their teachings in the spheres of medicine, politics and religion. In turn, these influential voices have trained and strengthened younger leaders to further spread the knowledge and wisdom of mindfulness into new spheres.

One of these young leaders is Benjamin W. Decker, who has taught mindfulness and meditation all around the world, including to the School of Tomorrow network in Pakistan. Using his book, “Daily Mindfulness: 365 Exercises to Deepen Your Practice and Find Peace,” Ben gives a practical framework for daily living and learning within schools that also brings these teachings into the home. Unlike the flaws of traditional learning systems, it’s not just about intellectually knowing facts that can be tested and assessed, it’s about becoming mindful and embodying that mindfulness throughout the whole being.

Research now shows that the cost of holding onto outdated learning paradigms is now impacting the health and well-being of our children. The arrows of science and behavioral cognition are pointing to a future where mindfulness is seamlessly woven into every aspect of our K-12 education systems worldwide. Ben emphasized this in his “Taking Mindfulness Into Schools” workshop with Beaconhouse’s School of Tomorrow.

“We want to prepare our children to face the world’s challenges with strength, confidence, and courtesy. Mindfulness is not just meditation. Mindfulness, when it is introduced as a (practical) concept, permeates all areas of our lives. Mindfulness as a skillset, as an ability, cultivated, introduced and developed from a young age, can help expand and create new possibilities that we don’t even know about. So many of us are not exposed to mindfulness until our thirties or forties or never. If we can allow that introduction earlier, those children with bright minds and the pure innocence that comes from the young mind, if we allow that mindfulness to cultivate from that early place…we do know that organization, compassion, and better communication will all come through. It is in multiple generations of mindfulness that the rubber really meets the road.”

Beaconhouse is one of the world’s largest independent school networks in the world and was founded in Lahore, Pakistan in 1975 through its originating institution The Les Anges Montessori Academy. It educates over 315,000 students across Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia in company-owned schools along with 49 public schools in the province of Punjab, Pakistan, as part of governmental corporate social responsibility programs. Its School of Tomorrow (SOT) has featured hundreds of activists, cultural leaders, educators, heads of state and more in re-envisioning and reimagining how education can sincerely serve the needs of students and future generations while creating a better world.

Mindfulness as a core and practically applied concept can be used as a touchstone for achieving the diverse and unique goals that each community, region and country use to measure success and progress for themselves. For instance, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals which were launched in 2015 include good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality and reduced inequalities. All of these goals can benefit from strong mindfulness teaching.

The U.S. Department of Education identified five Agency Priority Goals for itself in 2020–2021 including Education Freedom, Multiple Pathways to Success, Student Privacy and Cybersecurity, Regulatory Reform, and Federal Student Aid Service. All of these could, without a doubt, be benefited and supported through deeper mindfulness practiced by everyone involved in every aspect of American education. UNESCO released a report showing that there is a $148 billion annual financing gap between low and lower-middle income countries to achieve the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. The COVID-19 crisis just increased this financing gap by approximately $40 billion.

Investment in and implementation of practical mindfulness training and education is one of the most pivotal ways that immediate action can be taken to counter these threats to the growth and development of future generations. Why don’t we choose the mindfulness path in order to rebuild and restore our educational systems to be stronger and better than they previously were? What do we have to lose? The importance of connecting the United States and other countries should not be overlooked as an example of how developed nations can support countries with completely different cultural and political histories — the words of Ben Decker to the audience located in Pakistan should be heard with an open heart.

For instance, Our World in Data shows Pakistan has had a little short of 500,000 COVID-19 cases and a total fatality number of approximately 10,000, which amounts to a 2% fatality rate. The United States which has over 18.5 million cases and over 325,000 deaths, a 1.7% fatality rate. Countries like Mexico have a whopping 9% fatality rate while Ecuador and Bolivia have over 6%. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have some of the lowest percentages at .2% and .3%, respectively while Singapore has a 0% rate.

These numbers are important — the whole world can see these percentages and immediately learn about the countries they belong to. They immediately tell us about their degrees of governance, their healthcare systems, and their compliance with safety measures. Why couldn’t mindfulness be conceived in a similar way across education systems? For instance, rather than a fatality rate, couldn’t we measure an “awakened” or “mindful” rate across student populations? This percentage of the student population would be measured by daily mindfulness practice, an active participation in achieving the 2030 sustainable development goals, and a desire to be more compassionate, kind, and connected to the rest of humanity.

By developing and implementing system to assess awakened mindfulness in our learning institutions, we can all better face the unique challenges that our world is experiencing through critical problem-solving responses rather than disorienting reactivity. Teachers like Ben Decker, and many others who are especially equipped with the tools and wisdom to help others become more mindful, should be recruited to help those within the education system adopt the practices that will make a major difference in the awakening rate of our student populations.

Until this occurs we will continue to see mental health crises, depression, lethargy and widespread post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disease plague our children and the future. We have a solution to these problems in daily mindfulness practice and training. The choice is ours to make.

Power to Speak is The Argonaut’s guest opinion column for community members to voice their views on local matters and does not represent an editorial position or endorsement by The Argonaut.
The opinions, experiences, research and data analysis expressed in this article are the author’s own. Have a unique point of view on a neighborhood matter or a national issue with a local twist?