Check out the self-help shelves in any bookshop and you’ll find them crammed with books extolling the virtues of mindfulness.
A kind of meditation, the practice has become a phenomenon in the wellness industry, encouraging people to take time out from their busy day-to-day to focus what’s going on in their immediate surroundings and be more ‘present’ in the moment.
However, mindfulness is not actually a new idea. Core to Buddhism, the concept can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 Factors of Enlightenment—the Buddha’s most essential teachings.
As the constant demands of modern life take their toll on our ability to switch off from the likes of work and our mobile phones, those ancient teachings now seem more relevant than ever.
About 2,200 people have trained as mindfulness teachers in the UK and there are over 700,000 subscribers to the smart-phone app Headspace which helps people meditate by offering short guided-meditations, free to download and designed to be practised daily. It’s one of thousands of such apps and websites dedicated to the style of meditation.
But far from being just a trendy fad, the practice has also been adopted by those of scientific persuasion. Growing amounts of research indicate that as a cognitive therapy, it really works. NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) backs it as a treatment for those with recurring depression; indeed, it has been proven to reduce the recurrence rate by 40-50 per cent over 12 months. Thirty per cent of British GPs now refer patients suffering these symptoms for mindfulness-based treatment with it being prescribed by the NHS since 2004. It is also used in prisons and schools.
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Encouraging children to practice it is increasing popular as parents try to reduce screen time. But how can we help little ones to enjoy the benefits of meditation?
Junior asked Rohan Gunatillake, the founder of the app Buddhify, which has a section specifically aimed at kids, to explain how to teach the techniques to children.
Can you explain what mindfulness is?
Mindfulness or mindfulness meditation is the art of learning how to be more present and aware of our inner experience. Most people thing of meditation as being something you have to do in a very formal way - with your eyes closed and sitting down - but in fact you can use mindfulness techniques in all sorts of different ways, even in the middle of a busy family life. In fact, in my opinion, there’s no better place to do mindfulness than in the chaos of daily life.
Why is it so important?
How our minds are has a massive impact on our wellbeing as a whole. So if through mindfulness we can train our minds to be more calm, more kind and more able to deal with difficult emotions when they arise, then the healthier we’ll be. This is just as true for children as it is for parents and it’s therefore no surprise that there is a growing movement of teaching evidence-based mindfulness to children and young people in the UK. This is especially important in a world where so many forces - especially in media - are designed to trap our and our children’s attention. By strengthening our attention skills, mindfulness training helps us work against the forces of distraction and wrestle back control.
What simple techniques can we use to practice it?
There are hundreds of different techniques that work well for children and adults but here are just three.
1. Just breathing. Place a hand on your belly and feel the how your breath moves in and out. When we are aware of our breathing, because breath is happening in the present, by definition we are in the present. There’s no need to change the breath in any way, what’s most important is that the awareness is there.
2. Name the weather. Take it in turns to describe how you are feeling in terms of the weather. So if you’re feeling happy then you could say that the sun is shining. Or if you are in a bit of funk you can say there are thunderclouds. This is what is known as being aware of our own mind state and the more literate young people are of how they are feeling, the more they will be able to regulate their emotions.
3. Wriggling mind. Make a game of sitting still in silence and seeing how long you can last. As soon as you notice your mind wanting to run off somewhere or your body wanting to move, say the word Wriggle out loud. This is an example of what is known as an insight practice because by learning more about how we become distracted, the less distracted we will actually become. This is thanks to an important principle of mindfulness in that the more awareness we have of our mental habits and patterns, the less power they have over us.
How can you encourage children to be mindful?
Children and young people often find these practices natural to do because their minds are already full of curiosity and joy, qualities that really help when developing mindfulness. But if there is one secret, it’s to make it fun. So many mindfulness techniques can be presented as games rather than as formal exercises and so the more mindfulness or indeed any wellbeing training is presented more like play than as work, then the more effective they are likely to be.
In what way will it help them?
I’ve yet to meet anyone who wouldn’t benefit from a bit more self-awareness, kindness, focus or calm! And those are the qualities that mindfulness practice helps you develop.
What are your top tips for living a more mindful life?
It is nowadays much more common that parents care about what goes into their family's bodies through food than they care about what goes into their minds. So the secret is simply to care about your attention and care about your children’s attention. Everything else flows from that.